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The Ideal Woman Differs from the Ideal Wife

Fewer Russians associate relationships between men and women with marriage, and gender roles are moving away from those of husband and wife. Russians still perceive 'the ideal man' and 'the ideal husband' as similar types – the common denominator being the roles of breadwinner and protector. In contrast, ‘the ideal woman' and 'the ideal wife' are two entirely different types. The former must be good-looking above all, while the latter is expected to be loyal, loving, and a good homemaker, according to Yulia Lezhnina, Associate Professor at the HSE's Subdepartment of Socio-Economic Systems and Social Policy

Despite demographic modernisation, in particular the growing emancipation of women and expansion of their roles and the popularity of later marriages and unregistered partnerships, the concept of ‘family’ remains a key value for most Russians. Almost half of the country’s population associates the roles of men and women with family life, according to Yulia Lezhnina’s paper 'The Transformation of Gender Roles in Contemporary Russia' published in Demoscope Weekly.

However, relationships between men and women are increasingly seen as separate from family life, and the formerly prevalent ideas of the family as a household and the woman’s primary roles as those of wife and mother are giving way to the idea that the family must create ​mental comfort, and the wife's key role is based on her ability to maintain the relationship thanks to her accommodating nature and a good sense of humour. Although the majority of Russians still do not think that the family must always be based on a quality relationship between spouses, including a good sex life, there is a growing demand for a family capable of providing a comfortable shelter from life's storms. It is not accidental that this demand is particularly common in big cities with their multiple stresses and interpersonal conflicts.

Lezhnina analysed the findings of the study 'What Russians Dream About (According to Sociologists)' conducted by the RAS Institute of Sociology in 2012 on a sample of 1,751 respondents representative of the Russian population aged 16 to 55 by sex, age, and type of settlement.

Happiness Not Just About Love

Lezhnina agrees that love is recognised as an important value in Russian culture, but notes that love has never been considered of absolute importance in starting a family. Today, just 6% of Russians dream of love, according to the RAS Institute of Sociology study, while finding one's true love ranks twelfth among the respondents' priorities – far below having a family. "A good family comes fourth on the list of priorities, and 17% of Russians dream of having one," Lezhnina comments.

When asked broadly about their idea of personal happiness and what they would ask for if granted one wish, 16% said they dreamed of raising good children, 25% wished for a good family, and 20 % would like to meet their true love.

Lezhnina suggests that for many Russians today, happiness is not so much about having love, family, or children, but about ‘experiencing life to the fullest’, and relationships are just one ingredient in this recipe.

People increasingly see the family as a place which provides physical and psychological comfort. However, the survey findings suggest that the quality of family relationships are not the most important thing for many Russians.

Many respondents believe that a happy family does not equal a problem-free, 'seamless' relationship. Moreover, a happy family does not equal personal happiness, which is broader. A happy family is more of an 'ongoing project' that a person works on throughout his or her life, much like self-realisation. Less than a quarter (23%) of respondents who would like to have a happy family consider it their dream.

Interestingly, just 59% of those who report having a happy family find their sex life satisfying, and 3% admit that things are not good at all in this area. At the same time, more than half (58%) of those who believe that they have a happy family emphasise that they have raised good children.

According to Lezhnina, this suggests that most respondents still associate the family with the age-old values of joint survival in a challenging environment, shared homemaking, and raising children, rather than with having an ideal relationship and a satisfying sex life.

The status of marriage as an institution also depends on people's perception of gender roles. In the Russian tradition, men’s and women’s roles are largely associated with the family and procreation, and from this perspective, the roles of a man and a husband are almost identical, as are the roles of a woman and a wife. However, social modernisation has expanded the range of one's roles and identities, and thus transformed gender relations, Lezhnina notes.

The Ideal Man: Smart and Sexy

The ideal man, according to Russians, must be physically strong and healthy (59% of respondents), free of bad habits (38%), capable of making a good living (33%), and intelligent (33%). Other qualities considered important include an attractive appearance, a sense of humour, and being handy around the house.

Notably, different social groups have different sets of priorities. Thus, residents of big cities value good looks (24% in big cities vs. 14-15% elsewhere) and do not mind bad habits so much (30% vs. 34-43%, respectively).

In contrast to this 'glamorous' image popular in big cities, the countryside clearly favours the traditional image of man as head of the household, husband, and father. Rural residents value a man who is strong and healthy, free of bad habits, providing for the family, a loyal husband, a loving father, and a kind person.

The Ideal Woman: Charming and Loyal

"Women's qualities traditionally praised in Russian culture, such as being loyal, loving children, being a homemaker, and having a kind heart, are considered almost irrelevant today for the ideal woman," according to Lezhnina. "Two-thirds of respondents – up to 71% in big cities – do not mention any of these characteristics in describing their idea of the ideal woman."

Good looks are dominant in this new concept of femininity, including physical attractiveness (67%) and sexuality (40%). The third most important quality for the ideal woman depends on the respondent's gender; female respondents value her love for children (27%), while male respondents prefer her to be loyal (31%).

Once again, the new ideals are particularly common in big cities and younger age groups; e.g. sexuality is mainly appreciated by residents of big cities (48%), unmarried people (45%), and younger respondents (46%), according to Lezhnina.

It is symptomatic that traditionally valued feminine qualities associated with the family and the roles of wife and mother are not so important for big city dwellers, who rarely mention loyalty (18%), love for children (17%), freedom from bad habits (13%), and being a good homemaker (12%) as characteristics of the ideal woman, focusing instead on qualities which make being together easy and comfortable, such as a good sense of humour (20%) and an accommodating nature (39%).

Thus, Lezhnina concludes, the ideal woman and the ideal wife are two different concepts in Russia, contrary to earlier ideas of female gender roles.

Family vs. Gender Relations

Lezhnina is convinced that Russian society today holds two different ideals for each gender, and in each case, just one of these ideals is relevant to family life.

When viewed outside a family perspective, the ideal man must be strong and healthy (69%), intelligent (37%), and free of bad habits (33%), while the ideal woman's main qualities are good looks (87%) and sexuality (65%). In contrast, when viewed from a family perspective, the ideal man, besides being healthy (47%) and free of bad habits (44%), should make a good living (46%), be handy around the house (21%), and remain loyal to his partner (21%), while the important qualities for the ideal woman are those which support her role as wife and mother, such as her love for children (47%), being a homemaker, (40%), and loyalty (34%).

Table 1: Qualities of the ideal man and the ideal woman in two different frameworks (% ranked by the preferred characteristics of a ‘not-family-focused’ man)*

 Not family-focused (I)Family-focused (II)
manwomanmanwoman
Physical strength, health69114713
Intelligence37202915
No bad habits (alcoholism, drug addiction, etc.)33164425
Confidence27151911
Sexuality266559
Attractive appearance24871042
Ability to make a good living221464
Good sense of humour181696
Determination132112
Loyalty in love9152134
Being handy around the house and practical472140
Kindness49821
Love for children251347
Being kind and accommodating224618

*These models have been produced using a two-step cluster analysis procedure for categorising similar objects under the same cluster. The number of clusters is determined during the procedure.
Source: Lezhnina's paper

Lezhnina highlights the fact that the 'non-family' model is more common than the other one (55% vs. 45%), particularly among men (50% vs. 52% for women). Lezhnina suggests that men may be less focused on starting a family.

Nevertheless, almost half of the respondents linked gender roles to the family, i.e. the assumption that people should be family-focused remains strong, as is usually the case in cultures still in the process of demographic modernisation.

The Ideal Family: Protective Husband and Peacemaking Wife

As illustrated in Figure 1, the husband is expected to act as family provider and protector, while the wife must be 'pleasing to the eye' and maintain peace in the family through her kind and accommodating nature. She also plays a key role in raising children.

Thus, the ideal wife's main qualities are her love of children (55%), being a homemaker (47%), and loyalty to her husband (44%). Just as in the case of the ideal woman, residents of big cities tend to value qualities which create psychological comfort, such as kindness (29% in big cities vs. 16% elsewhere), intelligence (18% vs. 7-11%, respectively), and loyalty (56% vs. 38-46%).

Graph 1. The most important qualities for the ideal husband and the ideal wife (%; up to three answers allowed)

Source: Lezhnina's paper

Lezhnina summarises the traditional perspective as follows: "The family is a microcosm that the couple should protect (through loyalty), provide for (through economic activity), and develop (by bearing and raising children)." That said, the concept of family in Russia is becoming broader and more diverse.

The Family: a Household vs. a Comfortable Environment

Having analysed the responses on preferred qualities of husbands and wives, Lezhnina identified four models describing the way Russians view the ideal marriage – the leading models being 'the family as a psychological comfort zone' and 'the family as an economic unit (household)', each selected by one-third (32% and 31%, respectively) of the respondents.

A family serving as 'a psychological comfort zone' consists of an attractive, intelligent, and confident woman without bad habits and an intelligent man making a good living.

Family as an economic unit is based on a union of a practical breadwinner husband and a kind and accommodating homemaker wife. "The latter model of spousal relations reflects the traditional Russian views on gender roles in the family," says Lezhnina. In this model, the family's success is measured primarily by its material well-being – which, as shown by Russian and international researchers, has a direct impact on family relationships.

Table 2. Models describing the ideal family (% *)

 Family as a comfort zoneFamily as a householdFamily as a love nestFamily as a home for children
husbandwifehusbandwifehusbandwifehusbandwife
Attractive appearance842161256118
Physical strength, health311127108029194
Sexuality49362756710
Loyalty 2221353430587785
Love for children2245225919327490
No bad habits (alcoholism, drug addiction, etc.)52473612033715
Intelligence21181710117102
Good sense of humour109545433
Confidence151415515541
Being kind and accommodating715729321313
Determination848311110
Being handy around the house and practical253631861312837
Ability to make a good living525757432463
Kindness91183228313
Proportion of supporters32 311918

Source: Lezhnina's paper

The family as a love nest (preferred by 19% of respondents) consists of an attractive, healthy man and a loyal woman with similar characteristics. While normally Russians are not aiming at a seamless relationship and great sex life in marriage, those who view their family as a love nest clearly have this goal in mind.

Starting a family as a home for their offspring is a choice of 8% of Russians – usually loyal couples who love children.

Those who view their family as a household tend to be more satisfied with their family life – 71% of them assess their family relationship as good. Lezhnina suggests that "the traditional family model based on sharing housekeeping responsibilities may still be the best option today."

In contrast, those who see their family as a comfort zone are the least satisfied, with just half of them assessing their family life as good. Perhaps those who seek mainly comfort in marriage come from a troubled family environment; another reason may be that comfort means different things to different people, and partners' expectations may not always coincide.

In summary, views on the ideal family are being updated and expanded, driven largely by the need for psychological comfort. People in big cities value good looks, but also appreciate the partner's ability to make home a comforting and comfortable space.

 

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, August 29, 2014