I am a Medical Family Therapist Intern at a medical clinic for low-income patients and often conduct psychosocial assessments as part of our integrated care treatment plan. One day, like any other day, I walked into an exam room and began my assessment. However, what began as an assessment of the patient, turned into an assessment of my own expectations and ideals. The patient was a statuesque, elderly African American woman and with her regal turban and wise words, she turned my ideas of gender equality upside down.
She let me into her world and talked about the struggles she had as an ex-drug abuser and convict. She said her body was deteriorating because of her years of drug abuse and she had no one to blame but herself for the chronic pain she lived with. She continued to talk about the lessons she has learned from her difficult life experiences and specifically mentioned expectations that African American women should have in relationship. I’ll never forget what she said, “As long as your man comes home every day, brings home money, and doesn’t give you a disease, you should be happy.” Those were the things that mattered to her. There was no mention of equality, mutuality, emotional caring, etc. She learned that when people are struggling to survive, put food in babies’ mouths, live with some measure of a roof over their head, expectations within a relationship become defined and minimal. Equality is not even a consideration when survival is at stake.
It led me to wonder, as a woman living within a middle class socio-economic status (SES), is it my privilege to expect equality in my relationships? Does the expectation of equality depend on my financial situation? Is equality a privilege rather than a right?
I also, began to examine my goals as a therapist. Am I, as a therapist, helping my patients who come from a background where equality may not be a consideration when I bring up the issue? Or am I just promoting unrealistic expectations within the realm of all they need to handle on a daily basis?
After some thought, I have come to the conclusion that equality and mutuality can be defined in many ways, depending on the particular couple involved and their social context. Feminists have been critiqued for imposing expectations and definitions of equality on women who do not feel the need for equality in their relationship. In our assumed belief that healthy, happy relationships include egalitarian ideals, I wonder if we are discounting other perspectives and definitions of mutuality. Perhaps my patient felt that her relationships were mutual because her expectations for her man and his expectations for her were met. Could another definition of equality be: Met expectations from both partners?
I left that exam room with my head reeling. Our conversation truly impacted me. I continue to think about her words and feel deeply saddened that I could even for a moment forget how privileged I am in so many ways.
What are your thoughts and reactions? What do you think about her words? How would you address the questions that came up for me? Do more questions and comments arise within your mind and from your SES perspective?