Gender Inequality in Relationships

Gender Inequality in Relationships. Psychology Fanatic article header image.
Gender Inequality in Relationships. Psychology Fanatic.
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The grace and beauty, along with the gifts and passion of new love, gently (sometimes dramatically) must incorporate the practical. Among the complexities of need fulfillment, self-esteem and growth-oriented living, bills must be paid, dishes washed, and children taken to school. Love inevitably collides with the nitty-gritty of the daily grind. Successful relationships evolve with the growing demands of sharing a life, removing common gender inequality in relationships.

There is an art to loving. Creating a healthy companionship by transforming the passion into a productive and protecting relationship is a skilled endeavor. David Richo in summing up his enlightening book on relationships writes, “Still, no one can blame us for not getting relationships right in one life time. It takes courageous depth and humor to get the point of it all and to follow the long, winding road to wholeness” (2006, Kindle Location 3,797). Erich Fromm in his classic, the Art of Loving, reminds that succeeding at any art requires discipline, concentration, patience, and supreme concern. (2006, page 91-92). 

Many couples stumble at the transitional stages of a relationship because they fail to develop the art of loving. The passion stage comes effortlessly for most, requiring little discipline. When we are attracted, and that attraction is met with acceptance it feels good—very little skill required.

“​When the role expectations of partners do not match, however, there may be more uncertainty, feelings of stigmatization, and desire to look elsewhere for a better-fitting relationship.”​​​

~Jeremy Nicholson M.S.W., Ph.D. | Psychology Today

Emotions and Connections

For intimacy to grow from these early moments of connection, our ability and skills and relating determine behaviors, which is directly driven by our emotions. When people are strongly influenced by their emotions, the intricate exchange needed for relationships creates anxiety. We must first soothe our emotions, and then find ways for healthy expression of them. Regrettably, the adjustments we make to handle heightened emotional turmoil often hinder communication, preventing closeness. We tend to prioritize short-term comfort over long-term goals.

“For intimacy to emerge from these dawning moments of connection, the skill of loving must intercede behavior motivated directly from the emotional level.” 

~T, Franklin Murphy

Differentiation in Relationships

Differentiation, learning to respond independently of the emotional fields while maintaining connection to the individuals that constitute it, is central to the developmental process. As differentiation increases, thinking and feeling function more separately from the emotional system, decreasing anxiety. Behavior is less reactive, allowing greater choice in response to emotional input. The capacity for individuality and togetherness are expanded (Knudson-Martin, Mahoney, 1999).

When it’s time to do the dishes, certain ways of interacting with others have already been established. Our childhood experiences come to the forefront, our emotions often get redirected, and different cultural influences disrupt. Various stimuli blend together in the deep parts of our mind, urging us to take actions that don’t prioritize the closeness and future contentment we desire. Ensuring a fair distribution of household tasks can be significant, as it prompts us to reflect on how we unconsciously adhere to traditional gender roles and how gender inequality can affect the relationship.

Equality in relationships is sometimes warmly received but blindly rejected. Other times, vehemently attacked. Several years ago, when I first posted a draft to an article titled, I Love You, You’re Free to Leave, I received some very poignant and attacking responses. One befuddled man was completely confused, “but then she will do whatever she wants.” Another accused me of cheating and wanting out of a relationship. Sadly, their built their views of relationships on imbalances of power.

“When one person’s desire is consistently emphasized over their partner’s, a relationship can quickly get boring for everyone involved.”

~Eliza Castile | Bustle

Dominant and Compliant Style Relationships

​The success of a relationship, in their view, is based upon a dominant/compliant style, relieving them of the skills identified by Fromm as necessary to love. Relationship failure often surprises many of the men in these relationships. They can’t fathom how their lover would leave when they (the man) was so happy. The imbalance of power served them well, accepting the gender inequality in relationships and they felt no need to adjust.

Gottman and Silver (1999) found in their longitude study found that men who stingily maintained power, unwilling to empower their wives had an 81% relationship failure rate. Egalitarian marriages have more stability.

Cultural Norms and Relationship Imbalances

For most, however, the choice isn’t one of choosing dominance or submission; but a quiet acceptance of cultural norms that continue to persist. The implicit biases piggyback into relationships unnoticed by the hosts. Many studies continue to show a discrepancy in household work distribution. Although women in many industrialized societies continue to carry the brunt of household chores (approximately two-thirds), nearly 40 percent do not perceive this division of housework unfair (Greenstein, 2009).

In wonderful progressive strides for equality, gender still is “the most reliable determinant of time spent doing housework among heterosexual couples. Gender inequality in relationships persists.

When I was still in college, I had a part-time job in the evening at a bank processing center. I worked with a young woman who was around the same age as me. She was in a committed long-term relationship. They both owned a condominium and were students. She told me they were focused on their careers and not interested in starting a family or getting married. She said, “It’s just not my thing.” As time passed, their relationship slowly deteriorated and eventually ended. She then met another young man and they got married. I often wonder if when she said, “it’s just not my thing,” she actually meant, “it just wasn’t his thing.”

“Once girls become teens they are seen as vulnerable and in need of protection leading many teens (and later women) to hide their assertiveness in order conform to society’s beliefs.” 

~Karina Sumano  | Onelove

Power and Autonomy

Power in relationships is the power to influence decisions in the partnership towards fulfillment of one’s own goals, interests and well-being (Knudson-Martin & Mahoney, 2005). Marital power (or any relationship’s power) is typically unseen, hiding in the shadows of accepted norms. Just because there is no overt power conflict, doesn’t substantiate claims of equality. Basically, there is no conflict because the wife is acting within the set boundaries of the husband.

​The husband often constrains the wife’s autonomy establishing boundaries and maintaining the ultimate veto power. A 1996 study of couples reported that examined couples that reported making decisions together discovered that outcomes of those mutual decisions tended to favor the husbands needs and goals (Zvonkovic, et al. 1996; as cited from Knudson-Martin & Mahoney, 2005).

There are exceptions. Some women are dominant and men submissive. Chaotic fights for power stunt relationship growth, each partner intent on beating the other into submission. Accordingly, these relationships come with their own set of problems and solutions. Relationships built around inequality eventually falter, losing the hold on our heart. “It is increasingly hard to keep giving without taking as the years and decades go by. Typically, a viable, long-term relationship requires greater equality” (Hindy et al. 1990).

Gay and Kathlyn Hicks suggest in their book, Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment, that “relationships can only exist in equality; inequality is the hallmark of co-dependence.” (1992, Location 233). The journey to co-commitment is through equality. They suggest spending a lifetime mastering this wider perspective of equality.

Four Traps to Establishing Gender Equality

Our work for equality begins with rooting out the latent imbalances of power. This requires Fromm’s model of discipline, concentration, patience and supreme concern. Carmen Knudson-Martin and Anne Mahoney provide direction for these efforts of the mind. In their 1999 article, Beyond Different Worlds: A “Postgender” Approach to Relational Development, they provide four common traps to establishing gender equality.

Believing that men’s and women’s behavior arises from “natural” differences and can’t be changed

This mode of thought is a common defense to avoid combating the issue. This justification pokes its nasty head into all discussions of inequality. Our versions of masculinity and feminism need to un-fused from characteristics of inequality. Until we do so gender inequality in relationships will continue.

Unconsciously acting out invisible gender scripts

This pernicious trap allows imbalances of power to work unchecked. We claim equality but in action still march to the traditional beat and roles. Aaron Beck in his classic book, Love is Never Enough, refers to these as the belief we carry into the relationship. He writes, “People enter into a marriage with fixed beliefs about the meaning of certain actions, or non-actions, by their spouses. These beliefs lead them to attach exaggerated significance to those actions.” (1989, p. 121) His answer to the problem, “To function as a team, both partners have to incorporate the viewpoint of the other into their own perspective.” (p. 135).​Working towards change is difficult. We tire, fatigued by the emotions and energy necessary to adjust faulty patterns. So instead of fight for equality, we return to the norm and allow the differences to exist.

Ignoring power differences

What we choose to ignore typically continues to exist, often expanding when left unchecked.

Concluding that gender inequality is no longer an issue

Concluding that we have fixed the problem is a common trap. Attitudes live on, acting invisibly against the background of our biased mind. Like a car out of alignment, forces will continue to exert pressure pulling us from the intended path. We must continue to pay attention to balances and continually adjust.

A Few Closing Words By Psychology Fanatic

Couples face a confusing, complex and changing world. Strictly defined roles made life was significantly easier. Human beings progress. We’ve moved from the caves, to the fields, to the factories, and now to the offices. Both male and female work hand in hand. We must reshape our cultural beliefs to fit the modern world, bringing equality into our homes. “Shared power is the cornerstone of shared partnerships” (Rabin, 1996. P.84). To survive these changes, we must keep active negotiations alive, challenging entitlements, and learn new competencies (Knudson-Martin & Mahoney 2005).

In conclusion, we face this challenge to not only share in the domestic work but by learning the nuances of emotional attunement, nurturing behaviors, and emotional intimacy. This is a large task for the rugged western man. The art of love is a skill, requiring continued focused efforts. Fortunately, we can refine our abilities and enjoy the intimate relationships that equality offers. Accordingly, our skill at loving keeps the fear of abandonment at bay. Our skill, abandoning traditional gender inequality in relationships, rather than power manipulations allows for closeness and security.

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Beck, Aaron (1989). Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstandings, Resolve Conflicts, and Solve Relationship Problems Through Cognitive Therapy. Harper Perennial; Reprint edition.

Fromm, Erich (2006). The Art of Loving. Harper Perennial Modern Classics; Anniversary edition.

Gottman, John & Silver, Nan (1999) The Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work.

Greenstein, T. (2009). National Context, Family Satisfaction, and Fairness in the Division of Household Labor. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71(4).

Hicks, G., Hicks, K (1992). Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment. Bantam; Reprint edition.

Hindy, C. G., Schwarz, J. C., & Brodsky (1990). If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? Learn How to Deal With Anxiety, Jealousy, and Depression in Romance–and Get the Love You Deserve! Fawcett; 1st Ballantine Books Ed edition. Notes from Kindle Edition.

Knudson‐Martin, C., & Mahoney, A. (1999). Beyond Different Worlds: A “Postgender” Approach to Relational Development. Family Process, 38(3).

Knudson-Martin, C., & Mahoney, A. R. (2005). Moving beyond Gender: Processes That Create Relationship Equality. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy,31(2), 235. Retrieved from Questia.

Rabin, C. (1996). Equal Partners – Good Friends: Empowering Couples through Therapy. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from Questia.

Richo, D. (2002) How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving. Shambhala; 1 edition.

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