In the Medieval time women were property. They were exchanged either as a contract with land or power in which the woman’s virtue must still be in tact. For the working class, the exchange was the expectation of children in which the man was encouraged to get the women pregnant first to make sure that she will be able to be the bearer of children. (Murstein, Bernard I, 1974) In some countries today, women still come with dowries and the exchange of wealth still accompanies the marriage contract. In the US, we have come a long way from the origins of the business contract. The first wave of the feminist movement gained women the right to vote. The second wave of the feminist movement women began claiming their power demanding opportunities for employment, equal pay, equal access to education and control of their own sexuality. Women wanted the rights to their own income, their own credit and financial independence from men How have we changed since then? Has the larger number of dating adults in midlife changed the expectations that women and men have in their dating expectations and scripts? With more single adults dating after the end of their marriage, have the dating scripts changed over time? Have the traditional gendered script of the male aggressor and female submissiveness stayed in tact?
Historically, marriage was not about love. Dating and courtship were not part of the picture. Arranged marriages were the norm. Today, there are still arranged marriages, India is an example of this. Women began gaining social status as the trade between the East and European nations grew. They were needed beside their husbands in the trades and were part of the guilds of tradesmen. Although they were not paid as much as the men, their ability to make decisions in the family grew. During this time, noblewomen were gaining respect also. As times improved, men and women gained time to relax together and the companionship between them gained importance.
In 1890 the book “The picture of Dorian Grey” was published by Oscar Wilde. Although the book is satire, it shows that women have not made much of advances from the Medieval times. Here, Dorian’s friend is describing women to him “My dear boy, no woman is genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of mind over matter, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.” Women were considered objects of affection. They were not respected for their mind or abilities. This attitude has persisted until recent history. In the US, it is during my teen years that women were finally allowed to get credit at a bank without having a spousal signature. Women have been a viable part of the workforce for generations, yet were not allowed to buy their own car or home or get a credit card until recently.
In 1957 the first birth control pill was approved for the FDA (Nikolachev 2010). It was only allowed for women experiencing extremely difficult menstruation. As a result, large number of women reported severe menstruation. In 1960 the birth control pill was approved for women as a method of birth control. Within five years of the approval of birth control, 6.5 million women were taking the prescription to prevent pregnancy. Women were now in control of their fertility. Then, in 1973, the monumental Roe V Wade verdict made abortion legal for all women. Birth control would not be covered by insurance until the advent of Viagra. Viagra only took six months to validate and get approval for use to aid men with erection difficulties (March of 1998) (Viagrabox). With the insurance companies desire to approve Viagra as a way to help men have better sex, the drug was covered by insurance companies right away. In the male dominated corporate culture, this was an important medication to cover! It took state legislatures to require the contraceptive equity for men and women before the birth control pill would be covered by insurance companies (Goldberg 1999). This is an example of the inequity that has been plaguing women throughout history. The power given to males has affected women on many different levels. The rights of men to have higher pay for equal work prior to the feminist movement still underlies hiring and promotion in offices today.
In the book “In a different voice, psychological theory and women’s development” by Gilligan, women were “released from the passivity and reticence of a sexuality that binds them in dependence, women can question with Freud what it is that they want and can assert their own answers to that question.” (Gilligan 1993). Now women have control of their sexuality and fertility. They should, in effect, be free from the social scripts that require women to wait for men to make the sexual advances as well as women to limit the sexuality with their partners. Has this happened?
For a woman to make the choices toward commanding her own sexuality means breaking with the social convention of femininity and her identity as a woman. Women and men both marginalize traditional feminine characteristics. The path for women to move towards a more egalitarian/feminist role in society can be a difficult process, that requires her to reject the socialization of her youth and society as a whole and take on more “masculine” traits of assertiveness, independence, power and reject submissiveness and dependence. According to Rickard (1989) women may not follow the accepted dating scripts early in the dating relationship as they progress along the continuum towards relativistic thinking and adopting the feminist model. According to McCarthy and Bodnar (2005), “Desiring, initiating and enjoying sexuality makes a women less feminine and desirable.” This double standard leaves women in a double bind. This double bind tells us to be submissive and that our sexuality should be controlled. When we break with the standard there is a fear of chaos, family instability and destruction of the social fabric on our lives. Instead there is power, independence and freedom of choices. There is hope. There is some evidence of the preferences of men towards a more egalitarian relationship. In the Journal of College Student Psychotherapy (2005), Sabrina Starling Schleicher and Lucia Albino Gilbert found male responders that desired dating women who were able to express their sexuality as well as not having sex be the main event in dating. Women in this study expressed the same desire to express their sexuality and that men should also be able to limit sexuality. These desires are regarded as alternate theme and yet women wanted men to still be the ones to initiate intimacy. The research raises a good question. If we want an egalitarian relationship, can it happen is we as women don’t share the responsibilities in the relationship such as paying for the date, initiating intimacy? Will women allow men to limit sexuality without questioning their masculinity?
I have had the opportunity to talk with many friends that are also single about their views of dating. Although many of them seem to have a feminist viewpoint of who they are, they are still following the traditional gender scripts that they grew up with. With all the advances in women’s control over her sexuality, where has that gotten us? Did the feminist revolution fizz out? Single women are working and supporting themselves. Some have exited horrible marriages, some were cheated on and left their marriage with feelings of betrayal and some are widows. In talking with these women, there are a couple of themes that have emerged. First is that sex is for relationships not for one night stands. Women are still looked down upon if they are craving sex outside a relationship. I have seen women reject others wholeheartedly and vindictively when the desire for just sex was uncovered. Women are still supposed to only want sex in a relationship. What happened to control over our own bodies? Why is it that we still hide our sexuality? Didn’t the feminist movement free us from the stereotypes or whore, slut, and easy? The choice we have now is not necessarily a choice we can be open about. What else are we hiding? Does this affect our gender expression?
Another theme that I have found is that women may want a relationship but they don’t necessarily want another marriage. I have been surprised to find women in their late fifties and early sixties desiring living with a man outside marriage. Even my seventy-four year old mother has expressed this! Part of this is due to their desire to keep their finances to themselves and another part is not wanting to have to take care of someone else. Some men still expect the woman to take on the cleaning and cooking as soon as they move in. I have had friends describe this having happened multiple times.
In the study by Asia Anna Eaton and Suzanna Rose published in Sex Roles 2011 they looked at dating research over the past 35 years. In that study, they found that the traditional gender scripts of dating have not changed much in the past 35 years. Only occasionally will women initiate a date with a man. When I was single, I myself stopped initiating dates with men because the men did not take the date or me seriously. I was thought of as an “easy target for sex” beyond that they had little interest. Even I decided it would be better to wait for the man to ask me out rather than go out on a lot of dates that would go nowhere. I succumbed to the old script! There is another script. It is the friendship script. It was found that beginning a dating relationship with the traditional gendered roles starts the relationship on a trajectory towards unequal power in the relationship. Starting a relationship with the friendship script has the opposite effect of developing the relationship on a trajectory where the deep friendship develops into a close, intimate and the partners are mutually respected (Eaton, Rose 2011). This “friendship”/ dating script is more often found in same-sex partners than opposite partners.
In the midlife sex script, it is still man meets woman. Man asks out woman. Man pays for the date. The sexual script has changed to man expects to pay for three dinners and then sex is expected to follow. Because we are no longer protecting our virginity such as we were in our college years, there is less tolerance for the relationship to develop prior to sex. The women of midlife are pushing back in response to the more aggressive script that midlife men have adopted. It is as rare to find a man who would be willing to wait past the three date milestone prior to sex as it is a woman who is willing to have sex on the third date. The friendship script would definitely be a welcome change to many of the women I know.
Dating in your forties and fifties and beyond can be difficult. I have said many times that the relationship games that people played in their twenties have become PHD’s by the time they are in their forties. Many singles have gone to the internet dating sites, dating services and Meetup groups to find prospects for dating because of the difficulty in finding suitable mates. The online profiles of older adults were studied by McIntosh, Locker Jr, Briley, Ryan and Scott in 2011. They found that women that are older are still more selective on race, religion, age, height and incomes than men. Older women are open to traveling a great distance to meet the right man. Older women tend to look for someone who is healthy and possibly younger. They are not looking for someone that they will have to take care of as they age. Men on the other hand have preferred women that were younger starting in their twenties and still look for younger women as they are age. Men are also less selective than women based on their profiles. After reading this study, I went to match.com to look at the advertisements of older adults. I found that in my zip code there are people in their eighties still advertising for relationships. There are both men and women in their seventies that put the word lover in their onscreen name. The numbers of men and women do drop off precipitously for each decade over fifty. This may be because they are less savvy with the internet as the research suggested or they may be onwww.seniormeetpeople.com instead. At one point while I decided to go on match.com myself. I found that by just logging on to the sight one time started a flow of interested men emailing me within hours. It didn’t take long to begin dating someone with similar characteristics to myself.
Research on dating and relationships has been focused on college students for many years. Much of this is the ready availability of college students for populations on research. The study “Midlife perspective on falling in love: The dialectic of unique experiences”(2006) by Ben-Ari , Lavee and Gal focused on older adults. This study looks at twelve participants that had fallen in love as middle-aged or older adults. There are two factors that stand out in this qualitative study. First is that the participants would have the experiences of loss from earlier relationships as the backdrops for the new relationships and that they all described their new-found love relationship as unique. Yes, as older adults we do find relationships and fall in love again. The researchers found that “commitment, intimacy, and passion- remained relatively stable among lovers‘ age cohorts, although the expressions of these components change with age.” The participants described their love in three ways. Their love was unique because of the difference between all other relationships they had experienced, their new behaviors due to the relationship (acting like a teenager for the first time etc.) or finding a new self in reflection of the relationship. This broader perspective is experienced as a “turning point and second, as an opportunity at recreating oneself.” I wondered if these people had found a traditional gender based relationship or if they found an egalitarian relationship.
I have found that even though I want to be in an egalitarian relationship, I held myself back because I didn’t want to seem too pushy in the relationship. I realize that as much as I have lived in a man’s world in the workplace as well as the home, I am not as much a feminist as I would proclaim. I wanted a good financial match to me as well as a good friendship and sexual match. I both want and don’t want a relationship that is the equity model of sexuality at the same time. Even I want to hold on to some things that the traditional gender role dictates. Why is it still important to hold on to traditional dating scripts? What are we afraid of? What do the scripts give us? Is it easier to be accepted by following the scripts instead of asserting myself and my feminist power? Will standing firm in independent, strong, feminist values prevent me from finding a mate in my middle age?
In “The equity model of sexuality” (Bodnar & McCarthy, 2005) it describes ten guidelines for relationships: The relationship is based on respectful attitudes that promote and demand equity, openness toward traditional roles being fulfilled by either the man or woman in the relationship, understanding and accepting your own traits that are either masculine or feminine, understanding the similarities between men and women, maintaining non-sexual relationships with both genders, integrating interests and activities whether masculine or feminine, both partners having the power to initiate or decline sex, sharing the responsibility for family planning, mutual respect and caring. When looking at these criteria, this looks like the ideal relationship. I aspired to have this relationship. Why is it that many adults hold on to some of the traditional gender roles? Research has shown an increase in depression for women when in relationships riddled with inequality and that egalitarian relationships show an increase in well-being for both the men and women (Martin & Laughlin 2005).
One theory on this was described by Wiederman (2005). The following of traditional gender scripts brings predictability to a relationship in the beginning. When couples are in a new relationship, they don’t know each other well enough to understand each other when the scripts are not followed. Deviating from the sexual scripts can cause stress and conflict when only one member of the couple is changing the script. When members follow the script then there is the feeling that the couple can be spontaneous and romantic. Over time, couples are able to change the roles.
These differences in expectations of the script that men and women or partners expect in relationships and the power differential they imply are important to watch when counseling couples and families. I look at the power structures in the relationships and point these out to my clients. As a therapist, I work with the relationships of my clients and the structure of how they communicate, share roles and support each other. In therapy we can talk about scripts and how there are unspoken expectations. By bringing the scripts out in the open, they can now be negotiated by the couple. Doing this can affect the power in the relationship and builds connection.
If the egalitarian relationship develops strong bonds between partners, I can use the ideas to help my clients whether they are in a same-sex, heterosexual or polyamorous relationship. Power and marginalization are integral in the traditional gender roles which have existed for centuries. Uncovering these inequities can help partners to look at their relationship with new eyes and may change the trajectory of their relationships. Whether I am counseling heterosexual partners, homosexual, bisexual or transgender clients, I pay close attention to the power in relationships. This is more important than gender in defining the relationship. As a therapist I have the responsibility to create the dialogue that will open the door to create a reality that power differentials can be eliminated. When power is equally distributed between the partners, both will share in the responsibility of the relationship as well as the ability to meet both partners goal, needs and desires.
The change to egalitarian power relationships will take a shift of the second order in society. As older singles are dating we must eschew the traditional gender messages we have been spoon fed most of our lives. To be able to shake these expectations and experience quality egalitarian relationships women will need to take more responsibility for the relationships they enter. This shift will also require men to be able to step back and share this responsibility and respect of the partner they are with. We will also need to start supporting our friends and family as they move towards the post-gender approach to relationships. As a therapist I can affect this change one couple at a time.
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