From the archive: the state of the modern British marriage, 1968

‘Who’s Who in the Modern British Marriage?’ asked the Observer Magazine of 29 December 1968. Earlier that year, on the 50th anniversary of votes for women, they had published a questionnaire by the US Maferr Foundation to find out such things as ‘Who makes the decisions? Who works and how do they feel about it? Who sets out for self-improvement and who backs it?’

‘The Forsytes,’ reported Maureen Green, referring to The Forsyte Saga, a popular TV show of the time, ‘wouldn’t have understood one important finding of our survey: the healthy democratic condition of the average British middle-class marriage. Paternal tyrants – as well as dominating wives – are in the minority in working out who decides what in the marriage.’

One question presented the ‘familiar situation of a wife coming home late from work while her husband went hungry. We asked the men to imagine not only what they would say to her, but what they would privately think.’ Other than, I’d better cook something myself then.

Some 55% of the men imagined the husband would be annoyed, but only 18% thought the husband would say anything critical. ‘In fact, they imagined him using some quite encouraging phrase, like “Don’t worry, dear, the meat’s in the oven, the potatoes are on to boil, where are the peas?”’ As imaginative in the kitchen as with gender equality, I’d say.

‘In a family situation where Mr X’s promotion will uproot Mrs X and the children from their 10-year home, Mrs X is very understanding about it… and some will be quick to see the material advantage and say, “Does that mean we can have some new carpets?”’ Lucky Mrs X.

What ‘stunned’ the Maferr Foundation about its first survey in Britain was the wide discrepancy between what people thought and what they said, ‘wider than on any other international survey it has ever done on the subject’. I guess they just weren’t used to British hypocrisy.