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Ego-Free, Role-Free Relationships

Are they the trend of the future?

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

The challenging of relationship roles and what they mean to both men and women is transforming in multiple ways. I have been a relationship counselor for over four decades, and have witnesses first-hand what those changes have meant to people seeking long-term successful intimate relationships. This articles is about my experiences, my revelations, and how I have had to change along with the new needs and dreams of my patients.

I wrote my doctoral dissertation in 1979, comparing the facial expressions and physical movements of role-dependent people with role-independent people. I referred, then, to those in the latter role as androgynous human beings, not bound to conform to the gender-role expectations of the times.

These androgynous subjects expressed themselves in a qualitatively different way than the role-dependent subjects did. Rather than behaving with a combination of expected male and female actions, they were a hybrid that did not express either, but rather a unique expression of physical behaviors, not seen in those people who were role-congruent. The androgynous people I discovered in my research found little acceptance in that role-conforming world view.

These biases extended to the mental health community as well. A study done by Timothy Leary at Harvard asked those working in the health field to use an adjective checklist to describe well-adjusted men or women as contrasted to a well-adjusted adult. There was a high correlation between a well-adjusted male and a well-adjusted adult, but no correlation for well-adjusted women and a well-adjusted adult. Traditional women, by these results, were not considered well-adjusted adults.

When I finished graduate school, the women’s movement had taken hold, threatening the well-established role attachments and creating distrust and fear in many people of both genders as to how their roles would diverge and transform. Both men and women, swimming in a sea of challenge and change, felt un-moored and unclear about how to navigate these new waters. Would collaboration between their sexes even be a possibility? Who and what would the new generations become?

Observing couples in struggling as they have had to weather these changes with each new generation, I’ve had the opportunity to witness how intimate partners in both sequential and committed relationships have striven to adjust to the changing norms.

Some have held on to the old ways despite the tsunami of new expectations and possibilities, while others have fought to be free of the limitations that once bound them to standards they have never felt represented by.

As those challenges and searches stand in the current relationship environment, my patients today of both sexes, ask me very different questions than they did even a decade ago.

“Can a man be the partner who stays at home and raises the children without losing his acceptance as a ‘true’ man amongst his male peers?”

“Can a woman be the bread-winner without defining her male partner as inadequate?”

“Can two partners of the same sex be seen as equal partners rather than needing to be role-conforming partners?”

“Can a person, regardless of gender, manifest their most self-loved and proudest attributes without being labeled for non-conformance to what the social world expects?”

“What are the best kinds of relationships two people can have now and what makes them work over time?”

“If our relationship is different than the norm, how can we present that to the world and still fit in?”

“How do people add gender fluidity to the already overwhelming challenges of culture, history, religion, social circles, physical attraction, and age when they are searching for a partner?”

In an atypical departure from the way I usually write my articles, I feel it may be both appropriate and useful to use my own journey as a symbol of these ongoing challenges. Having spoken to so many others who have both accompanied me on this long journey or joined in later along the way, I feel I can represent how relationships have changed throughout those generations that I have witnessed along my own path.

I was married in l954, when “I Love Lucy” heralded and exaggerated the ideals of rigid-role, heterosexual conformity. The generation and culture from which I was born prioritized male children as the keepers of their heritage and female children as having the duty to support them.

At home, I was instructed to master the behaviors expected of that supportive role. In my father’s barber shop in Beverly Hills, listening quietly from hidden corners, I witnessed how men spoke when away from their women. The women who were there to guide me talked mostly about their relationships with the men in their lives. The men, instead, talked about business, battle, sports, health, and financial responsibilities. I was fascinated by those two seemingly separate universes.

I decided at a very early age that attaining what these traditional men experienced was much more interesting than the role of women. I wanted into that group of seemingly more options, more power, and more influence in the world.

But my family, mostly directed by men, did not support those dreams. Though I triumphed as often the only girl in my science and math classes, determined to be a physician, I was told clearly that there was no money or interest in helping me pursue that career choice. I was to marry and support my husband in those career choices, which I then dutifully did. Married in our late teens, my husband and I began fully expecting to fill the roles we were given. I quit college to put him through, as was expected, and then stayed home to raise the family.

Then, fate intervened. Our three children were all female. From the moment they were born, I knew that, with little support from the outside world or my own family, I had to somehow keep them from being forced into molds that hold them captive in a world they never chose. Against whatever odds were presented, they had to somehow have the options that I was denied.

Two of them are now the physicians I wanted so much to become, and the eldest is a professor, a pastor, and a humanitarian, fighting the challenges of social inequality. It has been a perilous journey for all of us, but they have walked it with me, paying their own price for the resistances they had to fight along the way.

As the world changed and we began to realize that who we were as a traditional couple would eventually bury us in boredom and doom our daughters, we sought to find a way to come out from under what we’d been told to be and to become role models that would help others who faced the same obstacles.

We couldn’t have done it alone. We were fortunate to find a remarkable therapist who was prescient enough to realize what was happening to us and much of society. Because of his encouragement over the next several years, I overcame my reticence to take the limelight and went back to school full-time at the age of thirty-five.

My daughters were fourteen, twelve, and ten. It would mean working during the day and attending college most evenings, leaving the traditional role of home caretaker most often to my husband, who still had all of the responsibilities of our financial support system to maintain.

That journey took the better of nine years, and I could not have done it had he not been willing to become caretaker to our children when I could not be there. It required that he reform his own ideas about how to be simultaneously a respectable man amongst his engineering peers, while a homemaker and pseudo-wife at home.

Because of my personal journey, I have been able to better understand those of my patients who want to pursue a different path than their current society supports, or what expectations their parents, culture, and peers have carved out for them.

What was once a radical path for me is now a much more common one for the intimate partners I see today.

As I stated before, some want to hold on to their traditional gender roles, still thriving under those expectations. Facing a world that is striving for more gender equality, they say things like:

“What if I earn more money than my husband or my career will force us to move? How should we negotiate those decisions?”

“I don’t want my husband to feel less than me ever, even if I spend more time away and he has more responsibilities at home.”

“Which one of us should have the ultimate say so in how we spend our money if one of us makes much more than the other?”

“How should we divide up household maintenance if one of us travels and the other works mostly at home?”

“Is it just better if one partner makes the big decisions and the other is just supportive?”

The intimate partners who are challenging role and gender expectations are feeling a different set of challenges. They are searching for greater role fluidity and non-traditional bonds. They want to balance their combined strengths and weaknesses without worrying about which happens to be in the leadership role at any given time.

Those choices are putting many on a more perilous path and the questions and guidance they ask of me are very different. I try to listen openly to their legitimate fears and conflicts, though I know they will have to fight these stigmas in many ways and possibly for a long time.

“What are the new definitions of a desirable partner when roles are changing?”

“Should shorter and lighter people be excused from hard labor, whichever gender they are?”

“Should the partner who makes more money or has the greater responsibility have a bigger part in making decisions in a relationship? Or, are there new criteria that have nothing to do with that kind of status?”

“Who gets to define and control the allocation of resources for each partner’s dreams?”

“Can gender-fluid roles produce more options over time or will society’s possible shunning of the relationships that embrace them make them impossible to sustain?”

“How do couples today sort out who is best at what, and how those tasks should be chosen according to those decisions?”

“Will some men always be better at some tasks and some women at others, and it is okay for that difference not to be associated with power, status, gender, ego, or responsibility?”

In my experience, these kinds of questions are exploding, and they demand a new kind of guidance.

“What is a quality person, anyhow?”

“What is a great relationship. Do we even know?”

“How do people mesh when they are uncertain of where they’ve been or where they want to go?”

“When do traditions truly matter and should be maintained, and when do they choke opportunities and limit change?”

“How do two people interchange those desires and find ways to create their unique interpersonal third language and concurrent behaviors?”

My patients are sharing these quandaries with me more and more often. How do they pursue their dreams and explore every relationship opportunity, regardless of their sex, gender expression, or society’s acceptance? Shouldn’t a great partnership be made up of two people who can both change a diaper, fix a leaking pipe, do the taxes, make social arrangements, protect, support, or lead, no matter what their gender?

I believe now that these kinds of people will become the most valuable relationship partners in the future. Yet, those striving to achieve that mutual androgynous blend may yet still not have the support of their friends, families, or cultural heritage. They feel traditional historic pressure even with the current trends that are beckoning and, for the younger generation, geometrically expanding. They may truly be the voice of the future but don’t yet feel they have the support they need.

Back to my doctoral research results four decades ago.

As a result of these remarkable challenges to so many people, my own career path as a psychologist and marriage therapist is transforming as well. I now feel obliged and willing to look even more deeply at whatever biases I may have internalized from my own past teachings. Despite my penchant for continual learning in every dimension that affects my work, I still find myself culturally, politically, socially, and psychologically truly ignorant at times, saying things that I should know are no longer either useful or even relevant. After every day I spend at work, I come home questioning my every thought and opinion, and vowing to make them right for the patients I continue to serve.

I believe that, as agents of change in the mental health professions, we cannot ignore the transformations that are happening. The questions asked of us will continue to be more and more complex as the months go by and these issues become more newsworthy. It is our moral obligation to open our minds and hearts to what our patients' needs are and support them in choices that may seem foreign to what we’ve been taught to believe.

The oldest person in my practice is eighty-three and the youngest is ten. I have never seen such a wide disparity in traditions, options, challenges, and desires as I am now seeing in these different generations. In the past, though young people have always and understandably been prone to resist and change the paths of those that have come before them, it is qualitatively different now. Yet, it is never wise to completely throw away the value of the old ways in order to make room for the new. Those of us they seek out to guide that process must now provide the connection.

In the mid-20th century, the French philosopher, Albert Camus, wrote this now famous quote:

“Don’t walk behind me. I may not lead.”

“Don’t walk in front of me. I may not follow.”

“Just walk beside me and be my friend.”

Now, all these years later, we are just beginning to understand what he must have meant by those words.


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