14. Poorly Defined Roles- "Help" - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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14. Poorly Defined Roles- "Help"

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Roles Rigidity Repair in Relationships

Roles, Rigidity, Repair, and Renovation in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Over time an individual explores different ways of contributing and belonging within the family.  Experiences result in conclusions about the self, others, the world, and how one best fits in.  While individual choice and flexibility is key, the greater systems and circumstances remain very influential.  "Every culture has beliefs, norms, and expectations with regard to gender roles which the child must incorporate in any decisions made about how it is best to be in this world" (Conway, 2000, page 496).  Conway discusses the Crucial Cs.  The first three are:

People strive to connect with others in order to feel that they belong…

People strive to feel capable, to feel that they will grow and improve…

People strive to feel significant, to feel that they count…

"The final C, courage, is crucial in a different way.  The first three Cs are needs, which the individual must strive to attain in one way or another.  Courage, on the other hand, is related to how the individual attains the other three Cs.  A person with courage finds positive, socially useful ways to connect, to feel capable, and to count.  A person who lacks courage resorts to socially useless ways of attaining the first three Cs.  The construct of the Crucial Cs can be used to illustrate how a person's having his or her needs met in one area often requires compromise in one of the other areas (Law & Better, 1993)" (page 497-98).

More modern or progressive ideals of gender equality in heterosexual relationships can be challenged by traditional strategies for attaining the Crucial Cs.  Strategies for men to attain the Cs are geared toward superiority, while strategies for women emphasize subordination.  Models of gender roles in the current generation of couples are arguably transitional and of uncertain effectiveness.  Individuals and couples cannot assume previous strategies and techniques for meeting personal needs will not cause insecurity and resentment.  Traditional, experimental, and anticipated ways to relate may or may not fulfill current reality requirements.  Partners may not be aware of sending out archaic messages and beliefs that do not meet current expectations of other partners and a changed society.  When assumed strategies for attaining the Cs fail, "they are often at a loss to explain their confusion and resentment.  Introducing the construct of the Crucial Cs to the couple can help each understand his or her own and his or her partner's behavior and feelings in a way that makes sense and does not apportion blame"  (Conway, 2000, page 499).  When the child becomes an adult, gender role training often has very identifiable concrete expressions intended to achieve the Crucial Cs.  Whether such expressions or behaviors do what is intended needs to be examined.  For example, when male and female partners both work outside the house, women spend three times as much time doing housework than their husbands.  It is roughly the equivalent of a thirteenth month of household work in a year.  Mothers also do more of the parenting chores and responsibilities than do fathers.  "Fathers are more likely to take part in child care if requested by mothers, implying that mothers are responsible for the planning and management of children while fathers 'help out' (Barnett & Baruch, 1987; Crofter, Perry-Jenkins, Huston, & Michael, 1987; Leslie, Brownstone, & Anderson, 1991)"  (Zimmerman, 2000, page 338-39).

Recent economic trends for women entering the workforce has significantly altered traditional family structure with the husband formerly earning all the financial resources and the wife taking care of children and household needs.  Working women challenge traditional roles and expectations by seeking more balance in child and home care to reflect their greater contributions to family income.  A major issue brought into therapy is restructuring roles and power distribution equitably.  Redistribution however occurs amidst a whole canopy of underlying expectations.  "In a national survey of high school seniors, less than full-time employment by the husband was considered unacceptable by most of the seniors (Herzog, Bachman, & Johnston, 1983).  The traditional cultural standard is often incompatible with the female- career worker and male-household worker role-reversal situation, or of men sharing in household and childcare responsibilities.  Consciously deciding to make a change in the ingrained role patterns often created stress for the couples" (Moch, 1988, page 199).  Therapy can help the couple examine the decision to make change and how it creates the need to make many subsequent decisions.  Despite couples who assert a professed joint decision to change traditional gender roles, "…research has shown that although there is a pressing need for the redistribution of tasks and roles in the modern family, change is actually minimal.  Most wives, including those who work full time outside the home, have been found to do more housework and child care than their partners (Coltrane & Ishui-Kuntz, 1992; Coverman, 1985; Sexton & Perlman, 1989; Vanyperen & Buunk, 1991).  In a review of this literature, Thompson and Walker (1989) found that men have not significantly increased their participation in household chores, although there is an increase in child care and the major shift is in the wives' reduction in time spent in both these areas.  Not surprisingly, the research literature has also pointed to women's greater marital dissatisfaction compared with their partners (Rachlin & Hansen, 1985).  In a cross-cultural comparison of Israeli and American couples, Rabin, Margolin, Safir, Talovic, and Sadeh (1986) found women to be more dissatisfied with their marriages, regardless of overall level of couple distress or culture.  In a second cross-cultural study of retired couples, Rabin and Rahav (1995) found that older wives reported more marital distress than their husbands, as did their younger counterparts in both Israel and the United States" (Rabin and Shapira-Berman, 1997, page 319-20).

Women often experience working a "second shift" of work after work that feels fundamentally unfair.  It can be upsetting if they feel they have little impact getting their husbands to change.  It is even more galling to note the discrepancy between professed egalitarian attitudes and actual inequitable and unequal parenting and house care participation (Rabin and Shapira-Berman, 1997, page 320).  The career mothers in Zimmerman's study averaged 12.7 more hours per week of childcare than the career fathers.  This may account for greater fatigue expressed by career mothers. The additional time may come out of a sense of obligation to traditional roles as well as a desire to do these roles.  When both parents are home, mothers assumed the role of primary caregiver in no matter if the father or mother worked (page 347-48).  Clearly, many couples run into role confusion that harm their best and courageous intentions to connect, be capable, and help one another feel counted.  Therapy may need to bring all relevant issues into the couple's overt consciousness to work roles out.  Shannon was upset that her husband Haeidr did not help more with the children.  She felt that she had an unfair burden with their care.  She did not feel capable of handling it all herself.  She further implied that he did not care for them as much… or care about her struggles.  Haeidr felt insulted by that accusation, and unappreciated for the financial contributions he made to the family, as well as significant involvement in the boys' sports.  When the therapist challenged Shannon as the mother making a request for "help," it revealed that she saw child raising as primarily a mother's role despite her complaints.  This was traditional from her Japanese-American culture and her family; mom was the one.  Haeidr was second-generation Iraqi-American.  His parents had left Iraq in the late 1970s.  Culturally more American than Iraqi, he nevertheless had internalized a classic male role from both cultures of deferring to his wife on children's issues and being the good provider.  Both were extending beyond their learned roles and models for parenting.  Shannon worked full-time, and Haeidr was much more nurturing and involved with the children than his father.  It was very important to him to be an involved active father and husband.  

Many women when prompted will proudly claim that their partners "help with the housework and help with the children."   The implication is that unlike more traditional heterosexual partnerships, household and parenting responsibilities in their households are more progressively egalitarian.  Whether parenting or household chore roles are traditional or somehow more modern, one partner or the other may have or assert implicit to explicit primary ownership of certain responsibilities.  When roles are defined covertly, they can create unacknowledged pressure and growing grievance over time.  The therapist can uncover role responsibilities by looking for the default process or the default person.  The therapist asked Shannon and Haeidr, "If there is not an explicit conversation about doing something or getting something done regarding the kids, who normally does it without being asked?   For example, if you go out as a couple, who arranges the baby sitting?"  Shannon identified herself as the one.  "If you Shannon have to do something and can't watch the kids when you otherwise would, who arranges the baby sitting?"  Shannon identified herself again.  If you Haeidr have to do something and can't watch the kids when you otherwise would, who arranges the baby sitting?"  Haeidr looked sheepishly at his wife.   "Uh… Shannon does."  "If the kids have a birthday party to go to, who arranges the transportation? A swimming lesson?  A play date?  Buys the birthday present?"  "I do of course," said Shannon.  Haiedr interjected anxiously, "But I help!"  The therapist teased him, "So, Haiedr you are a pretty good backup parent when the first string can't do it?  Seriously you two, who made up this rule?"  Further exploration found that there were many role divisions that both felt bound by that they had never discussed out loud:  Shannon did the grocery shopping, she did the housecleaning but Haeidr did household repairs, he did the bills, she scouted out schools, lessons, and other kid stuff and Haeidr usually went with her choices, she cooked but he barbecued, and so forth.

Potential conflict does not necessarily come from who has what role versus another, but rather from feeling placed and/or stuck in a role without options.  Cultural and family-of-origin gender role expectations may direct a parent to a role quite frequently.  Helping the couple explore "Who made up this rule?" is a step towards negotiating the rule explicitly, rather than being stuck with it by default.  Strong role habits can perpetuate unsatisfying role responsibilities despite the partner's willingness to share the role or change it.  Or, even though partners had negotiated a change in the role responsibilities.  For example, Shannon had been unable to breastfeed the babies, so they all were raised with formula.  Practically speaking if Shannon had breast fed the babies, she would out of necessity need to get up at night anytime when the babies were hungry.  At best, all Haiedr could do would possibly got get the baby and bring him or her to Shannon to breastfeed.  Since the babies took formula in bottles however, either parent could get up at night to feed a hungry baby.  Most nights there would be two times a crying baby would make the demand for feeding.  With each one taking a turn, it would mean each parent would only have to get up once to feed the baby.  Having sleep disrupted only once versus twice a night made a big difference for both of them at work the next day.  As a result, Shannon and Haeidr negotiated that since she went to bed earlier and got up earlier, that Shannon would take the first feeding and Haeidr who went to bed later and slept in later would take the second feeding. Sounded good, but it never worked.  

Shannon did all the feedings and was exhausted and resentful at Haeidr about it.  Shannon felt that he blew off the deal.  Haeidr said he had every intention of getting up for the second feeding, but Shannon had "sabotaged" him and the deal.  Every night, Shannon would hear the baby crying the first time and dutifully get up to feed him or her.  Haeidr said that the first few nights, he vaguely hear the baby crying both the first and second times.  However each time the baby cried, Shannon would fly out of bed so fast to pick up the baby and feed her that Haeidr would quickly fall back asleep.  When the baby cried for feeding the second time at night, Haeidr who admitted that he was not as sensitive or tuned into the sound would take a bit to notice.  The he'd take a bit more time to realize what was going on.  Before he could gather himself to get up, Shannon would already be out of the bed and taking care of the baby.  She had heard and recognized the baby's cries for feeding well before Haeidr's first sleepy "Huh?"  By the time he got to "Huh?" it seemed to Shannon that the baby had already been crying too long, and she felt it incumbent upon her to get the bottle.  "Never mind, I got it" she would say to her husband as she flew out the door.  "Uh… ok," he'd murmur and fall back to sleep.  Basically closer examination of the process revealed that Shannon had essentially taught Haeidr not to respond to and eventually, not even to hear the baby's cries.  Haeidr despite his best intentions did not innately have the instincts or perceptual sensitivity to catch the cries right away… and he never was required to develop them.  Haiedr jokingly shouted, "Hey, there you go…it's your fault!"

This process could be adapted if they had another baby.  It would require Shannon to let the baby cry until Haiedr noticed and/or poke him to wake him up to go feed the baby.  While this made sense conceptually, it directly challenged Shannon's self-definition of her role as a mother and a woman.  Many traditional values define women as givers, while defining men as doers.  Since society often places emphasis on domination and subordination, men's gender identification can be largely defined by active pursuit of personal achievement goals.  In contrast, women's identity and work often comes from being able to give and nurture.  When women assert personal needs rather than taking care of others' needs, it cause insecurity.  "If she chooses to be a server, she experiences insecurity because she is unable to fulfill her own needs.  If she chooses to take care of her own needs, her gender identity is threatened" (Conway, 2000, page 497).  Shannon was already challenged to be a "modern woman" with the whole package of family and career, and in the middle of the night insecurity about not nurturing or caring for the baby made letting or requiring Haeidr to follow with his turn to feed the baby through difficult.  "Stay-at-home mothers reported societal messages that they were 'wasting their education' by being home with children.  Career mothers reported feeling judged for not being home full-time.  These 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' societal messages ring true in the welfare reform talks which give a strong message that 'welfare moms' must work and get off welfare. Yet, many religious organizations subscribe to a stay-at-home mother only arrangement in order to be a good and loving mother.  These mixed, and for many unattainable, messages contribute to women's feelings of ambivalence, guilt, and fatigue" (Zimmerman, 2000, page 347).

Therapy needed to help Shannon express her ambivalence about her career/home balance.  Haeidr like many males assumed that since they had jointly made the decision to both work outside the home, that Shannon had already processed any conflicts or doubts about their decision.  He thought she should have moved on to be focused on the logistical problem solving.  When Shannon revisited her conflicts, she eventually reaffirmed their joint decision.  Only then did she have the emotional security so she could resist rushing in to fill a temporary vacuum created by Haeidr's willing but slow response.  That Haeidr thought their household balance was fine or relatively equitable is not unusual.  "…various studies… found that men tend to see the relationship as fair even when they were overbenefited, whereas women's happiness decreased when they felt either under- or overbenefited (Davidson, Balswick, & Haverson, 1983).  In other research, men were found to be happier in their marriages when their wives did more than their fair share of housework (Barnett & Baruch, 1987: Thompson & Walker, 1989).  Equity, unlike equality, taps the overall subjective sense of fairness in the marriage (Rabin and Shapira-Berman, 1997, page 321).  Even when men and women agree that women do more housework, men still see the relationship as equitable.  Men did not see doing less housework as inequitable.  On the other hand, women were more satisfied the more equal the sharing of housework. The more equal the decision-making, the less marital tension for women, with the opposite effect for men.  The more decision-making was shared, the higher tension was in the relationship for men" (Rabin and Shapira-Berman, 1997, page 325).  This contrast may be indicative that shared egalitarian values remain challenged by conflicting underlying expectations and prejudices.  Willingness to share power may run into the actual loss of benefits and any unvoiced sense of entitlement.  Therapy should try to make explicit the partners assumptions about what is fair in the relationship and to give voice to unexpressed expectations whether they are couples politically correct or not.  Subjective judgments may prove to be objectively objectionable upon closer examination.

On a practical level, household roles and work balance usually takes more than an overt agreement.  In other to follow through on an agreement, the individual or the couple needs to be aware of personal reactions to experiencing the others' responses as inadequate.  Shannon and Haiedr had problems with other roles in their relationship because of limited tolerance for the others' style or speed of responses.  For example, they had agreed to take care of regularly scheduled maintenance of their respective automobiles.  However, Shannon did not put timely auto maintenance as a big priority with all the other demands on her.  Going a few thousand miles past a recommended oil change was not a big deal for her.  Car fanatic (quite a manly stereotype!) Haiedr could not stand knowing that her car was using old oil!  He would bug her about getting it to service and eventually, would take it in himself.  As a result, the subsequent family default became car maintenance as Haiedr's role.  The development of role divisions really did not matter to either of them as much as potential resentment that the other partner may have manipulated the situation, or does not care enough about what he or she should care about.  Some role divisions are explicit and openly discussed resulting in consensus, while others are implicit with or without consensus.  Clarifying roles and expectations in therapy often becomes beneficial to the relationship.  Therapy can help translate family-of-origin or cultural symbolism of roles and behaviors.  When their implicit meanings are revealed, an individual or the couple becomes more able to negotiate how to create a more equitable system.  However, in some couples the inequity in roles can be from dysfunctional, neglectful, and/or abusive experiences and modeling by one or both sets of the couple's parents.  As a result, negotiation will be much more complex because of the need to process those issues.   If individuals, the couple, or family can take structural re-organizing readily, it will be indicative of relative health in their relationship and perhaps, in their families-of-origin.  The therapist can use a largely psychoeducational approach based to increases awareness of their dynamics.  However, if individuals, the couple, or family remains stuck and rigid, then deeper issues may need to be addressed before the inequity can be changed.  Communication skills become important to this process.

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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