21st Century Relationship Skills

“The problem couples are having today is history,”

according to Terry Real, a couples therapy and gender expert.

“If you are like the millions of men and women who feel dissatisfied, you have been trying to negotiate a 21st century relationship using 20th century skills. Your expectations of what an intimate relationship is – emotional sharing, mutual support, responsibility, vitality- belong to a new kind of marriage, one very different from your parents’ or grandparents’. But your old rule book, and your bag of relationship tools- your game plan and ways of coping- are not nearly as fresh as your vision is.” (Real, 2007).

(Clarification: The information in this blog applies to couples of all sexual orientations. The word women can be viewed as “individuals with traditional feminine qualities” and the word men as “individuals with traditional male qualities”. I also know many partners who display traits more in line with the opposite sex.)

What are 20th century relationships?

  • Focus- “companionable” and “functional”- men go to work (exalted) and women take care of the children, the house, social connections, and everything else (yet undervalued) to “keep their breadwinning husbands as uncluttered and as competitive as possible.”
  • Couples feel more like roommates or business partners.
  • Deficient in emotional intimacy and therefore lack in deep connection and truly knowing your partner and being known.
  • May be deficient in physical intimacy, allowing passion to fade, or just lacking affectionate touch.
  • Deficient in cherishing and gratitude because you believe your spouse is just doing her/his “job” versus acknowledging how wonderfully interdependent you are and all that your partner does for you.
  • We (typically the male breadwinner) get what we want through blind assertion, aggression, economic power, and female acquiescence.
  • We teach our sons to be: strong, goal-oriented, and competitive and our daughters to be: caring, emotional, and cooperative.
  • Significantly short-change men from learning and practicing the winning relationship strategies because they are not taught these as children & not held accountable as adults to meet their partner’s emotional needs and to know what their own needs are, which may leave them feeling empty and incompetent.
  • Significantly short-change women from having the confidence to speak their truth about their emotional needs, which are undervalued, and from learning and practicing relational empowerment skills because their only known options are to: acquiesce, fight ineffectively, or leave.
  • A central aspect of traditional, 20th century masculinity is the denial of emotions. Traditional masculinity commands, ‘Thou shalt not be vulnerable. Boys are taught to disown their own vulnerability and to deride vulnerability in others… It’s why men have such a hard time listening empathetically to their partners.

Women too can struggle with “20th Century” views on relationships

Some women (about ¼ according to Real) also were parented in this same emotionally deserted way. They sadly appear quite unaware of their male partner’s pain from not receiving the love and emotional safety and security that we all need in intimate relationships. These “20th century” female partners may comment in couples therapy, “I’m not even sure why we needed to come.”

Other women are “burnt out pursuers”. After unsuccessfully trying to get the love that they craved from their male partner, they unconsciously “turned off” their own emotional needs and even deride others because it’s become so painful for them to acknowledge their “empty love tank”. I heard one woman once mock her 12 year old granddaughter who asked for her birthday “to be held” by her parents.

Some women fear vulnerability due to their own family of origin wounds and hide behind a wall of mistrust. This leads to chronic dissatisfaction in the relationship, but feels safer to the women than receiving the intimacy they claim they desire.

The shift from 20th century relationships to 21st century relationships~ When women started asking for more.

Around the 1970’s, when women gained economic freedom, political power, and feminine strength and independence, they also began cultivating-

“Personal Empowerment” = “I was weak. Now, I’m strong. Go screw yourself!”

Although this type of empowerment helped women break free from unequal and miserable marriages, this also led to women being alone and not informed about “relational empowerment” skills, which enable women to effectively get their needs met and meet their spouse’s needs as well. With “relational empowerment” skills, women can speak their voice and be in a healthy intimate relationship.

Men, on the other hand, stayed status quo for the most part. According to Terrence Real, “In the last generation women have radically changed and men, by and large, have not. This is not a criticism of men. It is a simple fact.”

Although the relationship skills of men and some women have lagged behind the 21st century, our vision of what we want has not.

What are 21st Century Relationships?

  • Focus- “Intimacy” = sharing oneself with another or connecting in the 5 areas of human experience: intellectual, emotional, physical, sexual, and spiritual & relational empowerment.
  • Most of all, we hone our emotional intelligence and show interest and appreciation in each other’s feelings and express our emotions as well.
  • We help each other feel loved and fulfilled and work as a team in all areas of life (home, children, finances, work, community, extended family, friends, etc.)
  • We use healthy assertion and the *golden rule of relationship empowerment to get what we want. *(“What can I give you to help you give me what I want?”)
  • We respect each other’s boundaries. (As equals, both respect their partner’s “no”.)
  • We value and cultivate joy, appreciation, cherishing, and fun. We know that cherishing our partner and being cherished by our partner is the very core of positive intimacy.
  • We pull each other up from shame and down from grandiosity into healthy self-esteem.
  • We’re well-rounded individuals and teach our sons and daughters how to be whole. Just as many women began working successfully outside the home in the 1970’s (& others much sooner), men too learn how to have successful relationships in the home.
  • We’re willing to learn new relationship skills and understand this requires effort & patience.

What is Relationship Empowerment?

For women – “I was weak. Now I’m strong. I’m going to bring my full self and full strength into this relationship. I’m going to stand toe-to-toe with you and do my very best to insist on healthy intimacy between us because I love you. Because I love us, our relationship. And because we both deserve it.”

For men – Real explains that “relational empowerment helps men meet their partner’s new demands while insisting, no less than women, on appreciation and love.” Real also encourages female partners to teach their male partners about emotional intimacy.

For both partners – Real recommends that “both sexes need to step in to the 21st century understanding that in order to be healthy, all of us need to be whole- STRONG and BIGHEARTED.”

Final thoughts:

I wish I could say that today’s newlywed couples in their 20s and 30s no longer need to read The New Rules of Marriage to practice 21st century relationships. However, in my office and outside my office with couples of all ages, I continue to see the remnants of or in some cases even blatant characteristics of 20th century relationship dynamics.

I hear stay at home mothers of young children (who once had well-paying careers) lament that they have to ask their husbands permission to do self-care (exercise or go to a book club) in the evening because their husband view “childcare” as their wife’s job.

I also hear older stay at home mothers (in their 30s – 40s) express hurt about the shift from their once egalitarian relationship to feeling treated unequally regarding financial decisions because their male spouse has assumed a “one up” position because he is the sole breadwinner now- regardless of the couple having made a joint decision that the female partner would stay home to raised their children and spare the childcare expense.

And I hear male partners express considerable anxiety and/or sorrow about not having the closeness or level of emotional intimacy that they hoped they would experience with the partner whom they love. And I have seen some female partners minimize the importance of their male partner’s emotional needs.

And yet, both men and women are capable of growing and changing and “getting back to our true nature”. When I observe my 6- year old son express the most loving words and behaviors, I know that we are all capable of emotional intimacy, vulnerability, and love if we have the willingness to reconnect with our heart.

And if, almost 50 years ago, beginning in the 1970s, women radically changed by becoming the largest addition in the workforce, gaining economic freedom, political power, and began a movement to support feminine strength and independence, MEN too are capable of becoming more whole and well-rounded by learning how to fulfill other roles in life besides working outside the home– if they genuinely value these other roles as many say they do. Not only will these men, their spouses, and their marriage benefit, their children will too! According to Real:

“Virtually every man I talk to wishes to be a better dad to his kids than his own dad was to him – more involved, more understanding, more connected. We can’t do that from behind a wall. The people we love want more from us than our paychecks. They need our open hearts.”

It is also time and a gift to women to learn that they can be both personally and relationally empowered to speak their voice and have a healthy intimate relationship.

If you need support in creating a 21st century relationship, contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAC III, Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy at 720.432.5262, [email protected], or schedule your free consultation or first session on my online calendar.