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The Double-Bind of American Coupledom - Part II

You are not imagining the things that seem to be working against you and your relationship. The stats have your back on this. What do we do? Rebel!



Part Two – The Shift

In part one of this blog series, I discussed the double-bind concept, its evolution to the triple-bind idea, and its effect on modern relationships.


I have made doing couples therapy my life's work, so clearly, I understand the importance of relationships and value them deeply.


The Sustaining Relationship Recipe

Dr. John Gottman has spent the better part of his life researching key elements that make marriages last. He highlights the foundation of these in his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:


· A deep friendship maintained through nurturing fondness

· Being attuned to one another's needs

· Repairing after arguments

· Creating meaning


These are all lovely, seemingly simple concepts, but similar to maintaining any friendship; they take time and energy to enact and are compounded by the extremely high expectations we have for our partnerships.


Researcher, historian, and author of the oft-quoted book, Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz notes,


"Today, we expect much more intimacy and support from our partners than in the past, but much less from everyone else. This puts a huge strain on the institution of marriage."


Esther Perel echoes this sentiment in her widely read tome, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and Domestic,


"Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?"


These high expectations are not all bad, though.


Northwestern University relationship researcher, Dr. Eli J. Finkel, explains in his most recent book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, that these shifts have resulted in significantly happier relationships…for some.


He outlines a phenomenon of modern marriage in which there is a vast stratification in levels of happiness. Those in happy marriages are happier and more fulfilled than married couples in previous generations. However, most couples fall on the other end of the spectrum - more stressed and unhappy than ever before.


We know that creating sustainable and satisfying relationships requires an investment of time and energy.


Again, herein lies the double-bind. The cultural mandate says we should give our all to our jobs, children, and relationships, but WE HAVE NO F@*&KING TIME!


The stats tell the (depressing) story

If there is any doubt about how spread-thin we are, the statistics showing how we spend our time clearly tell the story. And these are pre-pandemic numbers.


Our Time Spent at Work


And for comparison's sake:


  • In every country included except Canada and Japan (and the U.S., which averages 13 days/per year), workers get at least 20 paid vacation days. In France and Finland, they get 30 – an entire month off, paid, every year.

  • Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.

Our Time Spent at Home

Data from the 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics shows us how people spend their time at home. Again, these are pre-pandemic numbers.


  • The average American woman spends 2.2 hours per day on household activities; for men, it's 1.4 hours (Guys! It's 2020! These numbers should not be so different!)

  • Of the time spent doing household activities, women spend 70% on food preparation and clean up (men spend 48%); 31% on interior cleaning (14% for men); 24% on laundry (9% for men); and 22% on household management (16% for men). Women spend the remaining time on lawn and garden care and interior and exterior maintenance, repair, and decoration. Men averaged one to three percent more time than women on these tasks


Our Time Spent Parenting

  • According to a survey of 2,000 mothers raising school-aged children (ages 5 to 18), moms spend nearly 100 hours a week on parenting tasks. More than half of those surveyed (53 percent) reported sacrificing sleep for their children, while 47 percent regularly give up date nights, hobbies, and time with friends.

  • Most mothers (61%) say they have been criticized about their parenting choices; Discipline is the most frequent topic of criticism, reported by 70% of criticized mothers. Other common topics of criticism are diet/nutrition (52%), sleep (46%), breast- vs bottle-feeding (39%), safety (20%), and childcare (16%).

  • Women who juggle jobs outside the home spend just as much time tending their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s.

  • In 2016, moms spent around 25 hours a week on paid work, up from nine hours in 1965. At the same time, they spent 14 hours a week on child care, up from 10 hours a week in 1965.

  • In 2016, fathers reported spending an average of eight hours a week on child care – about triple the time they provided in 1965.

  • Roughly a quarter of working parents (23%) say they have been treated as if they weren't committed to their work because they have children, while 17% say they have been passed over for an important assignment. In addition, 16% say they have lost a promotion for this reason. Mothers are more likely than fathers to say they've had each of these experiences.


So, let's do the math on this…

Nine hours of paid work per day + 1-2 hours of household labor + 1-2 hours of caring for children = 9-13 hours per day of some kind of labor (because, let's be honest, caring for children often feels like work) every day!


Ideally, we are all getting at least some sleep each day in addition to this labor. Data from the National Sleep Foundation (2019) show that, on average, Americans get around seven hours per night (less than recommended and less than the ten years prior).


This brings us to a total of 9-13 hours of labor per day + 7 hours of sleep per night = 16-20 hours of each day consumed by activities.


After working and sleeping, we have approximately four to eight hours per day. In these short hours, we are supposed to find time to invest in our relationships in a meaningful way so that we can make sure we don't get divorced?


Uhhh…seriously? Does anyone else find this problematic?!

The Long and the Short of it

Research shows how greatly relationships impact both our mental and physical health (for good and bad). We need to pay attention to our relationships and be intentional about how we do them. The same is true for parenting and our careers. These are the facets of our lives that give us purpose, meaning, joy, love, fulfillment, value, and a sense of self.


I am not advocating for caring less about these things or abdicating our responsibilities.


I am advocating for putting a stop to beating the shit out of ourselves and each other, figuratively, for never measuring up.


I am advocating for shifting our perspective about what is correct and good away from perfection and towards compassionate understanding.


I am advocating for naming this ridiculous double-bind in our culture and speaking out against it.


I am advocating for a deeper understanding of the damage caused by continuing to use unreachable standards as a measuring tool.


When I was recovering from some injuries that followed a challenging childbirth, I had a Pilates teacher who used to say to me, "Take a deep breath and then try working ten percent less." At the time, I was steeped in a "Go harder! Do more!" phase of my life, so I really couldn't even wrap my brain around what she said for a looooong time. I would smile at her and think, "WTF is this nonsense?"


So, I continued to push, and I reinjured myself over and over again, which kept me away from living the life that I wanted. She was so patient and compassionate, knowing I needed some time to truly absorb her message. I reached a point where I had no choice but to work ten percent less than I was used to, not just in my workouts but also in my job, parenting, and marriage.


As I'm sure you can guess, once I let go of my unrealistic expectations—the "single source" that gave me conflicting messages—things changed, not just a little.


They changed dramatically and continued to change for the better as I set new expectations not based on cultural norms.


I now lean into work, parenting, and my marriage to varying degrees based on my own needs, those of the people around me, and whether or not there is a pandemic happening. I also make time for myself, friends, quiet, TV bingeing, and anything else that my system needs.


I consider these acts of rebellion, and I encourage my clients—most of whom are buried under the weight of their lives and these ridiculous expectations—to do the same.


Let's all agree to collectively untangle ourselves, boldly take a break and work ten percent less.

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© 2019 by Kate Engler