• Kate Engler

The Double-Bind of American Coupledom - Part I

In my couples therapy work, one of the most important tasks is to let my clients know that their relationship problems are not only of their own doing. Our culture is working against relationships.

Part One – The Double Bind that Breaks Us

Anthropologist Gregory Bateson popularized the double-bind concept in the 1950s as he explored the roots of schizophrenia. Over the years that followed, it has taken on a more widespread connotation in both the field of psychology and everyday life. The generally understood meaning is framed well by its dictionary definitions:

· "A difficult situation in which, whatever actions you decide to take, you cannot escape unpleasant results;" (Cambridge English Dictionary) or

· "A psychological predicament in which a person receives from a single source conflicting messages that allow no appropriate response to be made." (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

The Double-Bind Is Now a Triple-Bind

To be in a long-term relationship in our culture, particularly with kids, means to experience this double-bind every…single…day. In fact, it often feels more like a triple-bind due to the clashing expectations of the relationship, work, and parenting. This triple-bind has never been more apparent than during the recent pandemic.

In the last 40 years, beliefs about what constitutes a good employee, parent, and partner/spouse have all changed dramatically.

Specifically, there is an increased expectation of not just the quantity of time one spends doing each of these things but also the quality of that time.

In other words, not only are you expected to be available 24-7 to your job (phone addictions anyone?), but you also need to be efficient, creative, and a superstar in everything you do there.

You also must be available to your children 24-7, and you'd best be sure that the time you spend with them includes active listening to every single (mundane) detail about their Minecraft adventures while feeding them healthy snacks, and conducting enriching activities that don't have screens. Oh, and don't forget date night!! (Insert head exploding emoji here.)

The bind we currently face is this: Our society's ridiculous cultural norms tell us that our jobs, our partners, and our kids should all be a priority. If not, we are horrible/negligent/lazy/uncaring/ people.

To demonstrate that we have our priorities straight, we must devote the "appropriate" number of hours and attention to these areas of our lives. However, with a finite number of hours each day and a varying but overall limited amount of brain space, we are doomed to give at least one area the short shrift.

The expectations of each role and the work it requires to meet them are in sharp contrast to the others. For example, because our children are dependent on us to survive and are dependent on our paychecks for the same reason, we usually need to devote most of our time to these parts of our lives. As a result, our relationships then drop to the bottom of the priority list, putting them at risk.

If you focus your efforts on your family and partner—which many women report as a reason for leaving the job force—your work inevitably suffers.

To get it "right" in all three areas requires a level of time and energy that is not mentally, physically, or emotionally possible.

The Judgey Judgerson Effect

Marriage and coupledom are the subjects of much judgment and discussion. We all feel the implicit and explicit messages about what we should be doing to be doing it "right."

The end of the relationship is deemed a failure, and not just a failure of the marriage itself, but also of your character and commitment.

We rarely, if ever, talk about a relationship simply running its course or coming to a natural conclusion. Instead, we use language that signifies deficiency, and we do so with a significant amount of shade and side-eye.

Even if you manage to stay married for 20+ years and raise children to adulthood before the relationship's end, it is still a failed marriage. I challenge you, dear reader, to find any other facet of life in which you participate for 20 years and build sustaining structures, and its end is called a failure.

Not only do these former couples deal with the judgement cast upon them, but if they happen to be parents, people view them as the primary perpetrators in the ruining of their children's lives…forever.

Our language on these topics speaks volumes about our collective beliefs. Some cultures use the term "bonus" for family relationships created post-divorce rather than "step" (i.e., bonus mom, bonus son rather than stepmom or stepson.) It connotes these additional family members are a positive addition to the other members' lives. Whereas in the U.S., we not only refer to the children of divorced parents as coming from a broken home, but we also perpetuate stories of evil stepparents rather than additional loving adults who are committed to caring for a child.

We are all acutely aware of these judgments, so much so that even the consideration of divorce in our own thoughts induces intense shame.

If I had a nickel for every client that struggled to eke out a "confession" that they were thinking about divorce, I would be a wealthy woman. This accepted cultural shaming exacerbates the feeling of the double-bind.

So, if the socio-cultural directive is to stay together, what is required to do so? Look for that in Part Two of The Double-Bind of American Coupledom.

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© 2019 by Kate Engler