I Cook, You Clean

by Mark Sichel, LCSW and Alicia L. Cervini

Within every couple, each partner has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Even as EQUAL partners within the relationship, each individual should still bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table.

Men and women frequently mistake EQUALITY between the sexes as SAMENESS between the sexes. To be an equal partner in strength, respect, and measure of responsibility does NOT mean that you must be the same or do the same things. All partners, whether in the bedroom or the boardroom, should be equal, but different. Equal but Different does NOT imply that one partner is more important, better, or stronger than the other, it simply means that while each of you has different strengths, both are vital to the overall strength and health of the relationship.

Men and women in a relationship can bring different strength and weaknesses to a relationship for myriad reasons other than simple gender differences. They might have different talents, different upbringings, different interests, different spiritualities, different educations, or different experiences. Coming from such varied and colorful backgrounds, how we can we reasonably expect to be exactly the same in relationships to achieve equality? Luckily, we don't have to, since equality by no means implies sameness.

The concept of Equal but Different means that the collective experiences of each partner have given them unique strengths, which contribute to the relationship. Along the same lines, the collective experiences of each partner have also given them unique weaknesses. In a good relationship, partners make an effort to understand, nurture and respect each other's strengths and to avoid taking the other's weaknesses as "evidence" that they are not equals.

The "taiji," or yin and yang symbol, from Eastern philsophy is a perfect metaphor for a healthy relationship. The curve of the "S" that separates the white yin side from the black yang side separates the two sides, yet also connects them. The white and black sides take up equal space, yet are different in color and the reverse of one another in shape. Alone, each side would flop over, incomplete. Together, they create a complete circle where each side balances the other. The white yin side has a circle of black yang within it, and the black yang side has a circle of white yin within it. Different in strengths and weakness, but equal. Strong on their own, but stronger together.

Carol* was a successful soap opera actress and yet, despite her success and power, continually felt unequal to her husband, Michael. Michael was a successful investment banker, yet despite his own achievements, he often felt eclipsed by Carol.

Carol and Michael's problem was that each of them felt unequal when they didn't share responsibilities equally, without regard for gender stereotypes or personal self-esteem demons. For instance, Michael was an excellent money manager while Carol, despite her successful career, was not adept at managing finances. Whenever the finances were turned over to Michael, Carol began to feel inferior, unequal, and badly about herself. Because of Carol's strengths in household repairs, Michael's self-esteem would drop when he would have to ask Carol to fix something in the house. "I even botch changing a light bulb," Michael told us in couples' therapy. Rather than seeing each other's strengths as assets to the relationship, Carol and Michael instead saw their partner's strengths only as deficiencies in themselves.

If you can learn to let go of stereotypical thinking, and rejoice in the strengths of both you AND your partner, your own self-esteem will be improved and your appreciation of your partner will grow.

*The names of all clients have been changed to protect their identities.


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