Gender Inequality in Relationships
Who's Going to Do the Dishes?
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | February 14, 2019
Equality and Empowerment
Cultural patterns influence the gender roles in relationships, often contributing to the dissatisfaction and eventual dissolution of the bond. We must direct attention to these imbalances of power and create equality.
The grace and beauty, along with the gifts and passion of new love, gently (sometimes dramatically) must incorporate the practical. Among the complexities of need fulfillment, self-esteem and growth-oriented living, bills must be paid, dishes washed, and children taken to school. Love inevitably collides with the nitty-gritty of the daily grind of living. Successful relationships evolve with the growing demands of sharing a life.
There is an art to loving. Creating a healthy companionship by transforming the passion into a productive and protecting relationship is a skilled endeavor. David Richo in summing up his enlightening book on relationships writes, “Still, no one can blame us for not getting relationships right in one life time. It takes courageous depth and humor to get the point of it all and to follow the long, winding road to wholeness.” (Location 3797). Erich Fromm in his classic, the Art of Loving, reminds that succeeding at any art requires discipline, concentration, patience, and supreme concern. (Fromm, 2006, pg 91-92).
Many couples stumble at the transitional stages of a relationship because they fail to develop the art of loving. The passion stage comes effortless for most, requiring little discipline. When we are attracted, and that attraction is met with acceptance it feels good—very little skill required.
For intimacy to emerge from these dawning moments of connection, the skill of loving must intercede behavior motivated directly from the emotional level. When individuals are fused to emotions, the complex give and take required from relationships raises anxiety. The emotions demand soothing and seek avenues of escape. Unfortunately, the adaptations to emotional upheavals block communication and severe closeness. Long-term goals are ignored to service short-term comfort.
"For intimacy to emerge from these dawning moments of connection, the skill of loving must intercede behavior motivated directly from the emotional level."
Differentiation, learning to respond independently of the emotional fields while maintaining connection to the individuals that constitute it, is central to the developmental process. As differentiation increases, thinking and feeling function more separately from the emotional system, decreasing anxiety. Behavior is less reactive, allowing greater choice in response to emotional input. The capacity for individuality and togetherness are expanded. (Knudson-Martin, Mahoney, 1999)
By the time, we are confronted with doing the dishes patterns of interaction have formed. Childhoods intrude, emotions misdirect, and cultures disrupt. A conglomeration of stimuli fuses in the dark recesses of our mind pushing for actions that could care less about intimacy and future happiness. An equitable division of household chores can strike deep, forcing examination of blind integration of traditional gender expectations.
Equality in relationships is sometimes warmly received but blindly rejected. Other times, vehemently attacked. Several years ago, when I first posted a draft to an article titled, I Love You, You’re Free to Leave, I received some very poignant and attacking responses. One befuddled man was completely confused, “but then she will do whatever she wants.” Another accused me of cheating and wanting out of a relationship. Sadly, their views of relationships are built on foundations of power imbalances.
The success of a relationship, in their view, is based upon a dominant/compliant style, relieving them of the skills identified by Fromm as necessary to love. Many men in these relationships are surprised when the relationship fails. They can’t fathom how their lover would leave when they (the man) was so happy. The imbalance of power served them well and they felt no need to adjust.
Gottman and Silver (1999) found in their longitude study found that men who stingily maintained power, unwilling to empower their wives had an 81% relationship failure rate. Egalitarian marriages have more stability.
For most, however, the choice isn’t one of choosing dominance or submission; but a quiet acceptance of cultural norms that continue to persist. The implicit biases piggyback into relationships unnoticed by the hosts. Many studies continue to show a discrepancy in household work distribution. Although women in many industrialized societies continue to carry the brunt of household chores (approximately two-thirds), nearly 40 percent do not perceive this division of housework unfair. (Greenstein, 2009). In wonderful progressive strides for equality, gender still is “the most reliable determinant of time spent doing housework among heterosexual couples.
When I was still in college, I worked a part-time evening job at a bank processing centered. I worked with a young gal approximately my age. She was in a long-term committed relationship. They shared ownership of a condominium and were both students. She told me they were career minded. She wasn’t interested in family or marriage. “It’s just not my thing.” Over my years there, her relationship slowly waned and then ended. She met another young man and soon was engaged to be married. I frequent wonder, “it’s just not my thing,” really meant, “it just wasn’t his thing.”
Power in relationships is the power to influence decisions in the partnership towards fulfillment of one’s own goals, interests and well-being (Knudson-Martin & Mahoney, 2005). Marital power (or any relationship’s power) is typically unseen, hiding in the shadows of accepted norms. Just because there is no overt power conflict, doesn’t substantiate claims of equality. Basically, there is no conflict because the wife is acting within the set boundaries of the husband. The wife’s autonomy often is constrained with boundaries and the ultimate veto power held by the husband. A 1996 study of couples that reported their decisions were mutual discovered outcomes of those mutual decisions tended to favor the husbands needs and goals (Zvonkovic, et al. 1996; as cited from Knudson-Martin & Mahoney, 2005).
There are exceptions. Some women are dominant and men submissive. Many relationships are stunted by a chaotic fight over power, each partner intent on beating the other into submission. These relationships come with their own set of problems and solutions. Relationships built around inequality eventually falter, losing the hold on our heart. “It is increasingly hard to keep giving without taking as the years and decades go by. Typically, a viable, long-term relationship requires greater equality.” (Hindy et al. 1990).
Gay and Kathlyn Hicks suggest in their book, Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment, that “relationships can only exist in equality; inequality is the hallmark of co-dependence.” (1992, Location 233). The journey to co-commitment is through equality. They suggest spending a lifetime mastering this wider perspective of equality.
Our work for equality begins with rooting out the latent imbalances of power. This requires Fromm’s model of discipline, concentration, patience and supreme concern. Carmen Knudson-Martin and Anne Mahoney provide direction for these efforts of the mind. In their 1999 article, Beyond Different Worlds: A “Postgender” Approach to Relational Development, they provide four common traps to establishing gender equality.
The first trap is brushing the inequality aside and blaming it on “natural differences.” This mode of thought is a common defense to avoid combating the issue. This justification pokes its nasty head into all discussions of inequality. Our versions of masculinity and feminism need to un-fused from characteristics of inequality.
The Second trap is unconsciously acting out invisible gender scripts. This pernicious trap allows imbalances of power to work unchecked. We claim equality but in action still march to the traditional beat and roles. Aaron Beck in his classic book, Love is Never Enough, refers to these as the belief we carry into the relationship. He writes, “People enter into a marriage with fixed beliefs about the meaning of certain actions, or non-actions, by their spouses. These beliefs lead them to attach exaggerated significance to those actions.” (1989, p. 121) His answer to the problem, “To function as a team, both partners have to incorporate the viewpoint of the other into their own perspective.” (p. 135).
The third trap is ignoring power differences. Working towards change is difficult. We tire, fatigued by the emotions and energy necessary to adjust faulty patterns. So instead of fight for equality, we return to the norm and allow the differences to exist.
The fourth and final trap is we conclude after initial work that the injustice has been solved. We utilized discipline and concentration to make amends, considering the work is done. Like a car out of alignment, forces will continue to exert pressure pulling us from the intended path. We must continue to pay attention to balances and continually adjust.
Men and women face a confusing, complex and changing world. Life was significantly easier with strictly defined roles. Human beings progress. We’ve moved from the caves, to the fields, to the factories, and now to the offices. Both male and female work hand in hand. We must reshape our cultural beliefs to fit the modern world, bringing equality into our homes. “Shared power is the cornerstone of shared partnerships.” (Rabin, 1996. P.84). To survive these changes, we must keep active negotiations alive, challenging entitlements, and learn new competencies. (Knudson-Martin & Mahoney 2005). We face this challenge to not only share in the domestic work but by learning the nuances of emotional attunement, nurturing behaviors, and emotional intimacy.
This is a large task for the rugged western man. The art of love is a skill, requiring continued focused efforts. We can refine our abilities and enjoy the intimate relationships that equality offers. Our skill at loving keeps the fear of abandonment at bay. Our skill rather than power manipulations allows for closeness and security.
Beck, A. (1989). Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstandings, Resolve Conflicts, and Solve Relationship Problems Through Cognitive Therapy. Harper Perennial; Reprint edition
Fromm, E. (2006). The Art of Loving. Harper Perennial Modern Classics; Anniversary edition
Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (1999) The Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work.
Greenstein, T. (2009). National Context, Family Satisfaction, and Fairness in the Division of Household Labor. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71(4),
Hicks, G., Hicks, K (1992). Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment. Bantam; Reprint edition.
Hindy, C. G., Schwarz, J. C., & Brodsky (1990). If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? Learn How to Deal With Anxiety, Jealousy, and Depression in Romance--and Get the Love You Deserve! Fawcett; 1st Ballantine Books Ed edition. Notes from Kindle Edition
Knudson‐Martin, C., & Mahoney, A. (1999). Beyond Different Worlds: A “Postgender” Approach to Relational Development. Family Process, 38(3)
Knudson-Martin, C., & Mahoney, A. R. (2005). Moving beyond Gender: Processes That Create Relationship Equality. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 31(2), 235. Retrieved from Questia.
Rabin, C. (1996). Equal Partners - Good Friends: Empowering Couples through Therapy. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from Questia.
Richo, D. (2002) How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving. Shambhala; 1 edition.