Marital Equality:  Gender and Power in Couples Therapy
Equality has become a mainstream ideal in modern couple relationships. Couples often experience rewards of equal relationships, such as, less depression or anxiety for men and women, an increase in intimacy, better communication, greater satisfaction and improved stability. In contrast, partners who feel they are in an inequitable relationship, or feel they have little influence in their relationship, often suffer the greatest distress, including higher levels of anxiety and depression compared to their significant other.  

Marital equality is a longstanding concept with various meanings, definitions and representations. In couple relationships, there appears to be relative consensus that equality ideals refers to an even distribution of domestic, paid work, and/or child care, equal decision-making, equal entitlement to express and have needs met, mutual reciprocation of attention and accommodation to one's partner, and burden-sharing, so that the well-being of each partner is supported equally, both in the short and long term. 

Studies of marital equality and power are complicated because gender structures what is noticed and what is not. Marital equality is difficult to measure due to the invisible nature of gendered power, and often couples report their relationships are equal, yet researchers observe a different picture.   

One aspect of social constructionism is the critical analysis of the ways in which social structures have power over human experiences. Critical theory examines and deconstructs those practices of systematizing and universalizing the political and scientific theories, often referred to as “truths,” that act to turn people into objects. Critical theory asserts that any discourse that promotes the supremacy of one idea over another is an act of social control; it is proclaiming what is normal and abnormal among society’s individuals. The major objective of critical theory is to unveil the history of the different modes by which human beings are made into subjects. Feminism is one branch of critical theory that specifically examines the institutionalization of gender.

Gender is a socially created concept consisting of the expectations, characteristics, and behaviors considered appropriate for men and women in a culture or setting. As a social structure, gender is embedded within language and processes that maintain masculine or feminine identities and interpersonal interactions. Gender norms emerge over time as the expected behaviors of men and women. The language and activity of everyday life reinforces what individuals experience to be true about gender, often informing them of how they should live their lives as “men” or “women.” These gender ideals appear to operate below conscious awareness often going unnoticed, and feeling "natural" or "normal". They are deeply embedded in all other institutions, such as law, education, and economics, and are rarely questioned in everyday life. As people conform to gender norms and societal expectations, the gender structure is reproduced.

Patriarchy and gender privilege
Gender is not neutral, rather it is deeply embedded with judgments and evaluations that place one gender, often the male, as superior to the other. The cultural beliefs rooted in male superiority and female inferiority that lead to the formation of a society based on male dominance is referred to as patriarchy. Patriarchy is a system that privileges male characteristics and work as superior to that of women’s and grants unearned societal benefits and advantages to men based solely on their biological sex, otherwise known as “male privilege”. Some patriarchal practices may be apparently overt, but most of the time, patriarchy operates below people’s conscious awareness, and is embedded in their everyday activities.

Power is often defined as the ability to influence another while not allowing them to influence us. In marital equality, power is conceptualized as the ability of one partner to influence the relationship mostly toward his or her own goals, interests, and well-being, as well as an ability to influence discussions and negotiations. In heterosexual couple relationships, researchers have documented that men continue to have more power than women. This power does not just show up in overt instances of physical, mental or verbal abuse, but in less apparent ways, such as everyday socially accepted behaviors and arrangements. Therefore, marital power is mostly invisible and latent, operating below the couple’s conscious awareness.

Gender, power and relationships
Among other things, gender structures family life and relationships. Gender ideals established within the larger social context dominate couple relationships causing power imbalances often disguised as normal couple interactions or natural ways that women and men interact. These processes are not the result of biological determinism, but a product of gender socialization, or gendered interactions that gives the appearance of the way things ought to be and have privileged the interests of men over women. Gendered power in couple relationships is often beneath the surface, difficult to see, and has been coined the term, “invisible” due to it’s social normalization.

Gendered power is power that is organized around ideas of men and women and privileges men’s positions over women’s, forcing women into a subordinate role. For example, gendered ideas about marital behaviors ascribe that men typically have responsibility for breadwinning, and women typically bear responsibility for home care, including housework, dependent care, and emotional labor. Dominant social ideas about men being “strong” or “powerful” shape relationships and affect the way men treat their spouses and children, and in return, how women and children respond to their husband or father. Historically, socially constructed ideas about men and women in relationships have skewed relationships in ways that overvalue and privilege the interests of men and direct the flow of influence toward them.  

Invisible male power
Male power in relationships is recognized as “invisible” because gender ideas in the larger social context create stories about who men and women are in relation to one another and the more these ideas exist, the more “normal” they become, and they less they are questioned or challenged. Many women live under a male domination that is not so much outright oppression, but rather an unacknowledged preeminence of men’s desires. When power is invisible, the less powerful person feels less entitled to have or express personal needs or goals, is more likely to notice and attend to their partner, and usually automatically accommodates to their partner.

When relationships are not equal, relationship schedules and decisions tend to reflect the interests of the dominant partner. For example, many women learn what their husband’s limits of tolerated behavior are and stay within them. The man’s power is not observable because there is no conflict, and the wife never seems to want anything the husband does not. When power differences are well ingrained, compliance occurs without overt power struggles and conflict; the less powerful person simply accommodates the other.   

Gendered power is an important piece of a relationship and restricts a couple’s capacity for mutual attending and nurturance. Gendered power also structures the ways in which couples make work and family decisions. The outcomes of those decisions have implications for how gender and marriages are constructed for individual couples and the larger society.

Relationship Equality
Relationship equality is frequently defined in terms of shared power, equal access to resources (e.g., money, time, etc.) and shared household and child-rearing responsibilities. However, defining equality has proven difficult because needs and expectations are often implicit rather than explicit, and society continues to define the gendered roles of couples in relationships as well as how couples should think, feel, respond, behave, etc. in these relationships. Marital equality therefore evolves out of the social processes between both partners, and the larger social context, values, beliefs that the couple are part of.

Equality in a marriage emerges out of the interactions of both partners, what equality “means” to both partners, and the larger social ideas that influence the way couples shape their relationships. The definition of relationship equality used in our program is heavily influenced by Mahoney & Knudson-Martin (2009), and has evolved out of our own clinical work:  Stuchell, Houston-Barrett, Knudson-Martin & Heunergardt (2007).  Equal relationships are described as those in which two individuals participate in mutual exchange and mutual recognition where one is both affecting the other and being affected by the other. Both parties have and express desires, are active and empowered, and the relationship is characterized by mutual respect. Equality involves the perception of mutual give and take over the long term rather than just an immediate comparison of specific outcomes. These authors developed a four-dimension model of equality that includes the following concepts: relative status, attention to other, accommodation patterns, and well-being. Their definition is grounded in findings as well as theory that have shown how traditional gender socialization has discouraged men from sharing power and empathically listening and responding to the needs of others, and for women, have discouraged them from speaking up and asking for what they need. The four concepts of this definition are outlined below.

Relative Status is conceptualized as who in the relationship gets to define what is important, and who has the right to have, express, and achieve goals, needs, and interests. Traditional gender socialization encouraged men to feel entitled towards these things and for women to put family needs before their own. Therefore, to the extent that men and women absorb these expectations, even if unconsciously, they set themselves up for unequal status. Relative status asks whether both partners have the ability to use the relationship to support their interests, and whether both partners have power to define the agenda of the relationship.  

Attention to Other is conceptualized as both partners being emotionally present for and supportive of each other. Traditional gender socialization has generally left the emotional attending of the relationship, or, significant other, up to women. Therefore, in an egalitarian model for relationships, both partners are attuned to the needs of the other and are responsive to their emotions and stresses.

Accommodation Patterns are a necessary part of couple life. Accommodation is balanced when both partners equally influence the relationship over time. Traditional gender socializations have tended to place expectations upon women for accommodating their schedules around her husband’s schedule. Although accommodation by the lower status spouse may feel natural and may happen automatically, it does not foster an equal relationship.

Well-Being is supported equally in both the short and long term and by both partners in equal relationships. Do the relationship patterns equally support the well-being of each partner physically, emotionally, and financially? When a disparity occurs, both partners acknowledge it and work together to equalize it.  

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