This article is by Australia Counselling member and Geelong counsellor Colleen Morris.

In every couple relationship conflict will inevitably arise around the issue of our gender identity. As a young married couple, my partner Duncan and I experienced this in both subtle and not so subtle ways! Duncan spent many Saturdays working on cars in our backyard whilst I preferred to spend my time indoors. One afternoon, he came in for a break, to find me sitting down with a cup of tea. Duncan was entirely unimpressed and berated me for not bringing him a cup of tea while he worked. Frankly, I had not given it a thought, after all he was big enough to get his own cup of tea!

Later he apologised, having come to the realisation that in his parents relationship, his mum always took the responsibility to provide ‘afternoon tea’ for Duncan’s father whilst he worked outside and without him even having to ask. Duncan had made an assumption, based on his family of origin experience, that I knew his expectation of myself in the role of the female. I just was not that good at mind reading!

Your gender identity, that is, who you are as a male or female and the meaning you ascribe to it has a significant impact on your couple relationship. The knowledge that you accumulate about who you are as a male or female is generally absorbed unconsciously from every aspect of your life. It is often knowledge that we don’t know that we know. So in your couple relationship you unconsciously assume that your partner knows what you know, in-spite of the fact that you rarely think about it. Why? This is your ‘normal’ – the way life is as you experience it.

The outcome of assuming that your way is the norm and therefore the ‘right’ way, is rigid thinking and a sense of entitlement within your couple relationship. This belief inevitably leads to couple conflict. The  notion that there is a different and equally valid perspective that your partner holds, is foreign and therefore rejected.

Power inequity arises in a relationship when one partners gender expectations are adhered to at the cost of the other  partners identity. Over time, this power inequity   erodes the identity of the other  partner,  building feelings of resentment, anger and helplessness.

As a couple, learning to talk about your differing  beliefs around gender identity  and how you came to form them, is important to the growth and ongoing well-being of your couple relationship.

Here are a few pointers to reflect upon as you engage with your partner on this subject. What did you learn about gender identity from your:

1. Family of Origin

Your personal beliefs about gender identity were modelled primarily  by your parents.

Ask yourself:

  • What did you learn about how you treat each other? For instance, was one gender given more respect in your family? This might be evidenced in small things such as who sat at the head of the table, whose voice carried the most authority or who had the most space in the house.
  • What were the gender rules about  the division of labour? Think about who is expected to cook, clean, mow the lawn, put out the bins and discipline the children in your couple relationship. Are these, roles you and your partner have agreed upon, or assumptions that you have taken from your own family of origin?
  • What were the gender rules about expression of emotions? For instance, in many family contexts males are expected to be loud and aggressive, while females are expected to be quiet and demure. Do these rules still apply or have you and your partner agreed on new rules that work for your couple relationship?

2. Cultural Context

The culture in which you are raised has a strong influence on your assumptions about power in the couple context.

Ask yourself:

  • What are my expectations of my partner and how do they know what these are? Are these expectations fair or assumptions I have carried from cultural influences?
  • What does culture have to say about gender and employment?
  • Does my gender define the type of work I do?
  • Does my gender define what I am allowed to earn?
  • What does my cultural context have to say about gender and respect?

3. Religious Context

Where a family has strong religious beliefs, there are frequently delineated lines between gender. For instance, in Jewish culture, males sit together at the front of the church and participate in religious ritual while the females sit and observe at the back of the church.

Ask yourself

  • Do we have a ‘religion’?
  • How does my religious belief define my gender identity and the identity of my partner – my role, dress, power or lack of power?

 4.Sexual Context

Within a couple relationship, the expectations you have about your partner may also be based on gender stereo-types.

Ask yourself:

  • Whose responsibility is it to initiate sex
  • Does your partner have a right to say ‘no’.
  • Is your sexual relationship exclusive or open?

There are  endless ways that gender identity impacts a couple relationships. These questions are simply a starting point for you and your partner. If you are experiencing difficulty identifying  and talking about the impact of your beliefs and assumptions about gender identity, then I encourage you to seek counselling as a couple. The counsellor’s role is to facilitate a conversation about these issues you and your partner in a safe and supportive context.

If you would like to contact  Watersedge Counselling for couple counselling, contact me on 0434 337 245 or visit my Geelong counselling website.

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