Unseen forces in the lives of couples
By Raven Wells
March 7, 2017
Gender dynamics in intimacy most often show up as a dance between internalized sexism in women and unconscious privilege in men.
Over years of working with couples, I’ve come to respect how influenced we all are by forces outside our awareness. Contrary to media depictions of falling in love and living happily ever, is the reality that relationship is hard work. Intimacy can be amazing, it can also bring out the most difficult and sticky dynamics people will ever experience. The longer people engage in intimacy the more likely they are to be tripped up by influences they cannot consciously see. Much of my job involves shining a light on those unseen forces and then offering skills for helping to deal with them. It’s a cool job.
When I talk about ‘unseen forces’ I’m talking about the ways in which things that happened to us in our past carry over into the present without us knowing it. For example, the way parents treat kids, the roles kids played in their families and the way kids bonded to their parents (or not), all effects the way those kids interact with others when they grow up. A different illustration of unseen forces is how traumatic incidents can create survival reflexes that spring out like a jack-in-the-box years later. I you look for it, you start to see the different flavors these influences have on intimacy. One of the lessor known/studied of these hidden influences is the impact of how our culture treats men and woman differently – gender inequality dynamics.
Culturally speaking, if you randomly ended up with male biology, the system is rigged in your favor, whereas women generally get the short end of the stick. We live in a patriarchal society with many baked in advantages/privileges for men, whether they know it or not. This gender inequality means men are less likely to fear sexual harassment or rape, more likely to be given jobs, to be paid more for the same jobs as woman, to be better represented in the media, to be better represented in politics, etc. Even after thinking about it for years, I’m still wrapping my mind around how pervasive these societal influences are. Men and woman grow up marinating in totally different social sauces that impact our development and eventually become strong unconscious forces in our psyches.
So how do gender dynamics affect intimacy? Before saying more, I first have to acknowledge that intimacy comes in many shapes and sizes. The bulk of the couples/individuals I see are ‘straight’ and the observations of this blog are tailored to them, which has put me in a sincere quandary about how to be inclusive of the LGBTQ, polyamory and gender nonconforming communities. It’s also important to acknowledge that in any configuration of relationships there often are multiple levels of the societal influences occurring simultaneously: skin color, sexual preference, socio-economic status, gender identification, religious beliefs, body type, etc. It’s a bit of a false exercise to pretend we can cull out gender from all the other influences. That being said it’s also a good place to start.
In my experience gender dynamics in intimacy most often show up as a dance between internalized sexism in women and unconscious privilege in men. When I watch couples interact, I often see a subtext in which the women feel less empowered and overly responsible, while the men feel more empowered and entitled. On the surface the couple may be talking about sex, practical responsibilities, or communication styles, but underneath there is a dynamic of the woman feeling held down/oppressed by the man and the man feeling unseen and confused why the woman is reacting to him so strongly.
There have been great strides in gender equality, but we’re far from finished leveling the playing fields. The inequities play out both in our society as well as inside relationships. Men are far more likely to feel entitled to sex, whereas woman are more likely to feel obligated. Statistically, when both men and women work, the women are more likely be responsible for child rearing, cooking and housework. It’s important to realize that while the nature of the dynamics is up/down, both men and woman suffer the consequences in intimacy. I see dozens of illustrations every week of couple’s communication glitches that can largely be attributed to the deeper gender currents underneath the conscious words being spoken.
To give a real life example, I had two couples in the same day show up in almost identical arguments. In both cases the women took care of the kids and the men were the breadwinners. Both women had asked the men about possibly returning to work or school. Assuming their partners wanted help planning for this transition, the men named various obstacles they thought their wives would have to overcome to achieve their goals. In both cases this lead to a fight. When we started to apply the lens of gender dynamics to their arguments, the women started to see they felt they needed to ask for permission and were already irritated and scared about this on some subtle level before the conversation even started. They also interpreted their husband’s attempts to name the obstacles, as if their husbands were outright saying, “Here are several reasons you are likely to fail” or “Here are the reasons I’m telling you, you can’t do it.” The men felt misunderstood/irritated, as they were only speaking the way they would to a friend. With support, the men started to see how much power they had unconsciously been wielding in the relationship and how hard it was for their wives to swim upstream in the face of that power differential.
The more one looks through the gender dynamics lens the more they will start to see both blatant and subtle examples. I feel like I’ve been handed 3-D glasses for the ‘couple movies’ I’ve been watching and the new lenses are giving shape to patterns I’ve been staring at for years. Including in my own relationship, which is both fascinating and embarrassing.
The next question is what to do about it? How do we dismantle these gender dynamics effectively? It’s a good question to sit with and a good topic for the next blog.