Takeaway for Comm PostAn important part of interaction between you and your spouse is interpersonal communication, i.e., the way in which you are able to effectively communicate thoughts, ideas, and feelings primarily through verbal communication.

Your ability to verbally communicate with your spouse can enhance significantly the kind of relationship that will exist between the two of you.  The goal of this post is to assist you in being able to regularly express your thoughts, ideas, and feelings with respect and support for each other.

Above all, communication is not a debate between partners about whose preconceived notions about what is going on between the two of you.  Communication in a personal relationship is about a husband and a wife collaborating with each other by sharing perceptions, feeling, ideas and thoughts so that they can come to an understanding of what is happening between them, what is their joint reality.

Collaborative CommunicationID-10045230

How to Communicate Collaboratively

The first thing you will have to do in conversation with your partner is to unilaterally disarm, i.e., do not start a conversation thinking you are right about something.  This does not mean compromise or capitulation; you have a right to all your thoughts and feelings

  1. When you have something on your mind, give your partner a “heads up” about the topic, giving him/her time to think about his/her own thoughts.
  2. Set a time when you both can have a conversation about the topic.
  3. Start out with the idea that your partner may have something to say that is worth listening to and be willing to give serious consideration to.
  4. Remember, a conversation is not a battleground where you must prove you are right.

How to Talk to Your Spouse

You start a conversation knowing your own thoughts and feelings about a topic.  Remember, you want an opportunity to discuss these thoughts and feelings; so does your partner.  Here are some tips:

  1. In your conversation, stick to your thoughts and feelings. Don’t get sidetracked by accusing, criticizing, or blaming your partner.
  2. Be prepared to talk about what you want in a clear and direct fashion. Be cautious about lapsing into “I need” as a way of privileging what you want over your partners’ wants.  For example, say “I want more affection” rather than “I need you to be more affectionate with me”.
  3. What you want in your relationship may reflect old issues from your personal history. Be sure to continually “vet” your wants and wishes.
  4. Be willing to “own” up to where these wants come from…be willing to talk about painful personal histories, unfulfilled childhood needs, the way you protect yourself from these old, painful childhood experiences.
  5. Be sure to treat your partner with the respect and decency with which you treat any other person.

How to Listen to Your Spouse

Listen to your spouse with an unconditional interest in understanding what he/she is trying to say.  This is the way to get to know your spouse and what it is important to him/her.  Here are a few thoughts about listening:

  1. Listening is about your spouse who really wants to be heard. It really isn’t about you.
  2. Be sure to focus on what your spouse is saying, not your reaction to it. If you find yourself reacting, take a time out, to refocus on your spouse.
  3. It will be helpful to indicate that you are listening to him/her. You can try reflecting back what you are hearing him/her say so your partner can correct you if you are not understanding what is being said.  For example, you can say “I hear you say (what you heard), is that right?”
  4. By listening intently to your partner you may learn something new about her/him and about the ideas and feelings she/he has. You can gain a new perspective about your partner.


ID-10095377 (1)Defining Your Own Relationship Reality

Through this kind of conversation in which you both are able to say what you want and listen with interest to each other, you will discover a deeper understanding of what you both are experiencing with each other.  This kind of understanding can help to eliminate misconceptions, misinterpretations, and miscommunications that can occur in a relationship. What you end up with is a clearer picture of yourselves and of the reality of your relationship.

Communication Involves Both Content Messages and Relationship Messages: Reading Between-the-Lines

Content messages refer to the obvious aspects of your communication.  It refers to the specific issues around which the interaction is occurring, who is going to get the kids to school today, are we going to have sex tonight, who is going to do the dishes this week, am I getting the affection that I want.  The relationship message refers to what is occurring interpersonally between you as you talk about the various content areas.  A relationship message says something about the connection between you and your spouse.  Conflicts can occur because one of you misunderstands the relationship message and fails to clarify the difference between this and the content message.

Here are some examples of statements in which a relationship message is misunderstood:


(Misunderstood Relationship Message)

Husband from other room, “You’re calling me?” “Don’t bother me.” Go into other room and ask for what you want.
Husband says “You paid $100 for that?” “I can’t believe you did that? Ask, “Are you concerned about what I spent?”
Wife says to husband, “And that’s all you did?” “You really should have done more.” Ask “Would you like me to explain why I did what I did?”


Misunderstanding relationship messages typically occurs because you and your spouse are responding personally to the way in which the content message is said, e.g. the tone of voice, the context of the message, or emphasis on particular words.  You will be able to recognize when you are likely misunderstanding the relationship message because of your own personal reaction, i.e. getting irritated, angry, upset, etc.  In the three instances in the table, the way to clarify the message is to respond to the content of the message not your experience of the relationship message.  If you seek to clarify the content of the message, you will be able to talk about any ambiguity about the relationship message.

It is also the case that sometimes you will use a relationship message to convey some covert feeling that you are harboring about the relationship.  In the examples above, “And that’s all you did?” can be said with a tone that implies a critique of what was done.  It is up to you both to be aware of any hidden relationship messages you are trying to (mis)communicate.  If you respond to a perceived negative relationship message in a non-reactive way, you open the way to be able to talk about what you perceive as a negative relationship message.

Communication is Inevitable

That communication is inevitable refers to the idea that in interaction with other people you are always communicating in one way or another even when you think you are not.  When you don’t respond to a question your wife/husband asks, you are communicating something.   What occurs in this situation, is your spouse will likely interpret your silence as a relationship message, which may create a disconnect between the two of you.  It is best to understand that you cannot not communicate.

Communication and Gender

We return again to ideas about gender that can get in the way of creating and maintaining an equal relationship.  In order to get beyond gender stereotypes in communication, we need to say what they are.  Here are a few stereotypic ideas about how men and women communicate:

  • Communication matters more to women than me
  • Women talk more than men
  • Women have better verbal skills than men
  • Men talk in order to get things done; women talk to make connection with other
  • Men talk about things, women talk about people, relationships, and feelings
  • Men use language in order to provide information, preserve their independence and compete to maintain status; women use language to enhance cooperation, reflecting their preference for equality and harmony
  • Women tend to soften their statements by using tag phrases (e.g. “don’t you think”, “if you don’t mind”); men are more direct

These old ideas about how men and women communicative became dogma, i.e., unquestioned articles of faith, with the publication of John Gray’s “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” and Deborah Tannen’s “You Just Don’t Understand”.  Tannen is a well-respected linguist who publicly defends these communication differences between men and women despite the fact they are widely disputed by 30 some years of research on language, communication and the sexes.

However, most of us do not read scientific journals; we read popular books like Gray’s and Tannen’s.  Even when a retraction is made about a gender stereotype published in the popular press (e.g. the statement that women say 20,000 words a day while men say about 7,000 in The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, MD) the false belief continues because they become part of the stereotyped narrative about women and men, usually with a negative view of women.

A close study of Tannen’s work done by Alice Freed, Professor Emmerita of Linguistics at Montclair State University shows that she (Tannen) is actually an apologist for men.  She excuses their insensitivities in her examples as part of their “need for independence”.  She emphasizes the importance of women adjusting to men’s need for status and independence.

In Tannen’s book “You Just Don’t Understand” we can read about Josh, who invites an old high-school friend who is visiting from another town to spend a weekend with him and his wife, Linda.  The visit is to begin immediately upon Linda’s return from a week’s business trip but Josh doesn’t first discuss the invitation with her.  Tannen describes Linda as being upset by his failure to do so, her feelings being hurt.  According to Tannen, Linda’s hurt feelings would disappear if only she understood that for Josh to ask permission would imply that he is not independent, not free to act on his own.  He would feel controlled by Linda’s wish to be consulted

This is a glaring example of a person of authority, a linguist, buying into the old gender stereotype that women must defer to men in order not to threaten their egos. 

Crosschecking with your partner is not “seeking permission”.  It is being willing to negotiate with your spouse what works for both of you.  If Josh feels “controlled”, he needs to take an inventory of that experience. By the way, Tannen also relies on the old notion that “hurt feelings” are what is important to Linda.  What is important to Linda, is that Josh was unwilling to negotiate with her about what he wanted.  Tannen is using her status as an academic to promote stereotypic ideas based on anecdotal material, i.e. stories like the one described above.  She uses these anecdotal stories as a basis for sweeping generalizations about men and women.

To have an equal and sustainable marriage depends on your willingness and ability to confront such old gender ideas and to establish yourselves as individuals not as a category.

Here are the takeaways from this post:

  • You can become competent in communicating collaboratively
  • Approach conversations with your spouse by unilaterally disarming
  • Be prepared to talk about your thoughts, feelings, and ideas; stay away from getting focused on your partner
  • Be prepared to listen to your spouse’s thoughts, feelings, and ideas with interest
  • If you react to or misinterpret relationship messages, there will be trouble
  • Clarify content message to clarify relationship message misunderstandings
  • Be on guard against old gender stereotypes about communication between men and women.
  • You are both individual people, not a category


Deborah Cameron, “What language barrier? The Guardian (

Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis, “Men Are from Mars Earth, Women Are from Venus Earth” University of Rochester (

Communication Between Couples:  How to Communicate in a Relationship.  PSYCHALIVE (

Freed, Alice F.  (1992).  “We Understand Perfectly: A Critique of Tannen’s View of Cross-sex Communication”. In Hall, Kira, Mary Bucholtz and Birch Moonwomon (Eds.) Locating power: Proceedings of the second Berkeley women and language conference (vol.1). Berkeley: Berkeley Women and Language Group. 144-152.




The standard view of male and female desire, currently promoted by evolutionary psychologists, is that men are libidinous and promiscuous animals who are hard-wired for sex (a reproductive strategy designed to spread their genes as far as possible) and women as hard-wired for intimacy and babies, wanting to enforce marriage (monogamy) on men. Thank goodness there are a growing number of female scientists, a “gathering critical mass”, who are venturing into the field of female sexuality, a historically male-dominated field.

Daniel Bergner’s What Do women Want?” Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, reviews much of the recent scientific research, conducted primarily by women scientists, designed to challenge  traditional notions of female sexuality.   None of these scientists are claiming that women’s sexual desire, arousal, and orgasm are exactly like men’s.  Instead they are arguing that women have a stronger sex drive than commonly thought.  These researchers are challenging several long-held stereotypes of female sexuality:

  • That their sex drive is lower than men’s
  • That they’re aroused by love, not sex
  • That they’re not naturally sex agents but responders
  • That women are not as interested in new and different partners as men (both men and women struggle with being interested in sex in long-term marriage)
  • That women are not visual creatures (i.e. they don’t get aroused by visual images) when it comes to sex

One group of researchers at the University of Michigan lead by Terri Conley1 reviewed various theoretical and empirical approaches to gender differences in sexuality in order to shed light on the very prevalent misconceptions noted above.  Here are a selected few of their findings:ID-10043638

  • Do women desire and actually have fewer sexual partners than men? Bottom Line: No. When women thought that their true sexual history could be revealed by a polygraph (nonfunctional for purposes of the research), differences in reported sexual partners disappeared.
  • Do women orgasm less frequently than men? Bottom Line: Yes, but. The orgasm gap (men experience more orgasms than women) diminishes greatly when sex occurs in committed relationships; and it may disappear entirely when committed partners “are more generous in providing noncoital sexual attention (‘foreplay’)”.
  • Do men like casual sex more than do women? Bottom Line: Yes, but. A greater willingness to engage in casual sex is one of the largest documented sexuality gender differences.  Such previously documented discrepancies evaporate when female subjects considered sexual offers from very attractive or famous individuals.  Women were also equally as likely as men to accept offers of casual sex from close friends whom they perceived to have high sexual capabilities (would provide them with “a positive sexual experience”).  Conley concludes from her findings that the only consistently significant predictor that women, and men, will accept a proposal of casual sex is the perception that the one who is making the proposal is sexually capable (i.e., would be “good in bed”).  She also found indirect evidence in her work that women are less interested in casual sex because they perceive greater risk than men do in this kind of sexual encounter.

Considering the research they reviewed and their own research, Conley suggest that  gender differences in sexual behavior, which are the bread and butter of evolutionary psychologists, rather than being biologically rooted in our evolutionary past,  are rooted in much more mundane causes:

  • Stigma against women for expressing sexual desires
  • Women’s socialization to attend to other’s needs rather than their own
  • A double standard that dictates different sets of appropriate sexual behaviors for men and women

The Conley article is a well-presented, easy-to-read research report.  Bergner’s book covers some very interesting research.  In addition, he has a number of anecdotal stories from individuals, often pretty provocative.  He, like Esther Perel in Mating in Captivity have interesting discussions about dominance and submission in sexual activities.

ID-100246202One reviewer noted that Bergner’s book is a testament to the very existence and celebration of lust in women.  Bergner does acknowledges that people may marry not because it is the best possible arrangement for vibrant sex.  But it is the best way to have emotional stability and long-term companionship, which appear to be something both human males and females want.

Elaine Blair ( who reviewed the Bergner book, asks why is female lust getting such a big dose of scientific legitimacy at this time.  Is it because of women’s and men’s evolving social roles, because of women’s increasing economic and political power, feminism?  Many of the scientists are women which in itself is a novel situation.  As Blair notes, and I agree, the old story of the libidinous male and sexually indifferent female doesn’t make sense anymore. Don’t you, the reader, buy that old shibboleth either.  Claim your own sexual desire and fulfillment!

1Conley, Terri , Amy C. Moors, Jes L Matsick, Ali Ziegler, and Brandon A. Valentine.  (2011). “Women, Men and the Bedroom: Methodological and Conceptual Insights That Narrow, Reframe, and Eliminate Gender Differences in Sexuality.Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(5) 296-300.  (

2Conley conducted several projects challenging a very famous paper published by Clark and Hatfield in the Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, “Gender Differences in Receptivity of Sexual Offers.”  The purpose of this 1989 study was to provide support for what is called the Sexual Strategies Theory, a mainstay of evolutionary psychology, that men would be more responsive to an offer of casual sex than would women.  Conley embarked upon a project of four studies designed to determine under what conditions women are willing to agree to a casual sexual encounter.  Her research has been widely covered in the media.  One good review of the work can be found in the blog Yes Means YES!.


MY VIEW MARRIAGEHow you interact with your spouse will determine the felt quality of your relationship.  That is, how you go about achieving the things you both want in life is more important to the felt quality of your relationship than having the specific things you want.

Marital Interaction is about the process going on interpersonally between you and your spouse as you talk about the everyday events, happenings, and activities in your life together.  For example, a wife approaches her husband to ask him to go to the movies with her one evening.  Interaction or process refers to how she approaches him (insecurely, demandingly, asserting a preference, etc.) and how he responds to the request (dismissively, with hostility, saying he prefers another night, etc.).

Here is the “short version” of how to achieve a good marital interaction or process:

  • You will bring all your “insecurities” into your marriage.
  • Your “insecurities” show up as defensiveness and overreactions to each other.
  • It is up to each of you to know and manage these insecurities through self-awareness and self-reflection.
  • Marriage will be affected by “doing gender”, i.e. carrying out socially prescribed roles of husband and wife because they are associated with feeling “masculine” and “feminine”.
  • How you manage these gender prescriptions will significantly affect whether or not and how you accomplish the “things” in life that you want.
  • Successful marital interaction between self-aware, self-reflective people is based on negotiating collaborative the ins and outs of the relationship.
  • Negotiating collaborative in marriage is an art that can be learned.MARITAL INTERACTION NEGOTIATION

The “long version” of my views is described in the posts in this blog, “a millennial marriage”.   I focus on the interpersonal interactions, which are the day-to-day encounters between you and your spouse.  I look at these interactions from both the perspective of you and your spouse as individuals and from the perspective of you as a pair.

Individually you both have to be aware of your own personal motives when you are interacting with each other.  This will require some effort on both your parts.  In addition, you will have to pay attention to how old ideas about gender can shape your interactions, often without your being aware of this influence.

My approach to marital interaction in marriage is different from what I often see in blogs offering marital advice.  Here are a few of my thoughts about these approaches.

  • Too often they are based the idea that there are inherent, biological differences between men and women (e.g. men are from Mars, women are from Venus).
    • This is too general an approach, we are each individuals, not categories of people.
    • This approach often assumes that we each have biologically-based “needs” which your partner must provide (e.g. men “need” sex).
    • You can’t negotiate needs, you can only bargain over them, i.e. do a “tit for tat”.
    • These ideas keep the status quo.
  • Marital advice that is religiously based often relies on establishing the husband as the head of the household and leader, to whom his wife must defer.
  • Marital interaction is primarily seen as a quid-pro-quo,  i.e., you provide what I “need” and I will in turn give you what you “need.” Historically in marital therapy that has come down to exchanging sex (male biological need) for conversation (female biological need for connection)

What all these approaches try to do is “prescribe” how you two should interact with each other according to some theorized principle.

The basic principles of my approach that are described in this blog are:

  • You wish to be together because of a strong felt love and affiliation toward each other.
  • You are both individual people with your own views on how to flourish in life.
  • You can learn to negotiate (rather than have prescribed) the activities, events, wishes, wants, etc. in your relationship in a collaborative manner.
  • It takes willingness to be self-aware and self-reflective to learn how to do this.
  • You will want to examine your old ideas about gender roles in marriage.







NEEDS VERSUS WANTSOne of the most common ideas about how marriage should work is that partners fulfill each other’s “needs”.  The idea that “needs-that-must-be-fulfilled” is what we bring to our relationships promotes a self-centered approach to relationships.  The concept of need became popular in psychology during the middle of the 20th century as an expression of the more general idea that we are all motivated primarily (or only) by self-interest.  The view that human beings act from self-interest and only from self-interest is not new.  It has been the dominant view in psychology and in much of Western thought in general.

The view that human nature is motivated ultimately by self-interest applied to intimate relationships translates into the idea that we must fulfill our partner’s self-identified individual needs. 

The toxic effects of this position are:

  • Needs are demands that must be fulfilled. A need is something we are entitled to have fulfilled. ID-100277147
  • They can be exchanged (tit for tat, quid pro quo) but not truly negotiated because they are entitlements.
  • To not have a need fulfilled is an injustice that will breed resentment.
  • The value of my partner gets defined by the degree to which he “fulfills” my “needs”, satisfies my self-interest. In other words, he has no intrinsic value or worth to me independent of the degree to which he fulfills my self-identified needs, and vice versa, my value to him is  based on how well I fulfill his needs.
  • There is no end to the list of things I need. All wants, preferences, and desires can be identified as needs.
  • I do not have to be concerned about the impact on my partner of fulfilling my self-identified needs.
  • People who promote this view tend to adopt the idea that men and women have biologically-determined, inherent and enduring different needs (men are from Mars and women are from Venus). In this view, husbands and wives must fulfill each other’s biologically-based gender needs.

If marriage is to work in the 21st century, it cannot be built around the idea that if we fulfill each other’s self-identified, gendered needs we will live happily ever after.

The idea of partners as having things they want, and the related notion of “preference”, in order to flourish in life is a better way to promote good intimate relationships.   A want (or preference) is something that can be negotiated in your relationships; a need demands fulfillment.

To have a want or preference is an expression of oneself; it is an expression of what one believes important to living well, to having a good life.  As an expression of oneself, one’s wants and preferences must be acknowledged as standing on their own.  At the same time, they are not demands that must be catered to.  Wants and preferences are no more than an expression of oneself but they are no less than the expression of oneself. In fact, from my perspective wants (and associated preferences) are the best expression of who I am.  My wants derive from my values, my desire to flourish, my gender, and my experience in life.  And wants and desires can be negotiated.

The way to create a committed relationship in which each of your wants and preferences are respected and honored in your relationship is through collaborative negotiation. Collaboration is the ultimate form of working together; a synergistic process of shared creationCollaborating partners operate as a team to achieve a common purpose, which is larger than anything than either could achieve on his/her own.  Negotiation collaboratively is the ultimate form of jointly weighing how things are to work out between the two of you. True collaborators are always equals and each partner accepts full responsibility for his/her part in the process of negotiation.

Differences between the sexes, to the degree that we actually know what these are, may be important in determining the individual wants of men and women.  As wants or preferences, they can be negotiated, avoiding the risk of having gender differences create the opportunity for an unequal relationship by “privileging” male over female “needs” or vice versa.

Note:  To read more about the theoretical and philosophical bases for the concept  of “need” as a motivational concept in psychology, I recommend two books by Drs. Mike and Lisa Wallach, both profs of mine at Duke University: (1) Psychology’s Sanction for Selfishness: The Error of Egoism in Theory and Therapy and (2) Rethinking Goodness.  Both are brilliant thinkers.

Click on the thumbnails below for more info, fun, and provocative ideas about millennial marriages…

Needs versus wants 1 Needs versus wants 2 Needs versus wants 3



HOW IT WORKS COLLABORATIONIn committed marriages, what you want, what is important to you shows up in the day-to-day encounters around big and small issues occurring between husbands and wives. It is deciding who is going to go to the grocery store today, talking about how the children are doing at school, deciding if you are going to move so that one of you can take an exciting new job, who will get the children to soccer practice, how to achieve a satisfactory sexual life, will you go to church, do you go to the movies this weekend, etc., etc.

The way to create a committed relationship in which each of your wants and preferences are respected and honored in your relationship is through collaboration, the ultimate form of working together. Collaborating partners operate as a team to achieve a common purpose, which cannot be achieved by either partner on his/her own.

Here are a few basic ideas about what being collaborative means:

Collaborators are Equal.  True collaborators are always equals and each partner accepts full responsibility for his/her part in the process of negotiation.  Collaboration requires the sharing of authority and an acceptance of personal responsibility for the outcome.

Collaboration is not Capitulation.   Collaboration protects individual autonomy.  Most of us have a (possibly non-conscious) fear of being overwhelmed by someone and are reluctant to surrender any part of our autonomy in a relationship. Collaboration involves each partner explaining what he/she wants, why it is important, and how strongly he/she feels about the idea.  Each partner learns new things about what is proposed and new things about his/her partner’s wishes and wants.  Neither wants to do anything that the other regards as too unattractive.  The idea is to end up with a plan that shows that each partner’s wishes are respected, a plan that reflects the process of collaboration.  ID-100233726

Collaboration is not Cooperation.   Collaboration is about the process of working together, while cooperation is about the result of working together.  For example, I can cooperate with you by stepping aside while you do what you want to do.  Collaboration means we talk about what you want to do, why you want to do it, and how important is it to you.  In collaboration, I am involved from the outset.

Collaboration and Gender.  Gender may be one factor that influences our wants and preferences.  Gender attributes may shape wants and preferences, but the fact that something we want might be gender-related can neither preclude nor precede collaboration with each other as equals.

 A committed marriage is a life-long partnership, which links two people around their most fundamental wishes and wants in order to flourish as individuals and as a couple.  This requires great attention to the maintenance of a collaborative environment of negotiation.


Stephen J. Coulson. How to Maintain Your Autonomy in a Collaborative Partnership. (

Click on these thumbnails for links to more info, fun and provocative ideas about contemporary marriage.

Collaboration 3  Collaboration 2  Collaboration 1


Millenial Couples Need HelpAchieving and maintaining gender equality in your relationship is not going to be easy.  Most couples fall into unequal marital patterns without their conscious intention or awareness.  Successful egalitarian couples are vigilant about being proactive in decision making.  Here are several fundamental issues that will facilitate achieving and maintain gender equality in your marriage.

Be aware of gender issues.  Being aware of the strong pull toward traditional masculine and feminine roles is the first step in moving beyond gender.

Challenging gender entitlement is often instigated by women.  A new husband may think he gets to make the decisions about money; gets to go play golf on Saturday because he has worked hard all week; only has to “help” out with the children.  Husbands who are committed to an equal relationship have to remind themselves, “This is my house, these are my dishes, and this is my baby just as much as hers.”

Develop new competencies.  Couples who are committed to gender equality in their marriage have to develop new competencies for which they have not been socialized.  Men will have to learn how to be fully involved parents; they will have to be willing to express themselves; will have to attend to the things that make them an equal partner.  Women often have to learn to be comfortable knowing what they want; be willing to express directly what they want; and be committed to productive work outside the home.couple in crowd

Dual commitments to family and work.  Equality is promoted when both partners express a strong commitment to both family and work participation.  This makes family commitment a high priority for men and a commitment to paid work a high priority for women.   If commitment to paid work is not equal, gender is likely to become a prime force in family life as women vest their identity in family responsibilities, and men invest theirs in work.

Active negotiation about family life.  Maintaining gender equality means facing issues and working to resolve them, rather than letting them fester.  Both husbands and wives can learn to get input from both sides of an issue and improve their negotiation of their perspectives.

Knudson-Martin, C.  (2005).  “Moving beyond gender: Processes that Create Relationship Equality.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Volume 31, Issue 2, pages 235-258, April 2005.

Click on thumbnails to see “postgender” “gender legacy”, and “traditional” couples’ stories…..

 Successful couples 1 Successful couples 2 Successful couples 3







doing gender in marriageYou will be doing gender daily in your marriage without even knowing that you are doing it.  Husbands and wives are actively engaged in reinforcing their own ideas of being masculine and feminine.  Doing gender is our way of being “masculine” and “feminine” and, thereby, carrying out the socially prescribed roles of husband and wife.

Imagine a husband has had a hard day at work and is feeling stressed.  He “acts out” his gender expectations by crumpling into his easy chair to show that he is worn out from work and needs some attention.   His wife sees this, and understands that this display of gender is a bid for her “womanly” display of caring.  How she responds will depend on her own definition of being feminine.   She may respond to her husband’s cues by sitting down with him for a few minutes, or by bringing him something to eat or drink.   She may not ask him about his day because this is not the way he wants to be cared for.  For her to not provide the expected caring would likely result in the husband feeling deprived of what is his due. millennials doing gender in marriage

Both the husband and the wife in this ordinary interaction are defining  themselves as masculine and feminine by confirming each other’s gendered expectations of being wife and husband.  It is also noteworthy that conforming to these gender roles does not necessarily get recognized as praiseworthy—it is what ought to be done.

Let’s see what a de-gendered interaction might look like.  Our husband has had a tough day at work and his wife who is on family leave from her work is home with their newborn.  He guesses that she too may have had a tough day with the colicky baby.  After greeting his wife and confirming that, indeed, she has had a tough day, he suggests they call his mother to come over for a couple of hours so that they can have dinner out.  At dinner both have a chance to share their difficult day, each supporting the other.  They also begin the conversation about how they are going to arrange their work life to accommodate together their new, loved member of the family.

The first scenario is automatically “doing gender” in marriage through our everyday interactions.  These gender rules are both caused by and, at the same time, perpetuate our ideas of what it is to be masculine and feminine.

Your own individual pattern of acting out together these socially prescribed roles will come to be seen as the expression of the “natural” differences between men and woman, between being masculine and feminine.  They begin to be seen as “hard-wired” patterns of behavior of femininity and masculinity, with which we are bombarded daily in conversation, the media, scientific literature, advice columns, and well-meaning friends and family.

Click on thumbnails below for links to more info, fun, and provocative ideas….

the Trap thumbnail 1 The Trap thumbnail 2 the Trap thumbnail 3


Harvard WomenMillennials, generally described as the generation born between the early 1980’s to the early 2000’s, have very liberal ideas about adult role, including approving of working women, abortion, pre-marital sex, legal marijuana, and gay marriage.  They reject strongly differentiated gender roles in marriage.

However, a new study of Harvard Business School alumni found that the real lives of Harvard women graduates did not match their reported expectations about their work and family lives.  That is, while  women and men have about equal expectations about how their careers and home life will go, the actual lives of the women in the study did not live up to those expectations.

For example, young women in this study expect that their progressive values about caring for children will be reflected in their own live.  However, young men in the study were much more likely to expect a more traditional outcome, women being more responsible for caring for children.

What is interesting about this study is that it asked the survey takes to report on the gender dynamics of their own lives, not about gender equality in the abstract.  These are bright, well-educated women and men who once they marry and have children fall back into traditional roles.  How does this happen?

The practical impact of childbearing and childrearing continues to have greater consequences for women than for men, even for those couples who hold egalitarian ideologies.  Trying to combine work and family leads many women to prefer giving up their career aspirations because of the difficulty of managing both along with traditional ideologies about good mothering.  For the most part, husbands nowadays are typically supportive of their wives decisions, but seldom do husbands offer to sacrifice their own work commitments.  Even if women go to work after the children are in school, their husband’s earning power has so outstripped theirs that they come to think of their salary as “extra” money rather than as being a major contribution to the family.ID-10085433 (2)


  • Male and female graduates have the same goals: meaningful, satisfying work (with opportunities for career growth) and fulfilling personal lives
  • Among full-time workers, men were significantly more likely to be in senior management positions
  • Fewer women than men reported being satisfied with careers
  • Different expectations in marriages leads to diverging career paths
  • 75% of men (ages 32 to 67) expected careers to take precedence over wives’ careers and it turned out to be true
  • Half of corresponding women expected to handle majority of child care, three fourths ended up doing so
  • One female graduate, mother of two and founder and chief exec of a company, reported her career and home life matched her expectations. She was upfront about her career goals, she and her husband “are on the same page”, and they “actively manage” the balancing of jobs and child care.

Click on thumbnails below for more info about the Harvard Study…..

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Ely, R.J., Stone, P. and Ammerman, C. 2014). Re-thinking what you know about high-achieving women.  Harvard Business Review. December. (