Dear Dr. Norquist:
Even though I’ve been taught that in a relationship the man is the head of the household, I’ve always felt that there should be a balance of power between the husband and wife, that there should be an equal sharing, a give and take of work and responsibilities, along with equal support for leisure and non-work pursuits. I have dated several men seriously and my question is, how can I tell what characteristics should I look for that would indicate a partner who would also want a balance of power in the relationship? I find it hard to separate my boyfriends “dating manners” from his deeply held beliefs.
Dr. Norquist responds:
This is a very interesting question. My suggestions with regard to what to look for to help you answer this question focus on aspects of your boyfriend’s behavior, as well as your own.
You are looking for a partner who wants to establish a relationship characterized by a balance of power between husband and wife. The first place to look is at the model his parents presented to him, and how he felt about that. Did it feel unfair to him? Does he agree with the way his father played the role of husband? What changes would he make? Look to see if he seems to have an innate sense of fairness, a willingness to help out in everyday situations or get-togethers with family and friends. Has he been willing to take advantage of people when the opportunity arises or does this go against his nature? Is he interested in, and tolerant of, others’ views and the ways in which they differ from him, or does he tend to think only his way is right? Does he show genuine respect for you as a separate person (with your own needs, interests and career), or does he see you as someone who helps him to create and enhance his own vision? How does he respond when your needs and feelings in any situation differ from his? Would his friends, family or work associates describe him as domineering in any way? Is he threatened by another’s competence? Can he genuinely rejoice in another’s accomplishments and good fortune?
Now, let’s focus on you. You state that you were taught that in a relationship, the man is the head of the household. It is important to be aware of ways you may still be carrying this as an unresolved issue. Your question suggests you do not trust your own perceptions regarding this issue. We tend to attract others who are at a similar developmental level, and who have complimentary issues, or lessons to learn and to teach. If you are willing to own your own power and take responsibility for your own life, you will not find a “fit” with a partner who needs you to fit your life into his. I’d ask you to look at your own behaviors. Are you willing to let your boyfriend share equal responsibility, or are you reticent to relinquish control over how things are done (for example, the housework)? How often do you find yourself unconsciously influenced by cultural stereotypes such as “a good wife cooks dinner for her husband daily, and keeps a clean, orderly house”, or “a good man supports his family financially and takes charge”? Are there ways in which you’d rather let him make the decisions and lead the way so that you can relinquish some responsibility for your life?
Relationships are complicated. There are multiple arenas in which the balance of power dynamic can be at play. Some will undoubtedly be more important to you than others. Discover the areas that are most important to you and discuss these openly and candidly with your potential life partner. Together, you can create a vision of how you would want your marital relationship to operate. This can serve as a blueprint to step into as you build a life together.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)
Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at email@example.com, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2009 Chaitanya Counseling Services