There is an interesting item at

The general drift is that marriage is broadly good for men but not for women and that having children brings a lot of stress that can have unfortunate consequences. This is not the first time that researchers have come to this conclusion.

The article ends with the important remark that this is a subject hidden under a strong social taboo which makes honest discussion virtually impossible. People say very different things when their spouse is in the room and when he/she is not.

The happiest group turns out to be childless spinsters. If you are female and want to live long and be happy don't marry and don't have children is the basic message. This, of course, flies in the face of what everyone is supposed to say and believe. When somebody gets married or has a baby we all say congratulations, but according to the research they have probably shortened their life and set the scene for a lot of misery that they might otherwise have avoided.

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  • Thank you. Yes, we can continue the discussion which I suggest unfolds in two direction, the social and the psychological..


    I imagine that part of the problem you are alluding to is an effect of the period of transition from one to another stage of socially acceptable gender roles. Stereotypically we can distinguish a classical situation where women did not go out to work but were responsible for the running of the household in which there might be a number of children and perhaps also domestic servants, while the man went out into the world, was responsible for bringing in the money that would finance the domestic establishment, and expected to see a meal appear on the table when he got home from his duties. In this classical situation there was a certain established balance founded on men and women having distinctly different roles in the scheme of things. This stands in sharp contrast to what we might call the modern prescription in which both man and woman go out to work and then come home to a smaller scale household in which there are few or no children and a range of “modcons” and where the remaining domestic tasks are shared in an equable manner. In the transition from the first of these situations toward the second, a number of typical problems have arisen, one of which has been the promotion of the image of the superwoman as the person who could perform both female parts at the same time, going out to work and doing all the domestic duties and, furthermore, being able to present herself immaculately dressed and manicured on every occasion. This latter was an unreal expectation that nonetheless worked as an icon of the advertising industry who could sell products that seemed to make it possible of achievement. This phenomenon created a tempting but oppressive scenario for women. Hopefully and thankfully this situation is gradually losing force as the modern prescription is becoming more established and men have also adapted to the new situation. Attitudes do persist, however. Research has revealed, for instance, that in couples where man and woman have roughly similar salaries, both the man and the woman tend to overstate the income of the man and understate that of the woman, suggesting that the couple feel more comfortable with the idea that the man occupies an at least slightly superior position.


    At the psychological level you present two contrasting models: that of the martyrish person and that of Sujata. In the case of Sujata, you write “Sujata, the woman who came by and helped him back into balance is like the personification of selfcare“. This is an interesting observation since it seems to say that self-care actually consists in the unselfish care of another. This is probably not how most people use the term, but it is an interesting suggestion.
    In the case of the “martyr” there may, as you suggest, be a number of psychological mechanisms in play so that the situation is not as straight-forward as might at first appear. To illustrate one of these, I knew of a situation in a community where a certain individual would complain bitterly that she had to take on a disproportionate share of the domestic work - and she did so - but where if any other member of the household took on any of those tasks she would criticise them sharply, say they had done it the wrong way or done an unsatisfactory job and, in many cases, redo the whole thing herself, leaving the other member feeling humiliated and dismayed to the point where the other members generally did indeed arrive at the conclusion that the best course was to let the martyr do it all herself because her complaints were less troublesome than her criticisms. People do sometimes, as we say in English, make a rod for their own back. Why ight a person act so? Perhaps out of jealousy - perhaps deep down she really wanted to drive the other members away.

    Again, when I worked in social work I encountered a number of households where the woman did all of the domestic work yet when she was admitted to hospital the house (miraculously?!) continued to run smoothly. Somehow the man managed to get the children fed and to school on time and ensure that the dwelling remain in a not insanitary condition. As soon as the woman returned home, things reverted to their former condition in which the man played the role of being incapable. I think that in most of these situations both parties must have played their part in the general collusion and that this in some way maintained a kind of uneasy domestic truce. Some of this no doubt has to do with the balance of power. It may be that the man dominates the relationship, or it may be that the woman derives power from emasculating the man by ensuring that he presents as incapable. In the latter case there is a danger that both parties carry private scripts in mind that are contemptuous of their partner.

    Of course, there can easily arise issues around different standards. When I lived in communities, sometimes the domestic tasks were allocated on a rota basis, but it was clear that one member’s idea of cleaning the stairs amounted to ensuring that there were no large quantities of mud evidently visible, whereas another member might diligently wash and polish each tread and every inch of banister, so the burden of the work was by no means as equal as the supposedly egalitarian schema suggested. Arriving at mutual agreement about such standards is not at all easy. This is one of the major problems of our modern ethos of supposed equality. People simply are not equal in the judgements that they make, so as soon as one allows any degree of freedom, real equality disappears. The French national revolutionary slogan of liberty, equality and fraternity is an ideal impossible of achievement in the real world since the three elements tend to work against each other. Only if we all become Sujatas and act from unselfish goodwill for all sentient beings is there any hope of this ideal being accomplished. This, of course, is indeed what we strive toward in a Buddhist community, but, alas, we are all human and the way of heaven does not always prevail.

  • Thank you for your interesting thoughts, David. I much appreciate your answer.

    I agree, that, in an absolute sense, there is no “need”. However, from a psychological point of view, I find it important to be in touch with one’s needs and taking care of them. Of course, I do not only mean basic needs like sleep, food, water, but also psychological needs.

    When I wrote “Many people are unhappy because they feel alienated from their own needs and dreams” I had particularly those women (and men as well) in mind who look after anybody else’s needs in the family or in a relationship. They tend to overlook what they need themselves in order to be in balance and flower in life. Some of them are so out of touch with their own needs, they might not even feel how exhausted they are – or despite feeling the exhaustion they ignore it and carry on.  

    It might be a specific misunderstanding that leads to this situation: the belief that to love someone means to always be available to help and serve. From that point of view the other person’s needs will continuously be placed above one’s own needs. Taking care of the other person seems to be more important than taking care of oneself.

    Subjectively one might see the uninterrupted readiness to help as a proof or expression of one’s own love for the other person. In addition, it might sustain the feeling of being worthy of the other person’s love in return, or even a feeling of deserving their love. Expectations can build up. Of course, this can lead to a lot of tensions with the partner or family members. Because the motivation behind this kind of altruism is the wish (or shall we say: subtle demand) to be loved in return for the endless help. It can (and will) put the other person under pressure. He or she might develop the constant feeling of owing something to the helper. So, may be, the helping is not quite as unselfish as it seemed to be in the first place?

    It is remarkable and sad that the same women and men who are all too ready to always help their partner and family, often feel selfish and even guilty, when asked about their own needs. Perhaps it would be truly helpful for themselves and their relationships to actually open up to their own needs and get in touch with them. Not every need is a greed. It is just about taking care of oneself in an adult way. It is an endeavor to greater strength, freedom and love.

    Remember the story of Shakyamuni, at the point when he had been into ascetic practice, neglecting his most basic needs. Sujata, the woman who came by and helped him back into balance is like the personification of selfcare. She just sees the need for food and kindness, and she comes back with a bowl of sweet milk rice and feeds the sadhu. (Actually, I interpret this story in the way that the strong-willed Shakyamuni and the compassionate Sujata are personifications of certain powers in our mind, rather than seeing them as man and woman.)

    I think it is important for each partner (men and women) to take care of their individual needs as well as offering help to each other.

    Thanks again, David, I hope we continue this interesting exchange.

  • Thank you for this comment, Tineke. Many interesting observations. If I pick out one phrase...

    “Many people are unhappy because they feel alienated from their own needs and dreams.”

    Do you mean that they are unable to attain their “needs and dreams” or do you mean that they have “needs and dreams” but reject or distance themselves from them? Also, is there a difference between feeling alienated and actually being alienated? Is it a delusion that one is alienated? Also, are “needs” actually “dreams”?

    I know of instances where the worst thing that happened to a person was that they attained their dream. While they were working toward it they had purpose. When it was attained they had disappointment. Actually this “worst thing that happened” can sometimes turn out to be the best thing in the long run because the disillusion may lead to greater wisdom, but not always.

    Perhaps this is why people sometimes alienate themselves from their dreams because to arrive might be devastating. It might be safer never to actually go there. The fantasy might be more soothing than the reality.

    Also, the sense of need is a slippery thing. Is there anything that we reaally need in an absolute sense? Need is always related to a purpose - a dream. In order to fulfil one’s dream one needs this and that, which might or might not be to hand. So one then extends oneself trying to obtain the necessary resource. The woman wants a child, so she puts herself about to get a suitable man, for instance.

    The man might like the existence of children (because it satisfies his wife) but not their presence (because they take her away from him). Dreams have needs and people only have needs inasmuch as they are captured by a dream. There must be many marriages where the centre of the man's dream is the woman, but the centre of the woman's dream is the child. The marriage then rests upon a tacit bargain which sometimes works well, but not always. Becoming consciously aware might destroy this unspoken balance.

    Perhaps relationships actually form mainly to attempt a satisfaction of desires that are never fully admitted. If the truth were out completely the relationship might no longer serve any purpose.

    These are just a few thoughts stimulated by your excellent contribution. Thank you.

  • Amen!!!

    Tineke Osterloh said:

    Any kind of...

    There is an interesting item at…
  • Any kind of intimate relationship (any ages, any sexes, any numbers of partners involved) becomes intensive work at times. Even for an “unmarried and childless women” life can be utterly challenging.

    I have often talked with people who feel profoundly lonely. Some suffer from an alienated relationship, others from not having a relationship at all, again others (women and men) painfully suffer because they have no children.

    Many people are unhappy because they feel alienated from their own needs and dreams. In a way, they miss a place of inner home and belonging. Therefore, I do not believe in the importance of the question “Marriage or no marriage?” and “Children or no children?” We will never be able to create the perfect outer circumstances for happiness and keep them unchanged.

    Relationships and intimacy are a challenge, because it is so easy to fall into some old destructive or deadly boring patterns (particularly when we become parents…) But what would a marriage / relationship look like, if the partners make it a field of awareness? Exploring intimacy? Exploring fears? Exploring the depths and varieties of love?

    The article contains the remarkable sentence “many parents might secretly agree with a famous academic colleague who “said that he liked the existence of his children but not their presence”. This is not my experience. I love my children (15 and 17 years) and enjoy spending time together, as we always have. And yet, bringing them up is one of the most challenging aspects of my Dharma practice.  

  • Yes, I think that's very true for women especially.

  • Yes, nothing is guaranteed and research only shows what comes out most frequently, leaving many exceptions. A woman aged 107 was recently asked to what she attributed her longevity and she said "Eat Italian and don't get married."

  • It depends. Having a child has been both the most difficult and the most rewarding experience of my life. The love engendered by my son is a treasured gift. I consider myself very lucky as there are absolutely no guarantees of that love so it is always possible that one can pour ones heart into raising a child only to be bereft of any positive results.

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