Gender essentialism: how useful is it in therapy?

I’ve been doing some relationship work lately with a talented therapist.  While she doesn’t necessarily get everything that we’re laying down, to use a very old phrase, she does do an amazing job of observing and calling out the ways we communicate (or don’t), and helping us zero in on what the problems actually are.

The one thing that drives me a little nuts is that she insists on a lot of essentials around gender.  Were she my personal therapist, I probably would have fired her by now, because I feel there is some fundamental level on which she doesn’t understand other possibilities; she’s rather old-fashioned, and has been working with traditional hetero couples for long enough that it feels like she only has the broad brush to paint with.  But in many ways she’s been remarkably effective for us.

Still, it’s annoying.  I’ve also recently come across this in the posts of Scott Williams, whom, so far, I find fascinating and respect.  (Hi, Scott!)  He has a number of posts that discuss patterns he’s observed in gender differences, including this recent one, detailing the differences in capacity for emotional connection in men and women. To his credit, this one apologizes for engaging in generalizations, and also addresses the complaint I tend to have about my family therapist: she seems to think that gender differences are completely innate, whereas Scott discusses how we’re taught, not just by our parents and peers but by the popular media, about what it means to be a man or a woman.  “Women are typically vastly more in touch with their emotions,” he says, adding, “In fairness, however, I was never really taught to connect on an emotional level. My generation of males did not grow up to value emotional vulnerability. We work out our issues alone. We have caves. I grew up believing that emotionally sensitive guys were barely guys at all…I grew up wanting to shoot people, not cuddle.”

Now I don’t know how true this is for most younger men today.  I find myself in the privileged position of being surrounded by guys who are generally in touch with their emotions.  Some of them had excellent, well-rounded men as role models for being strong and sensitive; some of them went to liberal arts colleges, many of them are queer and therefore have worked out entirely different frameworks for looking at what gender is and how it works.  But I do wonder at the vast majority of folks, and to what degree they believe that this is simply how it is: men are from Mars, women are from Venus – because that is all they see in sitcoms, movies, men’s and women’s magazines, and in the relationships they observe and model from in their childhoods.

I think it’s all very well, and quite useful, to lean on some of the observed essentials in order to help men and women communicate better with one another; it’s useful to translate from Venusian to Martian and back when you’re got people who have been so subtly inculcated with their roles that they can’t connect like human beings.  More cynically, the age-old “battle of the sexes” is a profitable war to continue fighting, if you’re in advertising, marketing, or psychotherapy: here folks, are some Endless Problems that you will keep giving us money to help solve!

But how many people are willing to go the extra mile of making people look at what has made them this way, rather than just throwing up our hands and saying, “Watch kids on the playground: the boys are all running around shouting and playing wargames, and the girls are on the swingsets, talking.”  (My therapist actually said this to us.  Also, stopped me in my explanation of my husband’s avoidant behavior by saying, “In other words, he’s a guy.”)  Really?  That’s what you’ve got?  Blue and pink, it’s all innate, feminism is for nothing, gay boys are always effeminate and gay girls are always butch because they’re just reversing the roles…seriously?

I do believe that there are innate differences between men and women: there are biological differences, physical characteristics, hormonal signals that tend to promote and favor certain traits and behaviors over others.  I also personally know enough gay, lesbian, bi and trans people, not to mention genderqueer folk, to know that biological sex and gender are far from the same thing.  I further know that deciding that men are emotionally stunted (for example), or that women expect men to mind-read, is extremely limiting thinking.  It’s useful to teach men to mirror what women are saying when they talk about their emotions, and make it clear that they are hearing and acknowledging those emotions, instead of jumping to defensiveness or immediately attempting to solve the problem.  It’s useful to teach women that sometimes a man needs to be left alone to percolate on something before he can talk about it, and sometimes even then he’ll want to keep it to himself.  But it’s not useful to pretend that these differences in communication style and emotional availability are innate and unchangeable, that there are no other alternatives.

If we accept that women can be nurturing and also tough, and that men can be strong and also loving; if we commit to the idea that women can be executives or construction workers and men can be nurses or stay-at-home dads; if we cultivate wholenessin all of our clients, rather than reinforcing the shitty, dysfunctional ways they’ve leaned to barely cope with a screwed-up world…well, then we’re getting somewhere.

By the way, Scott – keep up the good work.  I do think that what you’re getting at is essentially true, and useful.  I just want to make sure we’re looking at the problem in a broader context.

Published by Kamela Dolinova

Expressive arts adventuress: writing, performing, healing, loving.

12 thoughts on “Gender essentialism: how useful is it in therapy?

  1. The problem you describe is one I ran into in couple’s counseling, as well. It got a bit better when I called the counselor out on it, but she still sometimes used the framework.

    It drives me crazy, because, of course, I observe counter-examples to the paradigms everywhere. And, in addition to the planetary dichotomy gender framework makes, as you said, no effort to expose and address the nature/nurture combination that gets us to the place we are, today.

    This therefore puts us in a position where the societal context and the pressures therefrom cannot be part of the problem, when I’m betting they often are.

    I’m sure it sometimes gets used because most people already accept and are comfortable with it, and can use the framework as a jumping-off point towards better things.

    Still, I would rather see the framework exposed as well as the problems within the framework. To acknowledge that societal pressure helps shape us to begin with and can beat us down in particular directions, and the way that pressure chafes and injures and distorts the shape of a relationship between individuals could, in my opinion, be a valuable thing.

    1. This is well-put, and you get at exactly what my frustrations are with this. Using the framework as a jumping-off point, as you say, is all well and good, except when you’re doing it without regard to the nuances of individual gender identity, gender-atypical behavior, and how it all got that way to begin with.

  2. I strongly agree with you on this topic. Having been in relationship situations where I felt like we’d adopted interaction/communication behaviors that were sometimes reversed from the gender stereotypes, yet quite comfortable with my gender identity (as were my partners in those situations), I cannot subscribe to generalized assertions of innateness and gender duality at all.

    However, to the extent that learning, upbringing, and social modeling shape our behavior (and I believe that they do play a significant part), it’s important to keep in mind that the vast majority of *individuals* do not simply re-evaluate and change their behaviors and beliefs very easily, if at all. Especially by the time they are adults.

    So while I think it’s definitely helpful to encourage people to do so as a society, I suspect that any significant cultural change will have to focus on encouraging children to think and act differently than their predecessors did. Which of course means the adults need to model their behavior differently too. Which means it will be a long, slow road to meaningful change (along with dualistic gender stereotypes in general), as with other things that take decades to evolve socially for the same reasons.

    1. I fear you’re right here, of course; old dogs, new tricks, and all that. Still, I think it’s more worthwhile to show individuals how their behaviors are potentially being influenced by larger forces than to say, “well, that’s because you’re a woman,” for example. Although more frequently it’s the men who are pigeonholed, these days, it seems – which of course tends to put the onus back on the women to “educate them” because they’re so much more in touch with their emotions and all. Grr.

  3. This is an amazing article, and it’s so true, I deal in generalities. I feel like starting every article with “of course you know this is all generalizations”. My theory is that I spread as much manure as possible and maybe something will stick.
    Pretending we are all the same is naive. Alleging that we are completely different is also ridiculous.
    Culture and sociology plays such a huge part doesn’t it?

  4. Was also going to mention that my 25 yr old and I are bantering around an article about the difference between his generation and mine when it comes to sexuality, values, and especially relationships. We are going to rewrite my article “how to pick up vulnerable women” from his perspective. Very different but scarily similar…

  5. As a professional therapist, I find myself slipping on this slippery slope from time to time; this is an excellent reminder to be mindful that how I’ve been conditioned to view the world is not how the world *IS* for many people, and to be aware of when that filter is in place and being unhelpful to everyone.

    1. Thanks, Karen – it *is* tough. We’re all trying to find frameworks that will be helpful to bring better understanding to people – generalizations *can* be useful from time to time. But I have the helpful reminder in my own work to keep asking, “What is that like *for you*?” It’s amazing what can come out at times like that, when you let someone answer for themselves and find that what they say is not at all what you expected.

  6. I applaud the idea of education to improve communication and self-knowledge, but why include a gender component at all? Why not just teach everyone how to better know and express their needs and wants? And that some people will need space to work things out on their own, while others will want more discussion? And that mirroring and echoing are good ways to show that you’re paying attention? Some people may need to hear these things more than others, but I’m not convinced it breaks down largely on gender lines and I don’t see the need to introduce gender at all into this material.

    1. I think that people do it because it’s a useful shorthand when male and female behaviors are shaking out along typical gender lines, and I think it’s a good thing to fall back on for some people when they can think, “Oh yeah, he’s a guy, maybe if I present it in *this* way rather than in *that* way, it’ll get through more effectively.” What’s really happening, of course, is that those gendered ways of thinking are learned and not a necessary thing to go on doing. But, it can be very hard to change your entire way of functioning when it’s so deeply embedded.

      Not bringing it up at all seems kind of worse to me, at least if typical gender behaviors exert themselves in family therapy. To me it’s a bit like saying “I don’t see color”: gender is a thing which exists, whether it’s constructed or not, and needs to be acknowledged and addressed when effects of it are in play between people.

      If those effects don’t seem to be in play, then perhaps it doesn’t get brought up. But it is very, very often the case (not always!) that people in intimate relationships fall into roles that shake out along gender lines to a certain extent, and I think acknowledging, engaging, and (hopefully) deconstructing that can be helpful.

  7. On target, K, and …well, yes, the therapist was really frustrating; pointing out gender-identified roles can be a useful start to discussion, but it’s deadly when used to end one.

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