One topic I haven’t addressed much in this blog—and I’ve been blogging for nearly five years now—is gender in the therapy room. Why is that? My first guess is that I am male, and men in general (even those of us who consider ourselves progressive and enlightened) enjoy gender privilege. Because I am not a woman (and don’t feel conflicted about my gender identity), I don’t have to think about gender very much, in contrast to the fact that because I am gay, I do think about sexual orientation far more than an average heterosexual male. If you enjoy a privilege, one benefit of that privilege is the freedom not to think about it.
But gender is a huge topic in my therapy room, whether we discuss it directly or not. Just yesterday I was working with a male-female couple and found myself pondering the same questions I ponder whenever I’m working with that population: am I treating them differently because of their sex difference? Am I being too hard on her, not understanding her, joining with her spouse against her? Or am I being nicer to her, patronizing her, treating her with “the soft bigotry of low expectations”? What about him? Because he’s male, do I identify with him too easily, thinking that my experience is his? Am I being too hard on him because of our biological similarities, and my assumptions about those similarities? (Biological sex organs are not the same as gender, remember.*)
These ponderings can seem endless: if it’s a gay or lesbian couple, am I unconsciously moving them into gendered roles in my mind? Sometimes gay couples will do this themselves: “I’m the girl in the relationship,” gay men sometimes say to me, usually with a smile. When that happens, I might ask, “What does ‘girl’ mean??” That’s actually a relatively easy situation to handle: the gender identification is out in the open, and readily available as a topic of discussion. More often, gender is lurking beneath the surface of our conversations, and even our non-verbal interactions.
Ultimately, I strive to move beyond gender in an important way, but I know it’s hard to do that effectively, and ethically. My theory when working with couples assumes that human beings face the same challenges in their relationships no matter their gender identification: personal growth is often painful, we are our own worst enemies, we are too often trapped in our own narrow perspectives, we experience anger and fear, and so on. I confront everyone in the room, including myself, because I see that as a fundamental part of my job. And I do believe that most of the truly challenging things my clients wrestle with—even if they are gender-flexible, or transgender—are found in a realm beyond gender, the realm not of gender identity, but human identity.
But as I said, moving beyond gender is hard, and ethically challenging: I need to confront myself with the question, are you moving beyond gender because you’re avoiding something you yourself don’t want to face? Is it more comfortable for you to move beyond gender than to engage your clients in a vigorous and painful discussion of it? Any good therapist knows that it’s really easy for therapists to make these mistakes! But my promise to you is this: I’ll keep asking these hard questions in our work together, and sometimes I’ll ask you to do the same.
* Gender is a complicated term, and this short post won’t exhaustively define it or address it. I work with diverse clients, many of whom are not conflicted about their gender identity, and others whose gender identity does not line up with their biological sex…and still others who reject gender labels entirely. I’ll post more on this topic in the future; for now, this post is primarily about therapy dynamics in couple therapy when people of different gender identities are in the room, and what comes up for me in particular as a gendered therapist.