Gen X’s Grand Disappointment
Much discussion has been made of issues within the aging Baby Boomer and enigmatic Millenial populations. Far less has focused on the cloud of discontent hovering above Gen X heterosexual couples. Simply because of the timing of their birth, these couples are experiencing the burdens the emotional and mental loads in a unique and distressing way.
Dan sounded perky but uncertain in his voicemail: “Ummm…yeah…I’m not sure how this works, but my wife and I are looking for a couples’ therapist. We, ah…we’ve just hit a bit of a snag…not something I really thought we would need, but uh…yeah…we just need some help dealing with some issues that have come up very recently. Thanks.”
Nothing about this message was out of the ordinary. I receive awkward calls all the time and the vagueness of the “issues” was nothing new. Surprisingly, Dan didn’t use the term “communication issues,” which is what I hear most often. When I spoke with him later that day, he focused on the concrete facts of his relationship. He and his wife, Tonya, are working professionals in their 40s with two kids age seven and nine. They met while working in the city at their first jobs and had moved to the suburbs when their oldest started school. They have been married for 10 years, together for 15. He didn’t tell me much more about their particular struggles during that call, but we agreed to set up our first session. I commended him on reaching out for help and normalized the need for it. I explained that most couples reach a point when their previous coping tools no longer work and they need outside support. I heard him sigh on the other end of the line. It was hard to tell if it was a sigh of relief or worry.
At our first meeting, Tonya, appeared incredibly uncomfortable. Dressed sharply, she was cordial, but struggled to make eye contact and fidgeted with the handle on her purse. I gave my speech about confidentiality and office policies and then my usual opening. “I’d like to hear from both of you about what’s been going on that made you decide to call.” Dan jumped right in, his tone vacillating between fear, helplessness, and resentment. He explained that he was incredibly surprised that they had reached such a bad place and that they had very different ideas about what, exactly, had gotten them there. As he spoke, Tonya stared at the corner of the room, jaw clenched, silent tears rolling down her cheeks. I gently nudged her for a response. At first, she said nothing, appearing to wrestle with the idea of engaging at all. After what felt like a very long time, she looked at me and, struggling to maintain her composure, said, “The fact that he is sitting here telling you he is surprised and confused by what is going on with us makes me want to scream!”
It was the fourth session in two weeks of the same story, with generally the same cast of characters. The initial call was from a worried-sounding male spouse, inquiring about couples counseling to help them with “communication issues,” “a rough patch,” or “some recent difficulties in the relationship.” Because the common notion in the field is that women are more likely to be the ones bringing their spouses into couples’ therapy rather than the other way around, this case and the others like it stood out to me.
While the couples are all different, their stories share several common elements. The spouses are Gen Xers; they usually (but not always) met in their 20s, often in college or at their first jobs, got married a few years later and have one to a few young, but not infant, children. They are both working professionals and one may have modified their professional aspirations and/or work commitments when the kids came along.
They will describe themselves as “best friends” (at least they were at one time if not currently). They ascribe, at least in theory, to egalitarian values in their relationship and have vastly different ideas about how they arrived at their current crisis. The men note feeling confused and even blindsided by their partner’s discontent. Sure, they may have noticed that their wife doesn’t want to have sex as much, or that she retreats to her phone the minute the kids go to sleep or seems oddly distracted. And yes, they have had multiple arguments where she has explicitly discussed her unhappiness, but… When the “but” comes I always inquire about the disconnect between their confusion and the signs they just mentioned. Almost without exception, I am met with a sheepish, yet earnest, “I just didn’t think it was really that bad.”
The women’s response tends to fall somewhere on a spectrum, from a full-on rage spiral to resigned head-shaking to numbness. Regardless of the level of initial response, the female partners almost always express a sense of profound disillusionment and frustration in the relationship, noting fantasies of escape and other relationships (some acted on, some not). Often, a surprising and sudden interest in someone else is the alarm bell that alerts her to her own unhappiness in the first place.
As a relationship therapist, the issues that show up in my office are greatly varied, but often line up with current culture narratives such as these. At this moment in our broader culture, the lens of examination is placed squarely over the heads of men. Conversations are shifting to a stronger focus on male responsibility at both the macro level (broad social ills, such as sexual assault and harassment) and at the micro level (gendered roles in relationships). In the realm of the latter, several articles that have gone viral focus on a different aspect of what is being called the “mental or emotional load.” In Alice Williams’ “The Mental Load is Burning Women Out” and Gemma Hartley’s “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up,” the authors highlight the relentlessness of tracking details critical to family members’ well-being, which is most often done by women and unnoticed by men. In her comic titled “You Should Have Asked,” the French artist, Emma, offers a striking visual depiction of the gendered imbalance in household maintenance and caretaking, the toll it takes on women, and the negative implications for both sexes. The comic shows an overworked woman attempting to function in her numerous roles, the most taxing of which is that of household leader/project manager to her “underling” spouse. As she becomes more overwhelmed by the weight of her invisible labor, her partner chides her with “you should have asked [for help]” rather than be self-motivated to take on tasks himself. And in her article, “The Emotional Weight of Being a Wife,” Lyz Lenz emphases the emotional dominion of relationships and asks why their maintenance falls primarily on the shoulders of the wives.
Countless friends emailed these articles to me with plenty of emojis attached to them or statements such as, “This nails it!” I have even had clients come in after reading these articles (or those like them) and use them as a jumping-off point for discussion; the most notable of which was a male client who came in for an individual session (I see the couple and occasionally do individual sessions as part of our overall work.) I appreciated his candor when he revealed that after he read Hartley’s article he finally “got” what his wife had been trying to tell him for years. When I asked why this article had prompted his understanding, he noted that it probably had something to do with the fact that it hadn’t come from her, but rather a “neutral” source.
Clearly, my clients and the authors of these articles are not alone. The resonance of these topics indicates experiences shared by many. What I hear from women, and even how I personally felt reading these articles, is that it is incredibly validating to have these conversations show up in the larger social narrative and to have a name for the issues they highlight.
Women’s burden of carrying the mental and emotional load usually starts early in the relationship. However, it is often masked before children come along because the weight of it is not yet unbearable or the partners function in a “parallel play” type of way (i.e. each person in the couple ultimately takes care of themselves and joint tasks are ignored or the source of sporadic arguments). When children come along, the lid is blown off because the level of caretaking required significantly increases the load and the stakes are that much higher. Too often, these burdens go unnamed and exist as this nebulous unhappiness and anxiety that women carry, without being able to fully understand what it is. It is then exacerbated by the frequently dismissive responses of their partners.
While I am deeply fascinated by all themes in human relationships, Dan and Tonya, and the other couples whose issues were of the same vain, captured my attention because they highlighted things I had been contemplating for years as a result of difficulties in my own marriage and those shared by many friends during cocktails and long walks. The questions I have wrestled with and struggled to find answers for are: Why, when we’ve seen the biggest shift in gender equality in history over the last 50 are these issues so pervasive? Why? Why aren’t the men picking up the slack?
The Grand Convergence
In his book, The All or Nothing Marriage, Eli Finkel discusses the “loved-based” marriage model, which is often thought of as the “breadwinner/homemaker” era, which prevailed from 1850 to 1965. During this time, the dominant cultural belief was that men and women were biologically different and should focus on separate spheres. The men, predominantly, left the home for work and the development of assertiveness was highly valued and expected. Whereas the domain for women should be the home with developmental tasks focused on nurturance and caretaking. Finkel notes that the impact of this separate domains model resulted in a “psychological atrophy,” of sorts, wherein men and women became underdeveloped in the areas less valued for their domains. This negatively impacted both genders, leaving each to walk in the world and engage with others as incomplete humans. As such, part of the legacy of this model is that in intimate relationships, men and women often struggle to find common ground in the areas associated with the mental/emotional load because they have been “trained” to show up with only a part of themselves, and that part is, seemingly, in direct opposition to their partner’s most prominent parts.
In the last 50 years, significant leaps were made in gender equality. Women increased their participation in the labor force, paid hours of work, overall education, college degrees, and representation in previously male-dominated occupations. So significant was this narrowing of gender roles that Harvard Economics Professor Claudia Goldin deemed it, “The Grand Gender Convergence.” (2014) This shift was particularly acute following the passage of Title IX in the 1970s. While many of us are aware of this act because of its impact on women in sports, it also granted women access to higher education, career education, education for pregnant and parenting students, employment, math and science, standardized testing, and technology and ensured equal learning environments and protections from sexual harassment. (Gilder Lerhman Institute for American History, n.d.) There is, of course, still a significant way to go on many of these things to achieve true equality, but the speed and degree of these changes is greater than at any other time in history.
For women, the Grand Convergence asked for more. The opening of new doors — while greatly desired and valued — pushed women to double down and do everything rather than just fit into one role. Women were told that they could and should “have it all” and they did. They entered into the worlds of higher education and employment in droves, all the while continuing their roles of family nurturer and mother. As women learned to adapt to these expanded roles, they did not have the privilege of doing so slowly with lots of room for error or in a way that protected their egos. It was, and still is, quite the opposite. The microscope, operated by eager critics, hovered over them. As they moved into the world of work, women were told to be more like men, but then not too much like them; criticized for taking time away from work to care for children, and then criticized for not taking enough time away from work (or opting out altogether) to be with their children. Even the tone of their voice and style of language has been harshly criticized in a way that men simply aren’t.
As the roles of women have expanded, so, too, has the commentary and directives about how women “should” be in their personal, professional, and home lives. We all know the drill — women are directed to be feminine, but not too girly; sexy, but not slutty; smart, but humble; confident, but not intimidating; and warm and self-deprecating. (Oh, and also, “Please smile, honey!”) The result is that girls learn through modeling and their own experiences to be highly adept code switchers, almost chameleon-like, adapting to every nuanced shift in role. When they are at the corporate office, they adjust their language and dress a certain way, then go home and play the role of perfect mother, all the while executing the tasks of household manager, and then at night with their partner are supposed to transform to sounding board, friend, and lover.
With the constant role shifting and the inevitable criticism that comes with it, women regularly come face-to-face with the discomfort of vulnerability and shame. Shame is damaging to everyone but, ultimately, experiencing discomfort and vulnerability is not a bad thing. As Brene Brown and brain research has shown us, these emotional experiences are the critical ingredients for forming connections between people (something that is vital for all human flourishing). We also know that experiencing vulnerability and discomfort lead to greater resilience and emotional intelligence, which in turn, are necessary for growth, creativity, and better leadership. All of the quick changes and pushing on women has allowed them to expand themselves in ways once thought unimaginable.
What About the Men?
Men were, of course, also impacted by the Grand Convergence and had to do some level of adapting. However, the degree to which they actually changed is by no means equal to that of women. Again, in a tellingly titled section in The All or Nothing Marriage, “Men’s (Continued) Stunted Psychological Development,” Finkel notes “…one of the greatest achievements of the self-expressive era is the increase in psychological androgyny. But the reality is the grand gender convergence has not been entirely symmetrical. Women’s adoption of assertive qualities has been stronger than men’s adoption of nurturant qualities…”
Renown couples’ therapist, Terry Real, concurs with Finkel. The bulk of his work has focused on issues of patriarchy and relationships, and particularly the impact this “slow-to-adapt” issue has on intimate relationships. He emphasizes the role of socialization and cultural norms of masculinity on men’s ability to meet their female peers’ level of change. In his 2002 article, “The Awful Truth: Most Men are Just Not Raised to be Intimate,” he explains, “Men's job description has changed -- and men are unprepared for the change. We don't raise, nor have we ever raised, boys and men to be intimate partners, but to be strong, competitive performers. The pressure to be hard, logical, independent, and stoic all too often sets men up to be emotionally distant, arrogant, numb to their own feelings, and unconcerned about everyone else's, as well as contemptuous of vulnerability and weakness ...The very values and traits instilled in us as boys -- whether we wanted them or not -- ensure that we'll become lousy husbands.”
In his Ted Talk, Mars, Venus or Planet Earth: Women and Men in a New Millennium, Michael Kimmel, sociologist and expert on men and masculinity, highlights where the invisibility of masculinity and the privilege that comes with it butts directly against the most significant areas of change in women’s lives resulting from the Grand Convergence. He notes that, most often, when we think about gender we are thinking about women. When gender is invisible, as it is with maleness, it has to be proven over and over again. To do so, men must follow what he calls, “The Four Rules of Manhood":
“No Sissy Stuff” (the most important): real men shall not engage in anything that appears feminine, ever.
“Be a Big Wheel;” your masculinity will be measured by your wealth, power, and status.
“Be a Sturdy Oak;” be reliable in a crisis by resembling an inanimate object.
“Give ‘em Hell;” live on the edge, exude daring, take risks.
The problem with these rules is that they keep men from expanding themselves into areas that were once thought against their nature the way that women did. These are particularly problematic for intimate relationships and emotional connection. If being vulnerable and nurturing (things typically associated with the feminine) is going to call into question your masculinity, you may likely steer clear of it, especially if the men around you are not demonstrating these traits. If you must be a “sturdy oak,” how can you possibly be connected to your own or your partner’s emotional experiences? If being the “big wheel” is essential, how can you make space for your female partner’s career demands and personal aspirations?
The Special Pinch Felt by Gen X
Gen X, the generation in which I am a member, is in many ways the middle-child generation, caught between the Baby Boomers and Millennials. This population had few to no models of how to be in the new world of changing roles caused by the Grand Convergence. Women had incentive to shift perspective and forge a new path because it benefitted them. However, men already had the benefits, therefore much less incentive to change. As a matter of fact, fully ascribing to these ideals would take away some their power, prestige, and privilege. Not to mention, they would first have to recognize the need for a shift and, again, privilege makes that need invisible.
Gen X girls were coming of age at the same time women were gaining legal access to contraception, the first “no fault” divorce laws were put into place, Title IX granted equal access to education, the first laws prohibiting gender discrimination in the workplace were enacted, and Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. These dramatic cultural shifts and legal protections of women created a new narrative for women about what their lives could and should look like. As a result, the overt and implicit messages to Gen X girls were dramatically different than the generations before them. Even if their mothers went off to work, got divorced, or went to college, it is unlikely that they — their Baby Boomers mothers — grew up with the message to expect gender equality in all areas of their lives. For their daughters, however, it was a different story. The vision for their future was one where true equality could be possible. Girls and young women coming up in this era were told that they, like their male peers, were entitled to be whatever they wanted to be when they grew up, have access to all the same opportunities men had and that, should they choose to enter into long-term partnership with a male spouse, their roles would be equal. So pervasive were the changes of the Grand Convergence that even girls whose parents did not subscribe to the tenets of gender equality were not immune to their impact.
Gen X men were also immersed in the new cultural narrative of equality. Boys growing up in this same time period were also — at least peripherally — receiving the messages of gender equality. However, most of the conversation was focused on what these changes meant for girls. While there are undoubtedly exceptions, it’s likely that generally boys passively absorbed it but didn’t spend much time thinking about what it really meant to their lives because, after all, the expectations for their lives really weren’t changing. Others still may have even actively fought against it.
When you take the high expectations of Gen X women about what they could accomplish personally and professionally, and the level of gender equality they would have in all areas of their lives (including relationships and parenting) and mix it with the men’s lack of role models in the changing gender landscape, the internal and external conflict about their new roles (parenting and otherwise), and the invisible (to men) nature of women’s burdens, the result looks very much like Dan and Tanya.
The Parenting Gap
One area the message of greater gender equality seems to have sunk in for Gen X men is parenting. While the number of hours men spend rearing children is still lower than women, Gen X dads are significantly more involved than their Baby Boomer fathers were. According to the Pew Research Center, today’s father spends approximately triple the amount of time parenting than dads of the 1960s (2015). It’s hard to know exactly what prompted this shift. Some say this is due to growing up with fathers who spent more time at the office than in the backyard. Some say it’s from growing up with overburdened, multitasking moms (Collins, 2013)
With this greater involvement frequently came increased internal conflict. In 2017 a study by Boston College’s Center for Work & family on dads’ career-caregiving conflict, Gen X dads reported feeling greater internal conflict about work and home life, which resulted in greater unhappiness in both realms. The authors of the study suggest that part of this could be due to Gen X dads having Baby Boomer bosses who, generally, were less likely to support to the new ideals about shared parenting duties and more gender-neutral parenting roles, and therefore less accepting of family time taking away from work time.
When my oldest child was born, my husband, B, and I were living in California, a state with 12-weeks of almost fully paid family leave policies for both men and women. B remembers sitting in a meeting with his bosses (all Baby Boomers), who were discussing the one man in the company who had actually taken the full leave. One of the men said, “What kind of sissy bullshit is that? Frankly, if you can afford to be gone for three weeks, we don’t need you.” As you can imagine, this terrified my husband. We were about to have a baby and, particularly living in an expensive city like San Francisco, could not afford to be without two incomes. He felt he could not risk taking the time off -- even though it was legally legitimate to do so —and so he did not. While he had the law on his side, the anti-family culture was pervasive enough to frighten off even the most well-intentioned fathers from taking leave. The Boston College study showed that approximately 30% of the father’s who had the option to take four to six weeks took only two; with 40% of those who returned early noting pressures at work (e.g., deadline, projects) as the cause. In a Seattle Times article discussing Gen X dads, Christopher Healy, author of Pop Culture: The Sane Man's Guide to the Insane World of New Fatherhood, comments on this generation’s conflict noting, "We're the first generation of dads caught between two worlds. Dads now fall somewhere between ‘being terrified of changing diapers — or drilling their child with flashcards.’"
The increase in parenting time by Gen X men is important and commendable. That said, as Michael Kimmel notes in his 2015 keynote speech at the “Dad 2.0 Summit,” the fact that a generation of men is doing more than their fathers did — which might have been financially supporting the family and never touching a diaper — can lead to “premature self-congratulation” that belies how much work there is left to do.”
Two clients, a heterosexual couple, both employed outside the home and ambitious and passionate about their work as well as their new baby, were locked in heated debate about work schedules and the impact on child rearing. Both noted that it was important for them to be very involved in raising their daughter. The woman was upset about all the sacrifices she felt she had had to make at work in order to do just that. She was the one who stayed home when the baby was sick and unable to go to day care. She left work right on the dot of 5 pm in order to make it to pick up their daughter before the child care center closed, causing her to miss after work social things with her colleagues. These events, while not required, were where a lot of “shop talk” took place and where most of opportunities to get in front of her bosses happened.
Her husband had not done these things. He said they simply were not an option for him because of his work schedule. He added, sincerely, “but I don’t expect you to do these things.”
She replied, “Well if not you and not me, then who exactly would be the person to do them?” He stared blankly.
I understood her frustration and I also understood that he truly had never considered this before, not because he thinks women should be in the kitchen and home raising children. Quite the contrary. He frequently talks about how much he admires what his wife has done in her career and that he would not want to be with a woman who preferred traditional gender roles. However, because he is a man raised in a culture that has allowed him not to have to think really think about these things, the thought that having children would impact his career or the way he does work never crossed his mind.
In an effort to highlight areas where his own privilege plays out, I asked the couple, “While you/she was/were pregnant, how many nights did you lay awake worried about the difficult conversations you were going to have to have with your boss about time away from work to care for your child, or how you were going to manage your work and parenting?”
At the same moment, he said, “none.” She said, “Every. Single. Night.” They both looked at each other with gaped mouth surprise.
“Never?” she said with dismay.
He turned to me and said quietly, “It just never crossed my mind.”
Dazed and Confused
None of us are immune to the socialization and cultural narratives around gender roles and relationships. Clearly, there are frustrations on both sides of this issue. From women, I hear intense disillusionment that moves in and out of anger, sadness, and resignation. Because they have never “needed” a man for financial survival and security, they chose their partners with the belief that they would have true, egalitarian partnerships with both members participating and showing interest in all areas of their lives. They seem to reach a point, usually after having children (when the inequities seem to surface with a vengeance) and find themselves saying, “Is this really all there is?” Most are confused about how they reached this point in their life where they have become an overworked, exhausted, and often at the end of their rope on a daily basis. They say, “I don’t want to be this person.” “I don’t want to be the bitch!” They struggle to know if what they want is even real or it they are “allowed” to want or expect these things in their relationships. This is exacerbated by the fact that they can’t seem to get through to their spouses. When they try to discuss their issues, they are met with defensiveness (“How can you be upset? You never notice the things I actually do!” Proceeds with list of tasks accomplished), helplessness (“I don’t know what to do. Just ask for help.”), or dismissiveness (“I just don’t worry about the ‘little’ stuff the way you do. I am more relaxed about things.”)
While many Gen X women have, for all intents and purposes, “achieved” the things they hoped to (i.e. “having it all) and thereby shouldn’t feel bad, many of them do. In her article, “The New Midlife Crisis for Women” Ada Calhoun reports, “A 2009 analysis of General Social Survey data showed that women's happiness ‘declined both absolutely and relative to men’ from the early '70s to the mid-2000s. More than one in five women are on antidepressants. An awful lot of middle-aged women are furious and overwhelmed.” In a study released by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in August 2017, women’s high-risk drinking increased close to 60%, and alcohol use disorder increased nearly 84%. Gabrielle Glasser cites research in her book on women and drinking, Her Best Kept Secret, showing that men crave alcohol when they’re shown images of booze, but women covet it when they see photos of a messy kitchen or a screaming infant. And 2015 Pew study on the impact of child-rearing and career growth showed that 41% of women said it was harder to advance in career because of parenting, whereas only 20% of fathers had this experience.
My male clients and friends also express frustration. They tell me that they genuinely do not understand why their partners are so upset with them all the time. They feel like they do so much, certainly more than their fathers did. Often, they struggle to imagine how they could possibly do more. These are the “good guys,” the ones who are intelligent and progressive, and would tell you — and mean it — that they also want egalitarian relationships. They are intentional about being involved in parenting their children and they respect and value their wives’ autonomy.
What these guys are, also, are products of a system that left both them and their female partners high and dry. You see, these men were never asked to be more and do more they way women are. They don’t have the experience of having to be everything and do everything, to master every role and glide through each role transition with grace. Men have the benefit of privileged status in our mostly patriarchal society. (Granted, not all men have the same amount of privilege depending on their race, social status, and sexual orientation). Privilege, by its very nature, makes both the benefits they receive from this privilege and the struggle of others without it, invisible. The privilege is that you don’t have to think about it.
In addition to enabling men to be unaware of their female partner’s burdens, privilege also buffers men from having to experience as much vulnerability and discomfort. While these are not things that are necessarily enjoyable, as mentioned previously, they are critical for growth, resilience, and connection. Part of what makes it so hard for women to feel understood by their male partners is that when they present their issues to them, regardless of their approach, it makes men uncomfortable. Yes, it’s true that most people, regardless of their gender don’t feel particularly warm and fuzzy when someone is unhappy with them, especially if it is someone deeply important to them. But, because men do not have the same kind of practice with this type of unease, their level of tolerance is minimal (if at all). Hence, the defending, dismissing, and making excuses comes in an effort to protect them from this unease.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Part of my curiosity about these issues stems from my own relationship struggles. My husband, B, and I fit this profile perfectly. We met in college and deemed ourselves to be egalitarian and each other’s best friend. Shortly after graduating, we got married, forged ahead with careers and children, and then came issues highlighted here. I struggled to name my frustrations for many years and vacillated along the spectrum of rage spiral to numbed-out silence. He moved between confusion and defensiveness.
Eventually, we were left with a mountain of resentment that slowly and painfully eroded the fibers of connection, ultimately leaving our relationship threadbare and worn. In the end, I buckled under the weight of the invisible load of the task-related management of the household and maintaining the emotional health of the relationship.
One day while washing dishes, I was hit with the stark realization things were not going to change; we had reached the end. This was crushing and maddening for someone whose livelihood is based on helping other couples increase their understanding of each other. In the months that followed, we proceeded through the excruciating task of disentangling 20 years of life together. We worked incredibly hard to maintain a friendship and treat each other with respect, and I believe we were successful. As we were splitting up, B steadfastly maintained that things were never really that bad and that what I wanted from him was just not realistic. There were days when I still attempted to get him to understand my experience in the relationship. There were other days where I stewed and screamed at no one while driving alone in my car or sobbed behind my sunglasses in Target. Regardless, of my reaction on any given day, the pain of not being understood persisted.
Eight months after we split up, the divorce papers were drawn up. B and I decided to wait to file until the new year (just two months away) to prevent a financial hit on our taxes. Two weeks after we each received the documents, we ended up on an out-of-state drive together with our kids to separately attend each of our family’s Thanksgivings. To my great surprise, on that six-hour drive, B initiated a conversation in which he told me that for the first time ever in our life together, he finally got “it.” I looked at him skeptically and said, “What exactly is it that you think you understand?” He went on to revisit countless moments in our marriage, stretching back years, where he could see how I had been saddled with the mental and emotional load. He spoke in great detail and with intense emotion. I was thankful for the early darkness of the approaching winter so that he couldn’t see the tears pouring down my face.
The great humanist psychologist, Carl Rogers, said, “…once an experience is fully in awareness, fully accepted, then it can be coped with effectively, like any other clear reality.” In my practice, without exception, the first order of business with any couple is bringing to light the things that do not get discussed—making the invisible, visible. While it may sound overly simplistic, I believe that an increase in awareness must be the first step for widespread change on these larger issues as well.
The good news is, this is already happening as evidenced by the articles mentioned here and the many others that have followed suit. In a follow-up to the “Women Aren’t Nags” article, Hartley shared feedback from readers, many were male readers who noted their prior dismissiveness and/or defensiveness. Others acknowledged how they had previously been loath to self-reflect or see their contribution to the problems, and several reported changes in the ways their interactions with partners moving forward. These changes will only be sustained if there is motivation to do so, and that motivation will only be there if men feel there is truly something at stake.
Since that initial discussion with B, we have had others; some meaningful, some painful, but all embedded in greater understanding. During that drive to Thanksgiving, I was confused and touched, and truth be told, angry that he hadn’t gotten here sooner. I asked him, “Why now? What is different that you get it now?” and he looked at me and said, “I think I had to really lose you.” I started to ask him if there was some other way I could have explained things that would have made him understand. He stopped me and said, “I hope you don’t spend anymore time thinking about how you could have done it differently. For the rest of my life I will regret that it took me this long, but I know I wouldn’t have ever ‘gotten’ it if you hadn’t left.”
B and I are moving cautiously. Nothing is certain about what the future holds for us, but I see a significant difference in B; how he views himself, and his understanding the workings of not just our relationship, but relationships in general. I don’t know that ours is a path I would necessarily recommend to anyone to follow, exactly. B confirmed the notion that high stakes (the end of our marriage) and awareness (a deeper understanding of not only the burden of the invisible load, but also the belief that it existed and was bared unequally) are critical to real change. He told me that the gravity of what was at stake was felt immediately, but the awareness came a bit later through a lot of time alone and space from one another, meditation, therapy, boxing classes, and long bike rides.
Dan also affirmed the need for awareness and a sense of high stakes—by missing the mark on both. Throughout our work together he struggled to really hear Tanya’s concerns and because validating them meant (in his mind) seeing himself as something so counter to his identity as a “good, enlightened guy,” he was unable to do so. Ultimately, after several months working on their relationship, spent from perpetual frustration and confusion, they called off the therapy and their marriage.
In this pivotal cultural moment, where narratives about the truth of women’s experiences are shifting significantly and rapidly, awareness will continue to increase, even if by osmosis only. As more men are held accountable for their actions and their privilege highlighted in meaningful ways, the stakes for all men will rise—particularly the many who aspire to be the best versions of themselves. I am in the business of change and I believe that one of the best things about being human is the ability to do so. It is my hope that these Gen X men calling my office to set up therapy, and their counterparts in the rest of the world, can begin to view the conversations in their own households and the world around them as a call to action rather than threatening criticism. In doing so, they will be setting themselves up for deeper, richer, and more fulfilling relationships for the long haul.