The year is 2020, but the world still has an issue with women who “wear the trousers” in their relationships.
Meghan Markle has been criticised for many, many, many things during her time as the Duchess of Sussex. The most ridiculous to date, however, is people’s horror at the idea that Meghan “wears the trousers” in her relationship with Prince Harry.
That’s right, folks. The year is 2020, but people have zoomed in on a woman’s hand resting on her partner’s shoulders to use it as evidence of an “unsavoury power dynamic”.
And, before you even think about suggesting an unfair bias against Meghan, it’s worth noting that Stacey Dooley stands accused of the same implied crime. Indeed, just last week, the tabloids ran headlines claiming critically-acclaimed documentarian Dooley was the driving force behind her boyfriend Kevin Clifton’s departure from Strictly Come Dancing.
“It’s always the woman’s fault, like I’m incapable of making a decision,” Clifton said during an interview on This Morning.
“I did talk about it with her and she always said to me, ‘This has to be your decision. You can’t have anyone tell you what to do here. This is a big decision…’”
Dooley later added that there was “not an ounce of truth” to the media speculation.
It seems the press and the public, despite everything, still has trouble stomaching heterosexual relationships where the woman is either on an equal footing to her partner, or – shock horror – taking on a more “dominant “ role.
And, sadly, we aren’t all that surprised. Just a few years ago, a survey revealed that around 50% of US citizens believe that women should be forced – by law – to take their husband’s surname.
Emily Schafer – the sociology professor who authored the study – explained at the time: “The most common reason (approximately 50% of the cases) given by individuals who advocated women’s name change was the belief that women should prioritise their marriage and their family ahead of themselves.”
Men, on the other hand, have no such expectations thrust upon them.
Schafer went on to reveal that many of the survey’s participants also believed that a husband would be “more than justified” to file for divorce if his wife works “too much”, due to it being a form of “neglect”. And, again, there was no vice versa; men, unlike women, are allowed - nay, encouraged - to act in their own self-interest.
Why, though? Well, when we spoke to Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, a couples therapist with over 15 years experience counselling people through their relationships’ ups and downs, about the matter, she suggested it’s partly down to articles like those we’ve seen being shared about Dooley and Duchess of Sussex.
“Younger couples tend to have more equal views on gender roles than couples in their 60s and above,” she said. “In some cultures, the male will be the ‘boss’ in the outside world, whereas the female will be the ‘boss’ at home, making the majority of family-related decisions.
“In the last decade, we have seen a lot of movement regarding gender roles in Western culture. Yet gender roles, as with any social movement, take time to change and be assimilated. On the one hand, society and feminism fight for gender equality, where females are encouraged to accomplish whatever they want to.”
Ben-Ari continues: “On the other hand, we still see women in the media promoting old-fashioned ideologies of females with their provocative nature, ultimately reinforcing the different gender roles. In addition, there is a serious lack of equal gender representation in governments, media, business and more.
“So there are complex and conflicting messages for young adults. It is a conscious movement that we need to be mindful about.”
Ben-Ari went on to explain that gender-based power dynamics in heterosexual couples, no matter which way they skew, rarely have a negative impact on a relationship.
“The impact is not linked to the gender roles per se, but to the similarity or differences in the couple’s views of gender roles” she said. “If both believe in equality, there is likely to be less tension.
“The couple operate from a common belief system which will have a positive effect on the overall relationship. If one believes in equality and the other in gender roles, the differences in beliefs, expectations and behaviours could cause tension and conflict.”
And so, with that in mind…
How can my partner and I work out our own power dynamic?
“Have a conversation about your beliefs, expectations and dreams,” says Ben-Ari. “Remember that your expectations and beliefs are often rooted in your childhood experiences. Share with each other what the gender roles were in your homes when growing up.
“What did you like about what you experienced? What did you struggle with – directly or indirectly – by observing your parents? What were the messages you received, directly and indirectly, by your parents and culture? What were your hopes back then, and how might they relate to the vision of your relationship now?
“Understanding each other’s pasts will increase empathy in the relationship and help you both to reach a win-win strategy. So communicate with love, compassion and respect. Finding the right balance for you as a couple, with both feminine and masculine energy, is key for a healthy relationship.”
What are the positives of a ‘female boss’ dynamic in a relationship?
“I believe the key is in finding the right balance for the two genders/energies,” says Ben-Ari.
“In some areas the female can be ‘in-charge’ but still be vulnerable and feminine in other areas of the relationship. I believe that bringing the two energies to any role women have, be it CEO of a company, an MP, or stay-at-home mum, can benefit a woman and the people around her. The same applies to males finding the right places to be masculine, and the areas where they can bring a more feminine energy. The more fluid we are with our energy, the more energetically balanced we are.”
Ben-Ari adds: “In Imago Therapy we talk a lot about ‘separate knowing’ – the more logical analytical approach – and ‘connected knowing’ – a more emotionally intuitive experience.
“Connecting with both ways of knowing and being is fundamental to our well-being and healthy relationships.”
How can we keep power dynamics healthy, not toxic?
Ben-Ari says: “Be mindful about the balance between your strengths and weaknesses and work towards growth and balance.
“If you are a ‘female boss’, understand when this personality was developed and why, and think where you might want to let go of that persona and bring more feminine energy to your relationship. If you are an ‘alpha male’, think about the source of this attitude, and where you can open up and bring more vulnerability to your relationship.
“Finding the right balance for you as a couple will impact the happiness of your relationship and wellbeing. Think about this balance as a win-win model.”
Main image: Getty/Alessia Armenise