Public Release: 

Athletes' wives cope with stress through 'control work'

Oregon State University

CORVALLIS, Ore. - The wives of many professional athletes develop a variety of ways to cope with the stress of their husbands' careers, and gaining control over the family, parenting and other domestic issues is one of the most common, according to one study.

"To feel empowered, to be in control - that becomes an important way for wives to survive the pressures and demands in a marriage for which many women are unprepared," said Steven M. Ortiz, an assistant professor of sociology at Oregon State University.

Ortiz presented the results of this portion of his larger study today at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago. For several years Ortiz has studied the survival skills of athletes' wives. As part of that study he developed a professional article on control issues that usually are manifested at home, he said, because wives have such little control over their husbands' unpredictable professional careers.

"What a wife can control," he said, "is the family." The idea of control management is useful, Ortiz said, for understanding and describing how partners in sports marriages cope with domestic and stressful issues. While most previous research only identified such issues, Ortiz said he tried to dig deeper to identify the potential causes of strife.

"Wives have to deal with the routine absences of their husbands and, in the case of families, they have become part-time single parents," Ortiz said. "But because of their husbands' unique careers, they also have to deal with stressful situations that may include geographic mobility, forced retirement, career setbacks, groupies, media scrutiny, labor lockouts and strikes, contract negotiations and free agency, unexpected trades, intrusive mothers-in-law, traveling and celebrity husbands.

"It is not always an easy life," he added. "We can learn a great deal about these women from the ways in which they cope with such a life." To help them cope, many wives have learned to rely on what Ortiz calls "control work," a process of exercising power. In his exploratory paper, he describes how many of the wives of professional athletes that he interviewed focused their marriages on their husbands' dependency on them - to fulfill the husbands' emotional needs, to manage the family, or to demonstrate domestic mastery.

"In some circumstances," Ortiz said, "an athlete's wife may herself depend on her husband's dependency on his career - by his fulfillment from that career, or by her husband's uncertainties and insecurities, or by what may turn into a self-absorbing pursuit of athletic excellence or stardom. It may help the wife feel loved, needed or validated."

Ortiz initially conducted his study as a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Berkeley in the 1990s, where he worked with noted scholars Arlie Russell Hochschild and Harry Edwards. As part of that study, over a four-year period, he interviewed the wives of 47 different professional athletes in the four major team sports - football, baseball, basketball and hockey.

The OSU researcher still maintains contact with some of the wives he met during his initial study, and some wives and former wives of other professional athletes seek him out as they become aware of his research.

The dependency of athletes on their wives comes in part, Ortiz says, from their earlier experiences of learning to depend on others in pursuing athletic success, and benefiting in some ways from such success. Many athletes become workaholics, he points out, and that attitude is viewed positively and reinforces a notion of them having "the right attitude toward the game."

Such devotion to a career provides a strong self-identity and strong feelings of self-worth, as well as financial success, power, and sometimes stardom. What often results, Ortiz says, is "career dependency."

"In the sport marriage, a wife is married not only to her husband, but to his career," he said. "In order to gain greater insight into her support skills in the marriage, it helps to understand the nature of her dependency on her husband's dependencies and vice versa. The 'control work' she does - in whatever form - will help her deal with the inevitable stress of being married to a professional athlete." Sports often are a microcosm of society at large, Ortiz said, and marital issues are no different. Nevertheless, the challenges are extreme.

"What we see in the sport marriage occurs in other marriages," Ortiz said, "particularly in other career-dominated marriages. But in working on their marriages, these wives of athletes confront a unique set of challenges that other wives may not."

Ortiz, who is on the faculty of Oregon State University's Department of Sociology, is working on a book about sport marriages.

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