Almost all couples say they want an equal relationship, but If I ask them what that means for them, the answers are often vague. How can an equal relationship be defined? How do couples know equality when they experience it?
Evidence is mounting that couples that are more equal are also likely to be more intimate and satisfying. Often, couples express egalitarian values but need help being able to attain them. Sometimes, there is a gap between what people say they want and what they do.
Gender and power issues are often hidden and covert and neither partner really knows why they do what they do or how they got there.
Equality can be defined as:
- The ability of one person to influence a relationship toward his or her own goals, interests and well-being. The partners have the ability to set the agenda for discussions and negotiations.
- Each partner can have his or her wishes and concerns heard and considered equally with those of the other partner.
- Decisions are made in ways that maximize, as much as possible, the well-being of both partners in the short and in the long term.
- Personal freedom and personal gain are negotiated within the framework of the collective good of the relationship.
For most couples, the development of an egalitarian relationship is likely to be an ongoing, difficult, process that can put a relationship to a test. Not only is the achievement of equality made more difficult by overt traditional gender and power dynamics, but in recent decades, some of the gender and power issues have become less overt, more unconscious, and less visible.
Many couples seem unaware of the ways in which they end up adopting traditional gender patterns, especially when children enter the picture. Couples who started out more equitable in the beginning of their relationship, succumb to gender bias and stereotypes.
For a relationship to succeed, it requires three critical relationship processes: Attunement, vulnerability, and relational responsibility.
When it works, they reinforce each other, creating a positive environment of mutual support and care for each other. When it doesn’t work, couples become caught in a negative cycle in which vulnerability is unsafe, mutual empathy is lacking and neither partner feels heard or valued. But there are hidden power issues associated with gender stereotypes that interfere with a couples ability to create a positive cycle of care and connection.
Many women cannot speak their truth about their emotional experience with the men in their lives because many men often experience women’s input as criticism. And many men have not been socialized to express emotions or needs, lest they be perceived as weak or dependent. Many women feel like they “lose themselves” in the relationship and many men have trouble learning to be more attentive, attuned and responsive.
There are four dimensions that are useful to get a sense of the power issues in a relationship and to recognize ways in which a relationship may be out of balance. The four dimensions are relative status, attention to the other, accommodation patterns, and well-being.
1) Relative status
This dimension focuses on who defines what is important, who has the right to have, express, and achieve their own goals, wishes and interests. Do both partners have the ability to use the relationship to support their interests?
Traditional gender socialization encourages both men and women to absorb a set of expectations, that when not checked, can set up a couple for unequal status of one the partners. One way to explore relative status is by asking:
- Whose interests shape what happens in the family?
- To what extent do partners feel equally entitled to express and attain personal goals and wishes?
- How are low status tasks, like housework, handled?
2) Attention to the other
Part of an egalitarian model of relationships is an expectation that partners are emotionally present for each other. They are attuned to each other’s needs and responsive to their emotions and stresses. One way to explore attention to the other is by asking:
- To what extent do both partners notice and attend to the other’s needs and emotions?
- Does attention go back and forth between partners? Does each give and receive?
- When attention is imbalanced, do partners express awareness of this and the need to rebalance?
3) Accommodation patterns
Accommodation is a necessary part of the life of a couple. If partners influence the relationship relatively equally, then accommodations tend to reasonably balanced over time. When accommodations are not equal, one partner appears to organize more of his or her life around the other. Accommodation by the lower status partner may feel natural and expected by both partners and my happen automatically. We can explore accommodation by asking:
- Is one partner more likely to organize his or her daily activities around the other?
- Does accommodation occur automatically without anything being said?
- Do partners attempt to justify accommodations they make as being “natural” or the result or personality differences?
In equal relationships, burdens are shared and the well-being of each partner is supported equally, both in the short term and over the long haul. Equal well-being may not be possible all the time, but both partners can recognize a disparity when it occurs, acknowledge it, and work together to equalize and rebalance. Exploration of well-being can be done by asking:
- Does one partner seem to be better off psychologically, emotionally, or physically than the other?
- Does one person’s sense of competence, optimism or well-being come at the expense of the other’s physical or emotional health?
- Does the relationship support the economic viability of each partner?
- How are decisions made?
- Whose interests take priority?
- Whose version of reality prevails?
- How easily does one partner back down?
- How are the contributions of each valued?
By asking themselves these questions, with or without the help of a therapist, couple can increase their awareness of gender equality issues such as who gets heard, how decisions are made, how they affect each partner, and who is attentive to whom.
If partners seek help, I ask how their present patterns of behavior have worked and what they have had to give up to maintain them, to help couples identify what kind of relationship they want. The patterns that a couple develops though, are actually part of a larger societal problems that plague many couples, not just them.
All couples need help. Addressing these issues may create or increase conflict in a relationship. Minimizing conflict is not a viable goal if it comes at the expense of equality.
There are gender stereotypes that perpetuate inequality, affecting both men and women but in different ways. Some couples who aspire to have an equal relationship, think that women are “naturally” better suited to be mothers. That belief may lead some women to take on more responsibility and organize their lives around the children. Over time, they may feel burdened, and resentful of the father, who steps back because “she knows better”. When couples believe that women have a natural connection and knowledge that men don’t have, that leads to fathers stepping back. As a result, mothers of young children establish relational connections with their children much more than fathers do, perpetuating these gender stereotypes.
Fathers who care for their children are more likely to develop a connection with them. Couples who initially assume that mothers are better at child care and assign most caring tasks to them set up a circular dynamic that promotes an unequal balance of power between partners that appears to affect the couples ability to develop equal accommodations, equal influence, and an equal sense of well-being.
Many men are taking on the child care tasks more frequently, but in order to do that, they may need to overcome feelings of incompetence to feel encouraged to learn new skills and develop new abilities. For mothers to step back, they will need to develop the ability to stay out of the way, let go, and allow the male spouse to struggle and make mistakes.
Overcoming gender stereotypes and bias requires conscious and active attention and the recognition that both women AND men are capable of intimacy/connection/interdependence AND autonomy/self- sufficiency. Same sex couples appear to be less burdened by gender stereotypes in general, but they can still struggle with inequality if there are large income disparities, for example.
A relationship works best when it works well for both partners, not just one. Increasing awareness of hidden gender and power issues in a relationship enables people to make better informed choices about how they live.
When couples are able to explore the discrepancy between what they say they want and what they do, and when they can engage with their partners from a position of connection rather than power, they that the potential to become painstakingly more equal. This blog is inspired by the book: Couple, gender and power: Creating change in intimate relationships, by Carmen Knudson-Martin and Anne Rankin Mahoney.