Addressing the balance of care in intimate relationships” Workshop. National Council on Family Relations Annual Meeting. October 31, 2012 (with Douglas Huenergardt, Kirstee Williams, & Aimee Galick) ( 10/2012 - 11/2012 )
Considerable research documents that relationship quality is a significant factor affecting health, especially through the impact of hormones during times of stress (Mlot, 1998; Pennisi, 1997). Ever since Jessie Bernard published “His Marriage and Her Marriage” in 1973, scholars have documented that heterosexual women receive less benefit from couple relationships than their male partners. When responsibility for attending to one’s partner and maintaining the relationship is not mutual, this gender imbalance is perpetuated. The gender disparity in the giving and taking of care is a significant health issue, yet most models of couple therapy do not address it (Knudson-Martin & Huenergardt, 2010; Lyness & Lyness, 2007). This workshop presents a research-based clinical model that enables couples to overcome this inequity and develop a foundation of mutual support.
A growing line of research documents that gender equality provides an important and necessary foundation for relationship success (e.g., Gottman, 2011; Jonathan & Knudson-Martin, 2012; Steil, 1997). Overcoming societal gender patterns that limit mutual support is thus both an ethical and pragmatic issue for couple therapists. However, the societal gender processes that place relational burdens on women and make emotional support from male partners less available to women are often hard to see because they are taken-for-granted as part of everyday experience.
In this workshop we will begin with a brief review of research that shows how gendered power is a relational issue that affects how the needs, emotions, and goals of one partner influence the other. These power processes are often covert, reflected in controlling the topics that are discussed, lack of interest in the partner, and minimizing communication. Consequences are substantial, and include depression (for both women and men), invalidation of personal identity, relational disillusionment and dissatisfaction, loss of flexibility, and battles for control (Greenberg & Goldman, 2008; Jack & Ali, 2010). We also draw on lessons from study of same-sex couples (Jonathan, 2009) that show that when gender differences do not organize relationship patterns, couples create equality through a focus on mutual attunement, shared relational responsibilities, attention to fairness, and awareness of power differences.
We will also consider several factors that limit attention to mutual support. First, across cultural contexts couples increasingly hold egalitarian ideals, but do not have a model for an equal, mutually supportive couple relationship (Coontz, 2005; Sullivan, 2006; Gerson, 2010). Men, in particular, have a hard time living up to their own ideals. Secondly, people often believe that gender issues are no longer a concern and miss the more subtle ways that gender processes continue to shape contemporary heterosexual relationship patterns (Mahoney & Knudson-Martin, 2009; Gottman, 2011). Third, researchers and therapists tend to speak of relationship problems and couple distress as though the couple structure is inherently equal (Leslie & Southard, 2009; Williams, 2011).
To address this gender imbalance, we will offer an overview of a socio-emotional approach to couple therapy that begins with the premise that mutually supportive relationships promote health and healing. The approach is organized around four gender-related aspects of mutual support: (a) mutual vulnerability, (b) mutual attunement, (c) shared influence, and (d) shared relational responsibility. With an emphasis on the social context of emotion, the approach integrates an experiential focus on relational process with social constructionist understandings of gender, culture, personal identities, and relationship patterns. It is successful because both women and men are able to see the consequences of societal gender patterns in their intimate relationships and take actions to create new, more equitable relationship processes that support women as well as men.
Based on the findings of several task analyses of this model, we will offer specific guidelines for practice and use video clips of a case example to illustrate how to empower couples to confront stereotypic gender processes and experience mutual support (see figure 1). Findings identify four tasks necessary for successful change: (1) creating an equitable foundation for healing, (2) creating space for alternate gender discourse, (3) pursuing relational responsibility of powerful partner, and (4) new experience of mutual support. Critical to these interventions are therapist’s awareness of power dynamics that organize couple relationships, therapist’s leadership in intervening in power processes, and socio-cultural attunement to gender discourse.