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Themes of power and control are increasingly central to today’s couples. Almost every couple that comes to therapy bemoans their prolonged and unresolved struggles over control, struggles that touch every area of their lives—financial, sexual, domestic. Trivial questions like what movie to see or what color bathroom towel to buy can turn into mammoth battles. Men and women no longer subscribe to the idea of separate domains—his and hers—which means that neither partner gets to play out their own vision or style without an argument somewhere along the line. In this contentious atmosphere, simple feedback is turned into “Criticism!” and simple difference can be a source of extended conflict.
Conflicts are difficult to resolve. Each partner invokes a different set of rules, hoping to carry the day. “This is how my family disciplined children,” says one; and the other retorts: “Well it didn’t work so well, as far as I can see. Why don’t we at least look at this book on child development together.” We haul out rules from our childhood or from books, try to combine thoughtful introspection with the advice we’ve gotten from others. But generally the invocation of separate rules or the suggestion of new problem-solving methods just adds fuel to the fire. It seems like another attempt to gain the upper hand.
The quintessential modern method for resolving conflicts is negotiation. This has become as true for couples as for diplomats or corporate executives. To negotiate well, each participant has to assume that the other has a valid point of view, that compromise is possible, and that flat-out winning is not good if it causes too much resentment. Instead, the idea is to satisfy both participants without making either give in too much. “Win-win” is the operative phrase, which has come to represent an ethical stance as well as a procedural skill.
But negotiation—however valuable a skill it is—cannot solve every problem. It is no substitute for a generous, harmonious fit. And it often overlooks the depth of psychological attachment we each have to our positions. The truth is, we are often deeply committed to how we do things and we do not want to compromise them. We feel it as a self-betrayal to negotiate away freedoms we fought for years ago, or to abandon beliefs about child-rearing that we—and our parents, and their parents before them—have always held strongly. Having to negotiate rather than being able to relax in the comfort of a genuinely shared belief exhausts us. It demands more of our scarce time, and it violates an ideal of marriage many of us carry deep inside, an ideal which emphasizes shared tastes and values rather than the ability to bargain.
It just seems wrong to us to have to negotiate everything. As one man said, “I don’t want to negotiate whether the sun is going to come up and the earth will be under my feet. I want to assume some basic things between us.”
Some partners try to resolve conflicts by seizing control of how the couple’s money is spent. A couple can discuss buying a new sofa, taking a vacation to Disneyland versus the Poconos, or when to pay off their credit card debt; but if one partner controls the money, all the talk may be in vain.
Historically, men controlled the couple’s finances and all the choices that went with it—unless the woman had independent wealth. They worked while women stayed home.6 In our time, many women work, but men still have a greater earning capacity. This reinforces their claiming the upper hand in financial matters. Dominating the finances is one technique men use to impose their will on women. Many women have been infantilized, for instance, by receiving household “allowances.”
Nowadays, however, this inequity is changing. As women enter the work force in record numbers, they bring home a substantial income. Women are the sole wage-earner in many families. And even though women frequently earn less than men for comparable work, they are nonetheless the main wage-earners in many couples. In couples, women take care of all the financial tasks: they write the checks and pay the bills. These changes have heated up the struggle. Today neither partner is automatically in charge, and every financial issue can be an additional source of tension.
The situation can become even more chaotic and confused. In Barry Dym’s current practice, about one-third of the women earn more than their husbands. Each of these husbands feels threatened. They are too “modern” of course—and need the money too much— to propose that their wives earn less, but they feel less manly because of it and admit to doing little things to “get back at” their wives and reassert their masculinity.
These women are proud of being successful. But they are also angry. They feel unprotected in the world and unappreciated at home. In spite of their making more money, they still take on most of the child-rearing and housework, and they feel exploited because of it. They want to be taken care of, too. They argue that their men want it all: mother and wife as well as breadwinner. But the men argue that they want it all: equal power, the right to succeed, and permission to be furious at the men who “let” them do so.
Other conflicts focus on intimacy, a domain in which women have long been acknowledged to have the upper hand. Barbara Ehrenreich and others have described how the “feminization of sex” has spread through our culture.7 Over the past two or three decades, women’s feelings and women’s experience have come to characterize our concept of love. We now feel that, to be acceptable, love has to include — if not emphasize — conversation and self-revelation. This may work as a guideline in the early phases of relationship; but, with time, the female call to conversation and feelings can become a red flag to her companion. “Let’s talk,” she says; and he replies: “Do we have to, right now?” She feels abandoned and grows urgent: “We have to talk,” she says, feeling demeaned at having to persuade him. He feels invaded. “All you ever want to do is talk. Leave me alone!” If she does leave him alone, of course, he feels hurt and abandoned (but she rarely does that, because women are.the keepers of our intimate domain). If she doesn’t, he feels even more jammed. This dance of pursuit and distance often makes our search for intimacy more frustrating than satisfying.8
A further extension of the “feminization of sex” is that contemporary women claim fuller citizenship in the sexual arena. Women have the right to initiate; they have the right to say no; they have a right to say what they want and what they don’t. In some circles, focus on women’s total-body sensuality has supplanted the older forms of more male-oriented sex, which emphasized genital sex and rapid climax.
But if today’s sexual encounters may be more mutual, they are also more self-conscious. We boast of believing that sex is natural, just a simple good-natured expression of affection, pleasure, lust, or desire; but we often fear we’re not doing it right.
The domain of intimacy makes us negotiate with each other, talk about embarrassing things, learn about our partners and—what is often more difficult—about our own sexual appetites and preferences. Typically, women want to make love after an intimate atmosphere has been created, while men insist that sex itself creates that mood for them. They may argue about which comes first, she feeling pawed and invaded, he feeling controlled and deprived. In good times they may compromise or alternate; in bad times the sexual difference becomes entangled with other issues of control.
“He’s always hovering around me; I feel caged,” she says. He answers, “She knows how important sex is to me but she never invites it; I don’t believe she really cares about me.” In sex, men still generally pursue women, just as in conversation women generally pursue men. The somewhat theoretical “liberation” of women to pursue men has released an avalanche of complex feelings in which men may feel objectified, teased, chased, ignored ... but frequently still dominant.
All this makes us even more insecure. As we venture into new domains of man- and womanhood, we leave behind the safety of old definitions and open ourselves to criticism. We rarely know our own threshold for change, that point at which we’ve moved too far beyond the gendered imagery of our childhood. Nor do we know when we’ll surpass our partner’s limits. Just as we think we’re being generous, we’re told we’re patronizing. Just as we think we’re anticipating our partner’s needs, we’re told we’re controlling. Just at the point we pull back to give our partner’s needs priority, we’re told we’re passive and withholding.
Everyone wonders if he or she is man or woman enough. This insecurity makes it hard to support the changes we call for in our partners. If we lose our sense of being on a wilderness adventure together, we can feel pushed or harassed: our mate is pushing us too far and too fast, and judging us as lacking because we’re changing too slowly, too awkwardly, or too much. Even when the couple relationship supports change, friends and relatives may not. “Don’t you think it’s wrong for Edie to go back to work so fast after having a baby?” Mama says. Their questions can divide even the most together couples.
No new model of relationship has arisen to replace the old ones, and so many couples live in a twilight zone, straddled between traditional roles and expectations and those they invent on their own or adapt from the media. In stable times, we can move through life in patterned ways, without thinking much, about the hows or whys. In times of change we ask more questions. Refreshing as it is to live by our own choice and creation, it may still feel less solid than living by the wisdom and customs of generations past.
Until we have forged a new tradition, based on equality between the genders and a new agreement about what is inherent, and what must be created, we will continue to be anxious and self-conscious in relationships.
Reflection Exercise #12
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