As a couple therapist and professor who trains graduate students to do couple therapy, I have up close access to lots of marriages, and lately, I have been talking with my students, colleagues, and clients about a tender and complicated trend.
The trend is this: a couple comes to therapy for “stated reason A,” but it soon becomes clear that something else is going on. The couple’s so-called communication problem is actually a clash between their expectations and their reality with respect to gender roles. For heterosexual couples, this typically means that she is doing far more bread-winning and he is doing far more caretaking than either of them had planned. If this sounds familiar, here are some ways that you can make peace with your modern family!

1. Create YOUR story

From our first days on this planet, we internalize tons of messages about what we should think and feel and do based on whether we inhabit a boy body or a girl body. When the realities of our lives are aligned with the gendered messages we are being given, everything is groovy. But all too often the messages end up feeling like prisons, restricting and limiting our potential. One of the secrets to a happy romantic relationship is being aware of (and able to talk about) all of the cultural messages about gender that you and your partner have internalized. Talking about gender is so important that I devoted an entire lesson to it in my new book, Loving Bravely: 20 Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want (New Harbinger, 2017). When it comes to gender and marriage, the messages are loud! Our culture has lots to say about what “good wives” should do and what “good husbands” should do…especially about balancing work and family! Although we have done a decent job shattering the glass ceiling for women, we continue to do a fairly lousy job supporting men as caretakers. This is particularly problematic as some have observed that today’s job market plays to women’s strengths and more households than ever have a female breadwinner. In order to stay happy and healthy as you (by choice or by necessity) shake up traditional notions of breadwinning and caregiving, you must create a couple story—one that you both can get on board with and one that answers the following questions.
  • In what ways does your division of labor serve your needs—financially, emotionally, intellectually, physically, spiritually?
  • How is your division of labor a source of pride?
  • What are the benefits of your division of labor?
  • What does your division of labor allow you to witness in each other?
Creating a shared story about your choices keeps you connected with each other and reminds you that even if you occupy different realms, you are on the same team.

2. Shift your paradigm

When you boil it all down, every household has two basic needs:
  • The need to bring income into the household
  • The need to convert income into resources in the form of goods and services (groceries, dental care, new snow boots, etc).
Simple enough. But we as a culture do weird stuff with these two basic needs. We have decided that the first need is the responsibility of men and the second need is the responsibility of women. And, because we live in a patriarchy, we label the first need as higher value and the second need as lower value. In order to live comfortably outside of traditional gender notions, ask yourself these questions:
  • How much less stress would you and your partner feel if you treated these roles as different, interrelated, and of equal value?
  • How much more compassion could you offer each other if you felt and expressed empathy for the challenges (and opportunities) inherent in both roles?

3. Be flexible

When her career takes off and his career does not, leaving her to occupy the traditionally masculine provider realm, she risks harboring feelings of disappointment and resentment. The degree to which men and women can move beyond rigid and limited gender roles is the degree to which they can flexibly adapt to the ever-changing demands of life. Even if you and your partner entered into your marriage agreeing to a particular division of labor, life (and the economy) may not cooperate! Resilience is about doing what needs to be done. Prevent disappointment and resentment by broadening your definition of what it means to be a provider, looking together for all of the other ways in which he provides for you—emotionally, sexually, spiritually, etc.

4. Build a loving fence

For some couples, the discomfort they feel about their division of labor is amplified by a chorus of friends and extended family (“When is he going back to work?” “Are you OK with him being home?”). Marriages need boundaries. When the boundary between your marriage and your tribe is healthy, you and your partner are able to feel connected to your network but also protected from input that feels undermining. Try being direct with your extended family—“I know that our marriage looks different than yours, but we could really use your support. This isn’t always easy for us either.” Marriage is such a moving target! What worked for one generation does not work for another, and what works in one part of the world does not work in another. Factors ranging from economic to psychological lead couples to gender-bend when it comes to balancing the needs of work and family. If you both commit to being aware, compassionate, and collaborative, you can create a modern family that ends up enriching the lives of everyone involved!