Marriage Shock

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Dalma Heyn, author of THE EROTIC SILENCE OF THE AMERICAN WIFE (1992), here examines how women change when they become wives. She sees the modern role of wife as having arisen with the creation of the middle class. The ability of men to rise above their origins meant that there were men who had risen from the peasant class and were looking for wives of higher status, but there were not enough noblewomen to go around. Heyn studied conduct books for women written during that period and later. She found that these books instructed women how to behave in a more noble manner and so that they would be attractive to men.

These roles and attitudes, Heyn believes, have persisted, to the detriment of women. Women come to believe certain things about what it means to be a wife, even though no one has told them these things. A woman who becomes married may feel compelled to fall into roles that are contrary to her nature and that her husband may not even appreciate or like. Women change their behavior, assuming caregiver tasks and acting demurely in public; the model wife is supposed to be devoted to her husband and not attract other men.

Conduct books and the unspoken rules of marriage for women say much about how women should act but little about how they should feel, according to Heyn. This explains why many women find themselves dissatisfied in marriages. Heyn notes that about two-thirds of marriages end in divorce and that women instigate an increasing amount of those divorces; in addition, married women are more likely to be depressed than are either men or single women. In the face of rising divorce rates, women are being called on to save the institution of marriage; they are asked to change themselves to make marriage work rather than question the institution of marriage itself and ask how it could change. Heyn concludes that a good marriage should not be about good behavior but about good feelings. Women should enter marriage expecting to maintain their identities and have fun; they should resist messages urging them to change themselves.