- Many couples suffer from hierarchal relatonships.
- Where there is hierarchy there is no partnership, compassion, or flexibility.
- The alternative is to aim for relational equilibrium.
- A tool that can help move toward equilibrium is the 95/70 chart.
After 13 years of marriage and working with hundreds of couples, I believe that the basis of most relationship struggles comes down to... hierarchy.
Psychological patriarchy expresses itself in the labeling of certain traits as masculine (confidence, power, dominance) and feminine (connection, empathy, feelings) and valuing masculine traits above feminine ones. Psychological patriarchy also leads to a rigid, binary view of partners being either a winner or loser, up or down, dominant or submissive.
As with fish in water, we are blind to the psychological patriarchy we’re swimming in. Our capitalistic society is built on hierarchy, competition, and scarcity. This binary world view ultimately leads to hierarchy in relationships.
Where there is hierarchy there is no partnership. – Galit Romanelli
Hierarchy appears in almost every level of our relationships. Couples set up a hierarchical 95/70 dynamic in relationships. When a couple begins to solidify their relationship, they implicitly and unconsciously divide up who will be better (95%) and who will be worse (70%) in the different facets of their lives: looks, sex, parenting, career, money, social life, talent, and so on. One partner will be experienced as more professionally successful, the other perceived as the better parent. One as better looking; the other more intelligent.
Such implicit agreements maintain partners’ reflected sense of self while maintaining the homeostasis in their relationship. Both partners might consciously disagree or deny it, but unconsciously they both enable this pecking order to continue.
Somewhere down the line, if couples don’t address and soften the hierarchy, they will begin feeling lonely, unappreciated, and unseen in their relationship. When a couple operates in a rigid hierarchy, there is no partnership, mutual interdependence, or movement.
Hierarchical relationships eventually suffer from the three major relationship problems that send couples to therapy. I call them "the three amigos": boredom, conflict, or over-involvement with a third party.
So if not relational hierarchy, what then?
"Hierarchy turned on its side becomes a spectrum" - Geniya Gershovich-Brass
I want to offer that couples should shift from hierarchy toward relational equilibrium. Equilibrium relates to two partners who, although different, hold equal impact and influence. Equilibrium performs better than hierarchy in complex and ever-changing organizations like long-term relationships. Obviously there will always be areas where one partner is more dominant but the pecking order is fluid and flexible.
How to Move Toward Relational Equilibrium?
It is hard to acquire relational equilibrium, because we live in a hierarchical world. It is also hard to create it since most of us didn’t grow up in such a relationship. One of my main roles as a therapist is to upend hierarchy and help couples expand their narrative toward a fluid relational equilibrium.
Couples first need to become aware of the psychological patriarchy that surrounds them. Then they must take full ownership of their hierarchical mindset.
The tool we use in the clinic is called the 95/70 chart. Here’s how we use it:
- Each partner gets a piece of paper listing all the categories in which partners may differ: looks, sex, money, housework, charisma, social life, playfulness, emotional intelligence, parenting, and more.
- Next to every category, each partner identifies who is the more dominant or more capable (95%) and who is less capable (70%). There might be some areas where both partners are equally capable.
- The couple then creates one chart with a column for every partner. They write in their column the categories where they are superior (see picture below).
After finishing the rating, each partner circles the areas they'd like to renegotiate and have more fluid equilibrium in the relationship.
- A partner who is 70% in parenting might want to be more hands-on with the kids.
- The 95% in finances might want their partner to take a more active role, perhaps in tracking expenses.
Then we ask the partners to come together and create one list with a column for every partner listing in which categories they are positioned as superior (see picture below). This chart becomes the basis for a playfully honest discussion about their relational hierarchy. Where does each one currently feel over- or under-functioning? If the discussion gets too heated, couples can take a time out. We will return later to help them renegotiate the division of responsibilities. We remind them that both agreed (implicitly) to the original pecking order, so instead of a blame game, we move them to a more curious exploration of what it would be like to step out of hierarchy and into a more fluid equipoise.
Example from the Clinic
See the picture of the 95/70 chart of a real couple in the clinic. As you can see partner D is positioned as superior at cooking, parenting, playfulness, charisma, and style. Partner J is positioned as more intelligent, responsible, regulated, and emotionally intelligent. Partner D is ready to give up their 95-ness in play, style and sex, inviting J to show up more in those areas. Additionally, partner D wants their intellect to be more celebrated. Partner J expresses their desire to "retire" from being the responsible adult in the relationship and wants D to step up and take more responsibility.
On the basis of this chart, both partners had an honest discussion about how they got there. Each partner confronted themself and took ownership of how they gained (and lost) from their ranking.
In these turbulent times, my contribution to fixing the world (tikun olam, in Hebrew) is not by political and social activism but by working bottom-up, fixing one relationship at a time.
What couples need most now is what the world needs most now—a movement from hierarchy to equilibrium.
From patriarchy to collaboration.
From competition to interdependence.
From enemies or competitors to collaborators.
From me and you to us.
Real, T. (1998). I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the secret legacy of male depression. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Real, T. (2022). Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship. New York, NY: Rodale Books.