Why traditional gender roles and a misunderstanding of male versus female needs mess up relationships in and out of the bedroom, and how to start the journey towards healing.
Traditional gender roles and a misunderstanding of gender needs really mess up relationships, especially in the bedroom. Both as a practitioner, and as a mother of two boys and a girl, this insight has changed the way I view gender from childhood on.
It starts young. I watch my daughter enthralled with Barbie Mariposa movies, delighting in the come-hither outfits and the insouciance of females whose ambitions are a cliché in gender identity: how to be better friends, how to be self-confident, how not to judge others. Wonderful qualities, for sure, but I’d like to see a scantily clad fairy support an entire family on her own using her ingenuity and drive – and I bet she won’t be brewing moondrops and spinning gold dust!
Most women are not prepared to support an entire family on their own. Most men are; they are virtually groomed for it from childhood, but they are ill equipped to cope nonetheless, and it affects the quality of their sexual relationships.
My therapeutic couch fills with men overwhelmed with the burden of responsibility, trapped in careers they may not like in order to support a family, and feeling terribly undervalued for this by their wives. This either completely saps their sexual energy, or else they are dying for intimacy but come up against a wall of resentment from women overwhelmed by domestic and career responsibilities. Then (from his viewpoint) women want to get all emotional about it. Men want to retreat. Male sexual dysfunctions are often symptoms of career and relationship stress.
The struggles of women are no less significant, but much less talked about in the public space. As a society, we haven’t yet owned the incredibly deep, passionate needs of women to be met, sexually – to be ravished senseless. Women don’t talk much about what goes on for them, until they are seeking help of some sort.
I hear a lot in my work, and these are my observations. Within marriage, once parenthood digs in its heels, gender roles can suddenly be thrown back to the 1950s, despite the best of intentions. Of my female clients, there is loneliness in relationships defined, post-motherhood, by the expectations around mothering and housework, which may be work done in addition to paid work outside the home. The most common scenario is of women overwhelmed by cleaning and childcare, longing for a mate who will show his devotion through presence and domestic contribution, not through the distraction of long hours. She may beg for sex but be knocked back because he’s so tired from his work. Or she withdraws sexually, in response to his lack of domestic support. She is desperate to feel lusted after, and reads 50 Shades of Grey under the covers at night with her trusty vibrator. If only men knew how many women tell me they long to be seen, thrown against a wall; how they long for passion. I have seen many women who are having affairs, or seeing escorts, their erotic lives lived in deep, deep secret.
At the other end of the spectrum are the women who become petty tyrants in their own homes, grasping for power unreachable in the wider world of career, or for a way to get the intimate attention they feel is missing (or don’t know they want!)
I also see, in my work, that when couples are sexually fulfilled, and therefore seeing me for ideas on how to expand their experience rather than fix it, what they have in common is parity in their roles and an understanding of what each partner wants from a relationship. Both have careers or vocations, even if one earns more, even if for one there is time out for mothering. When there are children, care is shared; after children leave home, couples often rediscover their sexual connection, and not just because of the space, but primarily because of the more equal roles they then occupy.
The social experiment of feminism has not changed a great deal in its original proposition that women need careers (equal rights and equal pay). However, the societal awareness that men need to be involved fathers has gained much more traction. Only a dozen or so companies in the Fortune 500 are headed by women, and there is no arguing that men still earn more. We don’t need a statistic, however, to witness the very tangible status quo all around us, especially the moment parenthood enters a relationship.
To complicate matters, gender roles are entwined with gender differences in relationship needs.
Male versus female relationship needs
This is both my experience professionally, and informed from relationship authors like David Deida, David Schnarch, my study in tantra, and reading in psychology. In my experience, these needs are very often the case in heterosexual relationships.
- Men generally desire both an intimate, loving relationship with a woman who is sexually present, and a big supporter of his career and purpose in the world; and they need space – lots of space – caveman space, time with mates space, TV space, alone-in-their-head space.
Some men perceive these two needs as being at odds, and think having a relationship is akin to losing freedom. Even in a relationship, they might withdraw, bury themselves in work, and become fearful of their woman’s emotions because it feels like neediness, like an attempt to take away their space.
- Women generally need to feel emotionally held and safe, to know there are loved, to know their man is committed; and they also need to be able to emote and express without his running away.
When women feel they don’t have the freedom to emote, they can become needy and clingy and critical, and/or sexually shut down.
How to have the best sex ever
When a man and a woman both have a vision and purpose in their life outside of their relationship, and when they are emotionally mature enough to understand and respect their mutual needs as men and women, they can give each other the intimacy they both crave, as well as the space they both need.
When he needs man-space, she is cool with it because she has her needs met with his commitment and presence and sexual intimacy, and so she doesn’t need to encroach on his space with neediness or controlling behaviour.
When she needs to emote, he doesn’t feel threatened or scared because she is a woman who gives him space when he needs it, supports his career, respects him, and can be sexually present for him. He can listen and be present for her.
Such couples have the best sex – ever.
What can couples do to improve what they have?
I encourage clients to take a good look at their roles and levels of mutual support, understanding, and most importantly, their sense of individual empowerment. I often suggest they read David Schnarch’s Passionate Marriage, to get a sense of how independence creates the space needed to create eroticism. I urge couples to watch Esther Perel on YouTube talk about the secret to desire in a long-term relationship. I observe that the simple act of a mother voicing her appreciation for her man’s support, and entering or re-entering the workforce, and a father doing laundry and childcare and listening as his partner emotes, can be enough to ignite lust’s first flames.
In my own life, I am a big advocate of priming the next generation to have more equal gender roles, and keeping the dialogue flowing about what each child needs to feel supported, loved, and free to cultivate his or her most unique and empowered self. I make sure that both my sons and my daughter experience domestic chores, sibling minding, family budgeting, and share with them my own experiences of being independent and ambitious in the world. I give them space to be alone, and space to lose the plot and emote (unless, of course, we are driving!).
The journey towards healthy relationships and sexuality begins with knowledge, compassion, and a commitment to yours and your partner’s self-examination and mutual growth. It’s never too late to start, but it’s also never too early to begin.
Emma Michelle Dixon, PhD, is a sexuality and relationship coach, bodyworker, and workshop facilitator based in Sydney. She regularly presents workshops and talks on matters of sexuality as well as facilitates retreats on sexual healing.
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