I think one of the reasons that couples get stuck in old, unequal relationship patterns is that—to greater or lesser extents—old constructions of gender have become part of our identities. We can be moving along, thinking we are beyond old gender ideologies and then suddenly find ourselves caught by gender messages that have been allowed to define us. Creating relational change means redefining how we know ourselves as women and men. Tom Blume calls this identity renegotiation.
Here’s an example. Last night our clinical research team was working with a couple. At the start of therapy the wife was “ready to walk.” But what she really wanted was to connect with her husband—to know what he was thinking and feeling. The husband also wanted to connect with her—in theory. But when he considered sharing what he was thinking and feeling, he stopped short. When we probbed what was happening, he said that sharing in this way would “make him feel weak.”
Stereotypic gender socialization creates a power imbalance by inviting women to tune into their partners, but discouraging men from doing the same. This left the husband in our case operating from a position that made it difficult for his wife to affect him or for him to recongize and be accountable for the impact his behavior on her.
The therapist helped the husband challenge the cultural messages that told him that what was he was feeling would be unacceptable to others; that he needed to hide any sign of “weakness” or be a failure as a man. We could see his identity literally start to shift as he confronted this lie with tears of relief.
According to Blume, identities are not permanent like a personality. They arise within the circumstances around us. Societal gender messages are especially influential and can be deeply internalized. Breaking free from these identities can be difficult. But it is possible and, as our client discovered, makes developing mutually supportive relationships possible.
posted by Carmen