Something inevitable that happens when straight married people get together. At a certain point, the genders will find a way to separate—maybe the husbands walk ahead during a group hike, or the wives convene while clearing plates after dinner. That’s when the complaining starts.
It kicks off with a few jokes about ball-and-chains, or gentle jabs at “useless” husbands. It might end there, with light grumbling, or escalate into a full-blown gripe session about how women nag too much or men parent too little.
I call it the bitching hour. Ha ha, men are helpless. Ha ha, women shop too much.
On a personal level, it turns my stomach a bit—I don’t think you should shit-talk your partner behind their back (they’re supposed to be the person you shit-talk with!). That said, we all need space to vent about our partners from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with commiserating about marriage with friends.
But bonding over a ‘joking’ disdain for your spouse is more than an innocuous social phenomenon—it’s become a bandaid for the broad simmering resentment in so many American marriages. Even worse, it’s a way to smooth over domestic inequality.
We know that straight marriages in the United States are largely unequal: Women do the majority of the domestic work, child care and mental labor. And while we’ve seen incredible feminist advances over the last few decades, that progress has stopped short at our doorsteps.
In fact, men’s attitudes on gender roles at home have actually been getting more regressive over the last few decades. One study showed that while 84% of men in 1994 rejected the idea that the best family dynamic was one where men worked and women stayed at home, that number had fallen to 55% by 2014.
Women, on the other hand, are at a boiling point. Our happiness declines when we get married and have children (stay-at-home moms are the unhappiest among us). Women are overwhelmingly the ones who initiate divorce, with frustration about the division of labor at home often cited as a major factor. Since the pandemic started, that inequality—and that resentment—has grown exponentially worse.
None of this is particularly funny. So why joke about it?
In part it’s because joking is one of the only socially acceptable ways women can frame their disappointment and anger. If we’re just kidding, it means we’re not really ungrateful harpies or relentless nags. Cracking jokes also hints at that deep well of frustration without having to own it entirely—because I sense for a lot of women, if they really started talking about how unhappy they were, they’d never fucking stop.
Joking about your spouse also has the added patriarchal benefit of framing inequality at home as an immutable fact of life. Oh you know men, they’re just helpless!
That’s why the idea is so pervasive—whether it’s the bitching hour, sitcoms featuring hapless husbands with fed-up (but loving) wives, or entire genres of standup comedy. The more culture normalizes the idea that women ‘hate’ their husbands for being fuckups, the more women start to believe that their husbands being fuckups is inevitable.
That’s how equal relationships become fantasies rather than a reasonable expectation.
Just as insidious? The counterpart to women 'jokingly’ complaining about their husbands not doing child care or domestic work is men ‘jokingly’ complaining that their wives are nags. It’s a way to make men’s petty grievance that their wives want them to do housework seem equivalent to the understandable complaint that men aren’t doing housework!
We all need humor as an outlet. We all need space to bitch about our partner every once in a while. But I’m so tired of this country normalizing inequality and treating unequal relationships as a given. They’re not. You can have a spouse that you don’t ‘hate’; you can be in a relationship that is a true partnership instead of a second job.
The real joke is that we accept anything less.
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