The ‘Wife Bonus’ You’re Not Getting & Why You Should Be Glad

socialitesWhat happens to the princess when she marries the prince? Well, if they move to one particular super-wealthy corner of Manhattan, she becomes the CEO of the household, hardly ever sees the prince ever again, and gets an annual "wife bonus." That's right, a wife bonus. Oh, do you want one, too? 

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Hold back on your envy, because the more you hear about the REAL real housewives of New York the less ideal their marriages sound.

Social researcher Wednesday Martin put an anthropologist's lens to her neighbors when she moved to the very tony Upper East Side, and what she found was a very different kind of marriage than the kind most of us enjoy. She describes it in her memoir, Primates of Park Avenue, and in this excerpt in the New York Times, "Poor Little Rich Women."

Much of what you'd imagine about these women's lives is true. They graduate from prestigious universities, but rather than getting jobs like some middle-class slob they focus on managing multiple homes, obsessively caring for their young, working out, getting beauty treatments, shopping trunk sales and organizing charity events. Everyone dresses beautifully.

But it's a weird world. First of all, the men and the women live totally separate lives. You don't socialize with your husband. It's all about girls' nights out and laides' luncheons.

"There were mommy coffees, and women-only dinners in lavish homes," according to Martin. "There were even some girlfriend-only flyaway parties on private planes, where everyone packed and wore outfits the same color." At dinner parties, husbands and wives sit at different tables in different rooms from each other. The women tell her, "It's easier and more fun" to hang out with each other than with their husbands.

The men agree. “'We prefer it,'” they tell Martin. 

Maybe if you've already tired of your husband's company this sounds ideal. But even if that's the case, Martin reminds us of the sad truth about sexually segregation. "The worldwide ethnographic data is clear: The more stratified and hierarchical the society, and the more sex segregated, the lower the status of women."

In other words, the more men and women live separate lives, the lower the woman's status is.

Oh, but you want to hear about that wife bonus, right? I mean, that kind of makes up for it all, doesn't it? Well, you'll be happy to know that it's not tied to sexual favors, apparently. At least there's that.

A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a “good” school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks.

Basically your marriage is a business agreement, kind of like the royal marriages of yore, when young women were traded as goods. 

Now, every married woman would pride herself on keeping a sound budget and raising well-educated children (preferably in cooperation with her husband). There's nothing wrong with that. But when you attach financial rewards to that, and when it's your husband who's judging your performance ... wow, what does that do for your intimacy?

Do you really want to feel like your husband's employee?

Martin goes on to point out that in every other culture, from the Agta women of the Philippines to the !Kung women of southern Africa, the more women contribute to the material resources of their family, the more power they have in their community. "If you don’t bring home tubers and roots, your power is diminished in your marriage. And in the world."

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And what about partnership, and all the unpaid work these women do for their families? Martin doesn't think much of it at all.  

Rich, powerful men may speak the language of partnership in the absence of true economic parity in a marriage, and act like true partners, and many do. But under this arrangement women are still dependent on their men — a husband may simply ignore his commitment to an abstract idea at any time. He may give you a bonus, or not. Access to your husband’s money might feel good. But it can’t buy you the power you get by being the one who earns, hunts or gathers it.

It seems like Martin is critical of the stay-at-home mom lifestyle in general. But keep in mind, most middle-class SAHMs eventually return to paid work once the kids are older, and many do part-time paid work. What she's talking about is something else entirely.

Still, all those questions about equality and power aside, it doesn't sound like there's much room for intimacy in these marriages. Do the husbands have mistresses? It sounds lonely, but I guess you have your girlfriends ... I wouldn't be satisfied with that life.

I guess this is the boring, predicable part where I say I'd rather enjoy a middle-class relationship where we're madly in love with each other and love spending time with each other than what these Upper East Side ladies have. Well, fine. I think I know what makes me happier.

How would you fare in a marriage like this one? Think you'd get your annual wife bonus?

 

Image via © Ansgar Photography/Corbis 

 

 

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