I just finished reading the new bookCouples, Gender, and Power, edited by Carmen Knudson-Martin (Professor of Marital and Family Therapy at Loma Linda University) and Anne Rankin Mahoney (Professor Emerita of Sociology at University of Denver). The book is an academic text that pulls together a group of sociological studies to provide guidance to marriage counselors and others who work with couples so that they can think in fresh ways about relationship issues that might be arising from power differences based on gender.
Each chapter in Couples, Gender, and Power examines a new sub-topic or population of couples (e.g., young American marrieds, same-sex couples, couples in Singapore (a culture that emphasizes collective rather than independent goals), African American couples, first-generation immigrant couples, couples in Iran (patriarchal society). And each is packed with interesting ideas. I will take up just a few of the book's key points in this post. But if the overall topic interests you, I urge you to get a copy! Couples, Gender, and Power is a welcome addition to ourResourcespage - an extremely useful compendium of the social research on ESP to date.
Okay, on with my thoughts on some of the key messages....
By way of background, the authors provide evidence that gender 'norms' mess with our relationships - and we often don't notice them for what they are: limiting stereotypes we can learn to see and discard. And that classic gender roles are social constructs that result in a power difference between opposite-sex couples that can erode a relationship over time. Knudson-Martin and Mahoney point to solid data that describe egalitarian relationships as the most successful, intimate and stable. And to an imbalance of power as a motivator for both partners to hide thoughts and emotions, making intimacy difficult and lowering satisfaction.
The authors define equality as something far bigger than a couple sharing the load of dishes and laundry - and I could not agree more. Relationship equality, the authors say, has four dimensions: relative status (mutually defining what is important in your relationship), attention to the other (being emotionally present and supportive to your partner), accommodation (both partners organizing their lives around each other to an equivalent level), and well-being (sharing the burdens and supporting the well-being of each other).
Of particular interest is a chapter that describes a study of young American couples (mostly childless), and introduces the concept of the myth of equality. These couples all spoke of having equal relationships, but upon examination, most did not. They used words like 'give and take' to imply equality, even if one person gave more and the other took more. They spoke of having 'free choice' to each be his/her own person within the relationship, and looked upon resultant inequalities as simply arising from choice. They expressed 'all for one and one for all' as a shared belief that explained how decisions that benefited one partner more than the other were fully mutual. And they referred to themselves as 'partners' in a way that implied mutual decision making without the action behind it. All of this talk, the researchers found, acted as a symbolic representation of the couples' commitment to an equal relationship, but didn't often translate into actual equality. They called this the language of equality. I've seen plenty of this, often in reaction to media pieces about ESP, in which commenters say 'Doesn't everyone share these days? What's so special about ESP? We share everything, but it only makes sense for my wife to do the cooking because she likes it better.'
This chapter goes on to define the strategies that these equal-in-words-only couples use to deal with the reality of their inequality. Namely, they avoid the issue by:
rationalizing inequality as a positive ("She's better at running the house." "I don't mind doing all the laundry.")
not examining the consequences ("We've never discussed moving, since my business is here.")
settling for less ("I don't mind doing all the straightening up but draw the line at doing his ironing.")
hiding the issues (e.g., through humor)
placing responsibility for equality on the wife (e.g., by making it necessary for her to appreciate the work her husband did in order for him to keep doing it...our point exactly in Marc's previous posts on appreciation!)
The chapter ends by describing a way out of this myth of equality - through open negotiation, fighting (yes, although hopefully with respect), and working through power struggles rather than avoiding the issues. If a couple is willing to risk the unpleasant moments that will arise by confronting the problem, they have a chance at true equality - or at least at knowing the truth.
Interestingly, a study of Singaporean couples in a subsequent chapter showed a very different result. There, in a collectivist culture that discourages individual goals, dual-income couples speak of being traditional but actually act far more egalitarian. This is termed the myth of traditionalism. Why would this be? Collectivism truly is 'all for one and one for all.' In Singapore, it seems that young couples tend to marry their equals. They also highly value family needs, rather than the individual needs of one partner. And they are built for a team mentality...perfect for ESP.
Marc and I had the pleasure of meeting Drs. Knudson-Martin and Mahoney this past spring at the Council on Contemporary Families annual meeting, and were happy to hear from them that their research fully supports the ESP lifestyle. Since this time, they have started a blog, Equal Couples, and I encourage you to check it out. They are true kindred spirits in the quest for gender equality in relationships!