Who Wears the Pants in the Family?
I am confident that when you read the title of this article your first thought was what an old fashioned thought. Do people still wonder about or comment about couples when they met them which of the parties wear the pants? Do you speculate or assume that either the husband or the wife is in charge? Is that the way you see relationships?
Yes, I believe that many people have traditional beliefs about their roles in marriage and in regard to gender roles in society. Many of those beliefs are from religious teachings, culture or from their family of origin. They may express that “Dad was always in charge” or that “Mom knew her place”. However, in some families the dynamics may be different and the woman may be in the role of the head of the household.
Being raised in the 50’s and 60’s in a non-traditional home with a full time working mother who made more money than my father, I received a very mixed message. Society was saying at that time that women should be home raising their children, like most of my friend’s mothers. When the late sixty’s and seventy’s came along and I was a wife I embraced the traditional role of wife and mother until I began to resent my lack of power in the relationship. I was seeing the women’s movement and hearing that I could have more of a voice in my own life.
What prompted me to write about who wears the pants is that I heard this statement asked of a couple on a television show and was taken back because I had not thought about this in years. As a therapist I work with couples to achieve self-differentiation. I encourage them to be able to express to their partners their thoughts, feelings and opinions openly. I encourage them to receive the feelings, needs and issues that their partner expresses with understanding but to allow their partners the freedom to be unhappy. By being self-differentiated enough to not try to fix the problem or assume that they have failed because their spouse is unhappy with themselves, the relationship or life in general. Each person has to take responsibility for their own wellbeing.
You may be wondering what feelings have to do with who wears the pants. Putting your needs aside for another person seems noble and a generous way to show your love. However, when you decide that you will assume the partner in a relationship who doesn’t have a voice you also are coping out. You are being the lazy member of the team. You have no responsibility for what happens because you are not making any decisions. You are not being fair to your partner because they have to carry you, deal with your needs and become the parent or caregiver in the relationship. I can hear the defense…”but I try to tell her what I think and she won’t listen”. It doesn’t matter whether the partner is controlling or has been forced to accept the role of the leader; you have a choice in how you are treated. You have the right and duty to contribute to the decisions for the family.
Of course, you will have to pay the price for expressing yourself and standing your ground when you feel strongly about something. You may be uncomfortable, feel anxious and fearful that you will be rejected or even end the relationship. Your partner may react negatively with anger and escalate the disagreement beyond your comfort level. If you do not feel safe speaking to the person you love about your opinion, thoughts, ideas, feelings or concerns; then your relationship needs help. You can either keep doing the same or passively accepting your role or you can change the behavior. I always ask my clients, “Do you want to be in this same type of relationship, feeling the way you do today and being ten years down the road knowing that you could have changed things?”
Again, who wears the pants? Each of us must put on our own pants every day and let our partner wear their pants proudly without feeling threatened every time our ideas do not match. If you feel that your relationship is defined by the roles that you have assumed and you want to change the way things are done make an appointment to get some therapy. Couples therapy is best for the relationship but sometimes one partner may be too invested in maintaining things the same to consider therapy. If that is the case in your relationship you should seek individual therapy so you can learn how to develop your own voice, handle the resistance from your partner and cope with the anxiety of change.