Not so very long ago (just a few decades), relationships between men and women were based on a hierarchy – a pecking order– with men acting as the primary earners and decision-makers, and women serving, literally, as the doers of all things related to children and home. Roles were clearly defined, rarely questioned, and each half of a couple knew how he or she was expected to behave.
Men and women also operated in largely separate spheres. Women often had the company of their mothers, sisters, friends and neighbors, and could confide in them when they needed advice on how to handle their men and their children. Most women didn’t need to rely upon their husbands for emotional support, and their sexual longings weren’t even acknowledged. Men spent their days and many nights with male bosses and co-workers, didn’t necessarily have to rely on their wives to meet their sexual needs, and their emotional longings weren’t acknowledged.
Enormous changes have occurred in a relatively short span of history in the Western world, with women entering the work force in droves, the pill making pregnancy voluntary, and a same-sex orientation emerging from its hiding place in the shadows. Households and neighborhoods are no longer held together by the fibers of three or four generations. Most families can’t survive on one income, roles are blurred, and expectations are high.
While most women I know (not to mention most men!) wouldn’t go back to that old, oppressive system for all the chocolate in Belgium, we’re still blindly fumbling our way out of the cave, even 50 years later. Today’s couples watched their parents and grandparents play out those predictable scenes, and really have no role models for a 21st century, egalitarian relationship. We know we want equal partnerships, but what exactly does that mean?
We want our partners to be our best friends, fulfill our sexual fantasies, support our dreams, share our financial burdens, and accept our flaws. Sure, the divorce rate hovers around 50%, but given all that pressure, isn’t it remarkable how many couples do hold it together? Couples of all persuasions, no longer forced to stay in unhappy relationships, are compelled to wrestle with myriad questions day-in and day-out, the answers to which are individually demarcated and personal, and designed by each couple from scratch.
So what are the secrets of successful couples of today? And why are relationships so difficult? When couples don’t intentionally think through some of these issues, confusion, anger and resentment often take over. Operating unwittingly from an old family playbook, partners push to assert their version as the right version. So it’s worth the time, effort, and the struggle to shed light on and work through these questions:
It is possible to make your own rules, roles, and boundaries, but it requires a great deal of thought, flexibility, patience, and trial and error.
Take the time to consider what you witnessed growing up, and make conscious decisions about what you want to carry forward, and what you don’t. Then be prepared to stretch and reshape those decisions, as some of your partner’s ideas will undoubtedly differ. Through the years, priorities and beliefs will shift, and you may need to come back to the negotiating table a number of times. But if you work hard early on at crafting a mutual definition of equal partnership, you’ll have your own playbook to draw from, and your relationship needn’t be so difficult after all!
Sara Schwarzbaum and Alison Knox
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Founder, Couples Counseling Associates
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