Breaking Out of Gender Based Role Expectations

We are in the era of women’s empowerment. Women’s empowerment is manifested, most importantly, as a professional striving combined with the courage to climb the corporate ladder. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In addresses how women tend to hold themselves back in their career path.  In this book, Sandberg dedicates an entire chapter to the types of committed relationship women can build with their partners to support and sustain their career. In my New York City practice, the experience of women attempting to have equal partnerships with men in romantic relationships is an issue that can be a critical factor for the survival of their relationships. (In this blog, I would like to focus on equal partnership in heterosexual relationships.) As I understand this women’s journey, I see two conflicting value systems in our society: 

1) Traditional, gender-based relationships where men are expected to be the breadwinner and lead the relationship while their female partners fill more supportive roles (going along with their partners’ career decisions and consequently taking on more child-rearing duties, if they chose to have children), and 

2) Men also wanting to have equal partnerships in their romantic relationships.  

Equal partnerships require creativity, flexibility, and courage from both partners to co-create untraditionally prescribed role evolutions and relationship trajectories. 

Laura and Paul’s story

“I really want Paul to understand that traveling is something I need to do for my current position. But he seems to have difficulty accepting that I am away once a month for a week at a time,” says Laura. “Paul has been becoming more quiet and distant since I started this position a year ago. I know that my new managerial job has been taking more attention from me for this past year, and it has been difficult for both of us to be away from each other.  And when we see each other, we fight. I blame myself for taking this new position. But Paul has been busy with his job anyway. Why do I have to get so concerned about putting focus on my career? It is a cliché, but do I feel guilty about becoming successful? I am always struck by how it is no brainer for men to put their focus on their career, but for me and my girlfriends, we are always thinking about how our next steps in our job can impact our relationships with our boyfriends!” 

Laura and Paul were introduced by mutual friends and have been together for the last four years. They moved in with each other two years ago and have been building their relationship steadily since. Laura is Catholic, Caucasian, and in her mid-30s. She has been advancing her career as an architect and now manages many new buildings and shops overseas. Laura is funny, athletic, smart, gregarious, and very career driven.  Paul is of Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon descent, in his early-30s, and has been building his career as an IT professional. He is witty, sophisticated, and calls himself an “introvert.” He is career-driven like Laura, but he is not sure what would be the next step for him in the area of career. He is thinking about going back to graduate school or starting his own business. He says he has lots of “internal open dialogues” around his career.

When asked about how he feels about Laura taking the new managerial position, Paul says, “It is absolutely difficult for me when you are away. I was so used to being with you that when you go away I miss you and get sad.”  Laura asks Paul whether the reason they fight is connected to Paul disapproving of her managerial career. Paul responds, “I am 100 percent supportive of your career choice, but I cannot deny that I have a hard time accepting how this job separates us physically. I feel uncomfortable that you are on the path of moving up the corporate ladder since I am not sure what I want, professionally. I have to answer a lot of questions on my own.”

Not having a precedent role model is very hard for men and women

Paul says that there is no question that he needs to be a good financial provider and his career development is something he strives for on a daily basis. His own father has been a primary financial contributor in his upbringing, and this was the example that was shown to him. Paul still connects with his father by talking about his job and investments. “But at the same time, I don’t want to repeat what my parents went through. In hindsight, I can see clearly there was an imbalance in their relationship. My mother suffered a great loss when my older brother and I no longer needed her. She was depressed for about two years after we left for college.” 

As Laura climbs up the corporate ladder, she notices that there are fewer and fewer females in upper management. “Seeing only a few females at the management level says a lot and this makes me anxious. I feel like I have to perform more to prove to people that I am a qualified manager. I have a similar anxiety in this relationship, I think. I grew up with my father being the sole breadwinner and my mother was a stay-at-home mother. Both of my parents made sure that I had a college education and a professional career. So I understand intellectually that what I am doing is not a deviation. My girlfriends are going through a similar career trajectory, so we support each other through our journey. But, even with the support I receive, I did grow up in a traditional family and had no actual female role model balancing family and work. So I have a lot of preconceived assumptions about how relationships should look like."

Shifting from the notion of scarcity to synergy

Laura and Paul are conflicted about traditional forms of relationship. Laura wants to challenge herself in the way that her mother never challenged, both in career and relationship. And, although Paul strongly identifies himself with his father, he acknowledges that there was a noticeable imbalance between his parents and he wants to create a more balanced relationship with Laura.

There is a significant philosophical difference between traditional relationships and modern equal partnerships. In traditionally shaped relationships, partners are often operating according to the concept of scarcity. In the scarcity model, there is a binary division: one is winner, the other loser. In scarcity, men feel like they need to be the primary provider and if their partners provide more than they do, they feel like their ego and identity is in serious danger. In contrast, in more equal partnerships, partners are relating to each other through synergy—the more each of us succeeds, the better off and stronger we are. In synergy, each partner can appreciate the other’s financial contributions and professional successes. In synergy, each partner can experience eye-to-eye camaraderie and share excitement for new challenges. To live in scarcity is to live in competition and isolation. To live in synergy is to share resources (financial, social, and emotional).  In synergy, Laura and Paul are no longer in competition and they can consciously make room for the conflicts that each brings with them and the resolutions they create together. This process allows them to acknowledge each one’s career needs and more fully bring them to fruition. More and more I see in my practice that couples are yearning for synergistic and equal partnerships.

Equal partnership in romantic relationships.
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