3. Equity & Inequity - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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3. Equity & Inequity

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Roles Rigidity Repair in Relationships

A significant issue for many individuals in relationships is a difference in respective perceptions of what should be the relative balance between partners.  Individuals and society has gone through change over recent generations in terms of what is considered acceptable.  The perception of emotional connection affects how partners perceive equity and inequity.  Matthews and Clark (1982, page 184) say that the desire for understanding and acceptance from a spouse is an enduring desire.  Partners married "an average of 9.5 years continue to associate validation with a high degree of satisfaction in the marital relationship and nonvalidation with dissatisfaction in the marital relationship."  Partners identified behavior that was validating.  Women who tended to be more descriptive "most often mentioned the willingness to listen, to attempt to understand, and respond to emotional needs and difficulties as the means by which their partners made them feel validated."  Other validating responses included being encouraged to pursue "personally satisfying careers and outside interests and verbally expressing caring."  This is clearly a change from previous generations where women were expected to deny themselves and defer to other family members, in particular their husband's needs.  Husbands emphasized "responding to emotional concerns, tolerance of independent activities, and verbal and physical expressions of caring."  Matthews and Clark did not mention for either gender specific expressions or behaviors favoring an egalitarian relationship per se.  The therapist may hold an egalitarian relationship as the ideal partnership, which may not fit one or both individuals in therapy.  The belief and behavior of an equitable relationship between partners may be still in transition for society and a particular couple in therapy.  Many relationships continue to overtly or functionally operate with fundamental inequity between partners.

Barbie was a stay-at-home mom.  She jokingly referred to herself as the "queen of the hive" in charge of toilets and toilet training.  She and Reggie had struck a deal acceptable to both of them as teenagers.  He'd bring home the bacon and she'd cook it!  Both of them came from small city roots with skilled upper-working class or professional working class family backgrounds.  Fathers went to work and came home to read the newspaper, drink beer or wine, and join bowling leagues.  Mothers cleaned the house and cooked four-course dinners every day.  It was a setup both believed in and it had worked for over thirty years for them.  He had worked and worked overtime when necessary to make ends meet to support the household, lifestyle, and three children- now all grown and on their own.  She had done all the cooking aside from the barbeque… all the household upkeep aside from the car.  They joked that Reggie made the money and Barbie spent it.  Reggie said he had no problems about her expenditures.  It was just "gender jokes" and he had really no complaints at all about her behavior and their relationship.  Barbie said that she had been happy and content with their lives together up until recently.  After the last child had moved out, there had been a period of rebalancing of roles that took almost a year to figure out.  That seemed to be ok.  Recently, however there had been tension between them.  

The therapist initially explored the functional inequity in the partners' roles.  Both Reggie and Barbie identified and accepted that Reggie was the head of the family.  Barbie joked that she could have become one of those "bra-burning feminists, but I needed my bra to support my sagging boobs after having three children."  Besides it was too much work to be the boss.  She said she gladly let Reggie be the boss.  Her father was the boss in her family growing up and it worked for her mother and worked pretty well for all the kids too.  Reggie said that Barbie's traditional family values were a big part of why he had found her attractive.  He liked being the "man" and wearing the pants in the house.  A more progressive and egalitarian-oriented partner in his own relationship, the therapist needed to set aside that personal preference for heterosexual partners' role and focus on the congruence or incongruence in the couple.  Reggie and Barbie were in sync with each other about male and female roles in the couple.  In couples where the inequity between partners is culturally and personally acceptable for both members, the influence and importance of the roles need to be revealed and honored.  The partner with the lesser role needs to be overtly honored or risk experiencing an existential deficit in self-worth and lack a sense of having meaning in the family and world.  

The therapist was able to elicit from Barbie that she did not feel respected by Reggie in her role as homemaker.  Her role had adapted with the children growing up, but was essentially the same with a little more focus on Reggie, supporting the children from a distance, and the soon to be new role of being grandma.  She did not want change, but instead wanted to bring them back to the mutually accepted dynamics they had before.  Once Reggie realized that Barbie was a bit anxious about his valuing her role and contributions to the household and family, he was able to reassure her that he did indeed deeply appreciate and respect her.  As it turned out for Barbie, a partner may be able to accept the lesser role if he or she finds his or her input, influence, and contributions validated by the other partner.  Reggie's affirmation of Barbie helped her feel that her role was and is still personally meaningful and fulfilling.  As is not uncommon, Reggie assumed incorrectly that Barbie knew he appreciated her and that he did not need to express it.  The therapist will often find prompting a partner, in this case the one with the greater power to overtly express validation served to greatly enhance the relationship.  Validation of the importance of the role serves to create a greater existential equity even when there is a lack of power equity.  Restoration of the basic covenant between them, perhaps a bit of repair of their interactive dynamics, rather than a renovation to a new relationship model was what therapy was needed for.
The modern American tendency towards favoring an egalitarian relationship and less rigid roles between partners has led to variations on the couple's or family's structure and role definitions.  This is an evolving model with as yet uncertain alliance among various individuals.  Zimmerman (2000) examined families that reverse the traditional male and female roles.  Instead of stay-at-home mothers with career father families, there has been some increase in the numbers of and the acceptability of stay-at-home fathers with career mother families.  She found similarities and differences in the couple's motivation for one or the other role set up.  "Most of the stay-at-home mother/career father families reported that religion and their family were the primary influences for choosing their arrangement.  None of the stay-at-home father/career mother families cited religion as the primary influence, instead reporting personal choice as the main factor" (page 344).  On the other hand, all couples placed a strong value of having one parent at home with children.  While acknowledging that two incomes would increase the family's financial status, they felt the sacrifice was worthwhile considering the benefits to their children to have a full-time parent caring for them.

It is noteworthy that for both genders of families in either role with one stay-at-home parent, there was a feeling "that society does not respect the work of the stay-at-home parent.  Stay-at-home parents expressed feeling society's disapproval for not doing more challenging or interesting work.  In the case of stay-at-home fathers, couples reported an additional response of confusion or fascination because of the uniqueness of their arrangement" (Zimmerman, 2000, page 343).  Implicit judgment against the stay-at-home father is another example that choices about relationship, couple, or family composition do not occur in isolation from other systemic influences.  Although, the partners may be in sync with one another, they may be seen as out of sync in their larger communities.  Fathers who stay at home with career mothers at work may have to deal with implicit and explicit pressures to revert to traditional models and roles.  Women from families with both partners with careers or from single-parent/single-income families, or having invested years (not to mention thousands of dollars) in a college degree and developing a career may also feel pressure to work.  Or, they may feel pressure to choose a career or having children, without an option to have both.  Women who have chosen to have a career and have children may also face judgment for what men by default are assumed to do.  The therapist should investigate if the inequity or sense of unfairness for the woman around this may become an issue in the heterosexual couple's relationship.  

Inequity between partners may be unacceptable to one or both individuals in the relationship.  Sometimes the more empowered individual wants a more equitable situation.  He or she may not want all the responsibility, or has a personal morality of equality, or there is a cultural shift in one or both of the individuals toward a more Americanized perspective of an egalitarian power balance in the relationship.  When inequity is unacceptable, the thrust of therapy is to renegotiate the power, control, and influence dynamics between them.  The inequity may be inadvertent or arrived at through unconscious circumstances.  Subsequently, negotiating the communication patterns, the roles, the territory, and the hierarchy may be relatively straightforward.  However, therapy may otherwise expose or bring to conscious consideration previously unconscious beliefs or assumptions.  The development or evolution of behaviors responding to various circumstances may be revealed for relatively simple adjustment.  However, inequity is often due to strong family-of-origin or cross-cultural influences.  

An African-American and Latino-American couple had difficulty following through on the re-organization of the relationship, especially in terms of parenting.  Monique's deeper psychological issue was from her childhood role of the "nurturer" in her African-American family system.  She modeled herself after her strong mother.  She had assisted her mother in taking care of everyone in the family.  Her father was in and out of the family and did not provide any substantial energy in the family.  Like her mother, Monique complained about how much she had to do to keep the household functioning.  It was not fair that although both her and her husband Javier worked full-time, she carried the heaviest burden at home.  They had tried to re-structure the chores and responsibilities but somehow it did not work.  She felt Javier did not do things "right," so she had to do it herself in order to have it done correctly.  Javier was willing to be more involved in the child-rearing and household management, but he complained that Monique was not comfortable with sharing the responsibilities.  Balancing household equity was sabotaged by an unexpressed cultural and family legacy.  It did not seem to be from Javier's Columbian family background.  Javier's parents collaborated very well with household demands, giving him a good model that he tried to duplicate.  The therapist prompted Monique to talk about how the strong matriarchal role gave her identity and self-worth confirmation.  In fact, embedded in that identity was the self-righteousness of being the "martyr" who suffers life and family inequities.  Until she was able to process this, then any structural changes were too emotionally charged.  In addition to lessening the workload, she would be giving up her identity and worth.  In circumstances with important cross-cultural issues such as this, the therapist should seek revelation of cultural patterns being asserted in the relationship, along with a deeper processing of the emotional and psychological symbolism of the behaviors and patterns.  The therapist can help the couple "translate" the cultural messages underlying the behaviors.  The therapist could have sensitive and alert to the possibility of structural approaches to therapy by the initial presentation of the couple.  There were indications for the therapist to immediately consider assessment for cross-cultural, family-of-origin and structural issues.

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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