The new rules for relating

As western society moved into the 20th century, we came in with a very clearly prescribed way that males and females in marriage were to behave with one another. The man was the undisputed head of and authority in the family.  In addition, he was to provide for and protect his wife and children.

The woman’s role was to obey her husband, to take care of him, to take charge of the house, to bear and take care of the children and to be responsible for setting the emotional tone in the family.  She was also responsible for the sexual fidelity of the home. 

In the marriage vows of the time, the woman pledged to love, honor and obey her husband.  He only had to love and cherish her.

Since women were not expected to be educated, and divorces were possible only on grounds of adultery, insanity and desertion, the wife was completely dependent on her husband.  She had no other means of support nor a right to manage her affairs.  If the marriage became difficult, she felt obliged to stay.  Once married, she had to endure her lot.  A further deterrent was that divorced women were ostracized and often looked upon as sexually loose.

The pattern of the relationship between husband and wife was that of the male being dominant and the female being submissive. The society of that day only gave recognition and status to those who married.  The others, who did not marry, especially women, were considered misfits and were objects of pity and sometimes scorn.  As a result, women scrambled to get married. To be respectable, a woman had to have a Mrs. in her name.

A new era has dawned since then.  This began when women attained the right to vote in 1920.  That gave them control over their lives.  Slowly, states began to liberalize divorce laws as well.  There had always been divorce possible under the grounds of adultery, insanity and desertion; now, they were being extended to neglect and abuse.

During World War II, much of the work formerly done by men was successfully done by women. This gave women a new sense of confidence.  They learned they could be successful heads of families themselves.  When the men returned from war, the climate of relationships had changed, and women were no longer willing to be submissive.

The women’s rights’ movement emerged soon thereafter.  The end of the dominant/submissive model in relationships was certainly in sight.  However, there was very little that had developed to replace the old pattern.  For the last 40 years, couples have been floundering.  New forms for the new values had not yet emerged, and the old ones were no longer acceptable.

The aim was to develop a new kind of equality, based on equal value of each person.  The old role definitions were no longer appropriate and chaos was setting in.  Retrospectively, one could have expected that there would be a lot of chaos and a lot of fall-out.  The change from the dominant/submissive model to one of equality of value is a monumental shift.  We are in the beginning of learning how a relation­ship based on genuine feelings of equality can operate practically.

~ Virginia Satir, 1983