No Couple Is Immune From Presumed Gender Roles
Gender exists. Like it or not, gender affects how we move through the world and how we make decisions about being in relationships whether sexually, financially, etc. All aspects of a relationship can be influenced by gender. No one is immune from preconceived ideas about gender roles, even queer and gender-fluid couples. Naming that is often quite significant.
Gender is such a powerful organizing force for couples. In couples therapy, we work with couples to name assumptions so that decisions about how to do gender can be made more intentionally. These decisions are about both acceptance that gender influences our relationships, and creativity–finding ways to do gender that works for both partners.
Gender And The Distribution Of Labor
When we work with couples on how their household tasks are shared, we typically look out for dogma–notions that get in the way of a couple’s ability to look at the situation and gender breakdown as creatively as possible. Certainly adhering to traditional gender roles limits options. But, at the same time, a reactive aversion to traditional gender roles is equally unhelpful.
Another trap couples fall into is the idea of equity–trying to impose some formulaic notion of an “equal distribution of labor.” This one is often a killer–it really gets a lot of couples stuck in the mud. In our couples therapy practice, we’ve seen couples with elaborate systems in which they assign a point value to different tasks and attempt to balance the sheet. It just doesn’t work that way and can reinforce both pettiness and resentment.
In couples therapy, it’s helpful to name biases in the distribution of labor and to work to understand why these biases exist and why they might be hard to give up. For instance, one partner might have been raised in a family in which his mother worked and his father didn’t, leaving his father resentful and going out of his way to demonstrate his manliness. More commonly, women watch their mothers feel taken for granted as homemakers or grew up in homes where both parents worked, but mom nonetheless was the primary caretaker of the home. While we don’t need to explore all the nuances of these histories, examining these experiences can be incredibly valuable when helping a couple move forward in creating their life together.
Emotional Labor Is As Important As Who Does The Dishes
In many ways, household labor is more tangible and has been more widely discussed than emotional labor. Since, at least, the 1960s, there has been a conversation about homemaking and gender. I think we’re much less comfortable talking about emotionality and gender. We’ve come to a place where we no longer feel women are somehow intrinsically better at vacuuming than men, but emotionality is trickier. The sexism is quite parallel though. Just as Archie Bunker saw washing the dishes as women’s work, sitcom dads in 2017 see making plans with friends, talking about sex or even, deciding to go to couples therapy as women’s work. It’s assumed that women, even as young girls, are responsible for thinking about feelings, while men are encouraged to be assertive.
In couples therapy, in addition to exploring these given biases, we work to create conversations about emotional labor that aren’t blaming. More than discussing what is and isn’t fair, it’s important to help couples recognize that there is this thing called emotional labor and there is a gendered distribution of it. Then, the couple can decide how they want to manage that part of their lives so it and they can thrive.
Gender Can Also Influence A Couple’s Earning And Spending
Most of the time in the world, we talk about individuals as earners i.e. So-and-So is a billionaire. What follows from that is that we hear about So-and-So (the billionaire) buying a new house, basketball team, etc. It’s his money and his purchase. And that’s not just how we talk about billionaires.
This goes back to a time when it was assumed that men made the money in families. Earning and providing is particularly important to men. This isn’t to discredit its importance to women, but it’s undeniable that it is culturally quite loaded for men, as is making the financial decisions. Men are supposed to be good–savvy and aggressive–at it. Of course, there are non-same-sex relationships where women earn more money. This isn’t exclusively a gender issue, but in the case of these relationships, navigating the relationship between earning and spending can be more complicated.
Often when talking to couples about their financial lives, it turns out the person that earns more gets to have more say on how the money is spent. Couples are often surprised to hear that pointed out in session, even as they don’t disagree. Maybe it’s an explicit decision or maybe it emerged organically and one or both partners aren’t aware that they’re living under that guiding principle. To be clear, this might be a fine way of organizing a financial life depending on the couple. It’s also important to note that even so-called collaborative decisions involve a distribution of priorities.
Gender Roles During Sex
We aren’t going to move gender out of the bedroom, so we need to give that up. Tens of thousands of years of human history can’t be sealed off from your sex life. So what’s a progressive, creative couple to do? Play. That’s the great thing about understanding sex, as we do in our couples therapy practice, as play. What we have to play with (just like what comics have as material for their jokes) is what it is–reality in all of its complicated, awkward and often unfair or problematic form.
We help couples–no matter how you and your partner identify–recognize that gender is a part of who you are and what you have to play with. It is exactly in play that you can be both who you are and who you want to be at the same time. She can pretend to be he and vice versa. Take that as literally as you want.
It’s also important to acknowledge that maybe men acting like men and women acting like women aren’t necessarily a problem except when it’s hurtful. Violence is hurtful, as is coercion. One partner not having a say in the co-creation of the sexual activity sucks and one partner staying frightened to express certain kinds of passion or vulnerability is also a bummer. But, traditionally gendered sex or play isn’t implicitly hurtful.
In our couples therapy practice, we see conflicts that arise around culturally ingrained gender stereotypes. For instance, women often want a guy who is sensitive and engaged–things not always thought of as stereotypically masculine, but at the same time, they can struggle with what this raises for them about their identity when thinking about being close with a man of this sort. There are copious memes and jokes about how great a man who vacuums is, and yet, such a man can feel less manly and/or his female partner might feel less feminine by virtue of seeing her husband take on these chores.
This can happen in other areas of a relationship besides household tasks. When men are more intimate or emotional, for example, it can raise issues with their partners. Their partner can wonder, “Who is this guy? What is he doing? That’s not who I married. What does this say about me?” The task for couples therapy, in these cases, is to name biases, to work on building empathy for both partners around the ways that navigating these issues can be difficult and to seek to make decisions about how a couple wants to move forward as who they are.