Cindy’s been married to Dave for five years. Both of them work full time, and when they both come home exhausted at the end of the day, Cindy makes dinner while Dave checks his emails or watches a bit of the game. After the meal, Cindy cleans up the kitchen and Dave takes out the trash. On weekends, they split the “chores”. Cindy cleans the house, while Dave does the yard work. They never discussed which jobs they’d each do, but simply just sort of fell into them when they got married, and the division of work isn’t all that unlike the one you’d have found among any couple in the 1950’s, except the fact that Cindy makes just as much money as Dave does. Despite this financial equality, however, Dave still considers it his responsibility to bring home the bacon and often doesn’t share his worries about money and the economy with Cindy. He’s the man, after all. That’s his “job”. And although Cindy is just as tired as Dave at the end of the day, she still does the majority of the cooking, cleaning and laundry. She’s the wife. That’s her “job”.
Trent and Ryan are a gay couple who’ve also been married for five years. They also both work full time, but at the end of the day, when they both come home tired, Trent usually cooks the meals. He loves to cook – it’s his way of unwinding and he looks forward to it all day. Ryan doesn’t care much for cooking but doesn’t mind at all cleaning up the kitchen after they’re done eating. Trent is more financially minded, so he tends to pay the bills, but financial concerns are always discussed by both of them. The housework is divided equally based on what each of them likes to do (or doesn’t mind too much) and on their individual strengths and weaknesses. Neither one of them feels the pressure to fulfill the role of “wife” or “husband”, because they simply don’t apply. In fact, neither Trent nor Ryan really had any role models in terms of how to structure their relationship, so they’ve had to make up their own rules as they went along.
And so have all gay couples. Even though we often try to superimpose our “traditional” views onto gay couples and make one of them the “man” and one of them the “woman”, this is nothing more than an attempt to squeeze a round peg into a square hole. We try to make sense of their relationship using the only model we’ve ever known: the male/female dynamic. But it simply doesn’t apply. Even if one gay man is more effeminate than the other, or one woman is more “butch” than her girlfriend, this does not make either one the wife or husband. The simple fact is, we don’t know what a relationship with no gender roles looks like. No one does. But I think it’s about time we figured it out.
The inherited model
If you’re in a heterosexual relationship, chances are that you’ll have taken on, at least in part, your parents’ model. Oh sure, things aren’t exactly the same – some men are staying home with the kids, women will be in charge of paying the bills, both parties are working, you communicate a lot more than your parents did – when people get married, these long-buried, preconceived notions of what it means to be a “wife” or “husband” often come up to bite them in the ass. And before they know it, they are feeling pressured (by themselves or their dead great grandmother) to fill those roles, even in part.
Women all over this globe stress themselves out because they’re trying to have the perfect house. Why? Because that’s what a good wife is supposed to do. Men often still don’t share their financial worries with their wives, or even if they do, shoulder the brunt of the burden. Why? Because a good man is supposed to provide for his family. This is also why many men, even if they logically agree that women should be paid what they’re worth, still hate the idea of their wives making more money than them.
At some point, we decided what it meant to be a “good little wife” and a “good husband” and beyond that, what it means to be a “good woman” or a “good man”, and even though the lines have gotten a bit softer over the years, they’re still very visible. We may not like it or even realize it, but a lot more of our identity is tied up in these labels than we’d care to admit. But not with gay couples. When the roles of “wife” and “husband” don’t apply, and when you’ve pretty much obliterated the traditional gender roles by having the hots for the same sex, you have no choice but to reinvent your relationship dynamic and your gender identity from scratch. While I recognize that this is by no means easy, I’m going to leave that discussion for another day. Gay men and lesbian women can be extremely masculine, feminine or anything in between. They are not nearly as bound by gender stereotypes as the rest of us are. But we aren’t really bound by those roles – we just think that we are.
While gay couples usually divide their responsibilities based on each individual’s strengths, weaknesses and preferences, straight couples often fail to have any discussion about who does what. They simply fall into their assumed roles, and then resent the responsibility that’s been placed upon them. And, while both sexes are guilty of this, women often torture themselves far worse than men do.
The Good Wife
When a woman gets married, she tends to take on ownership for, well, pretty much everything. She becomes the “mom”. She organizes the house, assigns chores, picks up everyone’s slack (often doing everyone’s jobs before they even have a chance to, because she just knows they’re not going to do it anyway) and generally becomes responsible for the whole world running smoothly. Over time, this can lead to an involuntary but very present attitude of “everyone is incompetent and lazy except me and I have to do everything”, mixed with guilt over never being able to do enough. The resentment and stress that this kind of situation creates can be enormous, leading to not only emotional but physical ailments. In short, she feels that she has no choice but to carry the world on her shoulders, resents being sentenced to do so and simultaneously beats herself up for not being able to juggle chickens and sing the national anthem while twirling the world on her finger like a basketball. Gay men rarely do that. Lesbians may, but then perhaps they’ll fight each other for who gets to be the biggest martyr.
But no one ever assigned us this level of responsibility. It’s all in our heads. We’ve adopted a slightly relaxed version of what we saw modeled to us by our parents and on TV, elevated it to some “perfect” ideal and then we judge ourselves against that standard. And yes, we all do it to some degree or another.
But what about if you got to decide, from scratch, situation by situation, how you’d like to define yourself? What if you could reinvent the meaning of the word “wife” or “husband” or obliterate those words altogether and simply be, oh…I don’t know… YOU? What if you and your mate discussed the division of responsibility openly and honestly, without feeling the heaviness of what a “good anything” is supposed to do, but rather on what you actually like and don’t like and then found solutions to each problem together? What if you didn’t expect anything of your mate (or feel that they were expecting anything of you), but simply asked each other for what you want? What if it was truly ok for a man to show weakness? What if a man took care of the kids all afternoon, not because his wife had a doctor’s appointment, but because she was getting a manicure? What if he joined her for that manicure? What if the label of man or woman didn’t come saddled with limitations but was just a way to describe gender? What if everyone simply expressed who they were, instead of who they thought they ought to be? What kind of world would we have then?
The young ‘uns are leading the way
The beautiful thing is that we’re already moving in that direction, and not just in the LGBT community. When you look at young couples in their early 20’s, you’ll notice a distinct blurring of the gender roles. Just as each generation before them, today’s youth has relaxed the code of conduct, and since the global energy is rising faster and faster, the gap between each new generation and the one before it is wider than ever before. “Kids today” weren’t as subjected to traditional gender roles – they often grew up with single moms or dads, who had to take on all responsibilities – womanly or manly or whatever. Not only that, but today’s youngest generations simply aren’t as willing to be trained into limited thinking as those that came before. They tend to reject labels and roles and prefer to make up their own minds.
But this doesn’t mean that you’re doomed if you’re not a 20 year old. You can decide to strip off the labels and discover who you really are at any time. What does it mean to you to be a woman or a man, a wife or a husband, an employee or a boss, a mother or father, a granny or grampy, to be single, in a relationship, gay or straight? Do you agree with the definition that comes to mind? Does it resonate with you? Did you decide on this definition yourself or did you just adopt it?
The New World
We are in the midst of re-defining all labels and roles. Husbands stay at home while wives have high-powered careers. Employees work remotely and are increasingly becoming independent contractors, often so highly skilled that companies have to woo them (completely changing the boss/employee paradigm). Parents are letting go of the need to control their children at every turn and are seeing their kids as individuals with opinions worth considering. Grandmothers no longer sit in a rocking chair and knit, but take cross country trips on motorcycles and get tattoos, or run multi-million dollar companies. Being a single woman in her 30’s is no longer cause to feel like some kind of a failure as a woman. It’s a choice which many women and men are making, just as many are choosing not to have children. Relationships are being redefined – monogamy is great, but so are open relationships of all kinds. It’s up to each of us, individually, to figure out what we want and how we want to live our lives, based on how we truly feel and not on what we think society expects from us. We get to decide. We are free to make our own rules, and to obliterate old ones. What will your rules be?