Counseling For Liberation by Charlotte Ellen
Charlotte Ellen, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in private practice. She has lectured and been a frequent consultant and leader at Marriage and Family Conferences, Institutes, Woman’s Studies, and Human Liberation Programs. She also writes for use of her material by ministers and pastoral counselors. She also co-authored, with Howard J. Clinebell, The Intimate Marriage, Harper & Row. This book used by permission of the author. It was prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 3: Pain and Gain for Women and Men
As men and women have been defined over against one another, conditioned to separateness, they have had their full humanity truncated, they have had their potentiality for genuine human communication and mutuality gravely injured.(1) Violette Lindbeck
A Rising Discontent
Across the top of the title page of a section called "Today's Women" in a Southern California newspaper (1) there appeared the pictures of nine brides (no grooms; the newspaper refuses to print pictures of grooms). Each bride is labeled with her husband's name -- Mrs. John Jones, Mrs. Robert James, Mrs. Peter Smith. Below the nine brides' pictures are nine articles describing the beautiful weddings; several of them refer to the bride as "the former Miss . . " At the bottom of the page, underneath the bride pictures and stories, there appears another article headlined, "Runaway Wives: Their Number is Increasing." In this story the director of a large missing persons agency notes the statistics on runaway spouses:
In the early 1960s . . . the number of husbands who ran away compared with the number of wives was about 300 to one. By the late 1960s, the ratio had decreased to about 100 to one. In 1972 it was two to one. But in 1973 it was about even. (1)
The two stories appearing on the same page made for a striking and suggestive contrast -- the beautiful brides and the runaway wives.
There are many reasons for the discontent illustrated by these runaway wives, among them being the rising tide of expectations and aspirations. People, especially women, are becoming aware of new options. The director of the missing persons agency mentioned above described the typical run-away wife:
She's thirty-four-and-one-half years, married at nineteen, first child within one year of marriage, second child a year and a half later. She's intelligent, caring, anxious to elevate herself above the stereotyped roles of cook, laundress, waitress, housemaid, chauffeur.(2)
There was apparently a time when women in general were content with the housewife role. Some still are. But more and more women are choosing to marry late, or not at all, or to have children but not to marry, or not to have children at all. As women begin to define themselves as persons first and foremost, rather than as wives and mothers, men are also forced into new definitions of themselves. People who come to counselors these days are often struggling with these new definitions, and with the changes in lifestyles and relationships which they presage. New ways of becoming "whole" mean new kinds of problems. Ministers and pastoral counselors need to understand the old limitations and become open to the many options for being human, options to which the church in the past has been generally closed.
The Burden of Traditional Role Expectations
Two friends of mine who were expecting a baby were talking recently about their aspirations for the child soon to be born. The prospective father told of his excitement at the thought of having a son who might become a "starting forward." The other day a note came announcing the birth: of course the baby turned out to be a girl. The mother, who had been as enthusiastic as the father about having a starting for- ward in the family, wrote the note: "Bob is disappointed that he didn't get his starting forward but he is thrilled with our little cheerleader." The role boxes and expectations are ready and waiting even before birth!
Little boys learn early that to "be a man" means "Don't cry," "Don't fail," "Be a success," "Earn as much money as you can." Little girls learn to be sweet, pretty, and not too smart, and never to beat a boy at anything. Limit yourself to cheering him along from the sidelines. In our culture we teach boys from the outset to develop an independent sense of self, and that is good. We teach girls to develop a capacity for intimate relationships, and that is also good. What we do not do, most of the time, is to teach boys and girls to become both independent and interdependent, that is, to find strength both in themselves and in their relationships.
Adolescent girls are even now expected to curb further any signs of independence or assertiveness, to let boys take the initiative in activities and in dating, and to think of marriage and children as their most important goal. Increasingly young women are choosing education and career, but frequently only as something to do in case they don't get married. Boys are expected to choose a job or career and decide how they will earn money for the rest of their lives. They are expected to be the aggressor when it comes to relationships with girls. Girls thus learn to get what they want by subterfuge and manipulation. At this age, as at earlier ones, we do not encourage boys and girls to look at a variety of options with respect to both relationships and occupations. We hurry both sexes into marriage, parenting, and bread winning.
It is still true that most men and women marry and become parents. Instead of expanding the personal horizons of both partners, marriage too often means limiting them. Women find themselves isolated and lonely, burdened with house and children. Men often find themselves trapped in jobs they don't enjoy, caught up in the achievement rat race, and burdened with the perpetual responsibility of supporting the family. Children get too much mother, not enough father. Husbands and wives grow distant; no wonder one or the other runs away. We emphasize too heavily the joys of motherhood without noting its frustrations. We do the opposite for men; we focus more on the burdens than on the satisfactions of fatherhood.
Women who decide to pursue a job or career outside the home, whether by choice or by necessity, (more than one-third of the U.S. work force is composed of women) often feel guilty about neglecting their children; they also resent being overloaded with two jobs, one at home and one away. Some women who actually choose to be a homemaker now feel a new inner conflict; they think they hear the collective voice of the women's movement saying that the role of housewife and mother is "not OK." Thus women may feel a double bind — traditional society telling them to stay home, the new consciousness telling them to get out.
Married women approaching middle age often face a new set of problems. If they have accepted society's dictum and defined themselves almost exclusively around their roles as mothers and wives they may find it difficult to see what the future holds for them when their children leave home. In Doris Lessing's Summer Before the Dark Kate Brown anticipates the departure of her youngest child: "She felt like a long-term prisoner who is going to have to face freedom in the morning."(3)
Menopause is traumatic for many women. Besides the new and surprising physical symptoms and changes it brings, which vary greatly from woman to woman, women often fear also the loss of their "sex appeal" (as defined by the cultural stereotype). A woman has to deal not only with her own feelings about the change and the passage of time but also with the dehumanizing attitude of society toward the menopausal woman. (3)
Middle-aged men face different problems. If they have achieved the goals they once set for themselves, or had set for them, they may be happy in their work but feel that they have grown apart from their wives and distant from their children. Or they may have struggled long and hard for a goal which continues to elude them and seems more distant than ever as middle age approaches. Both groups of men fall into the category of "high risk" for heart attacks.
Old age hits women and men somewhat differently. Large numbers of women are widows, faced not only with aging but with aging alone and in isolation. Or they may be confronted with the demands of a retired husband who is suddenly at home all the time with nothing to do. Although old age in our society is generally viewed negatively for both sexes, the negative image of the older woman as the "little old lady" is far more common than any comparable image for the older man, who is often regarded as "distinguished" or "wise." Older men are more in demand than older women, partly because there are fewer of them. Nonetheless, men who have made it successfully through middle age may face at retirement the "cold wind from the future"(4) that women faced when their children grew up and left home. Because of our society's attitude toward non-productiveness, retirement may be a severe blow for a man. If his entire adult life has revolved around the "male machine" mystique, if he has not developed warm and close relationships and absorbing interests outside the productive world of job or career, retirement may feel to him like the end. Some men do in fact just curl up and die. In this way, aging may be easier for women, who are more apt to have learned to find satisfaction in relationships.
Single people are severely dehumanized by the cultural norm which defines people as successful only if they marry. Women feel the pressure to marry even more strongly than men; even those who have chosen singleness and feel happier than their married friends seem to be, or who have achievements to their credit equal to those of men, are generally considered to be "unfulfilled." Divorced women are often made to feel the added pressure of having "failed" at the most important job for a woman; they may have full responsibility for raising the children, and even be supporting the family, but they are still regarded as "a failure."
Although the image of the single or divorced man is a much more desirable one, men too face the problems of singleness to some extent. Divorced men often have heavy financial bur- dens, and sometimes are cut off from their children by circumstances and customs which favor the mother in custody proceedings.
Probably the heaviest burden for single people in a couple-oriented society is loneliness. Because we live in a culture in which things are supposed to come out even, the single person in a group of married people is uncomfortable and so are the couples who often feel they must find a "partner" for the single one. Churches are probably as guilty as any institution of slighting the single person both in attitudes and in activities.
One of the spin-offs of the rising consciousness of women — and therefore of men -- is that it is not only OK to be single but it can be a highly desirable and fulfilling lifestyle for many people. Marriage isn't the only place to get one's relationship needs met. Both the married and the single state have their advantages; again, the crucial issue is choice and the fullest opportunity for every individual to be and to become fully human.
The rising divorce rate suggests the need for a kind of counseling that can help a couple to separate creatively. Of course that means encouraging them to look at the factors which got them into the marriage and those which are forcing them out. It means helping them to deal with anger and hostility so that the children do not become pawns, to work out the legal problems amicably, and to do their grief work thoroughly. But the main focus of divorce counseling is to encourage both women and men to see themselves as whole people still, with the potential of a satisfying life ahead whether they marry again or not.
Although it often follows, divorce counseling is not the same as marriage counseling. Divorce counseling is based on the assumption that it may be better for some couples to separate, rather than on the traditional attitude of the church that a marriage must be saved if possible and that divorce is always a tragedy. A divorce may be the most humanizing option if a particular couple got married for all the wrong reasons in the first place or if one or both persons would be better off single. Divorce counseling is a kind of counseling and consciousness raising that affirms singleness as an option for human wholeness.
There are a number of issues connected directly or indirectly with sexuality around which both women and men are struggling today. Women are learning from new research and are discovering for themselves that they can accept and enjoy their long repressed sexuality. For many women that means dealing with guilt, because they have been brought up to believe that "nice girls don't" take the initiative, or even enjoy sex. Often it also means frustration. Long repressed sexuality is sometimes hard to call forth. Becoming "orgasmic," to say nothing of "multiply orgasmic" is not easy when one has been taught to accept, even to cultivate, "frigidity." For men, "the new woman" may at first appear sexually threatening when it develops that she sometimes likes to take the initiative and can actually have more orgasms than he can. Ultimately, however, as members of both sexes escape the sexual double standards, learn about their bodies and what they like, and come to enjoy being both receptive and aggressive, tender as well as tendered to, sex becomes more humanizing for both.
As lifestyles broaden, more and more people are enjoying sex outside of marriage. Premarital sex has its values if it keeps people from getting married who otherwise would get married only for the sake of having sex. Also, as more and more people decide not to marry, sex for single people is an increasingly practiced, and accepted, phenomenon. As a society we have no right to deny the joys of sex to people who do not marry, or who marry late by choice or by necessity, or who have lost a mate by death or divorce.
Another increasingly viable lifestyle for many people as we broaden our perspective on what it means to be human, is that of homosexuality. A young woman said to me recently that she stays away from her church and her minister because she knows her lifestyle would be unacceptable -- she would be told she was a sinner. Ministers and counselors could be influential in changing attitudes which make a person feel less than human simply because she or he behaves differently from the majority. (5)
Humanizing or "liberating" sex is that which affirms the full personhood of both participants. Whether in marriage or out of it, whether between the sexes or within the sexes, it says that sex is good, and that our bodies are good, provided that neither participant treats the other as an object meant chiefly for gratification.
Dehumanizing aspects of sex can be found within marriage as well as out of it. The crucial attitude for the minister is a nonjudgmental one which helps people look at the sexual aspects of their relationships in the same way they look at other aspects, that is, with a view to what is most humanizing for both parties. An awareness and appreciation of new attitudes toward sexual atisfaction, attitudes which are humanizing to both women and men, is important for ministers and counselors who want to work with people in this area, and who want to change the all-too-common attitude that the church is "against" sex. At the same time ministers and the church can have a profound influence on the development in individuals and in society of attitudes toward sex which are in fact humanizing and not exploitative.
There are three other related situations in which women are often asking for help these days -- pregnancy outside of marriage, abortion, and rape. Ministers and counselors can be helpful at such times only if they are truly open to the options women face in those circumstances, and truly willing to help counselees deal with their feelings and decide for themselves what is best for them. Women in any of those circumstances need to be encouraged to talk to other women who have had like experiences and/or are trained to help. Women's health centers and rape crisis centers are excellent agencies for referrals. Of course people are not likely to discuss their concerns in the area of sexuality with any minister or counselor whom they perceive to be judgmental about their thoughts and behavior.(6)
Pains and Gains
Many of us women, when we first begin to recognize the restrictions which define us in terms of physical attractiveness and our relationships to men, respond with intense anger; this initial response is frequently followed by serious steps to find new directions. Others of us react first of all with fear -- which may account for the remarkable phenomenon of "pussy cat" and "fascinating woman" programs that encourage women to be "feminine" with a vengeance, to subordinate themselves entirely to men, and get what they want through dishonest manipulation. Such an approach generally appeals to people who are more comfortable with authoritarian guidelines. On the whole, however, women are pushing for equality, for recognition, for a share in the power, for men to take more responsibility in matters of family life, child raising, and home maintenance. The pain women feel revolves around anger at their long and usually unconscious imprisonment and around the fear that they might now have to get out of the accustomed boxes.
As men get past their angry resistance to the demands of women, and as they become aware of the pain caused by the traditional definition of "masculinity," they too begin to raise questions. The strong, superior and aggressive male image is a safe, rewarding, and powerful one. Many men find it difficult and threatening even to think of sharing the power which has so long been theirs in personal, social, economic, and political life. It is hard to believe that there may be gains to be had from such a change. Even when a man discovers that he likes the new and more vulnerable side of himself, he may find that others reject him.
Nevertheless, many men are now discovering the gains which can result from the current changes in female-male identities. They are even articulating them in men's consciousness raising groups:
I wanted to explore my feelings and compare my changing thinking about masculinity with what other men my age were thinking.
Belonging to this group has been a most rewarding experience. I have found men to whom I can relate feelings that I have never revealed to anyone else. At times I have become angry, but I have talked my anger out. Because of the group, I have had discussions with my wife instead of quarrels.
This was my first experience of "rapping" with other men about intimate problems. . . . Learning that other men feel the same as I do helps me to clarify my own problems.
I learned that I can be honest about my feelings. If I'm hurt, it's OK to cry.
I now realize that I can react according to my feelings -- 1 don't have to be the logical man all the time.
In five years I'd like to be living on the land, working part-time and able to take the time to reflect and to map my inner space.
The last two comments reflect a growing awareness among men that they want something more than simply financial or job success. That is surely a gain which can lead to a decrease in the heart attack rate now so high among middle-aged men, as well as to more humanizing relationships.
As women and men get out of their boxes and begin to discover their full selves, as individuals with potential far beyond the traditional "feminine" and "masculine" stereotypes, the possibilities for personal growth will be far more varied and exciting. The potential for enriched human relationships between women and men will likewise increase. Counselors can do more than observe these changes in role stereotypes; they can encourage them and help people build on them.
1. Violette Lindbeck, "A Theological Analysis of Women's Move- ments," Reflection 69 journal of opinion at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Conn.: 1972:8.
1. Progress Bulletin (Pomona, Calif.), 13 January 1974, p. Dl.
2. Ibid. Further statistics on runaway wives were published in Psychology Today, May, 1975, p. 42. They indicate that by 1974 there were 147 missing wives for the same number of missing husbands.
3. Doris Lessing, The Summer Before the Dark (New York: Bantam Books, 1973), p. 15.
3. Joan Solomon, "Menopause, a Rite of Passage," Ms. Magazine, December, 1972. 28.
4. Lessing, p. 17.
5. For a relatively liberated and humane treatment of this growing concern see Clinton R. Jones, Homosexuality and Counseling (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974).
6. For a good discussion of the nonjudgmental approach see H. Clinebell, Growth Counseling for Marriage Enrichment, p. 54.
7. Sally Wendkos Olds, "Breaking Out of the Male Image," McCall's, September, 1974, p. 48.