Chapter 4: Counseling Amid Changing Relationships

Counseling For Liberation
by Charlotte Ellen

Chapter 4: Counseling Amid Changing Relationships

There is a tendency to overlook interdependency as a part of healthy human relations, both those of husband and wife and also those of people in general.

Mabel Blake Cohen

All the studies of middle-class marriages show that companionship, the hallmark of the egalitarian marriage, is one of the most important ingredients for a successful marriage, especially for the wife, no matter what criterion or index is used to measure success.

Jessie Bernard

Marriage in Transition

It is likely that we have thus far seen only the tip of the iceberg in the upheaval in relationships between women and men. Marriage relationships are especially vulnerable and responsive to changing roles and identities. More and more marriages will feel the pain and the excitement of change. It may be that the divorce rate will rise even higher as couples struggle unsuccessfully to develop more satisfying marriage styles. At the same time many couples will succeed in discovering the gains in more egalitarian and companionable marriages. Counselors of all disciplines can have a positive role in helping to redefine the institution of marriage and in helping couples to develop creative and growth-producing relationships.

The Dominance/Submission Pattern in Marriage

Connie and Steve had come for their first visit to a marriage counselor. Steve has described their problem in a nutshell: after five years of marriage Connie just "dropped the bomb" -- she suddenly decided she wanted to do her own thing, Although he found it difficult, he has adjusted to her returning to school and to a job, and to his having to share the housework and child care.

STEVE: But it still isn't enough. She's still not satisfied. I don't know what she wants. I'm doing

everything she's asked. She can't even tell me what she wants. She keeps saying she wants me to talk to her. I talk to her all the time! I don't know what she means, and she can't seem to tell me.

CONNIE: I don't know what I want, exactly. It's more than just talking to me, just letting me do whatever I want, just having things run smoothly without any conflict. There must be more to marriage than the day in, day out routine, even when it's shared. I guess I want Steve to tell me what his real feelings are, what he wants out of life. I don't know -- it's hard to put into words. I don't even know if I love him anymore!

COUNSELOR: (to Steve) That must be pretty hard to take.

STEVE: Damn right it is! Of course she loves me. She's just got this crazy idea in her head that she wants to live her own life, and that doesn't include me -- in spite of the fact that I've made every possible concession to her.

COUNSELOR: (to Connie) Steve is pretty angry with you.

CONNIE: Yes, and I don't blame him. I have upset everything and he has given in to what I wanted, even when he didn't like doing it. I appreciate that. I don't know how to say what it is that's missing. Maybe it's just that I married him for the wrong reasonsùsecurity and all thatùand we aren't really compatible. We don't seem to want to talk about the same things or do the same things together anymore.

When some of the anger and frustration had been dealt with, not only verbally but also physically using foam rubber bats,(2) and Connie and Steve were feeling a little more friendly toward each other, the counselor asked them to try telling each other what they still liked about their marriage and about each other. She asked them each to complete the sentence, "I appreciate in you . . ." as many times as they could. They found that, in spite of the anger and distance between them, ' there were still some things they liked about each other.

Then the counselor asked them, in turn, to complete the sentence, "I need from you . . ." as many times as they could.

CONNIE: I need from you more understanding and tolerance of my need to be independent. I need from you more flexibility in letting the children just be themselves without always telling them what boys should do and what girls should do. I need you to tell me what worries you and what you're afraid of. I need you to tell me when things don't go well on your job. I need you to be willing to talk about painful things sometimes and not pretend to yourself that everything's OK when it isn't. I need you to share with me what you really care about -- or maybe to find out what it is you care about.

Connie was fighting back tears by this time and saying that she found it very hard to put into words what her needs were. Steve's needs were for more and better sex, for her to stop avoiding him, for her to be more affectionate, for her to show that she loved him.

Connie and Steve illustrate one kind of struggle that many marriages are facing these days. The "unconscious contract" under which they married called for dominance on the part of Steve and submission from Connie. She didn't even know how to drive a car when she got married. She was dependent on Steve for transportation, earning money, and even bailing her out at home when the demands became too great. Steve was competent and successful at everything he did and enjoyed "taking care of" Connie. When she began to change, first by learning, to drive, then by making new friends; developing interests of her own, and going back to school and to work, Steve was angry. He resisted each new development But he was also a little bit proud; probably that little bit of pride -- and the fact that they basically liked each other -- is what has held them

together. But now their needs seem no longer to overlap. The task for Connie and Steve is to sort out whether they simply do not have enough in common anymore to make possible a mutually satisfying marriage, or whether it is simply that her rebelliousness toward the old ways and his resistance to the new ones are still getting in the way. The counselor's job is to help them discover whether Connie's needs for a deeper kind of communication can also become Steve's needs and whether they have enough in common to build a relationship with a different, more conscious and articulated "contract."

Connie and Steve's relationship is an extreme (though not uncommon) example of the dominance-submission pattern in marriage. Nevertheless, their relationship had more strengths than many. Connie discovered her inner strength as she became more aware of her limited life, and Steve discovered his as she began to challenge their lifestyle. Not all marriages get that far. Some women become increasingly depressed and end up hospitalized or at least on the psychiatrist's couch; some women simply get angry and leave before they have a chance to discover whether change can occur in the marriage. Men too sometimes get angry and seek divorce before taking time to discover whether there could be some gains for them in a new style of relating.

Variations on the Pattern

There are variations on the dominance-submission pattern. Sometimes it is the man who is "weak" and the woman who takes the active leadership role, either subtly or overtly. Some couples are quite happy with this arrangement. It fits their own needs and personalities, and they have the strength to live that way even though society may say it's "unnatural." Often, though, because of their inner conflicts or because of the dictates of society, couples find themselves in conflict, not only with each other but also with their expectations of themselves.

June and Mark came to the counselor when they were considering divorce because of Mark's sexual impotence and his inability to hold a job. Conflict had reached the point at which hostility was never absent; they could see little or nothing good about their relationship.

JUNE: He's such a dud. He can't even keep a job. It's not because he isn't smart -- he just won't apply himself. He just doesn't care about me and the children. I want to get my old job backù1 made good money before we were married -- but Mark won't hear of it.

MARK: If she'd just leave me alone. I'd be all right. It's her constant nagging and pushing that I don't like. I'm just never going to be a company president. I don't want to be. And when I begin to get settled and happy in a job she keeps asking why I'm satisfied where I am. Why can't she be satisfied if I am? And she wants sex all the time too. No wonder I'm impotent when she's so pushy.

The temptation here is to get involved in a Freudian analysis of why Mark and June were led into such an "unnatural" reversal of roles. What is important from the standpoint of consciousness raising and counseling is to widen one's perspective as a counselor on what is in fact "masculine," and what "feminine." June and Mark may discover for themselves that their personalities are right for them, even though they are at variance with the stereotypes sanctioned by society. In the course of the counseling, as they began to explore their relationship, June found that much of her pushiness and hostility was an attempt to get Mark to "make a woman of me"; she recognized her feelings of inadequacy as a woman who was strong and assertive when she "should" be soft and "feminine." Mark came to realize that he resisted June's pushiness not only because it didn't fit his idea of what a woman "ought" to be, but also because it reinforced his feeling of not being a "real man."

Counseling helped June and Mark to sort out which was their "pathology" -- the extent to which Mark was out of touch with his assertive and aggressive side and June out of touch with her soft and gentle side, and the extent to which their feelings and conflicts were simply their reaction to a society which does not affirm a "passive" male and an "aggressive" female. When each began to assess the sort of persons they really were and wanted to be, they decided that June was more ambitious and Mark more content to take life as it comes. June went back to her job where instead of pushing Mark she could push herself to get ahead. Mark found himself content in a nondemanding job where he didn't need to get ahead and could have more time for his children and for just "puttering around." At last report, they both were happy with the new relationship, including its sexual side -- Mark was no longer impotent.

The "Sibling" Marriage Pattern

An increasingly common problem in counseling is that of the young couple married five to ten years who are fairly comfortable with each other but realize that the "spark" has gone out of their relationship.

Art and Linda had been married ten years and had a five-year-old child. They came for help because of Linda's increasing dissatisfaction with life. Art had his own business, which was growing. Linda was a secretary with an excellent job. Money was not a problem.

LINDA: I don't understand what I'm unhappy about. I can't really complain about Art. He's a good husband and father. He does his share of the housework and parenting. He doesn't limit me in any way, except maybe he doesn't enjoy having fun as much as I do. He has a good job and makes good money. Other women think I'm crazy, that I don't really appreciate what I've got. And they're right.

ART: Damn right they are!

LINDA: But sometimes it seems as though there must be more to life than this. Here I am at twenty-eight an old married woman. We got married right out of high school, you know. and we'd been going together two years then. We just sort of drifted into marriage and having a child -- and now it's more like we're brother and sister. I like Art and I don't want to hurt him. But somehow everything is just the same old daily routine. It's dull . . .

ART : The only thing I can see wrong with our marriage is that our sex life isn't as good as it used to be. Linda doesn't get turned on very often anymore. She wants more romance and excitement. But, hell, I'm the same person I always was. And I love her. We don't fight -- 1 can't see that there are even any issues between us except that she feels like my sister. Sheesh! No wonder she doesn't like sex.

Linda subsequently found, as her consciousness about herself rose, that she had never explored the options open to her as a person before she married -- a variety of relationships, education, maybe even travel. Now the relationship with Art seemed stifling. The situation of Linda and Art is an increasingly common one, and a difficult and painful result of the rising consciousness of women. It will be a difficult struggle to find out whether Linda can get her needs for broader horizons met and still stay with Art. Marriage for Linda was originally a mere extension of the security of her childhood home. She is a good example of the risk involved when a young girl is taught to define herself in terms of the man she will marry. Art illustrates the limitations of the kind of young male identity formation which allows a man to be content with a good job, a good home, a good wife, and good children, without ever considering the possibility of a deeper relationship with a woman as a person. A generation ago, even now in many cases, a marriage like Linda's and Art's would rarely come into question. But rising expectations, especially those marriages into battlegrounds. Linda could easily become a "runaway wife."

The Child-Child Marriage Pattern

Another version of the "sibling" marriage is the one in which two demanding "children" are struggling to get their needs met. Each is so deprived that neither can meet the needs of the other. Such relationships are usually characterized by bickering, distancing, and hurting behavior on the part of both. Depending on how severe the pathology, a consciousness raising experience for the woman sometimes presages improvement in the marriage.

Bob and Phyllis were on the verge of divorce when they came for counseling. Neither had anything good to say about the other. Besides ongoing marriage counseling directed toward draining off the anger and discovering whether there was anything salvageable in the marriage, the counselorùin this instance a man -- recommended a consciousness raising group for Phyllis. She attended faithfully and began to discover her identity as a person and a woman instead of a helpless child. As she brought back to the marriage and to the counseling sessions her growing self-awareness, she began both to confront Bob with his male chauvinism and at the same time to let him know she was aware that he was as trapped as she was.

At this point the counselor asked them to join a couples therapy group where they both received affirmation of their strengths and confrontation about their childish behavior. It would have been even better if Bob could have found a men's consciousness raising group too. Unfortunately none was available. Nonetheless, the combination of consciousness raising for Phyllis, and conjoint counseling followed by a growth-therapy group for couples helped Bob and Phyllis learn to value each other and themselves as adults, and to find new and more constructive ways of dealing with their conflicts.

The Mid-Years Marriage

Another kind of relationship which often is struggling to survive or to come alive is the marriage of fifteen to twenty-five years duration. Here the conflict is often triggered by the children leaving home and the wife finding that she needs to make a new life for herself. Sometimes she finds it with a vengeance (I speak from my own experience)(3) and the changes she demands after twenty years of a "satellite marriage" are deeply threatening to the marriage. Although the middle-years couple has been married longer than those described earlier, and therefore are more "set in their ways," the issues aroused and the approaches called for are much the same.

Minority Culture Marriages

There is perhaps another sort of relationship which is beginning to suffer (or to grow) under the influence of the changing consciousness of women, and that is the marriage best described as the machismo male and the submissive female couple. Such marriages are found in all segments of our society but may be more common among minority cultures where men are almost as dehumanized by the white male dominant culture as are women. In these instances the man is usually free to do as he pleases and expects the woman to do as he pleases too. Women in such marriages are often there because they were not aware of other choices. A young Chicano of my acquaintance remarked one day when we were talking about the options for young girls in her culture:

The female role of getting married right out of high school -- a lot of my cousins, a lot of people I know, have done this — it's not something that's explicitly said to the female. It's kind of in the air.

This young woman was a college student, clearly challenging the mores of her culture and feeling resistance from her family and friends. She hoped for marriage eventually, but of a different kind than that sanctioned by her subculture.

Some men in minority cultures are finding, as they move into the middle-class world through job or profession, that friendship between women and men is possible and that a companionship marriage can be more satisfying than the one they have grown up with and married into. Often in such instances it is difficult for the woman who is content with the old way to "keep up" with a husband who begins asking her to go places with him, to read books and discuss ideas, and to make new kinds of friends, when her satisfaction and security are chiefly in home and family.

Contemporary Marriage Counseling

A full-blown discussion of marriage counseling is beyond the scope of the present book. However, some mention of those aspects of marriage counseling which are particularly related to current changes in roles and identities is important.

The Marriage Contract in Counseling

One excellent form of consciousness raising for both pre-wedding and post-wedding couples of all ages is to encourage them to write a marriage contract or covenant. A marriage contract is a good device for helping a couple to enrich a marriage that is reasonably stable and satisfying, or to reassess a marriage that is in trouble. The purpose of such an exercise, written or verbal, is to bring the unconscious contract under which most couples marry to a conscious level where they have some choice about it.

Over the centuries, couples entering into marriage have committed themselves in one way or another to the partner whom they have agreed to marry. Such contracts have ranged all the way from one sided commitments involving a dowry and bride price to the more spiritual commitment to "love, honor, and cherish" or "love, honor, and obey." Consciously "spelled-out-on-paper" contracts about who will earn the money, raise the children, and do the housework are becoming more common. Education for marriage and pre-marriage counseling provides an opportunity for young people not yet ready for commitment -- as well as for those thinking about or planning marriage -- to study possible options and to identify and articulate their own hopes and expectations for marriage as well as what they expect and want from the person they marry.

Some contracts are elaborate. They may even be legally drawn. They often include provisions about religious practices for the couple and for any children who may arrive; whether or not they plan to have children; what they will do in the case of a pregnancy not wanted by one or the other; what will happen if the couple decides to separate; what the financial arrangements will be in such a case; what provision will be made for the children; how in-laws, relatives, and friends will be included in the relationship; what sexual practices will be followed; under what circumstances the couple will move from one home to another; whose job will take precedence; and what kinds of freedom each partner is to have.

Some such conscious agreement, whether written or verbal, is essential in a time of changing expectations. It can no longer be assumed that each partner will fall into a prescribed role in marriage. Too many couples discover after the fact that he expected her to give up her job while she expected to keep it, or vice versa; that she planned for her mother to live with them, while he didn't; that he wanted several children, while she didn't want any; that she expected him to take out the garbage, while he thought that was a woman's job. Any form of premarriage or marriage counseling or enrichment these days should encourage a couple to look at their expectations both about the routine details of everyday living (like the garbage) and their expectations about the long-range issues involved in any relationship.

Such discussion and contracting, both written and spoken, would also need to include provisions for reevaluating and recontracting at various points in the relationship and to plan for how and when to do it. The couple might want to join a growth group, create an ongoing support group with other couples, get the professional help of a third party at particular points, or simply plan to review their contract at each anniversary and get help if they seem to need it. Expectations, needs and interests change with the passage of time. It is crucial to help a couple both before marriage and after it to be flexible in their contracting, to revise the contract regularly, and to feel committed to keeping the contract.

Dealing with Sexuality in Counseling

Among the many problems that couples and individuals of both sexes present to counselors in these days of greater openness are those of sexual dysfunction. Dysfunction is a sort of scary word covering everything from impotence and premature ejaculation on the part of the man and frigidity on the part of the woman to differing needs in the area of sex. Some couples don't get along in that area because one wants more sex and the other less, or they have different views about who should take the initiative, or they are just too mad at each other to enjoy sex, or one is interested in swinging and the other is not. All these and a variety of other problems are coming to be included under the umbrella term "sexual dysfunction."

Along with the rise in the incidence of such problems (or perhaps it is simply the rising expectation that sex "should" be enjoyable), the development of sex therapy methods and the generally greater freedom to talk about the subject openly, there has also been an increase in the number of sex therapy clinics and counselors. Some of these are simply irresponsible operations taking advantage of a fad. Others are reputable clinics involving individuals who have had both specific training in the new therapies and sound experience in dealing both with sexual dysfunction and with all other inseparably related aspects of the female-male relationships. Before referring couples for sex therapy, or before focusing on sex specifically as "the problem," a counselor needs to explore with the couple their total relationship. Very often, sexual dysfunction clears up as other problems in the relationship are resolved -- and vice versa, of course.

Ministers and counselors can help couples having sexual difficulties. (4) Counselees who are changing their style of relationship to a more egalitarian one can be helped to realize that, if they are having new sexual problems, this is not unusual and is even to be expected. When a relationship changes in one area, it changes in other areas too. If a couple is working out a new way to get the housework done on a more shared basis, they may have to work out new ways to enjoy sex as well.

When relationships between women and men are changing, anger between the sexes is inevitable. A minister or counselor can help couples to deal constructively with anger that is also getting in the way of good sex. Couples can be helped to learn to talk to each other about sex, to show each other what they like, to take time together to enjoy each other physically, to try different settings and different techniques, but mainly to see sex as a part of a total relationship which cannot be good if other areas are not also good.

Jessie Bernard asks whether equality and good sex go together.(5) She concludes that although good sex may be more difficult during the period of transition to equality there is no inherent reason why sex has to be a dominance-submission game; it can eventually be much more satisfying in a relationship of equality. Counselors can encourage couples to stick it out in that area instead of giving up before they discover what the possibilities are.

Changing Expectations

Recently there were reported in a Southern California newspaper the results of a national opinion survey, (6) Of the 3000 women polled, 96 percent still viewed marriage as their first choice for the most satisfying and interesting way of life. What is changing is the kind of marriage these women look forward to. Sixty-one percent of women under thirty favor a marriage of equal partnership, where husband and wife both work outside the home and share homemaking and child care responsibilities. Half of all college women of any age favor such a marriage. An

increasing percentage of women view the single life as a satisfying one if such a marriage is not possible. And 61 percent of all women polled found divorce acceptable if the marriage is bad. Only 40 percent see having children as an important reason for getting married. Even more recent statistics published by the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that an increasing number of young persons are thinking twice about marriage. The number of persons between 25 and 34 years of age who had never been married had increased by 50 percent in only 5 years. In the same period the percentage of persons between 25 and 54 who had been married and were divorced and not remarried jumped from 7 to 10. Families with women as the only adult jumped from 1 .6 million to 7.2 million in the same 5 years.(7)

Clearly the "traditional" marriage in which it is automatically assumed that the man will earn the money and be more or less dominant and the woman will raise the children and be more or less submissive -- which has been and still is the commonest pattern in Western society -- is changing. It is obviously no longer enough to support and encourage the institution of marriage without raising some questions about what we mean by marriage. There is no simple answer anymore to what marriage is or ought to be.

It is important for the counselor when working with couples to keep in mind that the new ethic of equality between the sexes in marriage does not mean there is some kind of new blueprint for what a marriage ought to be like. If the broadening of options in our society continues, as it seems likely to do, then equal partnership will mean different things for different people. The "traditional" way will continue to be an option, so long as it is a conscious choice. However, it will likely be characterized by the added factor that the sex roles will be reversible -- the man may choose to stay home and the woman to earn the money. What will not be an option is the unbalanced "His" and "Hers" marriage in which the woman "dwindles" into a wife and the man "enlarges" into a husband. (7)

The examples in this chapter have illustrated various situations in which marriages are in trouble largely because of tight role expectations or because of the changing consciousness of the woman or the man. Of course couples come for counseling and enrichment for lots of other reasons too. But it is always wise to explore the possible connections between any presenting problem and the question of changing roles. Helping women and men to get out of their boxes frees them to discover themselves as individuals in their full humanity, am then to discover what they really want and need in a relation ship.

When they are consulted in time counselors can help cou pies explore the nature and implications of the marriage patterns, expectations, and contracts with which they have been operating. One great advantage that ministers and pastoral counselors have is the opportunity for education and consciousness raising about changing roles and identities and their effect on marriage through other facets of church life. Where people are aware of a minister's open attitude in these controversial areas they are more apt to come to her or him for help before it is too late.


1. Cohen, p. 170.

1. Bernard, Future of Marriage, p. 156.

3. Foam rubber bats available from Bataca Products, Inc., 360 Water St., Hanover, Mass. 02339.

4. C. Clinebell, Meet Me in the Middle.

5. For an excellent overview of sex in the total relationship see William H. Masters et alä The Pleasure Bond (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1974).

6. Bernard, chap. 7.

6. Los Angeles Times, 6 October 1974. The Census Bureau reports according to the Santa Barbara News-Press, 4/2/76. that in 1975, women in the "prime child-bearing age" had a record low number of babies. Also in 1975, divorces exceeded one million for the first time in history. There were only 2.3 marriages, the fewest number since 1969 although the population has

increased since then. Young people continue to postpone marriage until they are older. There were in 1975 more single young people than ever before. There was a significant increase in the number of homes with only one parent, and particularly in the number of homes with single mothers. It is clear that marriage and the family are experiencing major change.

7. Ibid., 7 January 1976.

7. Bernard, p. 42.