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Women’s Relational Dilemma

by Mary J. Simon, Psy.D.

Recently, as I was talking with Janet (not her real name) about the difficulties she experiences in her marriage, she burst into tears, saying, “I feel like such a failure if I can’t make my marriage work. I’ve tried everything I can think of but I just can’t get my husband to take time for me and our relationship. He says he’s too busy working hard to support the family and I should be happy he’s such a good provider! I’m not happy but I’m afraid if I push him too hard, he’ll leave me. I couldn’t bear that! Then I’d feel like a total failure.”

Like Janet, many women are in a bind today. We value connectedness and relationship and we have been encouraged to develop relational skills. Yet, despite these assets, we still experience significant difficulties creating and maintaining healthy, intimate relationships, especially with the men in our lives. We feel inadequate and frustrated about this. Why does this happen?

One reason is that our culture considers the area of relationships to be almost exclusively the responsibility of women. As little girls, we were encouraged and supported to maintain connections, often at the price of our own autonomy and self-esteem. Our culture also gives us the message that a “good woman” will, of course, be able to “make her relationships work” by her efforts alone. Thus, we grow up believing that our worth is determined by how successful our relationships (again primarily those with men) are. Much of our self-esteem is based on this belief.

The bind this presents can be more easily understood if we borrow an idea from the field of addictions treatment. An addiction can be defined as “any substance, activity or person that a person uses to regulate one’s self-esteem.” Following this reasoning, relationships – especially those with men – can easily become an “addiction” for women. Obviously we cannot function freely and feel powerful in regard to something to which we are addicted. Herein lies the bind – to the degree we believe we need to have these relationships in order to feel good about ourselves, we are powerless with regard to them.

This leads us to what is called the “Principle of Least Investment.” It states, “Whoever has the least investment in a situation has the most power.” The corollary, of course, is “Whoever has the most investment in a situation has the least power.” Because as women we have been programmed to have a very high, even addictive, investment in relationships and men have been programmed to value achievement over connection, we typically have more investment, and thus less power, in a relationship with a man than our partner does.

As a result, women come into adult relationships experiencing ourselves as “one-down” – less important and less powerful than our partners. When men behave in a “oneup/entitled” fashion, as they have been programmed to do, we easily slip into an accommodating position because we believe this is necessary to “make the relationship work.” We may not even be aware that we have done this until we accumulate the inevitable resentment. Then we either attack or withdraw from our partners, blaming them as individuals for our feeling devalued – when it is really primarily the result of the cultural programming we all experience. This dance of entitlement and resentment makes intimacy impossible.

So what can we do about this bind? We can begin by asking ourselves, “About what things do I feel ongoing resentment toward my partner?” Then we can ask, “How have I accommodated his wishes at the price of valuing myself and my needs in this area?” and “What can I do to change this now or in the future?” Because we often believe that making such accommodations is necessary to preserve the relationship, making changes in these patterns may feel like we are putting the relationship at risk.

Therefore it is critical that we learn how to value our relationships without basing our self-esteem on them. This can be difficult and frightening. In the Women’s Relational Journey Groups at the Relationship Resource Center, women learn skills and share support in this difficult but critically important work.

(Based, in part, on the work of Terry Real)