How Can Marriage Be A True Partnership? Let’s Look At Conflicts Differently

Posted: May 9, 2015

Conflict over gender roles often leads to deep unhappiness in relationships today. Should we just give up in despair, or are there ways to create a more harmonious partnership?

When I was a child, I often heard women in my family declare with pride that their husbands did not even know how to make coffee. The men would enter the kitchen only on rare occasions; usually, they would stand on the threshold and call out if they needed to speak with their wives.

Gender roles have been sharply defined in our culture. Women stay at home and do all the cooking, cleaning and caring. Men go out and earn money. Men make the big decisions; women defer. Men expect to be waited upon; women do all the serving. Men are very capable out in the world but are helpless at home; the reverse being true for the women.

Sadly, that earlier paradigm and the expectations associated with it are still present in many marriages. In these homes, the woman bears the responsibility for home and family, for loving and caring, cleaning and cooking – everything except earning money. Sometimes, she contributes a healthy salary too, but the weight of responsibility at home is not more equitably distributed.

Sometimes, she contributes a healthy salary too, but the weight of responsibility at home is not more equitably distributed.

The only solution seems to be to hire help – if you can afford to do so, you can bypass or camouflage the problem.

However, as Nischala Murthy Kaushik pointed out in a recent heartfelt article, when the chips are down as during a time of illness, the underlying truth lies exposed in a most painful fashion.

Many women accept this as just the way things are. They may make jokes about men, or grumble about it; they might feel tired or frustrated or angry about it, but don’t know how this dynamic can change. I hear from the sisterhood that it will take another generation – that the girls of tomorrow will not accept this.

In addressing this issue, I want to begin by presenting that relationships take place at two levels:

Functional or Behavioural paradigm

The first is the functional or behavioural paradigm. Here, our thinking tends to be black-and-white. There is right vs wrong, winning vs losing, good guy vs bad guy, victim vs bully. Relationships have a fixed and static quality here, with jagged edges.

One of the fault lines in this paradigm is that of love vs power – who has it vs who doesn’t, take it or leave it.

The relationship works – or it doesn’t. When it does, relationships can be very pleasant and warm; the problems never get addressed, but there is enough warmth in the relationship that it matters less.

This is the best-case scenario in the functional/behavioural paradigm – and it is basically a matter of sheer luck, like winning the lottery.

The downside to this apparent heaven is that even such relationships also have a static quality – they have set up camp in a particular corner of paradise and are unable to go further. Their arguments continue to be repetitive without ever being resolved. The spat happens, there is unpleasantness, and the best solution is to sweep it under the carpet until the next time it pops out – as it inevitably will.

Trouble in paradise

What about the rest of us ordinary folk who don’t hit the jackpot?

Or those of us cursed with emotional honesty, for whom sweeping things under the carpet is not really enough?

Difficulties and disagreements become insurmountable obstacles. Change is rare in this reality. When it happens, it is through force and can have the subtle flavour of violence, either in our thinking or in our words. We have to win arguments, or beat someone down in a war of words (distortion of power) – or we have to manipulate or seduce (distortion of love).

Solutions at this level of thinking are partial. Sometimes they are passivity disguised in euphemisms: we “adjust”, “compromise”, “understand”, “settle down” etc.

Other times, they have a jarring quality – we get our own way, but there has been a loss of intimacy and tenderness in the relationship.

Within this paradigm, creating change is to go into battle, which is inherently stressful and brings in its wake emotions such as resentment and hopelessness.

Relationship as a path of growth

Thankfully, intelligent women such as you, dear reader, can step into a more graceful paradigm. This is the other level, one which views a relationship as a path of personal and spiritual growth.

Here, we understand that each partner brings into the relationship both the longing for love as well as unconscious resistance to it…

Here, we understand that each partner brings into the relationship both the longing for love as well as unconscious resistance to it; personal strengths and resources from our family and lineage, as also what is commonly called “emotional baggage”.

When we can acknowledge this deep reality, difficulties and differences with our partner can be viewed as pockets of potentiality that contain within them the seeds for our personal growth, as also pathways to deeper intimacy in the relationship.

At this point, it is essential to pause and say that this unfolding can happen only under certain conditions:

  • There is a basic ground of mutual respect, affection and trust in the relationship.
  • Both partners have some capacity and willingness to engage in inner reflection.
  • There is sufficient honesty in that they are willing to take self-responsibility when needed and therefore are not desperately invested in blaming the other for problems.
  • Their interest in improving the quality of the relationship is greater than the unconscious need to avoid relating.

When these basic conditions are met to some degree, the way is open for relationship to become a deeply enriching and fulfilling path of personal growth.

Partners in self-actualisation

We can begin to see that our evolution will inevitably enrich the relationship, and also act as a catalyst for our partner’s evolution. And as he evolves, there is another further level of enrichment that will happen as we are invited to further grow. So it goes back and forth in the most delicious way.

Here, we have great power to evoke change through our own willingness to grow. We each have leadership within the marriage.

Further, we discover that the relationship has a power of its own that buoys and carries us further than we can go on our own.

Conflict in this paradigm is creative, rather than negative and destructive. It still feels uncomfortable, but we learn how to embrace and work with the discomfort. And we discover that conflict is actually the doorway to the next level of expansion and enrichment.

Creative Vs Destructive conflict

Let’s now look at the conflict around traditional gender division of roles which leaves women feeling unsupported and uncared for.

Within the functional/behavioural model, Indian men are the way they have always been – let’s blame it on the patriarchy, the culture of male privilege and entitlement, and shall we blame testosterone as well, and what about the way his mother spoilt him – and that’s it.

The trouble is, that brings us back to feeling we are on our own, and we have to look to ourselves. The fate of the woman is emotional abandonment. This leaves us with anger and resentment, disappointment and bitterness.

How do we move from this painful place into the paradigm of evolution?

The starting point is learning to think relationally – we slow our thinking down so we can reflect on how the interactions between us have a repetitive quality of negativity that can only stay stuck, or spiral downwards.

And we begin to see how our own ways of thinking and relating contribute to the logjam.

Coming soon: Part 2 – Creating balance while deepening intimacy

Pic of couple via Shutterstock

The author is a practising psychotherapist with a deep interest in women's wellness, who has chosen to stay anonymous for professional reasons.

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