11. Self-Esteem Theory Principles - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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11. Self-Esteem Theory Principles

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Mirror Mirror- Self-Esteem Relationships

Mirror Mirror… Reflections of Self-Esteem in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Adult self-esteem and emotional health underlies the individual's psychological health, and fundamentally contributes to the quality of intimacy in relationships.  Like a building with a poor foundation, self-esteem will always be shaky and highly vulnerable to environmental influences (peer pressure, the media, abusive people, and so forth) if one's intimate others have not been able to stabilize and develop their own psychological health.  The foundation of self-esteem for an individual is always the significant people in their lives.  Initially, they are their parents and other caregivers such as teachers.  Eventually, it becomes the intimate partner.  Understanding how important others are the foundation to a person's self-esteem can be a powerful tool in promoting self-esteem.  Stanley Coopersmith in "The Antecedents of Self-Esteem," (1968), concluded that people base their self-esteem or self-image on four criteria: significance, moral virtue, power, and competence.  Satir's four meta-goals for therapy: raising the self-esteem of the clients; helping clients to be their own choice makers; helping clients to be more responsible, and helping clients become congruent are consistent with Coopersmith's criteria. These four concepts are very useful for understanding individuals and relationships for offering support to develop self-esteem.  Each component is related to the other three components, while individually vital to an individual's self-esteem.  Weakness in one area corrupts the strengths in other areas, and harms overall self-esteem.  The therapist will find it useful to assess the self-esteem of each member in a relationship or of a couple or family for the process of therapy.
When individuals get into negative conflict, their contentment with the relationship is diminished as they feel less accepted and understood.  Acceptance and being understood- it is "these two facilitative qualities rather than negative conflict itself that seem to determine relationship satisfaction" (Cramer, 2003, page 95).  The degree of acceptance or of having positive regard for the other person may be more vital to relationship satisfaction than uneven communications skills.  Many "educational, enrichment-oriented marital communication training programs are based on rather simplistic theoretical models of the relationship between marital communication and marital satisfaction" (Barnes et al., 1984, page 76-77).  Many couple therapy orientations and therapists have similar conceptual foundations.  Barnes speculated that "couples who perceive regard from each other and also profess it for each other may have little to benefit in terms of increased marital satisfaction by attending such programs, even though they may find the experience enjoyable in itself."  Individuals regardless of communication skills, that do not perceive nor profess positive regard for one another may require more than psychoeducation.  Individuals that hold high positive regard for one another, but do not experience it may well benefit from communications training.  Poor communication skills may have circumvented expressing their mutual regard tangibly in the daily course of their interactions.  Communications training could help such individuals experience the other's positive regard and thus, improve their relationship. On the other hand, improved communication skills and awareness can potentially uncover hidden negative regard (annoyance, disrespect, and disconnection) that reveals a false sense of regard.  This can lead to individuals facing issues and grievances previously avoided that may challenge the relationship.  Referring to couple communication programs, but also relevant to therapy, Barnes proposed "rather than screening such couples on the basis of overall marital distress or on the basis of demographic characteristics, such as social class or education, we think it may be more appropriate to screen on the basis of initial levels of perceived and professed regard and on the basis of initial levels of perceived communication skill (1984, page 76-77).  The therapist should assess early in therapy for the individual's regard for the important person in his or her life or each partner's or family member's regard for another.  When the people that are significant to an individual give him or her messages- that is mirror that he or she is significant, then self-esteem goes up.  Who these significant people are varies from time to time and in the development of the individual.  Initially, they are the parents and family, later the teachers and peers.  

Terry was clearly significant to Bert and Bert to Terry when they were still married.  Moreover, they continue to be significant to each other although that is significantly compromised with their divorce.  Their respective significance to each other may be through and because of the children.  It would be a compelling message if either is able to acknowledge, "I want the kids to have a good relationship with their dad (or mom)."  Such avenues may be how the therapist may be able to get them to articulate how they still find each other significant even after divorce.  Parents attending to the primary and most basic needs of the baby, continually give him or her messages of worth.  Care giving communicates that the baby's distress, desires, anxiety, and their joys really matter to them.  The baby begins to understand that he or she must have value- intrinsic value.  Self-esteem develops.  Neglect, in some ways, becomes the most profound abuse.  If neglected, the baby experiences that he or she doesn't matter at all.  Any individual wants to connect with intimate others so he or she can feel that he or she belongs.  This starts as a baby who is an inherently powerless or low empowered individual.  The process is initially passive and dependent on attentive caring adults.  As he or she grows, the individual becomes more active in finding and developing his or her place in the family and subsequently in other communities: neighborhood, playground, and school initially.  As an adult, the individual continues his or her search for a place in important relationships: community, work, couple, and family.  "A person strives to feel significant, to feel that he or she counts.  This striving also begins in childhood, where a child wants to know that he or she matters in a unique way, that his or her existence makes a difference.  Through the connections he or she makes and his or her capabilities, a child learns what personal qualities give him or her special importance and significance.  As a young person grows into an adult, he or she continues to seek out relationships and opportunities where he or she feels significant and feels that he or she can make a difference" (McCurdy, 2007, page 283-84).

When the individual does or says things that express or demonstrate that the other person matters to him or her, it confirms that he or she values the relationship.  Personal abilities and resources will be utilized for supporting and helping the other person and improving the relationship.  The relationship is seen as positive and purposeful.  The individual lets the other person know that he or she counts, and simultaneously wants reciprocal confirmation that he or she matters to the individual as well.  If this dynamic fails or is insufficient, the sense of insignificance can be devastating.  "A partner who does not feel valuable in the relationship may try to hurt the other partner before he or she is hurt or to seek revenge for being hurt.  Through meeting this mistaken goal of revenge, the relationship becomes one of insignificance.  Individuals who do not feel their partner is valuable may find themselves playing the 'I've got a debt: You've got a credit!' game or the 'This is war!' game (Mozdzierz & Lottman, 1973)" (McCurdy, 2007, page 286-88).  The therapist should interrupt the negative games.  These games focus individuals on anger and grievances rather than on their mutual desire for validation.  Therapy should have individuals distinguish between impressions or perceptions and facts.  If the individual's impressions are not checked and then are acted upon as if they are uncontroversial facts, then he or she will often act in some harmful manner towards the other person.  The therapist should focus individuals on the experienced hurt of rejection rather than on the "crime" of the behaviors or words.  The assumption of negative intent coupled with the experience of rejection leads to reactive rejection, thus perpetuating a cycle of rejection rather than acceptance.

The therapist needs to elicit and train individuals in giving clear and frequent messages of significance to each other.  A simple exercise could be to have each individual list the things that he or she likes about the other person.  Another exercise would to have each individual identify what the other person does that gives the first individual a sense of positive significance.  These types of affirmations are often forgotten as they compulsively complains about each other.  Each individual complains about what he or she does not like about the other person and what the other person does that makes him or her feel unappreciated, disrespected, or otherwise insignificant in some fashion.  When prompted to come up with likes or experiences of positive significances, some individuals can only respond with negation of negatives ("He doesn't hit," or "She used to be worse," or "At least, he doesn't rub my face in it"), rather than identify any positive attributes, behaviors, or experiences.   Some individuals may be highly resistant or refuse to acknowledge any positives (or do so in a disingenuous manner) even with significant coaching and direction.  This resistance would need to be carefully explored in order to get to healthy communication.  Heitler in an interview discussed collaborative dialogue as opposed to problematic communication when emotions get out of hand.  "I am referring particularly to what I call crossovers when people are labeling others or speaking for the other person versus people speaking for themselves.  Are they listening to take in information or they are listening like a hockey goalie to bat it away?  Did they digest what the other person said out loud or do they just move on to their own thought?  So there can be a perfectly civil collaborative tone but each person ignores what the other says rather than what I call breathing the dialogue. The couple needs to have a positive experience versus just repeating what goes on at home" (Wyatt, 2009)

In some relationships, refusal to acknowledge anything positive with the other person may an indication of competitive ego insecurity.  With a separated couple such as Terry and Bert it may be indicative of a continuing war between them that has persisted past the divorce.  Acknowledgement would cause competitive loss to the other person as if it negates the first individual's status and creates a detrimental imbalance of credibility or power with him or her losing out.  This would be indicative of low and fragile self-esteem, that anticipates one being annihilated if he or she acknowledges the validity of the other's feelings or thoughts.  An extreme version of this batting away of communication could be as a result of narcissistic tendencies or a narcissistic personality disorder.  Therapy would be much more challenging in this case, but the therapist must nevertheless intervene so the outcome is different than previously experienced.  At the very least, the individual whose feelings or thoughts are dismissed can be confirmed that there has been an attempt to exterminate him or her.  

The failure of validation exercises is an example of a powerful and simple premise.  If the conceptually sound intervention should work, it will work… unless there is something else or more to it.  There must be something yet unidentified that is powerfully compelling preventing it from working.  The simple exercise discussed in the previous paragraph should work or at the very least, be received relatively benignly rather than elicit strong resistance.  All therapists have tried interventions, strategies, and exercises that have fallen flat or have not drawn significant clinical benefit (insight, catharsis, intimacy, etc.).  When such interventions not just do not work, but are inexplicably strongly resisted, the therapist should immediately investigate for potential underlying emotional, cultural, psychological, and other forces or dynamics that would have caused resistance or other unanticipated responses.  The individual, couple, or family may be receptive to the therapist's suggestions on the surface, but have unacknowledged complications that may qualify their ability to activate them.  Lingering resentments and unresolved injuries from the marriage may complicate Terry and Bert's ability to follow through, for example.  In another example, couple's work that emphasizes mutual respect should be effective with African-American couples, since African-American culture characteristically affirms the importance of respect in a good relationship.  "Given the lack of respect experienced by African Americans in the wider society, this emphasis makes sense (Boyd-Franklin, 2003).  For the couples in this study, respect is the glue that holds relationships together.  It is not simply respect for you, but also respect for the integrity of the relationship and family:  Being able to walk with each other and not for one to feel superior over the other.  There are going to be times when the other don't [sic] want to do what you want to do, but you're supposed to come together and work things out.  Respect can also be about personal worth.  Elona explains, 'It's about understanding and respecting someone's body, their thoughts, desires, and feeling.  If you love someone you would respect their values'" (Cowdery, et al, 2009, page 33).

Respect, then tends to be a very positive mutual cornerstone for both African-American men and women in processing couple's issues.  However, a relevant nuance about respect may complicate the therapeutic process.  The shared African-American experience of disrespect in the mainstream society- potential daily indignities and injustice of racism and prejudice can cause an African-American partner to become sensitized to possible disrespect in the couple.  There is a resultant "emphasis on self-protection and fear of being disrespected at home that can work against trust in relationships."  The therapist needs to be aware of potential experiences of disrespect from personal family-of-origin experiences, abuse, racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and so forth that may amplify sensitivity and vigilance to significance, respect, validation, and acceptance issues in the couple.  This caution may be more readily remembered with working with an individual or a couple with one or both partners from historically disenfranchised communities, but should be considered for all clients.  Complicating issues that increase sensitivity and vigilance include personality disorders, psychosis, mania, drug or alcohol abuse or dependence, trauma, cultural strictures, and developmental issues.  This would mean the therapist conducting couple therapy for co-parenting for Terry and Bert, is simultaneously considering the relevance of various diagnoses for both individuals.  And therapy may need to address such characterological and other personal dynamics as well as the presenting issue.  Sometimes individuals are not able to understand each other, because as they were socialized they attempt to socialize each other in ways that do not work.  These ways usually come from their emotional psycho-social-cultural attempts to survive various harmful formative experiences. When individuals are frustrated dealing with life and household demands dysfunctionally, reciprocal messages of significance can break down.  

The messages of significance given to the child by significant people in his or her life are vital in creating self-esteem.  However, the individual cannot always have others available to support him or her.  Constant confirmation cannot be given that the individual is important, and his or her behavior is valuable and appropriate.  However, based on accumulated affirming messages, each person internalizes a sense of what is good and what is bad- a set of personal standards, values, and morality to live by.  Each individual has a mirror to gaze into for his or her own quality of living.  The individual not only needs to feel loved by the significant people his or her life, but also to feel love for him or herself.  From the movie "The Greatest" comes the song about Muhammad Ali, "The Greatest Love of All" (Masser and Creed, 1986) performed by Whitney Houston.  The song says, "learning to love yourself.  It is the greatest love of all."  Some individuals fail to love themselves, despite being well loved and admired by many other people.  Conversely, other individuals maintain a core self-acceptance despite esteem-harming negative experiences and socialization.  The difference is related to another of the four components of self-esteem that Coopersmith calls moral virtue.  As the individual grows up, a sense of right and wrong develops.  A set of values asserts what a good versus boy or girl does.  A pattern of behaviors that is virtuous creates ones morality, conscience, the superego (from Freud, Sigmund (1923), or a personal Jimniny Cricket (from Walt Disney's movie Pinocchio, 1940 who guides Pinocchio).  These values tell the individual whether or not the behavior is appropriate or inappropriate.  The natural process of growing up causes the individual to question and adapt personal morality.  In future communities as teenagers and adults, the individual may have values and behaviors challenged.  Rather than staying completely dependent on others (parents, religious or political leaders, peers, or a partner), the individual's self-definition will determine the consistency of his or her choices.

A sense of an ideal self develops over time.  The ideal self is the self that who lives completely up to the morality that the individual holds as the ideal.  In addition, the real self develops.  The real self is what the individual actually does and behaves in his or her life.  The more the real self lives up to (perform according to) the parameters that have been set out by the ideal self, the more self-esteem an individual has.  In relationships, the real self often must stretch behaviorally and otherwise.  The individual may experiment with extending the possibilities of the ideal self.  How does each individual self-define him or herself as a "good partner" (husband, wife, boyfriend, or girlfriend) - his or her ideal self?  How well does he or she live up to that self-definition?  Sometimes the ideal self is completely unrealistic or highly problematic, coming from archaic cultural definitions, childhood abuse or neglect, and/or dysfunctional family-of-origin models.  With a problematic ideal relationship self-definition, therapy needs to uncover its origins and help the individual develop a healthier more functional ideal self.  For example, if the individual believes being a good partner means perfectly anticipating the other person's needs, he or she is doomed to failure and likely to feel perpetually guilty and anxious.  This ideal self definition may come from being required to deny ones needs and instead to please an unpleasable erratic parent in childhood.  A common problem arises when one member self-defines as always being in control (or never being out of control).  Such an individual then becomes likely to feel threatened and react hostilely when the other person or a child acts independently.  The need to stay in control- often likely to be an aversion, anxiety, or fear of losing control, or else something horrible can happen drive the current relationship interactions dysfunctionally.  

In one session, Terry would take over the verbal discourse, dominating the conversation, and make it difficult for Bert Miles to interject his perspective on situations.  Constantly, interrupting and correcting him, she frustrated his attempts at communicating his feelings.  Even as Bert tried to present his frustration, Terry would take over with a monologue on this or that.  He got more and more angry with her, but she persisted and even intensified her verbal dominance.  The therapist had Terry stop talking and be silent.  She was instructed to observe herself. Specifically, she was to observe the feelings that come up with not speaking and experience what they revealed to her.  After a few moments, Terry eyes widened with a look of realization.  Asked what she found, Terry replied that she got anxious when she lost control of the conversation.  When she gave up the lead of the conversation, Terry did not know where it would go.  She was able to identify that she first experienced this anxiety in childhood with her mother.  Once her mother got going, she might take any innocent issue and gradually talk herself into an angry frenzy that could result eventually in verbal if not physical abuse directed at her daughter- the woman now in therapy.  As a young girl, Terry became adept at taking and keeping control of conversations with her mother and taking them in as benign and harmless a direction as possible.  If she failed to dominate and direct the conversation, which still frequently occurred, she would suffer her mother's eventual wrath.  Unconsciously, Terry transferred both the anxiety and the methodology into her new intimate relationship- her husband and now, ex-husband Bert.  Dominating the conversation with Terry was a subconscious attempt to maintain control because she feared that his upset or frustration could also degenerate into an attack on her.  Identifying this historical process was necessary to problem-solve its current replication with Terry's unsuspecting ex, Bert.  Too bad they had not come to this realization while they were still married.  This is another example of issues that cause the demise of the committed relationship can continue to contaminate the ensuing relationship.

The therapist can work with an individual in transforming a familiar but ineffective way of interacting.  The frustration, pain, and despair of failing oneself persists as long as the individual remains stuck making the same problematic choices.  The individual learns to make different choices and becomes more congruent, honoring a healthy ideal self.  As he or she is able to live up to a more realistic ideal self, how he or she sees him or herself changes.  The individual gains hope in his or her life aspirations and the relationship.  Self-esteem grows as a result.  Exploration of the ideal self values and messages and the real self capacities and skills along with interventions that facilitate greater congruence "provides the therapist with the opportunity to be present with a person in the midst of his or her deepest pain and despair, empathically connected in a way that moves beyond simply feeling to a deeper level of feeling the feelings as the person moves inside.  Moving toward the person's own felt sense of what is going on, at that moment in time, facilitates new perceptions and internal acceptance of past events (Satir & Baldwin, 1983)" (Sayles, 2002, page 95).

When both people in a relationship have existing healthy ideal relationship self definitions, the couple tends to be very receptive to coaching by the therapist.  In some individuals, couples, or families, however actualizing the ideal self with real self behaviors may be challenging.  For example, both members of a couple hold positive ideal partner self definitions that they should nurture each other.  This had been true of Terry and Bert in their marriage.  However, Terry had a family or cultural model of nurturing through giving, while Bert nurtured through acts of attention and kindness.  Although both strategies are well-intended, they resulted in a cross-cultural mismatch of nurturing behavior.  They thus failed to provide each other with desired nurturing or recognize nurturing offered.  Family-of-origin inhibitions or models can also complicate following through with desired real self behavior.  For example, both partners believed in communication as partners and as ex's co-parenting.  However, Terry has a family style that discouraged or prohibited directly asking for something.  Instead, indirect communication implies the request.  "That's a busy time in our kids' schedule," which conveys the message of "We need to find another time to schedule that," or "Don't sign them up that team."  Another family member such as Terry's brother, who is conversant in the family communication style accurately recognizes such indirect communication.  Unfortunately, indirect communication styles are often relatively unique to particular families and akin to foreign languages to others.  Bert also frequently uses some indirect communication- albeit a different style than Terry that came from his family-of-origin.  Uncovering these differences may become the thrust of therapy.  Since their ideal self definitions were in sync, the thrust of therapy was to get Terry and Bert on the same page as to the real self behaviors they could both accept.  Therapy is relatively simple for this type of couple.

The ideal self vs. the real self are very powerful concepts to help build the sense of self-acceptance.  The individual wishes to see the real self reflecting the values of the ideal self.  A strong ideal self is required to develop the powerful moral virtue that allows an individual to maintain self-esteem into and through adulthood.  The ideal self is the composite of all the good things that an individual wants to be.  It is the definition of the person who totally lives up to the values that he or she holds dear.  It is not just the good, but the perfect individual that each person wants to be.  The real self, on the other hand, is made up of what each individual actually does.  If the ideal self says to be kind and giving, and the real self is able to be kind and giving to a partner, friend, or stranger, then self-esteem goes up.  The real self has been able to live up to the standards of the ideal self.  However, the ideal self may say to be kind and giving, but the real self is not kind and does not give to his or her little sister or partner, for example.  The mismatch and tension between the real self and the ideal self will cause self-esteem to go down.  As the ideal self seeks to be humane, the real self is human.  Failing to realize and accept the humanity of the real self causes a loss of self-esteem.  With these two concepts, there become two directions with which to build individual, couple, or family's self-esteem.  First, is to develop the ideal self in a manner that is healthy and productive.  Some individuals' ideal self are problematic and even worse, dangerous.  For example, there are individuals who define being a good partner as being the perfect partner.  The individual may define a good relationship as never letting or causing the other person to have stress, or feel disappointment or anger.  Such a person expect him or herself to be perfect, and in doing so, deny his or her humanity creating an unrealistic and unattainable ideal self.  And, as the real self fails to live up to perfection, self-esteem plummets.  If an individual tries to over manage another person's behavior, he or she operates from a distorted ideal self.  He or she will be in continual danger of failing the ideal self.  The important other person will also continually fail to satisfy him or her.  The therapist needs to guide the individual to not hold him or herself to an unrealistic ideal self, while also supporting the other person's refusal to be held to unreasonable expectations.  An individual with a positive ideal self allows mistakes but continues to strive.  The individual needs to accept a realistic ideal self as a goal rather than as a requirement.  

The therapist can directly evoke the part of the ideal self in both Terry and Bert that wants to be a good parent to the kids.  The ideal good parent can then be defined as one that is a good co-parent.  The good co-parent that Terry or Bert should be could be further defined as one able to set aside personal vendettas and make compromises that involving giving in a little.  This would be a significant therapeutic accomplishment that leads to other possibilities.  With that more nuanced definition, striving to meet the standards of the ideal self moves to developing skills and other traits in the real self.  The give and take of negotiation between Terry and Bert become based on compromising with reservations as an honorable and acceptable consequence.  If the ideal self is realistic and healthy, then the real self including as a caring person, friend, partner, or family member can be developed to meet its standards.  The more realistic resulting expectations can enhance previously lowered self-esteem.

Among real self skills required for a healthy relationship, the individual must recognize the other person's social cues and to mitigate off-putting social behaviors.  Real self awareness must differentiate his or her emotional, psychological, and intellectual experiences from others.  The real self may need to learn how to express in ways that are effective personally, but not intrusive to the other's needs.  If there is an ideal self need to be powerful, the real self needs to find a way for that power to be expressed appropriately in the relationship.  Mismatch between the ideal self and the real self creates crises for an individual, but also create the opportunities for growth.  The individual tries to hold him or herself to act in a manner consistent with the values of the ideal self.  The therapist can challenge Terry and Bert if he or she is the parent he or she wishes to be?  Or, the ex-spouse he or she thought he or she was going to be?  To not be the person so desired would be detrimental to self-esteem.  The individual will be compelled at times to re-consider and reconfirm or adapt previously unquestioned values.  As this challenges and endangers him or her, new or confirmed self-definition will require the real self finding a virtuous way to act.  Moral virtue through the ideal self encourages consistent behavior.  Moral virtue stays with an individual through pressure and influences that suggest behaving any other way than virtuously.  Jimniny Cricket admonished Pinocchio to hold fast to his moral virtue when he was tempted by the immediate promises of Pleasure Island.  In a sense, the therapist is not so much the clients' Jimininy Cricket or conscience but provokes, activates, and extends the clients' ideal self.

When individuals are committed to and share similar values for the relationship, the work of therapy focuses on developing behavior consistent with personal or their joint moral virtue.  This may be relatively simple with some couples.  Polock et al. (1989, page 623) found that very egalitarian couples and moderately egalitarian couples tended to have good communication.  Individuals tended to choose partners who were similar in value, so those who were effective communicators paired up with like-minded and similarly skilled people.  Likewise, individuals with less effective communication practices also matched up which can make couple therapy much more difficult.  The therapist may find gender differences in both skills and self-expectations around conflict communication.  "…it is hypothesized that differences in conflict communication behaviors arise from differences in the consequences of engaging in conflicts- considering the effects of the social structure within which men and women are embedded- rather than from intrinsic sex differences in the way that men and women communicate (Vogel & Karney, 2002)" (Heene et al., 2005, page 431).  Heene found that women were more active mediating and moderating conflict situations.  While women reported significantly higher levels of constructive communication, they also were more likely to express demands yet avoid and withdraw during problem-solving discussions.  There are also gender differences in motivation and ability to accurately decode communication.  "Females may be rewarded more often for decoding accurately than males as part of their expected gender role behaviour.  They may come to conceive of such accuracy as an important aspect of their self-concept and social competence.  Thus, empathic accuracy may be a result of gender-specific socialization.  Accordingly, one may expect that gender role attitudes, arising from gender-specific socialization, should be related to empathic accuracy.  Persons with high 'feminine' and low 'masculine' gender role attitudes may show a higher level of competence and motivation for empathic accuracy" (Trommsdorff and John, 1992, page 43).

Using the terms "high feminine" and "low masculine" gender role attitudes to indicate higher level of competence and motivation for empathic accuracy is indicative of mainstream or traditional social values and role definitions that affect individual self-definition.  If the individual feels compelled to live up to a family or social-cultural definition of communication fluency, then he or she is more likely to invest energy into the relationship process.  However, if not so compelled by family or social-cultural values, the individual's ideal self may not be similarly invested.  Moghadam (2009) discussing Iranian couples, identify the importance of larger influences on the couple.  "Couples in this study were helped by awareness of societal influences.  Once such influences are visible, partners have a choice about how they want to respond.  Conversation about what partners learned about being male and female and how these ideas relate to their ability to mutually support each other can be very helpful.  Because the laws are so clear in Iran, some aspects of gender inequality are easy to see and couples can consciously decide what these mean within their personal relationship" (page 53)

However, there can be significant social expectations that are not as easily identified, much less managed within the couple.  A couple such as Terry and Bert may have entered their relationship full of assumptions about expectations that may have been mismatched.  The therapist needs to ask the partners how they learned to attend to and accommodate one another, and about expressing opinions, concerns, or wishes.  This can help partners become conscious of how they have internalized social-cultural values and expectations.  There may be significant cultural differences regarding how equality is supposed to function between partners.  Overt discussion about values and social gender processes helps partners identify how equality, support, and respect has functioned in the couple and what they want it to become for them.  The therapist seeks ways for the partners to respect desired functional traditional roles while eliminating or reducing ineffective distressing patterns.  Moghadam's recommendation for working with Iranian couples who are arguably more traditional is relevant for American couples.  "…there is diversity within traditional gender patterns and that some couples relate much more equally than others.  Helping stressed couples discover these options fits within a culturally sensitive approach to practice (Moghadam, 2009, page 53).  Heitler notes, "there are certainly cultural variations, many of which are harmless.  They are like the multiple flavors of ice cream.  There are other cultural variations that have a major impact on how collaborative a couple is going to be or how likely they are going to be split off into separate realms.  In some cultures, the roles between men and women are more defined and problems are dealt with indirectly instead of through direct communication.  In most American couples, however, there is a lot of necessity for husband and wife to be able to make shared decisions, to function as a team.  If the goal is to have a collaborative relationship, then there are certain principles of information flow" (Wyatt, 2009).  

Yet, there may be significant variations of what issues require a shared decision, what makes a decision shared, and what is a collaborative relationship.  Partners may ostensibly hold the same values such as mutual respect and support.  However, the therapist should ask what may be the cultural or religious beliefs underlying the values.  Moghadam said, "If religion or culture is used to support the idea that women must submit to men, draw out their other religious values such as mutual respect and help them to discuss the contradictions (page 53).  Cowdery et al., (2009, page 34) described an African-American coupe where the wife's religious views required her to cede to her husband if they disagreed.  Lizzette said that the ultimate decision was her husband's.  Samuel, her husband believed that God had made him superior as the man and head of the household.  He asserted that although she could take over, eventually she would not be able to handle the responsibility.  Then, he would take over again.  "For most couples, however, connection to religion or spirituality did not appear to translate into a rigid definition of gender roles.  The sense that they needed to be flexible and pull together took on more pragmatic significance (Cowdery, et al, 2009, page 34).  The therapist needs to explore the rigidity or flexibility of gender roles and other self-definitions for each partner and couple.  The therapist does not take an authoritative stance but uses inquiry and exploration.  He or she prompts partners to examine and deepen feelings and beliefs to consider how they affect their interactions.  The ideal self is not attacked but provoked for nuance and sophistication, and as a result real self behavior may be challenged and subsequently adapted.

The therapist should actively explore potentially incongruent gender standards in the relationship.  For example, gender dynamics can be complicated by social-cultural and political-historical influences such as racism, classism, immigration, religion, and poverty.  Consider for example, that the couple Terry and Bert referenced throughout this book were middle-class European-American.  Or on the other hand, they were African-American, or Asian-American, or Latino-American… or bi-racial or from diverse religious backgrounds or different socio-economic and educational backgrounds.  And, Polish-American versus Irish Catholic, Puerto Rican vs. Panamanian, rural or urban, Southwestern or Mid-west American, and so forth may be relevant experiences as well.  There might be important demographic influences upon their relationship and hence, to therapy as well.  African-American individuals, among other communities come from hundreds of years of injustice and negative ideologies and stereotypes justifying racism.  Institutionalized racism has limited opportunities and development with resultant damage to individual and community self-esteem.  "In the push for racial justice, images of solidarity and unity transcended divisions and diversity within the Black population.  The salience of race trumped gender; the gendered nature of racism tended to be overlooked (Hill, 2005).  Hill contends that the dominant culture's image of patriarchy defined Black men as the victims of racism and perpetuated the myth of the Black matriarch despite her lack of power or resources and subordinate position in 'virtually every aspect of life' (p. 67).  Black men were stereotyped as lazy or angry and dangerous, whereas Black women were more readily accepted in the workplace (Boyd-Franklin & Franklin, 1998).  In response, many couples elevated the significance of men in their families, leaving female victimization less acknowledged". (Cowdery, et al, 2009, page 27).

In African-American couples, partners are "likely to both hold traditional gender ideologies and believe that partners should share family work.  Women need space to address their ambivalence about not having more traditional role options.  They may feel betrayed by men.  Men may feel ambivalence as well.  They want to contribute to family well being in any way that they can, but also may feel diminished by not playing a more traditional leadership role" (Cowdery, et al, 2009, page 36).  The therapist should bring these potential issues from community experiences of racism into the therapy.  Male and female stereotypes of African-American gender roles and behavior can be identified, honored when appropriate, and challenged when dysfunctional for the couple.  The therapist should be aware of the possible relevance of stereotypes, but not be bound by them.  Cowdery (page 34-35) described another African-American couple who valued white or mainstream American cultural ideals of traditional gender roles.  Winnie identified with being a homemaker with a partner who was a gallant "knight in shining armor.  And he'd go out and slay all the dragons and when he came home, I'd have dinner waiting on the table for him. I like it that way."  Her husband Ronald said "I don't think we have any roles that are reversed from the traditional Ozzie and Harriet situation... Our roles are clearly divided down the gender traditional relationship."  This couple did not aspire to common African-American stereotypes for gender roles.  To Winnie and Ronald attaining traditional mainstream gendered family roles was an achievement.  Their real selves' behavior validated their ideal selves' values.  The therapist promotes individuals gaining consciousness of how various influences affect interactions and roles within the relationship.  The relationship subsequently has greater choice.  For Winnie and Ronald, examination of their standards and expectations confirmed the veracity of their choice for the relationship or partnership they wanted.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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