LIVES TOGETHER, WORLDS APART:
THE TIES THAT DOUBLE BIND *
(with Sherwin L. Davidson)
As the school year starts at Rydell High in the musical "Grease," two groups of teenagers - one of girls, one of boys - sing about a romance of the previous summer.1 Appropriately, the two groups are positioned on opposite sides of the stage, as if to dramatize even more that females and males experience the world very differently. So differently, in fact, that they almost seem to inhabit different worlds. As a New Yorker cartoon puts it:
"Maybe the best way I can put it is that we inhabit
parallel universes that appear congruent but don't,
in non-theoretical circumstances, really interact."
Relatively easy to acknowledge with distant or exotic groups, the existence of different worlds among people who are often together and who expect to be similar seems counter intuitive and much more difficult comprehend. Especially within marriage, women and men implicitly expect there will be a common world between them. After all, to paraphrase the words of one well-known sociologist (Berger, 1963, pp.85-86), wives and husbands share bed, bathroom, and thousands of bleary-eyed breakfasts. In our society, as Berger and Kellner (1970, p.53) observe, marriage "is a dramatic act in which two strangers come together and redefine themselves" within a common world. There are, of course, countless personal differences that make a particular woman and man strangers to one another and so make this a difficult process. But women and men are also strangers to one another because they enter into marriage from two different worlds - the separate realities of females and males (see Bernard, 1973, 1981).
While these different realities are well established in the conventional wisdom and increasingly recognized by the social sciences, their compelling effect is usually not fully brought home until we make a home to bring them to - when we enter into the close and constant relationship of marriage. This lack of commonality where it is often most expected and desired is jointly and therefore doubly disappointing. When wives and husbands fail to achieve a mutually acceptable common ground or when it slips away, blame can quickly follow. Each finds individual fault or failure with the other and occasional expressions of personal denigration begin to become patterns. Thoroughly immersed in their own sex-worlds and often acknowledging those of their partners somewhat negatively, wives and husbands express and experience their criticisms of one another in cutting and personal ways. Thus each of them is encouraged to stay within or to retreat back to the protective and comfortable enclave of their separate female or male world.
The double binds of marriage originate in the fact that these separate worlds are useful and familiar, as well as contrary and problematic. These worlds are central to our individual identities. We do not just play the roles of females and males - we are females and males. And as females and males we take different things for granted, make different assumptions about what is important, order our lives according to different priorities, treat different things seriously or lightly, communicate in different ways about different aspects of our experience. The different ways of the two sexes constitute so much of what we each are that many, if not most of us are only totally relaxed and comfortable when we are with others of our own sex and know without doubt that we are inhabiting the same taken-for-granted world.2
THE SEVEN DIMENSIONS
The female world and the male world each have their own distinctive set of defining characteristics. In the following discussion these differences between the sex-worlds have been organized into a core of seven dimensions. We think these dimensions are at the heart of how each sex behaves in the other's presence; thus they represent how each sex sees the other. The underlying social expectation that each of us will embody these different dimensions is often so strong that even the most nontraditional of women and men are sometimes surprised or disappointed when those expectations are not met by others.
We have arrived at these seven dimensions through a range of activities: counseling with women and men, informal interactions and discussions with couples, experiences in teaching in the areas of gender and sex roles, and reading in a wide and diverse body of literature. These dimensions represent generalizations that clearly are not applicable to everyone. While it is important to name and describe these dimensions, we have found it almost impossible to do so without the appearance of overstatement. In reality, behaviors along these dimensions are often only partially or subtly expressed, and so they should be thought of more as directions in which women and men lean than as categories into which women and men fall.3
The seven dimensions we have identified are:
In regard to each of these dimensions, we have constructed the following general descriptions.4
Along this dimension the female is more interested in people, in subjects, in emotions and feelings. The male is more focused on things, on objects, on operations and activities. The female includes herself and her reactions within her world while the male looks at the world from the outside. If feelings do not actually take priority over activities in the female world, they are at least equally important, whereas in the male world tasks have primacy. Females thus tend to experience tasks and feelings as convergent, while males tend to see them as divergent or disconnected. In the face of difficulty or stress women express their personal concerns with an integral emotional expressiveness, while men respond with immediate problem-solving interventions. She says, "I feel awful about this." He says, in effect, "I think we should not waste too much time on feelings and figure out our alternatives; in fact, I can think of a couple of possibilities already." And when things go wrong, the female usually finds fault within herself while the male faults external events.
Along this dimension the female tends to see the world in connection to herself - she personalizes her experience and so is wrapped up with it, attached to it. The male tends to see the world as distant from his self - he depersonalizes his experience and so is at one remove from it - it is not him but something separate. She says, "The thing won't work; what did I do wrong?" He says, "The thing won't work; what's the matter with it?" In activities the female is invested more as a whole person for whom feelings are a substantial part, while the male is invested with only some part of himself from which his feelings are held apart. The major exceptions may be those of occupation and athletics, both of which tend to be competitive arenas. In the same way that the female attaches a substantial part of her primary identity to marriage and the home, the male attaches his to his work mates and workplace, and often to a preoccupation with sports. In conversation, she shares emotional responses while he replays events. The female tends to feel that her internal experience is the experience that others also are having, while the male tends to think that it is the outside world that is objectively and self-evidently there in the same way for everyone. Women are given credit for thinking intuitively, for coming to conclusions for reasons that remain unarticulated, while men are expected to reason things out cognitively, with a linear and accountable logic. As they try to retrace their route after getting lost in a strange city, she says, "This just doesn't feel right to me." Frustrated, he says, "Don't tell me that - tell me how to get back on the highway!"
Along this dimension the female joins in matrimony for more "dramatic" reasons - to have someone with whom to share life's joys and sorrows, for love and children. The male ostensibly marries at a more prosaic level - for companionship and sex, for a homemaking partner, for a mother to his children (and perhaps to himself as well). The female marries eagerly, or at least wholeheartedly, and with the expectation that her life will become more than it was. Publicly at least, the male often claims to marry reluctantly or even begrudgingly, with the avowed disclaimer that his life will now become less. She will work toward a continuation of romance and ritual, the creation of meaningfulness, and a focus on social form, while he will be inclined to think of rites and rituals as less important (unless someone else does the work) or as a way of keeping "the little woman" happy; instead of symbolic elaboration, he will often appear simply to want "to get to the point." While the female sees things in the immediate here-and-now of life unfolding, the male sees them in terms of long-range implications and probabilities. In these contrasting frameworks she will hope the world is good and so will embrace openness and vulnerability; he will "know" the world is indifferent and so will prize toughness and tenacity.
Along this dimension the female has learned that her fundamental focus is in "being with people" or "being there for others," while the male has learned that his primary focus is in "doing things" or "getting things done." In relation to their family the female sees herself as the primary nurturer while the male sees himself as the chief provider. She is finished when others feel good; he is done when they have what they need. For the female, then, family ties are usually central and often extensive, while for the male they are more secondary and limited. The female seeks and finds satisfactions in relationships and often appears more comfortable allowing others to manage the technical demands of the world. The male often feels required to manage life's technical demands and, indeed, seeks and finds satisfaction in mastering them. She knows she is supposed to find release and fulfillment in relationship; he knows he is supposed to find reward and purpose in accomplishment.
Along this dimension the female is sensitive to and fluent in verbal communication, whereas the male tends to understand communication more in terms of physical action and behaviors. Females are much more focused on the subtlety, nuance, and symbolism of verbal communication - talk itself is proactive. She relies on verbal reassurance - something becomes real if said. Males are apt to see words as less important - for them, action is action. He relies on the reassurance of behavior - something becomes real if done. A client of ours, describing a breakthrough in responding to his wife's anger, wrote to us: "It was a matter of my listening to her account. Once done, things seemed to cure themselves. It suddenly struck me that saying is doing, or talking is a kind of action." When women get together their being together and their verbal exchange of intimacies and shared feelings is what they are doing. When men get together they usually require some physical activity to center on; even if it serves primarily as a vehicle for their being together the activity is attended to as if it were something that needs doing. In addition, women can be symbolic in their behavior; simply by displaying themselves in certain ways they can receive recognition, while men must be more instrumental and perform certain accomplishments to gain praise and reward.
Along this dimension, in the impersonal world, females tend toward an acceptance of things as they are, while males tend to assume they can manipulate or modify them. In the interpersonal world, however, it is women who tend to work to get what they want, while men are often less attentive - unless the interpersonal world impacts the world of events. Women are trained to be more sensitive and susceptible to the opinion of others and to public opinion in general. Men are enfranchised more readily to buck the tide of convention or to simply ignore what others think. Particularly in the public sphere females have less latitude for the display and expression of personal power, while males unreflectively tend to think of power as their birthright. She understands communication as a working out of something together, a bilateral exchange, while he thinks of it as a giving of information or a stating of facts. She invites dialogue and asks questions; he does monologue and tells stories. Around external events or activities and such emotions as anger or hostility the female is indirect, hesitant; the male is blunt, presumptive. Around such emotions as love or sadness these patterns usually reverse. Overall, however, she demurs and accepts, he asserts and insists.
Along this dimension females see themselves as comfortable with cooperation and often prefer collaboration with others. Males see themselves individually as their own ultimate resource and as the protective bulwark between their wives and the larger world of powerful outside forces which must be managed. Women openly express a desire for togetherness and assume a boundary around themselves as a couple; men express less desire for togetherness and assume a boundary around each of them as individuals. He says, "Let's each do what we want." She says, "What I want is to be with you." He says, "I'll go get the firewood." She says, "Let's go get the firewood." Women exult in the mutuality of interdependence while men idealize a sense of rugged and isolated independence. While she seeks the togetherness of marriage, he rues the lost freedom of bachelorhood. Women often have a strong sense of bondedness with other women, of a private world in common which brings them together with one another. Men often have a strong sense of separateness, of a public world in common which requires them to distance from one another in order to protect themselves or to stay competitive.
Obviously, women and men do not always exhibit the patterns we have just described. In fact, in different times and places and circumstances, women and men think and feel and act in a great variety of different ways. But in cross-sex situations the contrasting differences along these seven dimensions tend to become pronounced.5 In many ways marriage is the cross-sex situation par excellence. Females and males marry one another because they are of opposite sexes; this is what occasions their coming together. Thus, the most salient and central role to be played in marriage is that of sex or gender. So it is the very differences which make for our being women and men that are most powerfully elicited by marriage.
As a social institution laden with tradition and unspoken rules, marriage promotes sex role differences. Yet as a personal relationship, marriage provides the possibility of discarding these very same roles. On the one hand, in centering on their differences marriage mandates women and men to behave like the women and men they were raised to be. A congressman not so long ago claimed that his constituents were pleased with the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment because in his home state of Kansas "men are men and women are glad of it." On the other hand, in providing a major opportunity for self-disclosure, marriage allows and even encourages women and men to separate themselves from the roles they play. Together, then, with the marriage ties that bond, are those that double bind.
These ties double bind not in a narrow clinical way but in a larger sense: Both partners are caught in this confusing set of conflicting demands - the powerful conventions of sex-role behavior and the enticing promise of a jointly and personally constructed marriage world. These ties double bind because the very difference which draws women and men into marriage - their difference in sex - includes those gender differences which work against the smooth creation of such a mutually shared reality. They double bind because the structure of marriage itself, by pulling wives and husbands both toward and away from their own separate world views, sets up within each spouse contending internal stresses. They double bind because women and men often want the other partner to behave differently from these conventions but when their partner does so in the "wrong way" or at the "wrong time" they then experience anger, disappointment, or resentment. They double bind because even while wives and husbands carry these images of how the other sex is "opposite," each still tends to assume that the other does - or ought to - inhabit their world. As the tired old cliche goes, "If you really loved me, you'd know what I want."
The result of these double binds is that behaviors are misperceived, unintended communications are sent and received, joint resources are ignored and misused, shortsighted conclusions are too quickly and too harshly drawn. And so marriage too often results in love's labors lost.
Understanding the differences between the female and male worlds in a value-free way is the first step in being able to recognize the double binds and in learning to deal with them effectively. Even more essential understanding these differences not as separate liabilities which must divide women and men, but as reciprocal strengths which can unite them.
We can offer four constructive suggestions about understanding and managing these differences in new ways, and thus undoing the ties that bind. These suggestions center on the notions of locating, valuing, reframing, and exchanging.
Locating is the process of determining any of the ways in which any of these seven core dimensions might strike home. The dimensions are used as a backdrop against which each married couple - each wife and husband - can profile themselves. The dimensions become a diagnostic tool for discussing what fits and what doesn't, what bonds and what binds in each particular marriage pair. As counselors, we (the authors, who are married to one another) must examine the fit of our biases along this seven-dimensional backdrop. Only then are we free to honestly assess the location of the couples with whom we work. As marriage partners, we must determine as open-mindedly as we can where we ourselves fit along these dimensions.
Valuing these differences is equally important. As we have come to know the different worldviews of women and men, we have also learned to value them. We have discovered that they each have their own functions and worth, usefulness and intrinsic merit. Neither worldview is superior to or better than the other. It is important to free women and men from the complacence of habit and tradition that locks them into their own worldview. Bringing to their attention the gains that become possible in utilizing attitudes and behaviors different from their own can do this. All too often marriage partners see these differences in terms of what costs they each pay as individuals rather than in terms of what returns they might together receive as a couple. Thus it becomes important to clarify and to illustrate to each partner how the worldview and behavior patterns of the other can enrich the lives of them both.
Our third notion is that of reframing. Wives and husbands too often acknowledge these differences by finding fault with one another, personally blaming each other in cruel and destructive ways. Reframing enables women and men to shift blame away from one another as individuals and to realize that neither of them selected these characteristics for themselves. Truly understanding these differences makes victims of - and thus invites compassion for - us all. If wives and husbands are enabled to see that they are both behaving in conformity to very powerful conventions, a "third party" in effect has been introduced as a sort of scapegoat for the difficulties that these differences cause. Thus wives and husbands do not have to blame each other. As we all know, people are much more willing to take on new ways of being and behaving when they feel that they do not have to defend the ways they have been.
Finally, exchanging suggests several ideas. Wives and husbands can trade worldviews experimentally through role-playing or empathetic understanding. Exchanging includes seeing out into the world from the other's perspective in order to understand the limits and liabilities as well as the strengths and advantages it has for the person who holds it. This reverses the currency of exchange in which partners devalue the other's viewpoint. Instead, one identifies the restrictions and opportunities of one's own worldview in order to inform the other partner. This can become a double exchange because each partner can also gain some appreciation of the difficulties one's own patterns create for the other person as well.
There is a final dimension to the notion of exchange worth special mention. This has to do with focusing on how far one has traveled rather than on how far one has yet to go. As women and men understand their differences and express their understanding through changes in attitudes and behavior, it is important to keep in mind that women and men need not become alike. Nor will they necessarily change in "equal" amounts, or move the "same" distance toward some imaginary center point. The differences between the sexes themselves alert us to the fact that some insights and changes are more easily to be made by women and others by men. The amount of effort, which is what is truly exchanged, which not always commensurate with amount of result, is what should truly be treasured.
If we as counselors can help women and men, wives and husbands to move away from being locked into their own world views and to understand how each one is struggling toward an awareness and appreciation of the other's view, then all of us will have traveled a substantial distance toward the goal of a more mutually shared marriage world, increasingly free of the ties that double bind.
* This is a slightly edited version of a paper that was originally read at the annual meetings of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, Dallas, TX., October 1982. A purloined version of the presentation, made without permission (although the authors were named and slightly quoted) appeared in Bride Magazine, January, 1983, the discovery of which was made quite by accident.
1The song is "Summer Nights" lyrics and music by Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs (1972). The two groups report very different versions of the story's central romance to their respective groups. Sample lines include the following:
Did you get very far? Like, does he have a car?
Saved her life, she nearly drowned. He showed off, splashing around.
Did she put up a fight? Was it love at first sight?
She got friendly, down in the sand. He got friendly, holding my hand.
2 Bernard (1981, p.9) reports that "men and women still spend most of their lives with other members of their own sex rather than with one another, whether at work or at play."
3 We understand these differences to be expressive of learned, sex-role-linked tendencies of females and males, but they are not the exclusive prerogative of either sex. Human variation is enormous and there are undoubtedly individuals and couples who are exactly opposite to the generalizations we are making. Not withstanding our qualifications, however, these descriptions remain useful.
4 While we are responsible for the formulation of these dimensions, many of them have been identified in the research literature in one form or another. For popular examples, see Gilligan (1982) and Tannen (1990).
5 Since each sex tends to form its dominant impression of the other in cross-sex occurrences, and since it is in these occurrences that the differences are most pronounced, each sex tends to perceive the other as characterized by these differences. As Bernard (1981, pp.5, 15) notes, neither sex has a very accurate or complete portrait of how members of the other sex behaves when not in their presence.
Berger, Peter. Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1963.
Berger, Peter & Kellner, Hansfried. "Marriage and the Construction of Reality", in Recent Sociology, No. 2, ed. by Hans Peter Dreitzel. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1970.
Bernard, Jessie. The Future of Marriage. New York: Bantam Books, 1973.
The Female World. New York: The Free Press, 1981.
Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1990.