The pace of conversations regarding gender equality have picked up in recent years as we’ve witnessed the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the increased popularity of online content creators like Andrew Tate, and greater attention on abuse and exploitation of women and girls globally. Alongside these conversations about what’s happening culturally, women are also identifying what they want and need in their own relationships. Challenging the expectations experienced by the generations before them, women today are insisting on equity and more confident in setting boundaries with their partners.
Women in heterosexual relationships are particularly seeking more balance – partnerships in which roles are shared equitably rather than divided into patriarchal, gendered roles. And more women today are content being single if the alternative is to be in a relationship which lacks mutual respect, healthy boundaries, or in which they do all of the mental and emotional labor. We see this shift play out through the rise in “gray divorce” and an increase in young men describing themselves as “involuntarily celibate.”
For many of the heterosexual couples that I work with, these social shifts have had significant impacts on their relationship. I hear more and more often from women that they need to see a change in the relationship dynamics, and that they are prepared to leave the relationship if it remains the same. In these situations, some male partners are eager to understand how his partner feels, empathize with her concerns, take responsibility for his role in the current dynamic, and implement changes in the relationship.
Of course, making changes and unlearning generations of patriarchal relationship expectations is hard work for both partners and it takes time, but I have found that the male partner’s ability to accept the need for change and follow through in making change is essential for the couple to move forward. Other male partners are left asking, “Wait. What changed?” or, “Why is this a problem now?” They might get defensive when their partner brings the issue up or express that their partner is asking for too much.
While women are typically the ones who tend to bring up this dynamic in counseling, many men realize how patriarchal expectations negatively impact them as well. While women feel pressure to do the more traditional domestic tasks of cooking, cleaning, scheduling play dates and social events, and providing their partners with sexual intimacy, men feel pressure to provide financially, remain unaffected by emotions, be a strong leader for the family, and be the disciplinarian for children. Finding balance in a mutually respectful relationship outside of patriarchal standards allows room for both partners to be authentically themselve and to take on responsibilities that they enjoy or excel at. It allows both individuals to express their emotions and concerns freely and to feel like an equal partner with their loved one.
Maybe you and your partner have decided to make a change and move away from the patriarchal standards that you have been working under. If you’re like most couples, you are struggling with how to really implement a new dynamic. Keep in mind that these standards are heavily ingrained in us and will take time to unlearn them. Give yourself and your partner grace as you navigate new territory together. As long as you are both willing to hear your partner’s feedback, take responsibility, and make changes, progress will come.
To get started, consider the following:
- Disregard any previously held expectations about who does what when it comes to household, financial, social, and parenting responsibilities. Instead, discuss a plan for dividing the labor (including mental and emotional labor) based on everyone’s needs and capabilities, not based on their gender. Consider using a system like Fair Play to rebalance your domestic life.
- Stop excusing harmful behaviors based on someone’s gender. In an equal relationship, both partners should take responsibility for their behaviors and no one gets “a pass” because they are either a man or a woman. Stop using phrases like “it’s probably a man/woman thing,” “boys will be boys,” and “women are just more _______ than men.”
- Similarly, stop dismissing concerns a partner has based on gender. Regardless of gender, every person experiences the full range of emotion. Allow space in your relationship for those emotions to be expressed regardless of a person’s gender identity. Stop using phrases like “big boys don’t cry,” “women are so sensitive,” or “grow a pair.”
- Create an environment where both partners feel safe to bring up concerns. Do not engage in defensive, dismissive, or manipulative behaviors when a concern is voiced. Listen to understand how your partner feels and take responsibility where appropriate.
- When conflict comes up, ensure that both partners have space to talk about their feelings and concerns. Healthy conflict management includes collaborative problem solving, not simply agreeing with your partner’s perspectives to keep the peace or convincing your partner that you are right.
- When compromise is needed, ensure that both partners are compromising, not that one person is always compromising their needs or wants.
Having these conversations is not always going to be easy, but they can help prevent feelings of resentment in the relationship and increase emotional intimacy in the relationship. Because these conversations are difficult, the support of a couple’s counselor can be a helpful tool as you are working on creating new dynamics in the relationship that work for both of you.