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Love, Honor, Negotiate

How power and decision-making in couples affect the
nature of intimacy.

Today she's one of America's best marital therapists. But early in her career, Betty Carter, Ph.D., was feeling increasingly defeated in her efforts to save relationships. The turning point came when Carter helped launch the Women's Project, a landmark quartet of feminist therapists. The workshops led by Carter and her colleagues revolutionized the profession by spotlighting the importance of gender issues in family therapy.

One of your concerns as a therapist is that when a woman gives up her career to raise the kids, this creates an imbalance of power in the marriage.

That's right. It is a very rare couple where [the husband is] the main earner and both of them truly believe that the money he earns is equally at her discretion. He will feel perfectly free to buy a new stereo. She wouldn't dream of it.

What's the answer? A wife shouldn't quit her job?

You do lose your autonomy if you don't earn money because he's going to feel entitled to at least veto power [over how money is spent]. To show you how strong gender programming is, when the wife earns more than her husband, instead of using this power she minimizes it so it won't upset his ego. Women do not realize the degree to which they not only become disempowered but feel disempowered.

What does that do to the relationship?

It throws it off balance. Couples start out equal today. He does the laundry, some cooking. She may have to prod him a bit, but intellectually he agrees that women are equal. Then the baby is born; maybe she works part-time. The second kid creates the real crisis. You can't juggle around two babies, so she cuts back even more or quits her job. If they're in therapy, I ask her if she thinks it's prudent to be a nonearner in a society with a high divorce rate.

Attuning her to a reality of life.

People have a romantic notion about their own relationships. They don't know the degree to which relationships are embedded in the larger society. They have no sense of themselves as a socioeconomic unit. With all the corporate downsizing, economic problems are a huge factor with couples coming to therapy now.

In what way?

They don't say, "We're feeling economically insecure." It's "I'm depressed" or "He's always fighting with my mother." But when I talk to them, I find out they're working three jobs between them; they never see each other; his company is about to be downsized and he's working his butt off not to be on the list. They [don't realize] that it's the economy that's squeezing them.

It's almost un-American to suggest that a couple decide to earn less than they could so that they can have more time together. Yet that's often what it takes. It is not possible to have a successful marriage if you work 65 hours a week. When people tell me they want to improve their marriage and he works 65 hours a week and she works 45, I say, "Sorry, I can't help you."

Let's talk about negotiation within relationships.

The central struggle for every couple is handling differences. Boys learn about hierarchy from day one. They understand that that the guy with the most power wins. Girls are taught to be nice. Nice people don't learn to negotiate, they learn to give in.

You want both partners to contribute to decisions.

Solutions always need to be win-win: I get this, you get that. Or we do it your way this time, my way next time. It's always difficult when the man has been the most powerful partner, because the rewards of [relinquishing power] have to be demonstrated—and they're all intangible and emotional.

You are reconnecting people with their dreams. That's a nice business to be in.

When it works out. I feel wonderful about the successes—the people who do decide to give up a fast track job for a more modest one so that they can have time and a relationship.