/ Will Old Gender Scripts Limit New Millennium Families' Ability to Thrive?


This article describes why outmoded ways of behaving as men and women pose serious problems to families in the new millennium. It discusses the importance of identifying and discarding these old "scripts." The authors set forth a model of equal marriage based on mutuality that provides standards by which couples and family practitioners can evaluate marital relationships. The article concludes with a five-step, "post gender" approach through which family practitioners can help families actively expose social and cultural patterns which limit people's lives.

Key Words: marriage, equality, "post-gender," gender, feminism

    1. Anne Rankin Mahoney is Professor of Sociology and former Director of Women's Studies, Department of Sociology, University of Denver, Denver Co 80208.return to text

    2. Carmen Knudson-Martin is Professor and Director of Marriage and Family Therapy, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice, Valdosta State University, Valdosta, GA 32698-0060.return to text

    Most couples carried a strong ideology of marital equality into the 21st century in spite of strong research evidence that they did not achieve it in the 20th (Blaisure & Allen, 1995; Coltrane & Adams, 1999; Daly, 1994; Hochschild, 1989; Horst & Doherty, 1995; Rossi, 1996; KnudsonMartin & Mahoney, 1998; Stelmack, 1994; Zvonkovic, Greaves, Schmeige, & Hall, 1996). What are their chances in the new millennium? It is our premise that outdated gender scripts have limited couples' ability to achieve marital equality in the past and will pose a serious threat to the health of families in the new millennium unless couples learn to identify and discard them. The new millennium calls for a postgender approach to family life which challenges rather than reinforces gender differences.

    This article discusses why old gender scripts retain such a strong hold on our family life and how they limit families' ability to innovate. It then sets forth a model of equal marriage based on mutuality that provides standards by which couples and family practitioners can evaluate marital relationships. Finally the authors suggest ways in which family practitioners can help families identify and discard old gender scripts and move toward genuine equality.

    Old Gender Scripts Endanger Relationships

    Gender scripts are ways of behaving and thinking that individuals have come to associate with being female or male. Similar to what Chafetz (1988) called "gender norms," they express expectations that most members of a culture learn and relearn over time about such things as who can interrupt a conversation or who is supposed to be good with babies. Socialization into these old scripts seems to be waning, at least for girls. But their continued existence is amply illustrated by recent research and clinical observation (e.g., Brown & Gilligan, 1992; KnudsonMartin & Mahoney, 1996; Tannen, 1990).

    Gender scripts are expressions of the power differential between men and women in the larger social context, especially the invisible and latent power that men hold in relationships (HareMustin, 1991; Komter, 1989). Ultimately, this power differential at the social and economic level must be addressed in order for men and women to have true marital equality. The focus of this article, however, is upon gender scripts because partners cannot begin to address societal inequalities until they recognize the impact of the inequalities in their own lives. Couples cannot engage in activism to change policies at the societal level until they free themselves to think creatively and innovatively about their own families.

    Gender scripts pose problems for new millennium families because they are based on earlier family forms developed to meet social and economic conditions very different from those that face families in the beginning of the 21st century. Because the old scripts are built into the very fabric of our lives they are difficult to identify and let go. They are like lines in a play that actors have learned so well that they become automatic. Partners fall back on them without thinking or considering whether they make sense for a contemporary situation. These old messages touch many aspects of love and intimacy. In particular, they keep in place the ideas that women should seek relationship and connection and men should protect their independence and maintain control. They subtly affect most couples, not only those where overt male power is obvious.

    Tannen, in her research on conversational differences between men and women (1990), showed how these attitudes play out in actual conversations. Men avoid conversation that feels like "taking orders." Checking with a spouse feels like "asking permission. Women, in contrast, seek connection through conversation and see discussion as evidence of engagement with a partner. Accordingly they are less concerned than men about who finally makes a decision.

    Gottman's long-term research on marriage reveals similar gender scripts in marital decision-making. In his most recent book (1999). he reports that most men do not share power with their wives, although the majority of women share power with their husbands. His data on the effect of old gender scripts are chilling. When men were unwilling to share power with their wives he found an 81% chance of divorce. Happy marriage and outstanding fatherhood, he argues, comes when men allow their wives to influence them. It is especially telling that when his research report on gender influence in marriage came out, it was picked up by the news media around the country with headlines such as "Yes, Dear, I'll Read This Story, Study: Obey Your Wife and You'll Stay Together" (Maugh, 1998). The very intensity of the media response says a lot about the continuing strength of older gender scripts and the fear their demise creates.

    Old gender scripts continue to dominate marriage not only because many people consciously hold on to them, or unconsciously absorb them as part of their growing up, but also because social institutions and cultural norms lag behind the new ideals. We're in the midst of one of the biggest and fastest periods of social change in recorded history. There are few models for how to create the new equal family relationships. There is little time to think through alternatives. In this fast-paced new millennium, it is easy to fall back on the scripts already in our consciousness, especially when they seem so "natural." Awareness of old gender scripts is the first step toward couple equality. Until partners can identify the scripts, they cannot evaluate their impact and choose which to keep or discard.

    Old Gender Scripts Limit A Couple's Capacity to Adapt To Rapid Social Change

    In order to develop new ways of organizing work/family behaviors, partners need to identify problems, negotiate solutions, try out new behaviors, and attempt to influence social policy for changes at the societal level. Women's role expansion into full-time work outside the home without surrender of the old gender scripts by both husband and wife leave relationships seriously unbalanced and couples unable to negotiate new solutions.

    The cost to women can be high, ranging from fatigue and other health problems to internalization of a sense of self blame, low self esteem, and failure because they can't do it all. Men, directed to restrict their dependency needs and emotionality, may neglect or deny internal needs, resulting in behavior that is hurtful to themselves or others. These imbalances, stresses, and burn out limit such families' ability to respond creatively to their changing life circumstances.

    Men who have traditionally defined their identity as men by their ability to fulfill provider roles may be threatened by behaviors which suggest that they no longer fulfill these roles. Zvonkovic and her colleagues (1996) found in their study of decision making regarding workfamily issues that even couples who were in financial difficulty after husbands had lost their jobs often resisted discussing the possibility of wives becoming the breadwinner. Gerson in her book No Man's Land (1993) argues that as the good provider role becomes unachievable for many men, men are no longer sure what it means to be men. She suggests that the demise of the cultural consensus on the meaning of manhood has left men in a no man's land, searching for new meanings and definitions of maturity. However, in their search, men have been slow to take over or even share what has traditionally been considered "women's work" (Coltrane & Adams, 1999; Crosby 1991).

    The ability to share power is prerequisite to intimacy (Horst & Doherty, 1995; Steil, 1997). Old gender scripts present an obstacle to intimacy, thus depriving a couple of the close emotional connection that can cushion them in difficult times and provide an energy source from which they can negotiate solutions to family problems. Robert Beavers, in Successful Marriage (1985), described intimacy as the state of being open, vulnerable, and able to share one's innermost feelings and thoughts. The sense of openness and vulnerability so necessary for intimacy is impossible when power is unequal. When partners are unequal, said Beavers, the top dog is fearful of exposing weakness and losing status. The bottom dog is afraid that anger, assertiveness, or wishes for equality will surface and alienate the top dog. Afraid of revealing their secrets, each remains isolated from the other. Intimacy and successful marriage, according to Gottman (1999), require that individuals find ways to share power and create more equitable work loads.

    Both clinicians and researchers comment on the numbers of couples they see who profess equality although they appear to outside observers to have an unbalanced relationship (e.g., Hare-Mustin, 1991; Hochschild, 1989; Walsh, 1989). The desire for equality, coupled with old gender roles, sets many couples up for a "myth of equality." Couples define themselves as equal while continuing to behave in accordance with the scripts of inequality. Instead of negotiating new behaviors, they struggle to maintain their myth with strategies that attempt to justify the imbalance they feel but dare not acknowledge. (Knudson-Martin & Mahoney, 1998). They limit their motivation and ability to engage in negotiations that would enable them to start a transition toward genuine equality or to solve problems created by economic and social changes, especially in the work-family domain.

    In our study of 12 couples during the first year of marriage, we found many examples of ways in which couples maintained their belief that they had an equal marriage (for details of this study and a full discussion of results see Knudson-Martin & Mahoney, 1998). The disparity between what the couples wanted (the dream of equality) and what they actually had (old gender scripts and power imbalances) was masked.

    When these couples faced relationship issues they tended to fall back on old gender scripts. They used four common strategies. One, they defined inequalities as something else. For example, couples in which the women did most of the housework as well as a full-time job outside the home gave a variety of justifications for the apparent inequality such as:

    • a difference in skills, ("she does housework better than I do")
    • a choice ("I choose to spend my time here")
    • circumstances ("if we cleaned on Saturday then we would both do it")
    • natural roles (“we each know our roles as husband and wife”)
    • something that is understandable ("I can understand where he is coming from").

    The couples used several other strategies. They hid issues through minimizing their own wants or hurts, or through humor that distracted both partners from difficult discussions. The women, in particular, settled for less than equal by agreeing to a solution that left them with the bulk of the concessions or work. In falling back on these strategies, which kept in place their old gender scripts, both partners passed up opportunities to work through central issues in their relationships.

    Women are usually the ones who feel the need for change, not only because of the pressure from the enormous expansion of their own roles but also because women have traditionally been the ones to raise relationship issues. In unbalanced marriages, this becomes doubly difficult. Often the outcome simply reinforces old gender scripts. Ball, Cowan, and Cowan (1995) found that when wives did raise issues and draw men into discussion, it was largely the men who controlled the discussion and outcome.

    Women in Stelmack's (1994) study of dual worker couples, described how they tried to accommodate to their husbands when they raised issues. They were very careful not to ask for too much and seemed to fear they were doing too little or were asking for more than they deserved. The women in Hochschild's study (1989) were ever sensitive to cautionary tales about divorce in families where women pushed too hard. Many of these women simply shouldered the "second shift" with all its exhaustion and frustration, rather than risk jeopardizing their marriage. Because of differential marital power, women in both these studies hesitated to actively problem solve with their partners to find new ways of coping with the changes that external economic conditions thrust upon family life.

    In contrast to couples still bound to old gender scripts, couples who identify and discard the scripts are more able to address conflicts and problems (Gottman, 1999; Knudson-Martin & Mahoney, 1998). Beavers (1985) described how women in equal relationships feel they can be open, assertive, and directly angry. Men feel they can be tender, openly frightened, or uncertain. Without the constraints of the old gender rules, partners can be flexible and learn from each other. Because equality provides a foundation for love, respect, and problem-solving, they are more likely to listen and respond to each other's concerns and complaints. Hence, they are less likely to emotionally upset each other. They can be truly intimate.

    Equal couples are also less likely to engage in criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling—four behaviors that John Gottman found lead to divorce. In his 1994 book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, he showed that couples who handle conflict well are more likely to have successful relationships.

    Solutions For A New Millennium

    How can 21st century couples move beyond old, destructive patterns? One solution is to develop standards of equal relationships that couples and family practitioners can use to evaluate intimate relationships in terms of the balance of power. A focus on what makes relationships equal makes old gender rules which limit equality more visible. A second is for family practitioners to become aware of the way in which outmoded gender rules may influence their own practice and approach to family issues.

    Definition of an Equal Marriage

    Although many contemporary writers discuss marriage in terms of equity, we prefer the term equality. Equity is about how couples define their relationships as fair, based on how they perceive each person's contributions (Keith & Schafer, 1991). We find that this is not broad enough to cover all the dimensions of true relationship equality. Furthermore, many ideas of what couples perceive as fair are premised to some extent on societal inequalities (Hawkins, Marshall, & Meiner, 1995: Sanchez & Kane, 1996; Thompson, 1991). The assessment of equity can be influenced by what are considered "appropriate" or "natural" gender behaviors, that is, old gender scripts.

    How couples negotiate what is "fair" is, therefore, limited by cultural norms, beliefs, and values that restrict the possible range of behaviors, determine who makes what decisions and how they are negotiated, and influence each partner's expectations and appraisal of the benefits and costs of the relationship (McDonald & Cornille, 1988). These factors tend to predefine standards of fairness and the allocation of many resources within the relationship and preclude many potential power confrontations. Thus, what people call "fair or equitable," may not reflect equal relationship conditions or fully take into account the needs of both partners.

    The term equality, on the other hand, requires not only a sense of fairness, but also a two-way accommodation between partners—a requirement for concern about mutual well being. It also insures the power of each partner to shape the relationship in a way that benefits and sustains his or her well being.

    In an equal marriage, each spouse has roughly the same ability to get the other to cooperate, to influence the relationship, and to achieve his or her own goals (Hood, 1983). Each partner tunes in to, notices, and responds to the other's perspectives, emotional states, and need for care (Jordan, et al., 1991). Partners are equally likely to organize their schedules around each other and take each other's needs and wishes into account. Neither person's well-being comes at the expense of the other. This definition is similar to, but not the same as, Schwartz's (1994) "peer marriage."

    A relationship that is equal encompasses six characteristics (Knudson-Martin & Mahoney, 1996). Both partners:

    1. Show their true selves to the other

    2. Hold equal power

    3. Take equal responsibility for the relationship

    4. Accommodate equally to each others' needs

    5. Pay attention to each other in a balanced way

    6. Equally support each other's well-being.

    The Role of Family Practitioners

    To meet the challenges of the 21st century, families need to move beyond old gender constructions that inhibit their ability to achieve intimacy and adapt to change. They seek relationships based on mutual respect and equality but do not know how to attain them. How family practitioners address these issues can play an important role in determining whether old gender scripts will continue to define family roles and relationships or whether new "postgender" models of family will evolve.

    Some approaches to gender issues emphasize and reinforce existing gender differences. These approaches, which highlight how women and men are different and help them accept and adapt to these differences, may improve communication and stability in the short term, but actually serve to maintain gender inequality and limit options for change (see Knudson-Martin, 1997). We suggest, instead, a "post-gender" approach that actively helps to expose social and cultural patterns which influence peoples lives, makes old gender scripts visible, and encourages people to explore new possibilities so they can have more choice in their lives. The approach includes the following five actions for family practitioners:

    1. Examine the extent to which old gender scripts still influence our own thinking about family and the ways we work with families. We particularly need to be aware of ways we ourselves may inadvertently encourage the creation of the myth of equality by using language and methods that mask inequalities. Know that women are more likely to accommodate than men and avoid unintentionally reinforcing that pattern.

    2. Assume that most differences between women and men are socially created and can be changed. Framing gender differences as natural or biological makes ideas regarding change difficult to envision and almost inevitably reinforces gender inequality. Speak of "habits" or "choices" rather than "natures" or "instincts."

    3. Ask questions about how roles and behaviors came to be. We suggest a stance of curiosity informed by awareness of gender equality issues such as who gets heard, how decisions impact each partner, and who is attentive to whom.

    4. Help externalize issues by showing people how their troubles are expressions of larger social problems that plague many people. This decreases blame and encourages people to make more conscious choices regarding their relationship patterns.

    5. Help people tolerate conflict. Without prescribed solutions of the past couples can expect some short-term anxiety and spirited disagreement as they attempt to break out of old, gender-based patterns. The old scripts minimize conflict at the expense of equality. Early resolution of conflict may be a way to avoid the anxiety raised when old power differences are challenged.

    Unspoken gender assumptions serve as "metarules" defining individual choices. A postgender approach (see authors, 1999) is attentive to the ways these old rules infiltrate people's lives, including our own. It encourages us to help new millennium families disengage from constraints of the past in order to devise more satisfying family patterns that are responsive to the realities of the new century.


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