Without an honest reckoning, therapy can only go so far.
By Kerala Taylor
Written on Oct 08, 2023
Photo: Firn, Yuganov Konstantin | Canva
I’ve got all the tools. I’ve got intentional dialogues and “I statements” and shared pools of meaning. I respect the tools. I often forget the tools when I need them most, but they help sometimes.
I’m not ashamed to tell you that my partner and I see a marriage counselor because anyone who is, or has been, married knows that marriage can be incredibly hard.
If you want to get off autopilot and stop sweeping crap under the rug, or if you want to stop rolling your eyes and muttering not-so-kind things under your breath, or if you want to stop getting trapped in vicious arguments that dredge up what happened last month and last spring and six years ago, it really helps to have the guidance of a neutral third party.
Unlike your friend or sister, this third party is not going to simply validate your perspective and tell you you’re right, as much as you might want them to.
I have a lot of respect for the art and science of marriage counseling, but there is a but. While all couples, not to mention all human relationships, can undoubtedly benefit from improved communication skills, we don’t communicate in a vacuum. All communication happens within a social context.
We can do all the dialoguing and deep listening that we want — and for about 70 percent of couples, this stuff reportedly helps — but we cannot overlook the fact that in the United States, about 69 percent of divorces amongst heterosexual couples are initiated by women, and that number rises to a staggering 90 percent for college-educated women.
Why is this? Is it because women are inherently more “difficult”? Is it because we hold our partners to impossible standards?
Nope and nope.
It’s because, in 2023, the vast majority of heterosexual couples have yet to achieve gender equity in their homes.
These inequities come into even sharper focus for heterosexual couples with children. Even amongst same-sex couples with children, similar inequities emerge between the partner who serves as the primary caretaker (i.e. the traditionally feminine role) and the partner who is more focused on their job outside the home.
Marriage counseling is yet another example of the myriad ways in which our go-it-alone culture pigeonholes us into treating shared problems as individual problems. Yes, we each bring unique baggage to our relationships. But when one gender is consistently initiating seven out of 10 divorces, there’s more going on than an individual failure to communicate.
With apologies to Cool Hand Luke, what we’ve got is a collective failure to acknowledge the centuries of oppression that women have endured, including a systematic denial of the rights and opportunities that their male partners have enjoyed. And, perhaps more importantly, to acknowledge the very real ways in which this history of blatant inequity continues to manifest itself today.
There are public conversations happening, at least, about issues like abortion rights, the gender pay gap, and the skewed gender ratios of boards, executive teams, and congressional bodies. (That any of these issues are even up for debate underscores just how much misogyny continues to hold us in its unyielding grip.) But what we’re generally not talking about are the myriad ways in which working men and women are held to different standards within the home.
Growing up, I was told that girls could be anything they wanted to be. Both my parents worked, and both my parents chipped in to make dinner. My dad was what we still call an “involved father,” a term coined to distinguish fathers like him from fathers who haven’t typically inserted themselves when it comes to caretaking and domestic matters.
Still, my father pursued his career with vigor. My mother solo-parented when he traveled to teach workshops, took us to nearly all our doctor and dentist appointments, and did or delegated most domestic tasks. She was rarely seen without her trusty yellow legal pad, full of endless and never-quite-completed lists of Things to Do.
It wasn’t until my younger sister left for college that she felt she had the bandwidth to focus on her own hobbies and passions. After more than two decades as an art teacher, she signed up for a class at San Francisco’s City College to actually make some art of her own.
Of course, I never thought about any of this growing up, but it astonishes me how much I internalized it. Even though my partner served as a stay-at-home dad for 16 months after I returned to work from my first maternity leave — which, for the record, had nothing to do with furthering my career and everything to do with paying the mortgage — we still fell into many of the same patterns as my own parents.
I didn’t tote around a yellow legal pad, but, without really meaning to, I became the de facto Keeper of The To-Do List. I also became the de facto Maker of the Appointments, Arranger of the Schedules, Researcher and Planner of the Activities, Delegator of the Tasks, Packer of the Things, Regulator of the Emotions, Unwilling Participant in the Text Threads, and Frontline of Defense for Any and All Phone Calls Regarding My Child.
Working women, on average, are still doing more housework than their husbands, even when they’re the breadwinners, but it’s the insidious nature of this invisible labor that I would argue causes the most marital strife.
As Eve Rodsky, author of Fair Play, points out:
“We’re not asking the right questions, because if you ask who does the childcare or who does the groceries, of course couples will answer ‘both.’ But what you’re not going to pick up is that the invisible work, the conception and planning behind each of these tasks, is done by women.”
Is it that big a deal, our partners frequently wonder aloud, to make a grocery list or schedule a daycare tour? No, it is not, and trust me, it has been frequently stressed to us how not big a deal these things are.
But the cumulative effect is a very big deal, indeed.
For many years, I was part of a Facebook group for working moms. Most posts were seeking recommendations to inform the research that moms are constantly doing — recommendations for what to do if X happens, what to do with restless toddlers on rainy days, and where to buy or find such and such.
Posts from moms trying to find childcare — which, at any given time, was most of us — began to choke up the feed, so an entirely different group was started to help desperate moms in our endless and increasingly impossible quest to figure out what to do with our children while we are trying to work.
Some posts asked for work advice, often advice on how to deal with a dismissive or condescending male superior. Every now and then, a mother simply wondered aloud whether she could keep all this up much longer. She wouldn’t necessarily specify what “all this” was, but we knew.
A group member once remarked: “I wish I could join a Facebook group for working dads. I wonder what they talk about.”
Someone replied: “I don’t think there is a Facebook group for working dads.”
I was curious, so I looked. I did find one, which had a handful of members and had been dormant for a number of years. I searched for other “working dad” forums and mostly came up short. It didn’t surprise me — after all, being a “working dad” isn’t really a thing.
There are workers who are also dads. Some of these workers are “involved” dads. But either way, it’s assumed that in order to enable their important work, there is a mother somewhere picking up the slack at home. Whether or not this mother also has a job outside the home is, for some reason, irrelevant.
Working dads, for the most part, aren’t spending their free time researching family-related issues, activities, and products. They are not, for the most part, being overlooked and dismissed at work because their status as a “dad” is not seen as interfering with their status as a “worker.” They get tired, to be sure, but their sleep is interrupted less often than their female partners, and they enjoy more leisure time each week to recover.
These are generalizations, yes. They are also statistically significant patterns that I have watched play out in my own marriage and in the marriages of most of my hetero-female friends. I have even watched them play out in same-sex marriages in which each partner has taken on a more traditionally “feminine” or “masculine” role.
And here’s the rub — when asked, most dads say that they share household work equally. That’s because invisible labor is … well, invisible. This puts moms in the unenviable position of taking on the brunt of that labor and trying to convince their partners that it exists. Then we’re accused of being martyrs and/or nags. We’re told we’re bad at delegating.
Then we go to marriage counseling, and we’re told we need to communicate better, and that to facilitate this, we should start scheduling weekly meetings. (Guess who puts those meetings on the calendar?) Oh, and also, we should set aside some time each day for a 15-minute check-in and hold finance meetings at least twice a month. Maybe a monthly family meeting wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.
I’m a huge fan of setting aside structured time to talk. I love a well-run meeting. But are one-on-one meetings and dialogues going to solve well-established patterns of gender inequity that have silently woven themselves into the fabric of households across America? Patterns that many men are unable or unwilling to see, leaving women to quietly accept them, constantly fight them, or simply give up and leave it all behind?
It’s no secret why most divorces are initiated by women.
I’m not trying to dump on dads here. We all internalize patterns of behavior based on what we see in the media, in school, and in our own homes. All our relationships are tangled up in a broader social web, rife with power dynamics and disparities.
When a man and a woman seek counseling, it is not simply a matter of learning how to listen more actively and speak more intentionally. It is also a matter of unlearning years and years of social conditioning. This, as I’ve learned the hard way, is very difficult to do in isolation.
An article entitled “The Progressive Dad’s Dilemma” on The Gottman Institute blog brings up some interesting points about the very real barriers fathers face when it comes to being more “involved” around the home. Then, at the end, the author glibly states:
“You and your partner can navigate the challenges of gender roles and parenthood gracefully when you prioritize your friendship and strive to manage inevitable conflict with kindness and curiosity.”
I respectfully disagree. Unlearning years of socialization takes a lot more than kindness and curiosity. It takes, first and foremost, an honest acknowledgment of the gender disparities that still plague modern marriage. Then, a collective commitment to seeing the invisible work that is leaving so many women feeling resentful and exhausted. Then, a shared plan for how to establish household responsibilities in the absence of defined gender roles.
The modern institution of marriage is failing modern women. Let’s stop telling women it’s “our problem.” Let’s try to fix the relationship and the institution. Let’s unlearn and reset together.
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Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories on Medium and Substack are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.