19. Gender Roles - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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19. Gender Roles

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > All Relationships MultiCult

All Relationships and Therapy are Multi-Cultural- Family and Cross-Cultural Complications
Chapter 19: GENDER ROLES
by Ronald Mah

Women in many relationships, especially families and in many cultures are often curtailed to adhere to others' needs and schedules.  In male dominant or patriarchal societies, women defer to their husbands and often also to their children's needs.  This was very relevant to Adit's Saudi-driven expectations of Helena's role in their relationship.  It was still relevant to Petey and Hannah's model of male and female roles from their parents' traditional WASP values.  The primacy of male needs may manifest in subtle ways.  If a couple needs to be out together, or if Petey for example needs to go out, or if Hannah needs to go out, who makes the childcare (babysitting) arrangements?  The working assumption for many heterosexual couples is that the woman- Hannah must juggle arrangements and find resources to take care of schedule conflicts and needs whether or not it is the man's or the woman's needs that cause the conflict.  If the male and female have conflicting plans, which partner is expected make accommodations for the other?  For many couples, it is a given that the male needs are more important.  However, over time the inequity of continually deferring to one partner becomes apparent and may create resentment that brings the couple to therapy… or result in divorce.  Accommodation of partners' needs, specifically of male partners by the female partner may be influenced by other contextual circumstances.  Societal experiences of economic viability facing discrimination may affect the gender role in terms of positive feedback.  LaTaillade (2006) discussed research that showed that in comparison to white couples, African-American wives' understanding of their husbands and use of a collaborative interaction style was predictive of future levels of marital satisfaction.  African-American husbands reported receiving more affirmation from their wives than their wives reported receiving from them.  They reported getting more affirmation than white husbands reported getting from their wives.  It was hypothesized that African-American women provided greater affirmations to support and to cope with the experiences of African-Americans in general and African American males in particular dealing with discrimination personally, socially, and economically in the larger society (page 345).

In less technological societies, the economy of the family has revolved around the husband's economic role usually creating male dominated societies. Other family members especially women are utilized as supportive members of the men's economic organization.  Common references are made about the farmer's wife, the doctor's wife, the soldier's wife, the president's wife... and so forth.  The identity of a woman becomes adjunctive to her husband's identity.  They are pronounced "man and wife."  If not defined by her husband's identity, the identity of the woman becomes defined relative to her children: Stevie's mom, Cheryl's mother, or Glenn's mama.  Women's schedules were not personal schedules, but rather service schedules to provide for the needs of husbands, children (including community needs that service their children: PTA, den mother, room parent), and perhaps, elder parents.  Some women are content with such roles or identities with a simple but very important caveat.  June, the wife in a fifty-ish couple professed satisfaction in their relatively traditional stereotypical roles.  Heath worked and brought the income into the house, took care of the cars, mowing lawn, and would occasionally barbeque.  She took care of the children and their needs, the cleaning, cooking, laundry, and other household management.  June's grievance that brought them into couple therapy was that she did not feel respected by Heath in her role in the family.  Heath was prompted to communicate and show that he appreciated and respected her contributions to the family.  June was fulfilled because she had always felt content to be considered the secondary leader of the family with her husband being the ultimate leader as long as she was respected.  June found meaning in the role that worked for her and wanted that meaning acknowledged.  

The therapist needs to remember that meaning can vary from family to family as from culture to culture.  "…when working with clients from cultures that have rigid gender roles, therapists may focus on valuing the skills involved in the traditional roles or developing a new meaning for a given behaviour.  For example, an Anglo woman married to a Mexican-American man became angry when she was expected to serve her husband's dinner when they dined at his parents' house.  However, when she began to think of this as a sign of respecting her in-laws rather than subservience to her husband, she began to use serving her husband as a way of connecting with the women in his family" (Biever, et al, 1998).  In a variation but with a comparable set of circumstances, a Mexican-American couple had conflict over Guillermo's desire for his wife Maria to serve him dinner, which she resisted.  In therapy, they quarreled over Guillermo's request and Maria's resistance with greater intensity than seemed logical.  Assessing that there probably was underlying psychodynamic symbolism for both of them led therapy to examine their respective family-of-origin traditions around meals.  While both Guillermo and Maria were first-born Mexican-Americans and the symbolism had cultural roots, the specific meaning or symbolism of her serving him dinner was different from each of them.  In both of their family-of-origins, the roles between the fathers and mothers were fairly traditional with the father being the income earner and the mother being the house and child caretaker.  Both fathers sat down at the table and their wives would serve them their dinners first, serve the children next, and after that serve themselves.  When queried, Guillermo realized that as a child, he experienced the meal process as his mother showing her love and care for her husband and the children.  In his marriage, he also realized that Maria being willing to serve dinner also symbolized her love for him and their bond together.  When she resisted doing this, he felt rejected and unloved.  

Maria recalled that in her family, her father was controlling and abusive.  Her mother was emotionally dominated and intimidated by his rages.  Completely unlike the positive symbolism of her Guillermo's family meal, Maria's family mealtimes were wrought with tension.  Maria accepted the therapeutic interpretation that she experienced her mother serving her father's meals as emblematic of her subservience to his oppression.  Subsequently, Maria interpreted her husband Guillermo's request to be served dinner as an attempt by him to oppress her as her mother had been oppressed by her father.  Guillermo and Maria could have always compromised if they could have found different and acceptable ways of understanding the issues.  However, they could not become more flexible and less emotionally invested until they grasped each of their own and their partner's relevant cultural and family meanings.  Compromise without the empathy gained from understanding would have been symbolic of accepting defeat or rejection.  The therapeutic investigation allowed them to understand and accept each other's motivations, reassuring their fears of rejection and/or domination. They then could return to and function from a joint key value of love and support.  Once the symbolism was accurately identified, Guillermo could reassure Maria that he did not want to dominate or control her, and Maria could reassure Guillermo that she was not rejecting his request for love.  The problem-solving or compromise as to whether or how Guillermo may ask or not ask and whether or how Maria may comply or not comply became relatively simple.  

Rosenblatt and Rieks in "No Compromise: Couples Dealing with Issues for Which They Do Not See a Compromise" (2009) state, "Symbolic interaction theory would suggest that it is the couple's shared meanings regarding the issue and their interactions around it that will play the most important role in their relationship and future decisions… And in this regard there may be very substantial cultural differences in the interpretation of an issue, its compromisability, or its significance to the couple. So what seems to many outsiders to be an issue where compromise is possible may not seem to the couple to be compromisable by their cultural realities" (page 199).

Failure to understand the cultural and/or family-of-origin symbolism causes an individual and perhaps, the therapist to deny or minimize things that may be very important.  What is small in one's culture or experience however may be enormously compelling or meaningful in another person's.  Situations or "issues that might seem to be 'small' can be as challenging, difficult, and significant in the relationship of some couples as 'big' issues are for other couples (page 200).  When therapists experience individuals, couples, or families excessively activated over what should be relatively simple situations or issues, therapy requires investigation for underlying symbolic meaning involving trauma, abuse, disrespect, marginalization, and so forth.  

In all societies as in all couples and families, clearly defined roles provide for better functioning.  For example, "In Turkish society, men and women typically adopt well defined roles inside and outside the home.  There is a well known Turkish proverb 'Yuvayi disl kus yarar' ('The female bird builds the nest').  Women are primarily responsible for organizing domestic life, preparation of food, cleaning and shopping, and for child care and education.  Husbands' roles include maintaining the family's economic prosperity, establishing the pattern of relationships between the family and the outside world, and safeguarding moral values" (page 174, Baltas, et al 2000)).  When gender roles are well defined and accepted as may be the case with many couples from Turkish society and other societies, then the relationship tends to operate relatively cohesively.  However, clear definition requires more than definition of behaviors, but also definition of meaning and symbolism.  And, then functionality depends on both or all members accepting and embracing the definitions.  

Whether both or all members in a relationship, couple, or family accept the gender definition of roles depends on early acculturation.  Women often get early training as girls to support the effectiveness of others, the group, and males at the sacrifice of personal effectiveness.  Personal effectiveness (power and control, assertiveness, possessions, achievement, etc.) for boys and men is supported as appropriate, while girls are trained to be women who sacrifice their needs in order to meet others' needs.  This lends to wonderfully caregiving of others and altruistic behavior, and be validated by many in society.  The validation of being a great wife and/or a great mother for some women may be quite fulfilling and worth other losses in autonomy in the marriage or family.  Despite the affirmation especially by more traditional and often conservative forces such as the church, it can also lead to unfulfilled needs and underachievement.  This may become compelling for some women as empty nest issues arise when children grow up and leave the home.  The loss of a ("the") basic identification as a "great mom" for some women may precipitate psychic turmoil and eventual relationship or couple issues.  Subjugating individual needs in the couple or family can disserve women for whom the reflected glow of their men being the best and having the most may not be sufficiently fulfilling.  It disserves women who wish to define their own economic roles through educational and technological development and have vital, if not equal roles in defining the economy of a family unit.  

It is important to remember as Levant says that, "If you look at any kind of behavioral, psychological, or cognitive traits, what you will find is that there are only a handful of small mean differences, and you will find overlapping distributions.  And you'll find within those distributions that, say, males are higher in this trait than females, and you'll find lots of females who are higher than lots of males.  Imagine two bell curves with the means very close together, you can see that there's just lots of overlap" (Wyatt, 2009).  Women and men are capable of the full spectrum of behaviors and human attributes.  From social and family definitions of masculinity and femininity, we socialize boys and girls and establish the ways in which we relate to adult men and women through reinforcement or punishment.  Whereas men are socialized to be tough and aggressive, women are expected to be nurturing and caring.  While there may have been compelling reasons once for different socialization, modern gender roles are determined by culture and society rather than by biological necessity.  The therapist needs to examine whether women are content with auxiliary roles in the relationship, couple, or family as defined by some gender differentiation, whether they have needs for individuation, and then possibly help the individual, relationship, couple, or family negotiate the process to facilitate individuation.  Merely exchanging roles or removing gender role distinctions may lead to additional areas of exploration for therapy.  In "Promoting Health With Role-Reversal Couples," Diemert warns, "Because new roles are often unfamiliar, parts of the old roles are continued.  Men continued part of the traditional breadwinning role of being 'off' in the evening when the woman was home.  One man continued control of the family spending.  Some women continued control at home by planning meals, organizing the housework, and writing lists for the man.  Most women reported an inability to let go of the primary child-care will have often tried to make up for their time away by spending all their time with the children when home.  One woman consistently complained about how the laundry was done and later realized that doing the laundry was something that she missed doing herself" (page 198).

Issues about control, power, status, and identity among others may arise along with role changes.  The therapist may need to help the couple or family not only negotiate the functional shift of changing roles but also the symbolic shifts that also occur.  For example, Diemert reports, "Feelings of decreasing respect for their partner's talents and abilities while engaging in role reversal were reported by some women. Despite a cognitive awareness of the value of the househusband role, several of the couples acknowledged that more value is often placed on the breadwinner," (page 199).  

Kramer and Dunaway present a controversial explanation for gender differences (Jonathan Kramer, Ph.D. and Diane Dunaway, "Why Men Don't Get Enough Sex and Women Don't Get Enough Love," Simon and Schuster, 1990).  They believe that over six thousand years ago, men and women lived fairly egalitarian lives.  The physical difference between men and women necessitated by the woman's different physiology required to bear children results in an approximately 30% lesser strength in women compared to men of approximately the same size.  Kramer and Dunaway felt this difference in physical strength was not great enough by itself to skew the power in relationship towards men.  The power relationship between men and women had relative equity since survival for the family and the community depended primarily on cooperation.  The males' greater physical strength (primarily upper body) was an advantage, but in of itself was insufficient to meet the physical demands of survival of the family and of the community.  Cooperation in a pooling of both male and female strength was necessary to survive given the lack of labor saving technology: to farm, hunt, gather, build, and so forth.  Since neither male nor female energy was sufficient in of itself for survival, and since both male and female energy was necessary for survival, there was a more egalitarian balance of power between men and woman.

This all changed, however, with the advent of the marauding peoples such as the Vikings, the Kurgans, Tartars, Mongols, and Zulus.  Instead of communities based on hunting, fishing, gathering, agriculture, or commerce, these peoples' economy was based on attacking other communities and plundering their resources.  The survival of the family and of the communities being attacked became based not on cooperation, but upon having strong powerful men who could fight off the raiders.  The relationship between men and women skewed at this point.  Women's survival became dependent on being attached to a physically powerful man.   Failure to attract such men would endanger women's security.  The consequences of this dynamic continue to the present.  The multi-billion dollar cosmetics and fashion industry, beauty pageants, and so forth can be considered current manifestations of a continued premium upon females making themselves attractive to potential mates.  Going to college to major in "finding a husband" (not to get a BA or BS, but a "M-R-S!") defines a woman's success or survival not on her own intelligence or skills but upon connecting with a powerful male (doctors and lawyers preferred!).  In addition, for the male members of the community to fight off the marauders, they must be socialized to accentuate traits of violence and warfare and to minimize or eliminate contrary traits.  Thus physical prowess and intellectual dexterity are encouraged.  Anger and a disconnection from gentle feelings such as nurturing feelings, sensitivity, and empathy become advantageous to being violent.  Stoicism in the face of emotional situations serves warfare. Unfortunately it also disserves intimacy between mates.  Levant says "the greater the endorsement of traditional masculinity ideology, the more likely it is that the person is alexithymic, which means they have an inability to put emotions into word… They are more likely to endorse coercive and harassment attitudes towards females," (Wyatt, 2009).  This is a continued problem in modern American society for many heterosexual couples and mixed gender relationships or groups.  Anger serves the warrior, so it is promoted for males.  Love remains a basic emotion, but when combined with anger and violence as promoted in "boy and man" games and the disconnection from other vulnerable feelings results in the continued modern social phenomenon of domestic violence.

Technological progress however has virtually eliminated all of the limitations that a woman's approximately 30% less physical strength used to create.  The physical difference created by the female physiology required to carry and bear children is no longer relevant when considering ability to perform adequately in almost all jobs and careers since advanced technology now place priority on cognitive skills.  Such cognitive skills are essentially equal between men and women.  Personal security for women- physically, economically, and socially was dependent on attaching oneself to powerful males.  Since women can be self-sufficient now without attaching to powerful males, traditional gender roles are challenged.  Therapy often needs to examine the functional change in gender requirements and roles versus role differentiation in the relationship, couple, or family as it may or may not be affected by gender expectations.   The stereotypical single-income family with the male wage-earner often functioned effectively because the wife took responsibility for child care and household management.  The therapist may need to determine if roles have been redefined and re-negotiated when a male income earner is joined by a financially productive female partner, or if the childcare and household management responsibilities remain firmly her "job."  Trying to do "it all", the modern Superwoman-Supermom-Superwife-Superworker cannot be the traditional wife.  The working wife and the couple no longer have what the traditional husband was used to having- a traditional "wife" to pick up the caregiving and household responsibilities.  The therapist should assess the stress and frustration level including physical, emotional, and relational costs of unexamined shifting role demands have caused.

When looking at gender roles, the therapist needs to be aware that the underlying dynamics causing their development have evolved, sometimes very significantly in society and/or been completely changed in a specific relationship, couple, or family.  For example, the female pursuer of the male partner who becomes a distancer is a commonly accepted gender role stereotype.  When two people become intimate and especially when they are about to marry, they often move towards one another to achieve closeness.  This can create an intensity that may result in fusion followed by a need for separation (Betchen and Ross, 2000).  Jockeying for this space can lead to relational imbalance and to polarization.  This can result in one mate becoming the pursuer and the other the distancer.  The distance stays constant between them by their falling into polarized roles with the pursuer pursuing and the distancer distancing.  For example, a wife may pursue her husband to spend more time with her, while the husband spends more time away or distances from her.  The more the wife pursues, the more the husband distances, creating a never ending cycles of pursuit-distancing-pursuit-distancing.  This dynamic happens also in gay and lesbian couples where one pursues and the other distances.  While there are other factors relevant to such relationships, the dynamic is essentially the same.  Betchen and Ross point out in "Male pursuers and female distancers in couples therapy" (2000) that social changes in gender equality, educational and economic status of women have sometimes created reversal of the old stereotypical relationship.  "More and more men have had to confront the fact that women no longer need them to provide for and protect them.  Women are waiting longer than ever to marry (24.5 years), more households are headed by single mothers, and the percentage of employed married women with children is currently at 77%… These changes, along with the advent of contraception and infertility technology have… led many women to believe they no longer need men for anything, including reproduction" (page 18).  "A good portion of the married women now seem to earn as much if not more than their male partners; this we consider to be a major factor responsible for the increase of power and control struggles witnessed.  We are seeing more women who are leaving intolerable and/or unsatisfactory relationships more quickly and easily than in the past, more men desperately struggling for reconciliation and most germane to this paper an increase in male pursuers and female distancers" (page 19).

While societal changes may challenge and have some tendency to reverse traditional gender roles or pursuer-distancer roles among others, individual relationship, couple or family situations would be where the dynamics play out.  Not only may relationship dynamics reflect societal change, but may also reflect other relevant family-of-origin or psychodynamic influences.  Betchen and Ross "must warn against overexaggerating them at the expense of the emotional and/or psychological influences via the family-of-origin.  For example, we tend to believe that some women choose to be distancers because they prefer one parent's distancing behavior to the other's pursuing, controlling tendencies.  Concurrently, some male pursuers may reject a specific parent's controlling power, and empathize with the other's neediness and victimization" (page 19).  The specific community or context for learning the behaviors may be as expansive as thousands of years of socio-economic and political history or as basic as one's family-of-origin.  If more than one context reinforce each other, such as both family-of-origins, current socio-economic changes, and cohorts of similarly minded peers, then any dynamic will tend to be manifested.  The therapist may experience that the pursuer will appear to have invested more in both the relationship functioning and therapy.  The pursuer will be more likely to make demands on the distancer for more intimacy and time together.  The therapist should be alert that, "This dynamic may also be expressed non-verbally.  For example, the pursuer often sits on the edge of his chair leaning in the direction of the distancer.  The distancer often appears uninterested, leaning away from the pursuer or staring off into space" (page 20).

GENDER ROLES- Gifts or Messages of Worth
In a diversity training exercise, I ask participants, "What way do American women prefer to get presents?"  By a huge consensus, women agree that they prefer small inexpensive presents every week or so, but not for the gifts themselves.  As each present is a message of caring and valuing or a confirmation of worth, expensive presents count no more than an inexpensive present as a message of worth.  Frequent presents or caring messages symbolically convey worth… frequently!  Women as would anyone would like or want continual and consistent messages of their worth.  Worth issues are often basic concerns for women in traditional relationships with men in patriarchal nuclear families.  As her security is based on her connection to a powerful male, and her status is based on her husband's status.  And as her role is primarily defined as adjunctive (doctor's wife, farmer's wife, Johnny's mom), the lack of self-determination and individual power creates fundamental questions about inherent worth.  The woman who is in a traditional role as primarily a caregiver and does not earn income (a quantifiable measure) often has her worth is primarily defined in terms of her worth to others: her husband, her children, to her family, and to her community.  The qualitative experience of being valued would then be served by frequent messages of worth from her partner.  

Worth on the other hand, for American men from childhood is often defined as having the most or being the best.  Sir Francis Drake, Columbus, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Custer, Byrd, Perry, John Wayne, Lewis and Clark, the Rockerfellers, J.P. Morgan, Rocky, Superman, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet... and so and so on would be examples of individuals who may have been driven by similar ethics.  In American history, aggressive selfish acquisition and goals of preeminence have historically fostered creativity and growth that have opened frontiers of territory, space, energy, resources, and power (along with other less positive outcomes).  Men who are taught to have the most and be the best are confirmed for their worth in terms of their achievements and/or acquisitions.  American males are often socialized to be highly competitive.  The entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism which the abundant natural resources of the North American continent supported and rewarded the drive to surpass others.  Another consequence of the tradition of the accumulation of power is greater resources and the greater safety these greater resources could purchase.  In the movie, "Wall Street," a big time player in the business and financial power circles named Gordon Gekko, played by actor Michael Douglas gives a rousing well received speech to other businessmen on the basic premise that "Greed is good."  The biggest house, the fanciest car, the prettiest girlfriend, to the baddest newest Nike shoes, and the chillin'est rap, the best goes to those with the most.  In less abundant environments, having the most power and greatest security meant the greatest likelihood of survival.  Men may note their own worth through material things as a result.  

Since much of male culture fosters having the most and being the best, men in heterosexual relationships who are culturally egocentric will assume others including their wives, have the same values.  As a result, rather than frequent small symbolic gifts, a man may be prone to giving expensive gifts as symbolic of a greater degree of affection.  This is especially relevant for men who have been discouraged to show overt affection.  Men often have been trained to emotionally disconnected and to be emotionally stoic.  Levant reminisced, that "I was raised in a really tough neighborhood, and where I grew up, if a boy starts to show vulnerability, he's also so violated the male code as to warrant severe punishment… Yes, I witnessed scenes as a child where boys were beat up by other boys for crying… Southgate.  South Central Los Angeles… At that time, South Gate was all white and it bordered Watts, which was all black.  Southgate was pretty much a blue collar town.  There were two major factories in the town then, Firestone and General Motors, and most of the fathers of my friends worked on the line.  So it was a working class, tough neighborhood" (Wyatt, 2009).  As a result, men may especially avoid gentle expressions of affection, which create vulnerability.  They may fail to consistently give messages of worth and incur significant emotional debt.  Levant mentions how watching the movie "Kramer vs. Kramer" and Dustin Hoffman's character struggles with parenting after his divorce made him realize that roles of the father may need to be shifted.  When a man realizes that he has been negligent in making continual messages of worth and valuing, he may attempt to compensate for it in a type of bottom line accounting.  A big gesture, the more expensive and grandiose the better, brings the affection quotient back into the black- or so he believes.  However, his wife or girlfriend who may do emotional accounting differently, may focus instead on the number of days in the red.  Enduring a prolonged deprivation of messages of worthiness, she may lose trust in his emotional reliability.  Subsequently, she may spurn his grandiose attempts to give the love she wishes.  The therapist should explore if there are different symbolic meanings of gift giving or other messages of worth within the relationship.  The resentment between the individuals may be a result of disparate tabulations of emotional credit and debt.  Therapy could focus on creating a joint mutually agreed emotional accounting system of acknowledgement, appreciation, messages, and gifts.

GENDER ROLES- Intimacy & Problem-Solving
Girls and women in American culture are usually socialized to provide intimacy and rapport for each other.  Letting each other know that their feelings are understood and appreciated creates strong bonds among girls and women.  This search for emotional support from other females is in part due to the emotional unavailability of boys and men socialized to avoid or deny the gentle emotions.  Such vulnerability would be contra-indicated to the warrior mentality.  Seeking a solution from another person can be considered an assumption of an inferior hierarchal position.  Going to someone for reassurance when depressed means allowing oneself to expose vulnerability to that other person.  Exposing yourself as a male to another male without familial bonds may be dangerous.  He may be socialized to being the best, which includes trying to be better than you.  He may use the vulnerability you have revealed for a competitive edge in some battle of acquisition- for a job or a girlfriend for example.  I have observed this dynamic in working with elementary school boys who taunted and humiliated another boy who dared to admit that he liked a girl or enjoys "sissy" games or toys.  The immediate response from the humiliated boy would be to attempt to shame the accuser by attacking some vulnerability of his.  This would happen among boys and men who were otherwise good friends and playmates.  As the "dozens" or dis'n continues, the contestants utilize even more humiliating attacks on the others vulnerabilities, until they may come to physical blows, or when one loses and drops in status.  The best or top dog in the hierarchy has been established.

American boys and men are often socialized to be problem solvers, which can be a dominant position.  With a stereotypical division of labor with the man being the warrior, hunter, and provider and the woman being the child caregiver and domestic laborer, male love and expression of caring is often expressed in providing and problems solving (the house, the car, the nice clothes).  On the other hand, female love and expression of caring is expressed in overt acts of nurturing and caregiving (hugs, verbal phrase, expressions of empathy).  Being a proper boy or man, unfortunately may mean shutting down what is presented as "sissy" emotions and behaviors.  These are the very emotions and behaviors required for intimacy.  As males, including supposedly intimate partners are emotionally stoic, women may turn to each other for support.  Existing in the mated relationship with lesser power than men, they may turn to other women and form a close circle of friends that offers compensatory power.  This also has consequences in how girls and women acquire power and bully.  Males socialized to have the most and be the best, tend to establish status and/or bully others (including women) through physical domination.  Females socialized into mutually supportive groups, tend to establish status through acquiring as many friends as possible.  Bullying others is through done through exclusion from the group (including men- from the conjugal bed for instance!).  These processes start very early as can be attested to by early childhood educators (who hear and observe girls saying, "You're not my best friend anymore.  You can't come to my house.  We don't like you anymore!"), and research on bully and victim dynamics (Hara Estroff Marano, Big.Bad.Bully, Psychology Today, Sept/Oct 1995).

More secure individuals tend to be less resistant to seeking assistance or nurturing.  An insecure person or a person trapped in a lesser power position however may resent others assuming a higher hierarchal position.  This may be too painfully familiar to some women in their relationships with their male partners, or their other relationships with men at work, school, socially, or politically.  When women complain and male partners or colleagues assume the problem solving position, it may stir up resentment for women that add to the original upset.  Having someone feel sorry for you also puts you in an inferior hierarchal position to be pitied as a less competent or powerful person.  On the other hand, empathy is fundamentally assumes a relationship of equity.  From a psychological perspective, receiving acknowledgement of one's vulnerable feelings translates to a basic validation of one's inherent worth.  Reaching out to intimate relations is normal in female socialization.  Intimate mates in egalitarian relationships also often require this socialization.  Offering one's vulnerability is an honoring of the other person.  By offering one's vulnerable feelings, one implicitly states that one finds the other person worthy of trust.  It communicates that one trusts that the other person will not abuse the trust and use the vulnerability maliciously.  "Because you are worthy of my trust, I can offer you my vulnerability and trust you to honor it."  When someone offers you their vulnerability and you are supposed to honor it.  Then you reciprocate, by offering your own vulnerability.  The result is true intimacy and connectiveness achieved between individuals or among people.  

Girls and women are often trained to share and honor vulnerabilities from childhood.  Fundamental for building intimate relationships, it is also may be compensatory method used by women to gain power and influence in a culturally gender skewed power dynamic.  The therapist needs to assess the capacity of the members of the relationship to express vulnerability.  In particular, the therapist needs to be aware of potential cultural traditions (including gender differences, class, and ethnic differences) around sharing vulnerability and the family-of-origin models of trust and emotional openness may complicate therapeutic interventions that promote building intimacy.  The high quality of original attachment and resultant security facilitate the relationship work, while attachment trauma may make it very difficult.  Levant adds an interesting warning to the therapist to be aware of the degree that, ""They (therapists) want a client who's more like a stereotypical female.  A man that exhibits the kind of openness to emotions that is ascribed for women and that's an essential core component of femininity.  And some men are indeed like that," (Wyatt, 2009).  "A common professional perception of men in marital therapy is that they are problematic.  Men are expected to be reluctant, reticent, and likely unresponsive clients," (page 41, Moynehan and Adams 2007).  The men who are more open to emotions may make the therapy more productive, while stereotypical males may complicate therapy based on problems with intrapersonal and interpersonal emotional connectiveness.  The process of therapy and therapeutic rapport becomes compromised if the therapist has negative counter-transference at male clients for being men!  "The mistake both male and female therapists make is to really not be aware of how the differences in men and how masculinity affects men's functioning. I think that it's really a knowledge thing. Unless you've taken a course in gender issues in psychotherapy, you're probably not likely to know about this. So to not stop and think, "What kind of man am I dealing with? To what extent has he been affected by masculinity? How alexithymic is he? How am I going to work with him? How much shame does he have about just being here?" If he's very traditional, he's going to be feeling very ashamed. So just simply not knowing some of these front-end issues and that really have to factor into the very initial minutes of your meeting. I think that's one of the first things" (Wyatt, 2009)

In heterosexual couples, according to Moynehan and Adams (2007), 63% of the cases it was the woman who made the initial contact for couple therapy.  Husbands are more reluctant to seek treatment than their wives.  However, this difference may be qualified depending on various factors such as how traditional are the gender roles in the relationship.  The more traditional the gender roles are in the relationship and the more traditional the man is, the less likely the man is to initiate couple therapy.  However, a highly distressed less traditional husband was just as willing as his wife to seek out therapy.  The husband was actually more likely to see as a problem, distress about his sexual dissatisfaction as a problem, and to seek treatment for it (page 42, 49 2007).  Moynehan and Adams propose two possible explanations to men's greater reluctance to initiate couple therapy.  "The first is what we term the 'privacy' explanation.  Men acknowledge problems but prefer to keep them to themselves.  They are culturally conditioned to solve their problems on their own.  If men then are reluctant to discuss emotional difficulties or ask for help from close friends, the activity of therapy which requires disclosure to a complete stranger (most often a woman) is likely to meet with stiff resistance.  Men may know they are unhappy but they will be dragged kicking and screaming to treatment where they are required to disclose and discuss problems" (page 43).

This explanation fits into the general stereotype of men being socialized to not expose their vulnerabilities to others.  Having the most and being the most becomes difficult if adversaries may use anything to accost you.  While it follows to avoid exposing one's vulnerabilities that may empower male peers or companions who still are seen as potential rivals in a competitive hierarchal social order, intimate partners would seem to be immune from such vigilance or suspicion.  However, if the traditional relationship of the heterosexual pair is also a hierarchal relationship based on male dominance, sharing vulnerability with intimate partners is not so simple.  This leads to specific guidance for the therapist for building rapport and investment in therapy that may differ from individual therapy.  "Our findings have potential implications for clinicians whose primary task is to engage couples in the treatment process and for researchers who examine this phase of treatment.  The high dropout rate in the early stages of treatment programs is well documented.  Changing the focus from problem awareness to an assessment of privacy concerns regarding the consideration and seeking of treatment may be a productive first step.  For example, before embarking on a description of the couples' problems, an examination of how the decision was made to come to therapy may elicit such male concerns as embarrassment, worry that their perspective on the problem will not get a fair hearing, and the self-attribution of failure that accompanies asking for help.  Targeted interventions that validate such concerns may enhance men's motivation and retention in the early stages of therapy" (p49, Moynehan and Adams, 2007).

When a client says that his or her partner or parent "ignores" him or her, the therapist should check to see if the accused person is aware of the complaining individual's issue, experience, or grievance.  If the accused is not aware, the therapist should point out that he or she may be dense or oblivious but cannot ignore what he or she never noticed.  Moynehan and Adams assert "there was no discernible difference between husbands and wives in their reports about difficulties in communicating and resolving issues, or their views on the delineation of role responsibilities.  In addition, both partners reported being similarly unhappy with the quality and quantity of feelings expressed in the family and the extent to which they felt family members valued and cared for each other… Men and women were equally cognizant and emotionally aware," (page 49, 2007).  Both partners are aware and care that it is not working.  However, disagreement about what is happening or why it is not working creates further discord.  In the author's book, "Beyond Bullying and Exclusion in PreK-5, Empowering Children in Inclusive Classrooms (Corwin Press, 2009), there is discussion of eleven of thirteen reasons people miss social cues that are so important to communication and thus, to functional relationships.  They are learning disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism or Aspergers Syndrome, Physical Disability, Cross-Cultural Issues, Overstimulation, Denial, Anxiety, Neurosis, Dissassociation, Intoxication/Substance Abuse along with Schizoid Personality Disorder and Psychosis (the last two were edited out as not relevant by the publisher since the book focused on children).  They may be relevant to the second reason Moynehan and Adams present for men's reluctance to engage in couple therapy.  "A second possibility is the 'awareness' explanation.  Men simply do not recognize problems or the need to change because they are emotionally unsophisticated and oblivious to relational dynamics.  The foot dragging here is not a privacy matter of 'manhood' but more the confused inertia of the truly baffled.  These husbands do not see the need for change, and possibly even feel coerced by their partner into therapy.  Such reluctance is thought to impair potential gains for the male partner and limit the immediate and long term effectiveness of couple therapy" (page 43, 2007).

Lack of awareness is comparable to ignorance.  Being unaware may be considered a condition that is essentially passive without intention- positive or negative.  Ignoring however implies an active process with intention.  Ignoring implies that an individual notices the cue (issue, experience, or grievance) and purposefully chooses to not attend to or respond to it.  The action or lack of action implies that the communicator and his or her feelings are not important.  In an intimate relationship, a core code is that the other person will care and will respond.  At issue sometimes is individuals, partners, or family members (either gender or any partner or member) noticing and discounting versus sometimes not noticing.  Two different violations of significantly different intensity occur along with different meanings.  The therapist may find the individual, couple, or family arguing over the "crime" which one perceives as a grand felony (ignoring) and the other experiences as a misdemeanor or citation (barely worth or not noticing).  Various speculations as to why men or individuals may not be as vigilant or sensitive due to cultural training and/or social functioning would need to be explored.  The therapist can focus on physical and psychic demands of work, intentional training to disconnect from feelings, lack of modeling, one of the thirteen reasons for missing social cues, etc.  From gaining understanding, behavior change can be negotiated.  Proceeding to problem solving will be easier, especially if men or individuals' behavior have been reframed from ignoring to not noticing.  This better allows hurt from feeling discounted to be processed.  

The therapist may also need to assess for homophobia in male clients in a heterosexual couple.  Male homophobia tends to fear sexualized interpretation of expressions of gentle feelings between males.  Gentle nurturing feelings in males towards male or female intimates may label them as "sissies", which renders them unfit to be warriors.  For many men, sexual intercourse with women includes an under or overtone of power and domination.  Men with insecurities regarding their power and control in life often have these issues affect them sexually.  Homophobic men are angered and terrified of gay men because homosexual intercourse (any sexual intercourse being about power and domination instead of about love) infers a man's power over another man.  In Molly Fumia's book "Honor Thy Children" (1997), Alexander Nakatani, who lost two sons to AIDS believes that men's homophobia occurs because many men cannot tolerate the resultant implication of impotency.  Interestingly, many men including homophobic men, while titillated by lesbian sex, can also be highly angered and threatened by lesbian couples.  Homophobic men experience their complete lack of power at all- their total exclusion in those relationships.  While both heterosexual and homosexual intimacy are seen by many people as love between two individuals, some men see heterosexual intimacy as men having power over women.  Thus, lesbian intimacy eliminates homophobic men as sexually irrelevant!  Lesbian intercourse is outside of their control, renders them impotent, and hence becomes threatening.

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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