When I first started coaching expecting couples and new parents, I worried that me being gay would be an obstacle for heterosexual clients. Either because of homophobia or they might assume that, as a lesbian, I couldn't possibly understand straight relationship dynamics.
Instead, I discovered that being gay allows me to understand both moms and dads in a unique way. Straight moms relate to me because I too am a mother. And dads relate to me because I both love and live with a woman who gave birth to our kids and stays home to care for them.
Because of this, dads appreciate that I don't dismiss or judge them or their behaviors by assuming they're just men being men. Nor do I criticize moms' behaviors by presuming they're just women being women.
My wife and I have learned over time that we're both pretty equally skilled and unskilled as parents. Which means I encourage moms and dads to consider their own parenting roles and contributions more expansively than through the lens of gender.
Why is this important to (straight) relationships and families? Because the couples I coach sometimes hold opinions about men and women that work against the relationship satisfaction and parenting harmony they seek. They complain that:
- "He's such a guy! All he wants is sex. Can't he see how much being a mother takes out of me? Can't he just leave me alone?"
- "Before the baby arrived, he said we'd do everything 50/50, but it's more 75% on me and 25% on him. Just like a man to weasel his way out of child care."
- "Women are such teases. Hot for you until they get a ring and a baby, and then they suddenly treat you like you're an animal for wanting sex!"
- "Believe me, I wish I could talk to my husband about our problems, but men just don't care about that stuff. They refuse to communicate!"
- "Women are so emotional and irrational! I missed our son's preschool graduation because of work. Someone has to pay the bills. Why is my wife so pissed at me? "
Are these accusations fair? Absolutely. Many parents argue about money, children, housework, communication, and sex and intimacy. Are they reserved for heterosexual parents? As a lesbian mom, and a relationship coach who works with gay parents, I know that they're not.
All of us — moms and dads, straights and gays — grow up with the idea that men and women are not only fundamentally different, but that our differences create obstacles, which can't be overcome. Psychologist John Gray popularized that notion 20 years ago in his book, Men Are From Mars And Women From Venus.
That belief is such a compelling part of our cultural vocabulary that we barely notice how much it undermines romance, short-circuits relationships, and compels men and women to either dismiss each other or complain so much that we lose track of our spouse's needs.
It's true that women and men are different, yet in his efforts to give couples a roadmap to navigate differences, Gray failed to mention compelling evidence that differences among men — meaning, one man's difference from another — and those among women, are even greater than those between genders. In other words, every single one of us is from a different planet.
I know this because in my relationship, one of us wants sex more than the other, while the other avoids conversations about our relationship problems. In other words, we each exhibit behavior usually ascribed to men. If you think my list stops there, think again. I'm the one most likely to forget to pack diapers and snacks when I take my son to the park (in fact, I forgot the whole diaper bag just the other day), whereas my wife wields an Allen Wrench like a professional. Did I mention that we both wear lipstick, own far too many pairs of shoes and donned white dresses when we got married?
Which is why I encourage all couples, straight and gay, to try to understand each other's differences — which is not the same thing as agreeing with them — and not to lapse into criticism and rejection. Instead of assuming your husband's just being a guy (a.k.a. insensitive and kind of primitive), or your wife's just being a woman (a.k.a. emotionally overwrought), get curious about each other. Find out what's really at the heart of the issue and work to resolve it.
How can we understand differences? One approach is to recognize that as a couple we often occupy distinct roles, e.g., the sexual initiator/the sexual responder or the communication initiator/the communication responder. If we look at those roles less as who we are and more as the parts we play to maintain our relationship, then we can start to see the benefit and even necessity of both roles, instead of pitting them against each other.
For instance, relationships need a sexual initiator to keep the flames of sexual intimacy burning. We also need a sexual responder, who often acts as a gatekeeper because there are lots of other things we need to get done in addition to sex. The same is true for communication: it's important that someone addresses that we have a problem, but it's also important that we don't spend all our time on the minutiae of our interactions.
Curious about how to break out of your role? Try role-play. Yes, sexual role-play is one option, but there are others, too. Initiate a conversation about your relationship issues if you don't usually do so. Pick your kid up from school if you rely on your spouse to play that role. Take out the garbage, pay the bills, buy diapers, take your child to the pediatrician. Whatever's outside your usual to-do list or comfort-zone is an opportunity to expand your horizons and reassure your spouse that you appreciate that he or she is more than the roles they perform.
Still convinced that boys will be boys and girls will be girls? I'll give in. As mom to a daughter whose wardrobe is almost entirely Pink and a son who only plays with cars and trucks, I suspect there's some truth to that conviction. Especially if we ignore that when my son sees me crying, he not only asks me what's wrong, he then hands me his beloved lovey to comfort me. And please don't tell my daughter that about a hundred years ago pink was considered a masculine color. Shhhh, mum's the word.
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