So who is the woman in the relationship?
With the new season of Queer Eye on Netflix I got to thinking. I remember in the first season one of the contestants asking Bobby (i.e. Interior Design) who was the “woman” in his marriage to his husband. Bobby was quick to call him out, and I am glad he did because it was a powerful teaching moment for straight people like me. Bobby then went on to explain why this question was inappropriate, sexist, and essentially heteronormative. Which is a fancy way to say it was putting Bobby and his husband into a box that traditionally is only made for heterosexual couples.
I reflected on this and started asking myself a few questions. I first asked what this contestant really meant. I imagine it was difficult for him to imagine how a relationship would function without the “complementary” effects of male-female components. This idea of complementarity of heterosexual marriage is typically talked about in religious circles, and the idea has bled into society at large—hence the contestant’s question.
This is where things start getting a little blurry. When I started asking myself how a relationship depends on the unique qualities of men and women I kept running into the same problem. I would think of something like (forgive the stereotypical narratives), “women provide sensitivity and vulnerability to a relationship.” Then I would think…vulnerability is what I spend most of my time in couple’s therapy getting men to be better at showing their vulnerable side. So, relationships get better when both partners can be vulnerable. OK. Let’s try it again…I said to myself. “Men are logical and provide for their family’s well-being.” Then I thought of the couples I have met in therapy that tell me their relationship is more fulfilling when they work together as a team to provide for their family. And I’m convinced the “men are more logical” idea has more to do with social narratives that place men in that category and encourage it, as opposed to some innate tendency from birth.
See what I mean? Blurry. I eventually landed on this. People say that gender matters in relationships. I agree, but not in the way that it is typically talked about (examples above). I think gender matters by how our narratives of what men and women are “supposed to do” in relationships act as constrictions to alternative possibilities. Let me address backlash here. Are there differences that end up being helpful for the relationship and seem to follow a stereotypical gendered way of being? Sure. However, I have seen that problems can start when these stereotypical traits became designated responsibilities of men and women, confining roles that
So, as a man married to a woman, I learned something from Bobby. When I consider how same-sex couples make things work, asking whether my relationship stability is based on my ability to perform designated roles based on my gender seems like the wrong question to ask.
Jimmy Bridges, LMFT is a couple and family therapist, and provides therapy and coaching services related to anxiety, mood disorders, LGBTQ+ affirming services, gender issues, faith transitions, and couple’s counseling. He offers online services for teens, adults, couples and families.