Within the therapy community there is a general belief that counselors and psychotherapists are gender neutral and that they do not impose their personal beliefs about gender roles onto their clients. In my experience, this belief is incorrect. Many of my clients tell me stories of how their previous therapists encouraged them to comply with gender roles and stereotypes that limited their voice and power. And last month I met with a psychotherapist whose unconscious and covert sexism biased her understanding of me and the advice she gave.
I went to see the psychotherapist because I wanted help with how to facilitate a new normal in my marriage. I chose her because she said on her website that she had a background in women's studies, did couples and family therapy, and understood that clients live in social contexts that impact the choices they make. I thought that these ingredients would help her understand the subtle power issues I was trying to navigate. Power issues that involve examining the deeper issue of what it means to be female in a world where men's voices and men's needs still dominate.
Over the last four months I have experienced what it really feels like to be entirely cared-for by my husband. During our thirty-plus year marriage I have had to ask, and sometimes badger him to listen to what I need. But then last September when I suddenly became seriously ill, my relationship with my husband changed. He now listens more closely to what I need and sometimes he just knows without me having to ask. It is an amazing feeling to feel understood without having to explain myself. Admittedly at first all this attention felt uncomfortable. But as I got used to it I realized that this is the normal I have been yearning for with my husband for a long time and I do not want to lose it. Why shouldn't I be effortlessly understood? Why shouldn't what I need be naturally present in my marriage, just like my husband's needs have been present from when we got married?
When I shared this experience with my therapist I could see from the look on her face that she was struggling to understand where I was coming from. Her body language communicated that she was uncomfortable with my desire to stop being my family's main caregiver, even though my children are adults. And when we discussed my desire for my career goals to now take precedence over my husband's, she started arguing with me.
When I said to her that I no longer want to be the main caregiver in my family, she asked me if I was thinking of leaving my family. And when I told her that I want my work and career goals to take precedence in my marriage, she asked me if my husband was retiring. She went on to ask what my husband's career goals were, suggesting that if I put myself ahead of him I would be jeopardizing this career. I felt as if I was back twenty-three years ago when my husband and I left New Zealand so that he could study for his doctorate in America. Not a single person at that time asked me what my plans were or what I was hoping to get out of our move. Everyone expected me to be the dutiful, supportive wife and again, that is how this therapist saw me.
I was shocked by her lack of understanding of the subtle nuances of male dominance that force wives into doing more of the accommodating. I could not understand why in her mind, she thought that asking for a more shared caregiving in my family I would end up being alone. And why after thirty years of fitting my work around my family and my husband's work, I did not have the right to claim my time and my turn. Her reaction made me feel angry that this trusted professional was trying to guilt-trip me into ignoring what I need. I wondered how another female client, who feels less entitled to her needs and voice than I do, might feel? Chances are she will walk away from therapy feeling guilty and ashamed for wanting more.
I agree with Carmen Knudson-Martin, who comments in her article "Why power matters: Creating a foundation of mutual support in couple relationships", Family Process, Vol. 52, No1, (2013), that therapists are not gender neutral and that successful couples therapy must include an understanding of the socio-cultural context couples live in, and the subtle power hierarchy within their relationship. I would go further and suggest that all therapy must include an understanding of the client's family system and the gender roles and expectations that have been passed down from generation to generation.
What I needed from my now ex-therapist was a space in which to process the over-accommodating and self-neglect I have inherited from my mother and grandmother, and how these behavior patterns fitted beautifully with my husband's inherited male entitlement. Both of us come from families where wives feel duty-bound to accommodate and husbands do not feel duty-bound to listen to and emotionally support their wives. Thankfully my husband and I are changing this inherited pattern. I am the first woman in my family who is learning to be more self-accommodating, and my husband is the first male in his family who is learning to inquire after and honor what his wife needs.