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Rigid Gender Roles -- Enemies of the New Intimacy

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Living within traditional male and female roles in committed relationships is currently undergoing significant scrutiny. Whether in straight or gay relationships, what was once the established status quo of the male role as dominant and protective, and the female role as supportive and adaptive, is rapidly transitioning.

Despite these evident cultural changes, not all relationship partners are yet on board. Some people still define "manly" males as partners who take the lead, make the majority of major decisions, and provide perspective and protection. And, of course, the reciprocal. The desirable female role is that of an eager launching pad, a master of quiet efficiency, with a joyous willingness to do whatever is needed to keep the relationship harmonious. And why would there be any need to change those roles? Haven't they created the most successful relationships in the past?

That may have been true at one time. But, when long-term relationship commitment was established far back in history, people had an average life-span of thirty-five years. That span of average lifetime years had only progressed to fifty years at the beginning of the 20th century. "Hunters" and "gatherers" made for a very clear establishment of separate roles for men and women, with few of any other options available.

The current divorce rate, hovering at around 50 percent for new marriages and more than that for second and third ones, clearly tells us that whatever may have worked before is no longer working. Having worked with couples for over four decades, I strongly believe that the partners in committed relationships who have had the courage to challenge rigid role expectations are doing better in every other area of their relationship. Flexibility is contagious and is one of the hallmarks of all great connections. I am seeing more men and women, realizing how rigidity can suppress potential options and inhibit resilience, no longer willing to be limited in these ways. They want both their individual and relationship parts of them to embrace a greater span of emotional thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

In their acceptance of these new options, these new kinds of intimate partners are striving for a deeper kind of intimacy, one that supports the fact that both genders are equally capable of both leadership and support roles in different ways and at different times. Neither partner wants to be consistently responsible for decision making and control or to embrace the consistent giving up of self to support the other. They are choosing, instead, to both encourage whichever one of them who is the most competent to lead in different situations and have no trouble taking the support role when that behavior is most needed for the relationship to thrive.

Whether one partner takes either one of the roles, or they have both blended the two within themselves, they want to interact seamlessly within those movable boundaries. And, they are seeing the results. Their ability as a couple to exchange those behaviors effortlessly is creating a new kind of teamwork that is far superior to what they had before. Instead of dependency on each other to form one perfect whole, they are excited about the different combinations they can exchange and build upon. From symbiosis to synergy, they have created a relationship that is more than the sum of the parts.

Blending both their best male and female characteristics within the relationship and also within themselves, these new kind of romantic partners are also becoming more valuable in the dating environment. Regardless of gender, either can take control when it makes the relationship better for both of them, or be as easily accommodating and giving without feeling erased or impotent in the process. They understand that leadership can be expressed in a relationship-enhancing way when it is expressed as willingness to take charge, to protect, and to serve without the need for dominance or control. And, equally valuable, the supportive role need not be overly sacrificial or martyred in any way. It can be benevolent, heroic, and selflessly supportive of another's needs and dreams. Each set of behaviors has its own special niche in the unfolding of true intimacy.

Every man and every woman has the capacity for both assertive and self-sacrificing behaviors. And, naturally, some are genetically more naturally inclined to take risks, to assume control, and to willingly take on responsibility for their partner's needs and struggles, just as others prefer to follow someone they respect and feel naturally more comfortable in a supportive role. Most people are combinations of both at different levels and at different times, and are happiest when they can find the balance that best expresses who they are. Once confident to express that blend openly and authentically to another, they are also most likely to attract a similarly integrated partner.

Because of the many couples I have worked with, I have been able to witness these changes as they have transpired in the last half-century. The transition from "I Love Lucy" to "Desperate Housewives" is unique in history and remarkably rapid when compared to the thousands of years people have been coupling. Every month now, I meet these new generation partners, quality people of both genders who are courageously exploring these unique options. I see remarkable men who feel totally masculine while diapering a newborn, and equally phenomenal women who comfortably take leadership without feeling less of a woman.

The younger generations are even more eager to embrace these new behaviors. Those whom I've worked with personally and those I've read about are profoundly tolerant of each other's freedom to explore whatever combination of male and female traits they feel comfortable expressing. From their intimate comfort with the Internet, they realize that they will meet significant opposition. Nevertheless, they are exploring the entire spectrum of gender identification and creating new definitions as they do. They will take the world of intimate relationships in a whole new direction that is yet to be seen.

Perhaps taking courage from these young pioneers, I'm seeing more and more couples of all ages wanting the same kind of freedom this new intimacy affords. They want the kind of relationship where two individuals, fully honored by self and the other, are as authentic, real, and whole as they can be, without the need to conform to antiquated gender restrictions. They are seeking new ways to experience each other, trying to blend what they each need with the unpredictable challenges that accompany ever-life-changing experiences. They may not yet have secure road maps but those that have taken the journey tell me that the freedom to love in a new way has been well worth the journey.

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