Seeking: Balance in Relationships
Deb D’Arcangelo is CEO of Council for Relationships which provides therapy on a sliding fee scale and trains current and future therapists.
This Women’s History Month, we at Council for Relationships applaud the success of former Philadelphia activist Tarana Burke and her launching of the #MeToo movement, which has put a spotlight on the mistreatment of women.
Ms. Burke’s accomplishments remind us of our founder, Emily Hartshorne Mudd, who started Council for Relationships (CFR) as The Marriage Council of Philadelphia in 1932.
What Dr. Mudd and Ms. Burke both tapped into, though about eight decades apart, is an imbalance between men and women in many heterosexual relationships and sexual encounters, both consensual and non-consensual.
In the 1930s, in many marriages the husband was the assumed decision-maker and the wife followed. Dr. Mudd founded what is now CFR so that husband and wife would learn to talk to each other with the help of a therapist, ensuring that both parties had a voice. As a result, the couple achieved balance in their relationship.
Over the years, CFR has helped tens of thousands of people of all backgrounds and orientations strengthen the various relationships in their lives – including individuals’ relationships with themselves. When talking about sex was more taboo than it is today, Dr. Mudd encouraged sex therapy and subsequent CFR staff members have been recognized nationally as leaders providing, and training others in, sex therapy.
By starting #MeToo, which has led to the #TimesUp movement, Tarana Burke has helped women from all backgrounds communicate about imbalance they have experienced. We now have women saying they have been sexually harassed, abused, or raped and they felt no one would believe them if they reported these incidents. We have women saying that they have followed through on a sex act because it’s easier than saying no. We have debates about the validity of concerns voiced by a woman who felt she was not treated with respect on a date.
In non-heterosexual and queer relationships, there can be similar challenges.
How did we get to this state of imbalance in so many relationships?
Last year sociologist Stephanie Coontz summarized research that found that the percentage of young people expressing views that support gender equality in relationships increased steadily from 1977 to the mid-1990s, but has since decreased.
We seem to have been headed in the right direction (Emily Mudd would have been proud), but the subsequent decline may be attributed to cultural and societal messaging.
A 2016 article by L. Monique Ward in The Journal of Sex Research cites findings from a study covering 1995 to 2015 that exposure to sexually-objectifying portrayals of women “are directly associated with a range of consequences, including…greater support of sexist beliefs,…greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women,…[and] both women and men having a diminished view of women’s competence, morality, and humanity.” Such portrayals of women have been pervasive in our culture – from movies to music to advertisements and beyond.
While our culture has been sexualizing women, we have witnessed the “hyper-masculinity” of boys and men, documented in the 2015 award-winning film The Mask You Live In. The film describes “the dangers of hyper-masculinity that are pushed on today’s young boys.”
Unrealistic expectations of men and women are compounded by the accessibility – and common use by teens for sex education purposes – of online pornography. Nationally-renowned local sex educator Al Vernacchio was quoted recently in The New York Times as saying of porn, “…it often shows misogynistic, unhealthy representations of relationships.” (At CFR we emphasize the word often – not all pornography does this.)
As a result of the forces described above and more, we are in our current state of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. According to a 2017 study by the Making Caring Common Project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, misogyny and sexual harassment are “distressingly common among young people and are damaging to their romantic relationships and to many other areas of their lives.”
What can we do to have more balance in relationships?
An easy answer is to encourage empathy and refer to the Golden Rule: don’t do anything to anyone that you would not want done to you. So a young man should know that if he wouldn’t want a “facial,” he shouldn’t be giving one to anyone else. (Yes, you googled that correctly; we need to talk about such practices and parents may be shocked by how common an expectation it is for young people today.)
Empathy is also needed in terms of how one should treat others in their relationships in general.
Blaming one party or the other for what has happened may not necessarily be a good way to achieve a better balance in a relationship. Both men and women have been conditioned by the pervasive cultural messages and images of the hyper-masculinity of boys and men and hyper-sexualization of girls and women. So neither partner in a couple is necessarily to blame.
As Emily Mudd would say, talking is a great way to help partners understand expectations, treat each other fairly, and keep balance in a relationship. A therapist may help, but many couples communicate well on their own.
We must also talk to children about healthy relationships. Teens need to hear from parents and adults they trust about relationships in which both partners are respected and treated well – and have these relationships modeled for them.
Children should not learn about the values related to sex from misogynistic pornography. Echoing sentiments expressed by many sex educators, it is amazing how much time and effort parents spend helping children learn how to lead good lives at work and in their communities, but they don’t address what it means to have a good sex life, both for oneself and one’s partner.
From our decades of work at Council for Relationships, we know that children who learn the value of balance in their relationships will lead healthier and more productive lives, as will their families.
Throughout the month we will continue to celebrate great women leaders, like Tarana Burke, who are helping to restore balance in so many relationships. But it would be wonderful if we didn’t have to have another woman make history this way. Let’s all work for a world with balanced relationships.
Deb D’Arcangelo is CEO of Council for Relationships, which provides therapy on a sliding fee-scale at 10 offices and 13 community partner sites in the Philadelphia area in addition to completing research and training current and future therapists.