One of the most popular posts if not THE MOST POPULAR posts of this site has been “Do Greek Men Make Good Husbands?” I am revisiting the question once again as quite some time has passed since it was first published (“ehem,” back in 2004). As it happens, even to the youngest of us, we get older. As a result, our thoughts mature.
Additionally, a recent comment from a reader (read original post) has also sent my mind into a whirl-spin, spinwheel, whatever they call those whirley gig things you put out in the wind that spin around.
So here it is–Do Greek Men Make Good Marriage Partners Part 2?
First of all, let me start by saying that the question must be broached carefully. When you single out a specific group, be it racial, ethnic, socio-economic, by hair color, personality type or whatever other specific characteristic, it is difficult not to fall into stereotypes. It is difficult precisely because what you are trying to do is make sense of a bigger trend or phenomenon by using only your own experience or specific anecdotes. Making generalizations about any class of individuals can turn stereotypical because you are basing your conclusions from a small sample. That being said, however, it is the only way we can make sense of the big trends around us. How I reach conclusions about Greek men is through the benefit of my personal experiences. My experiences are limited, but that does not make them wrong. Just like your experiences. They might be different from mine, but that does not make them wrong either. We can both be right based on experience. The problem is compounded because there is as far as I know little or no research that tracks people’s perceptions of marriage in Greece. (I tried by asking more than one sociologist at the University of Athens. If anyone has any statistical study or research they can point me to, I’d appreciate it.)
A second big issue, which is kind of related to the first, concerns parsing the personal from the cultural. How much of who you are, how you behave and what you believe in is based on your own personal values and how much is shaped by the culture or cultures you live in? It is hard to tell the dancer from the dance. There are so many varieties of Greek men (and the women they marry) that the discussion can get lost without some definition. It is hard to make a case for or against without narrowing down who we are talking about. To clarify, I will limit my discussion to men born and raised in Greece, those who have grown up in a traditional Greek household, who speak Greek, practice Greek holidays and generally draw pride and identity from Greece.
The third definition I have to address before I even attempt to answer the question has to do with what it means to be “a good marriage partner.” By that, I mean someone who is respectful, genuinely loves and cares for his family, is not insane or unreasonable, is gainfully employed and can cover his responsibilities. A good marriage partner does not physically or emotionally abuse his mate or his children; is not involved in criminal behavior; does not cheat. He spends time to develop a relationship with his family and does not take them for granted. A good marriage partner can be said to be a person of integrity, honor, with ‘philotimo’. Someone who does right by family, country, and God.
So, back to the question, Do Greek men make good marriage partners?
This is my answer from a cultural perspective is NO! a big EMPHATIC NO.
Speaking from a cultural perspective, Greek men are raised from an environment that privileges them over women. The patriarchy is very well and good in Greece, even modern Greece of the 2019 and in the Greece of the mind, in pockets of Greek Diaspora society that still hold on fiercely to traditional values. Because Greek culture has historically been patriarchal it follows that those entrenched in that culture will hold and pass on patriarchal views. These patriarchal ideas are so wrapped up in “TRADITION” that no one bothers to critically see them for what they are—an oppressive system that treats women inferiorly to men, that expects women to be second in society, that views women as valuable only as far as they can be attractive to men. The patriarchy is so entrenched in Greek “traditional” society those who are in it cannot even see how harmful it is for girls.
Let me list just a few ways the patriarchy exists in Greek society:
– Women do not share in equal status or respect; are not given as many opportunities as their brothers. In some towns and villages, the children are counted differently. “I have three children and one kopelli,” a colleague of mine related to me about what her father would answer for how many children he had. Girls are not considered children; only boys are.
– Greek cultures lavishes lots of praise, glory and attention on boys. So many of the mothers in Greece that I talked to consciously or unconsciously fixated on their sons, even way into their 30s.
– in the workplace, women in Greece have not advanced to the same level as men. Most industries are male-dominated. Yet when allowed to grow up in another culture, Greek women have thrived. (Do you really think Arianna Huffington nee Stasinopoulos would have become a media billionaire had she stayed in Greece?)
-even for women who have started to work outside the home, the lion’s share of housework is still left to the wife. It is considered disgraceful for a man to do “woman’s work.” A Greek-German friend who had grown up in a very traditional house made fun of an American pilot married to his sister, “Look malaka,” he’d brag to his pals, “o gambros mou (my brother-in-law) ironed my poukamiso (dress shirt).” Most traditional Greek men cannot be seen with a broom or vacuum cleaner in their hands for fear of appearing like a sissy. They leave housework to their wives, who often put in a full-time work schedule themselves.
-women are indoctrinated to fulfill roles as mothers and wives first and then anything else. There is nothing wrong with this. But for those who choose another route, it is anathema. Remember that scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding if Ms Portokalos could not find a gambro “O Theos na filae” she would be considered an outcast, a failure, someone ostracized and ridiculed. She could not have an identity in and of herself; she gained her identity and importance from her relationship to a man.
-women have not been allowed to take a more active role in their churches except in the form of cooks, organizers, and fundraisers
-anecdotally I can tell you Greek men cheat on their wives at a level that rivals Latinos (and vice versa). Yet there is a clear double standard. You are the “putana” if you engage in sex outside of marriage, yet society blames it on the wife if her husband strays.
The list goes on and on.
Perhaps the most fertile place for the patriarchy to grow is within Greek women themselves. They are the ones who raise boys and girls differently and subconsciously or consciously pass on the unequal treatment. They rush to cater to boys and men in their lives sending the message that girls and women are second. They serve everyone else and leave themselves last.
They gossip and tear down any woman that might pose a threat to them instead of taking issue with men’s infidelity. “But that’s how men are,” they excuse them. Like biology is an alibi for disrespect. They send the message to their daughters that they have to look attractive all the time, spending enormous amounts of time on their looks, because that is the way they gather their worth, from how attractive and how much attention they receive from males. Women have so internalized the codes of patriarchy and their inferiority they act as the “bitches,” barking and biting anyone that dares to cross the lines of the established order. (Some of the staunchest defenders of the patriarchy happen to be the old yiayias, the ones dressed in black, who have to wear black when their husbands pass away even if it was 20 years ago.)
It is hard to find documented statistics but the rate of domestic violence and abuse in all its forms is very high in Greek families. It is not reported because of the taboo surrounding it. “Be quiet,” “bear it,” “That’s your fate,” they excuse the abuse to themselves and others. “Men need an outlet for their frustration,” they reason. It is stressful to be the sole breadwinner in a traditional home. A few slaps here and there come with the territory.
So, to get back to the question, if a woman marries a man who has been raised in the tradition culture that exults the patriarchy, overall I would say her chances at being truly satisfied with her marriage will be low. But that is only if you accept the criteria for what makes a good marriage partner.
BUT THERE’S LITTLE DIVORCE IN GREECE–
Opponents to this claim bring up the low divorce rate in Greece as proof of the viability of Greek partners in marriage. While the divorce rate in Greece is lower, it is not as low as some other Latin American countries. The reason for why many couples stay together I believe has something to do with the failing economics of the country. Sociologists have found that the divorce rate dips in times of economic uncertainty. It makes sense; people stick together to survive financially.
Another reason for the low divorce rate might have to do with the stigma of divorce that is still very strong. Many partners stay in an otherwise failed marriage even while being disrespected, or worse abused, because of the stigma around divorce in traditional circles. Divorce is viewed as some sort of moral failure. Greek families do not divorce; they just stay miserable together. ( I have many examples in my family.) Plus there is the guilt of bringing up children “without” a father in the home. This keeps many couples unhappily together for the sake of the children.
Then there’s the part of keeping up appearances. Greeks as other Middle Easterners and Mediterraneans tend to be envious of each other. Admitting to a divorce would be equivalent to admitting that you failed. Not that things change or people evolve, but that there is something wrong with you if you do. What have you done or not done to keep the marriage together? As usual the responsibility falls on the wife, not the husband. Rather than be honest that their marriage “sucks,” many women suck it up and play along the fantasy fairy tale of living happy ever after.
To throw a wrench into this problem is the fact that Greeks are so endogamous. There is a taboo around marrying partners from a different culture so that women and men are forced to only consider seriously other Hellenes for marriage. That narrows down the marriage pool creating an unwritten pressure to accept Greek men because that’s how Greek men are. Take them or leave them.
Another aspect to this is women’s own insecurities for seeking a divorce or becoming single. Because they have internalized the ideology of patriarchy that states that to be a successful woman you must be married with children or at least have a “man” around you, they would rather keep a man under whatever circumstances. In the subconscious thinking, better a bad man than no man. How else but by touting a man can they deal with the demons of their own insecurity? Having a man by your side, no matter how unsatisfactory, is better than living life in isolation, ostracism, and insecurity. To keep up appearances of a loving successful family, Greek women put up a façade of marital bliss.
Many couples who do not divorce on the books are divorced de facto in reality. Marriage becomes an arrangement that they both can operate under, but they are not united in any true sense of the term. This was the case of my own parents. My father packed up and left to Greece and had not had any connection to his legally wedded wife for 20 years. Even though we begged them to divorce, they kept up the charade because they had been brought up during a time when no one divorced. Did that keep my father from going on and having relationships with other women? No. I understood it and accepted the fact. I suspect this sort of thing happens often in Greece and other traditional cultures.
I claim that Greek men, in general, and this means in general, as a cultural class, would not make equitable marriage partners because their culture raises them to be selfish, arrogant, egotistical and inflexible in changing the behaviors around their traditional gender type. It is hard for them to become responsible and equitable as men when as boys they have been given the crown of crowns.
THE PERSONAL ARGUMENT
Enough of the cultural argument, what about the personal? Well, MAYBE. It depends.
Most Greek men that I know, of my father’s and then a few in my own generation, disrespect their wives; cheat on them and worse abuse them without impunity. The worst part of the problem does not even lie in men; it resides with the women who are responsible for perpetrating the unfair treatment and these oppressive ideas. They teach their daughters by accepting the abuse and their second-class status that this is the way of the “good wife.” Greek men cheat, as others do, but the problem is that wives put up with the behavior.
When I take stock of the examples around me, most of the women who are married to traditional Greek men I would not consider happy. They might be trying hard to make good of a bad situation.
By the same token, however, there are many couples of Greek extraction on both sides who have been very happy and are still together. If they are, it is precisely the personal element despite the cultural, that has kept them together. What I mean is if these couples continue to love and respect each other it has to do with the personal dynamics between them, something that goes above and beyond culture. Their marriages would have worked whatever culture they had come from.
It seems logical that the marriages that last longer would be between partners who deal equitably with the changing realities of economics and child rearing. What I know must be true is those partners who take on traditional roles but can openly communicate and negotiate their needs with respect to one another have the best chances of staying together. There is no more room for cheating, insulting, emotional blackmail and all sorts of abuse and neglect in the 21st century marriage. Women have had enough. We do not want to repeat the patterns of accepted abuse and disrespect that our grandmothers and even our mothers had to endure. We have more choices now because we live in different times and different societies. Thank God for America, that bi-focal dual perspective that allows a Greek woman from the old culture to see it for what it is–oppressive, unfair and ultimately abrasive to womanhood. Is this the type of “traditional” value system we want to carry down to our daughters? Why is asking for fairness and equality in all arenas with regards to the sexes such a crime in Greek culture?
Ultimately, the choice of marriage partner is complicated. It involves motives that are both subconscious and irrational and others that are logical and practical. As a psychologist from a popular TedTalk expressed, your choice in marriage partner will be wrong because you choose not who might be the best for you, but who feels right, who feels comfortable, what is familiar based on the social and familial script you have grown up with.
It is hard to argue about such a complicated subject, especially without grounded research. I wish someone could prove me wrong. But whether you agree with me or not, the important thing is that we stop taking the passed down ideas and structures of marriage without really thinking about them. Just because something is “traditional” does not make it right. We need to re-examine the ideas about sex, gender roles, and marriage and family as passed down from previous generations. How much do we keep and how much do we revise in order to live happy, healthy, well-adjusted lives for all those involved given the specific time and place we exist? I hope that this post allows you to think deeply about the influence culture makes on your choices. It is about time we started examining the realities of modern marriage within the larger definition of what we want out of marriage in the 21stcentury for ourselves and for our children in the native Greek and Hellenic Diaspora communities.