A Podcast Series from The Family Institute
In this episode of our podcast series "Let's Talk," Neil Venketramen, therapist at The Family Institute, interviews Emily Klear, director of Couple Services. As a licensed marriage and family therapist, one of Ms. Klear's specialties is helping modern dual-income couples to find work-life balance and navigate the changing power dynamics in their marriage. She advises couples to reflect on the expectations and reality of their gender roles within the family and how they are shifting as they transition to parenthood. Ms. Klear also provides strategies for balancing between parenting and maintaining the intimacy with your partner.
Neil Venketramen (NV): Hi everyone. My name is Neil Venketramen and I'm a therapist in the Couples and Marriage Family Therapy Program here at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. I am part of a team of psychotherapists specializing in helping couples and families at different stages in their relationships create pathways to greater understanding and connection. As a couples therapist, I'm experienced and specialized in helping and specifically addressing issues like emotional distance, disconnection, conflict, financial stress, work-life balance and so much more with couples. I've created this podcast series to help you navigate through some of the challenges as a couple that you may face on your journey.
NV: Today, I'm going to be talking to Emily Klear. Firstly, Ms. Klear is the Director of the Couples Services group and part of the clinical leadership team at The Family Institute. I have the privilege to say that Emily is also my direct boss that I report to, and I'm happy to say that not only is Emily an amazing and great boss, but she's also a very caring and nurturing human being. I'm really excited to have her on the call today. Emily is also a teaching assistant at our marriage and family therapy program for our graduate students here at The Family Institute.
NV: Today, we're going to talk about how gender roles and power are shifting within a marriage and how this leads to couples navigating through a non-culturally normative place in their marriage. I think you're going to find today's podcast really useful. Welcome, Emily. So, just to get into it, you have quite an interesting background. I know this is a second career change for you. What drew you to this career and why did you make the career switch to marriage and family therapist?
Emily Klear (EK): Sure. So, I actually have a BA in Psychology and History from Michigan, so it had always kind of been on my radar, but I just didn't feel like taking the clinical psychology route at that point in my life. I went into a business career and had a pretty successful run, but in my personal world, my sister and brother-in-law had a son born very premature who passed away. He lived 26 days in the NICU, and when they were going through the process of grieving that loss, I realized there was a lot of individual and group support out there, but they had just one kind of resource available to them for couples’ support through the process.
EK: And so, I had always thought of being a therapist and really seeing in my own family the impact of my parent's relationship and the dynamics of multiple family members. At that moment, I started rethinking like, I do kind of want a psychology career, but I don't want to do clinical psychology. I want to do couples work and exploring what that would look like. And then, while I was going through graduate school, I had a couple of friends going through fertility treatment, so it started to become this whole notion of difficult transitions to parenthood and wanting to work with couples who were having challenging transitions. And so, I was living in the Chicagoland area, found the program here at The Family Institute and really felt like all the stars aligned.
NV: Sure, yeah.
EK: And then the surprising piece was after graduation, I was able to layer back in some of my business experience, as I'm sure, feels familiar to you, too, as a career changer.
NV: Yeah, I think similar backgrounds, but sorry to hear about the loss.
EK: Oh, thank you.
NV: Yeah, that's really hard to hear. And so good to hear that this is personal to you, like the loss and then looking through your friends, family and relationships and feeling like it's a natural fit.
EK: Yeah, it always felt easy or organic, I guess would be the way to put it. Versus during my business career, I felt like a fish out of water. I was good at it, but it didn't feel natural, and now even on a stressful day I'm like, I like this, I enjoy this.
NV: It's so amazing. Okay, so, Emily, what are some of the recent challenges or presenting problems that couples usually show up with in a therapy session?
EK: So, I started, like I mentioned, doing a lot of difficult transitions to parenthood, but since coming back to The Family Institute almost three years ago now, I have ended up working with a lot of dual-income couples. I would say a large percentage of my couples, currently, are struggling with the balance of work-life, two careers, and even two intense careers. I'm working with a lot of middle-staged couplehood.
EK: How are we navigating our finances? How are we handling our aging parents? How are we raising our children? How are we handling both of our careers, and managing a household, and feeling like we stay connected? I still do a lot of the transition to parenthood work, but I feel like this is something that's kind of percolating up. And then, also a lot of female breadwinning couples. And so, I've started to cultivate a niche around that area as well.
NV: Yeah, so good to hear. It's almost like a sandwich of couples in between their parents and children. What do these couples say, Emily, when they show up? How would they define or talk about their problems?
EK: I think a lot of it is communication. Like, we need help with communication or we want to improve our fight. A lot of times when we're unpacking communication, it's really the symptom or catch-all for a lot of the other stuff that's happening, right? Like, how do we actually talk to each other about our careers? I think a lot of couples prepare to physically have a baby, but don't prepare for parenthood, and [need to talk] explicitly around things like, how did your family raise you? How did my family raise me? You know, how are we going do this together? What parts of those things do we want to bring in?
EK: At least with the heterosexual couples I'm working with, too, a lot of female clients try to unpack second shift mental load stuff that they didn't think they were going to experience in their marriage, but they find themselves kind of locked into those positions too.
NV: So, I'm hearing a lot of communication that couples have, work-life balance, parenting responsibilities, and maybe like a lack of intimate time, or intimacy is waiting in the relationship. In my experience, I find these problems are symptoms of something deeper, underlying in these couples' relationships. It's kind of almost like the iceberg effect.
NV: You know, you have your iceberg floating above water, but below there's some root causes of these presenting concerns, whether it's the parenting time or these dual-income families, that causes conflict and prevents connections. From your experience, what would you say is some of the root causes of these problems?
EK: Yeah. I would agree. It kind of feels like an iceberg. Maybe like a conduit to the bigger deeper issues. I think a big one I'm experiencing, particularly with my heterosexual couples, is trying to integrate where they think they are around their roles in the family, and what's more cultural like all the gender norms. I think a lot of that gets exacerbated when you add kids in the mix. Like, they may have had a lot of parity and equality pre-child, but you throw in two careers, one, three, four kids, and suddenly, they find themselves slipping into really traditional gender roles they didn't expect or anticipate.
EK: I feel like a lot of times they end up not prioritizing the marriage. It's like, we're parenting in a very child-centered era and so they're constantly prioritizing the kids above each other.
NV: So, sometimes the kids, sometimes the chores.
EK: Right. I'm not sure if that's what you're experiencing too, but for a lot of my couples, that's the thing they feel like they can put on the back burner. Like, I can't put my job on the back burner. I can't put my kids on the back burner. I can't put our house functioning on the back burner.
NV: Right, right.
EK: But, you know, we'll make time for sex in four years. I mean, I'm being exaggerating, but like, you know?
NV: Emily, in your perspective, what prevents a couple from understanding this imbalance in their relationship? Most clients have a good sense of what's going on. Obviously, they're very busy, but yet I find them blocked from taking any action in their relationship.
NV: What do you think that's stopping them from working through these problems?
EK: It’s just pure exhaustion, you know? Like, they just don't have time, which I can be empathic about as a working parent. I think some of it, too, is they didn't think they'd find themselves in these kind of rigid old gender roles, or they find themselves in new ones without a script, right? With the female breadwinning couples I work with, they know what it looks like to have the father earn the money and be the one going out and spending the majority of time on his career. But they don't know what it means when it's the woman.
EK: When the men, you know, vice versa, stay at home, like when the man's doing the primary childcare stuff, even if they're both working, they're not sure what to do with those scripts that don't match up with either what they saw growing up, or what our culture still is indirectly, sometimes directly, sending, message-wise. They haven't taken the time to step back and realize like, whoa, what does this all mean? How do we create a household where we feel connected, and feels like it's still moving, running and being okay?
NV: It's hard for couples to see this. They can feel it. They know that something is going on. They have this experience with their families and how they interact and show up, and now all of a sudden, they're showing up differently, very progressive and healthy, but it's different.
NV: t's almost like an internal conflict and they can't really see this difference.
NV: Something when we spoke about early on as well, that you also mentioned, is that, which I really liked, was this idea of self-actualization that we are needing to look like perfect parents, perfect employees, perfect role models. We're looking to our partners may be to fulfill some of those roles.
EK: Absolutely. I feel like a big challenge in current marriages and even long-term partnerships, is this expectation that the person we're partnered with is going to be our everything. You know, like our family, our best friend, our work mentor, but at the same time, they're going to be enhancing us. We've moved out of, I think it was Eli Finkel, who proposed that idea in his book, All or Nothing Marriage, about self-actualization. That we move from the love phase of marriage to the self-actualization, and now so much pressure is put on a relationship.
EK: One of the things I encourage a lot of couples to do is to recognize that their partner can't be their everything. They should have friends and other family members that can provide support, and view work mentorship as part of your professional world. Make space for your partner to be who they actually are, rather than need them to be everything.
NV: Yeah, I like that. It's almost along the lines of is that, that self-actualization maybe constraining them or blocking them from showing up and being good enough.
EK: Right, or just recognizing that their marriage doesn't have to be this perfectly curated package. It can just be the reality of, okay, this kind of sucks, you know? Like, we're tired. We don't go out for the glamorous dinner, but we're lucky to have a glass of wine and sit on the sofa together. That's okay.
NV: I like that. I like that a lot. If you wouldn't mind, I just want to tap into this gender and power dynamic a little bit. Is there a difference between the ways a millennial couple, say, versus a generation X couple experience these imbalances in a relationship and if so, how do they experience it?
EK: We're at this point in history and I'm probably going to get the statistics not totally right, where millennial women are actually outpacing millennial men in education and different various areas. There are more women graduating from law school than men. I think traditionally we know what it looks like when the man's the breadwinner and the woman stays home – that kind of 1950's, 1960's model. I think the hard part for a lot of Gen X-ers and millennials is they were raised by parents that had the split of responsibilities on the gender line.
EK: A lot of millennial couples I've worked with come in expecting to have equality in their relationship and probably managing it pretty well pre-child. And then, all of a sudden, they have a kid and slip into those traditional roles and suddenly, they're like, wait, how did we end up here? We were expecting equality in our marriage and now we feel like it's imbalanced. A lot of the women are reporting like, I didn't expect I was going to have to do everything.
EK: I think the hard part is a lot of millennial guys are showing up a lot more in parenting and other spheres of the household, but then they saw their father, their baby boom dad. And they're like, well wait, but I'm doing all this stuff that my dad never did. What do you mean you're still burdened with all of this? I think it's really hard. I think especially millennials, they thought that the script had changed and then get into the reality of it and they're like, we look kind of like our parents, this wasn't what we signed up for in our marriage. Versus, I think a lot of Gen X-ers like you and I are just expected that nothing's going to work right. I think for a lot of my Gen X dual-income couples, the women just knew they were going to shoulder more of it and thought the baby boomers kind of laid the groundwork for future dual-income couples.
EK: Gen X-ers kind of suffered through like the learning curves while millennials thought that it was fixed. I think a lot of Gen X-ers aren't quite as caught by surprise when the gender norms started leaking in, whereas, for the millennials, I feel like they are really taken off guard. Like, what is going on here? This isn't what we signed up for.
NV: Yeah. It's hard to navigate sometimes — this sense of power imbalance.
EK: And helping couples make space to talk about it, right? Like, power in our marriage looks different than power in maybe our parent's generation.
NV: Yeah because I also like the concept that you discussed earlier with me — expanding the sense of self in relation to experiencing this. Do you mind saying a little bit more? How do you do that?
EK: Sure. A lot of what I try to help couples recognize is that the power dynamics are changing and power is impacting each of them differently. Like, what it means to be the female breadwinner, or be married as a guy, unpacking some of our more toxic gendered messages. A lot of masculinity is caught up, in the American culture, in earning power, money and the status that we impart on some men around that. To be married to a woman who's making more money than you, they may feel like on the surface, both of them are okay, but we need to unpack some of the personal sense of self that happens for both of them to be in that moment and if they feel like it's impacting intimacy.
EK: You know, I found that in the majority of my couples where the female is the primary breadwinner, they aren't having as much sex as both of them are reporting that they want to. Sometimes, I think as much as they want to be comfortable with the difference in the gender roles that they're in compared to what our culture says they should be in, they really struggle. A lot of women struggle to sexualize the guy who's taking care of the kids and making dinner at night, even though she loves that he's doing that, she's having a hard time actually sexualizing him and vice versa.
EK: I think a lot of guys feel... I don't know if they'd actually use this word, so it may be a harsher word than what they're experiencing, but I think they feel emasculated when they're not the one earning the majority of the income.
NV: I'm seeing similar situations with my clients as well. I think that's so appropriate. It's such an internal struggle to find your role in the relationship. I also find there's an increase in substance abuse when that role reversal happens, or that expectation happens, or the expectation is not met.
EK: Oh, interesting.
NV: Yeah. I've noticed recently with a few couples that I'm seeing, a lot more alcohol use and with the legalization of marijuana in different states…
EK: How that's contributing.
NV: Yeah. There are different reasons why people drink, such as biological, family, no ability to manage stress, but some of the substance abuse now is showing up here.
EK: Do you feel like it's almost a numbing?
NV: t's almost a numbing, but in some cases, I'm finding substance abuse and power linked. Where one of my clients... in a heterosexual couple, the male feels like [when he drinks,] he can be more forceful, he can talk more, he can express himself, or even physically a little bit more aggressive, which helps him feel masculine in that moment.
NV: Or bring that masculine energy in it, especially when he smokes, he feels that he can be a little bit more aggressive.
EK: Which is interesting, right? If he's not meeting that masculine definition of success through being the financial provider, he's going to do it through another outlet that we have in the American culture of aggression, like physical brute force.
NV: Yeah, to sort of balance out his role or to be demanding in some way, whether it's emotional or physically demanding.
NV: Yeah, I'm seeing a lot of that too, exactly what you are experiencing. It's very interesting.
EK: Another thing is there’s been a lot more female infidelity in these dual-income couples. The women are seeking out an affair partner who is quote-unquote very type A, go-getter guy, like that more stereotypical guy, when the husband is softer, leaning into more of the old traditional gender female roles — maybe the cooking and the household, or being the childcare person, point. You know, I think a lot of those couples, the male ends up with, you know, struggling with some alcohol use too. I suspect those things could be potentially interlinked.
NV: Yeah, it's so interesting to hear that perspective and how couples are navigating.
EK: I’ll be curious to see that kind of male adaptive way to figure out what to do with the leftover gender norms of generations ahead of us. I would imagine the trend the millennials started with women outpacing men with education is going to carry into generation Z. That economic power that women are continuing to embrace out in the professional world is just going to continue to be a part of what couples have to navigate. In the next 10, 20 years, as couples therapists, we're going to see more and more female breadwinning couples trying to navigate how to come to terms with these new gender roles.
NV: Emily, what clinical steps do you use or share with a couple looking to reconnect with one another after they present with these issues? Where would we start? What would be some strategies and tools that some of our listeners on this call can actually try out and see if they are helpful?
EK: Sure. One of the big things I talk about (and I think I actually stole this from one of our therapists at The Family Institute, Dr. Alexandra Solomon, who also taught both of us and teaches our “Marriage 101” class) is that the marriage is the executive branch of the family. So consider reprioritizing, putting power back to the executive branch and trying to be couple-centered versus child-centered. Having a strong marriage or partnership in the household actually helps the kids. I try to help them reevaluate how they can put their marriage above child time. Maybe that looks like reprioritizing the weekend so that it isn't just child activity, after child activity, after child activity.
EK: So, part of what I help them step back and recognize, too, is that a lot of couples, especially when both of them work, feel guilty that they don't spend that much time with their kid. And so, when they get home, they make the whole world revolve around the kid, right? Dinner is around the kid's dinner schedule, and they sneak their meal in somewhere in between.
EK: You know, then it's all about bath time and bedtime, and all this stuff. If you have multiple kids, they may be in staggered bedtimes. I think a lot of my couples report feeling like they have to interact and be directly playing with their children at all times. I don't know if you've heard this a lot too.
NV: Yeah, very common, yeah.
EK: A lot of times, what I encourage them is you can make dinner and have your kid play in the kitchen with you and you don't actually have to interact with the child. I'm a huge advocate of kids having chores, so get the kid to be involved with setting the table or clearing the table off, so you're having interaction with your child, but it's helping you guys manage and run the household without feeling like we have to be 100% on with our kids. And then, once they're in bed, we do dishes and all the adult stuff. Versus like you can do the adult stuff and the child stuff at the same time.
EK: There was a study, I think it was in England, that they looked at kids and parents and quality time, and found that kids reported quality time as things like running to the store or going to Target with their parents. A lot of my couples, especially couples that have a little bit more means, feel like they have to go somewhere or go to a museum on the weekends, or anything.
EK: A lot of times, I'm like, no, your kid just wants to go to Target with you, that could be quality time for your kid. But the parents are like, "Well, that doesn't count. That's me running my errands." But it does. When you're done with your errands, the kids can go play in their playroom while you as adults can have connection time, like sitting down with a cup of coffee.
NV: I like that.
EK: Yeah, that's one of the big ones I tell. The other one I tell a lot of clients is to increase threshold rituals. We know from a lot of research that having those kinds of rituals around connection points when you're entering or exiting space together, helps most couples report feeling more connected. Being intentional around saying goodbye before you leave for work, seeing if you could integrate a hug, or a kiss on the cheek even, and ritualizing that point of like, we're going to be in separate space, or we're back in the same space together.
EK: Again, I think a lot of times with kids, when we get home, it's easy to prioritize doing a threshold ritual with your child. Like, stopping and hugging your kid for the day, and leaving your spouse kind of off in the other room, unattended to. So, being more intentional about that too.
NV: Yeah. That's great. You also discussed for the couple themselves, a cognitive intervention in understanding the roles and talking about their roles. Do you want to say a little bit more about that?
EK: Sure. A lot of what I try to help make space with couples is to think through how their actual marriage is functioning, and who's doing what roles, and how they actually could have a little more parity. You know, I'm really big on talking to couples about parity, versus, equality because it may never be equal. If they're doing things that they feel good about contributing to the household and they're having a collaborative conversation. It may not be that the woman is the best person to do the childcare and talking through and unpacking with each other what it means to then have the guy have ownership of that, both internally within himself that he's the better parent at doing that.
EK: But also, how they talk about it as a couple and what may come up for them around shame, or feeling good about what they do. So, a little bit of it is helping them map out what they actually think they're good at, versus what they feel like the outside tells them they should be good at, versus what really feels good about how they run their household, family and relationship together. Sometimes those things intersect and sometimes they don't. Sometimes, we'll draw a diagram so they can see where it overlaps.
NV: Absolutely. It's almost like writing down the expectations and then their reality of the roles.
EK: Correct, yeah.
NV: Compared to the expectations and having a discussion around that.
NV: And seeing how they feel. So, there's almost like the cognitive and then, the emotional piece is they don't feel good about it, or there's guilt, or shame, whatever it is, having and engaging in that discussion with them.
EK: Sometimes, it's helpful to have them write down the expectations their parents had, unpacking the household they grew up because a lot of people feel like they shed it, but sometimes, it's internally influencing them too.
NV: Emily, what research or resources would you suggest a couple read to rebuild intimacy when they're faced with this situation? Anything that you've come across in your experience?
EK: A big one, if couples are about to become parents, I highly recommend Becoming Us by Ellie Taylor. Our transitions to parenthood team, led by Nicki Lively is starting to launch parenting groups for it too, but she does a really great job of having exercises where you think through yourself and your internal transition to being a parent, unpacking the stuff we were just talking about – the cognitive, the emotional stuff attached to it.
EK: Another one I really love is Unfinished Business, by Anne-Marie Slaughtery, or Slaughter. She talks about a lot of the gender dynamics that are changing. She has a great Atlantic monthly article too about this rise in women becoming breadwinners and how couples navigate that. It needs to not just be a shift with women, but also an expansion of what we allow men to do and be in the workplace and at home. And so, it's a really great balanced book in my opinion around navigating dual-income marriages and parenting.
NV: It sounds really good.
EK: And then, we mentioned earlier, Eli Finkel's All or Nothing Marriage is a great one too.
NV: I often leave my clients with an index card.
EK: Yeah, I love that.
NV: We usually write down a sentence or two on it, so something that they can consider until our next therapy session. If you were to leave our audience with a metaphorical index card, or a billboard, what would it say?
EK: You know, this is a hard one for me to reflect on. I think a big one is I would advocate that couples really step back and ask themselves, what kind of narrative did they have when coming into the marriage or partnership, holding about what marriage should look like? What are they actually experiencing as their marriage evolves? Is there an intersection between those two things or is there a huge disconnect? I think a lot of times I found that we have a narrative that we're carrying or a fantasy, and when the reality doesn't match up, it somehow means failure, versus an opportunity to actually co-create and collaboratively build the marriage you guys want. It probably doesn't fit on an index card.
NV: I'm sure if you write small enough, then it can fit.
EK: Maybe we need the billboard.
NV: Yeah, I love that. I think that's really great. Finally, how would someone who needs help in this area get more information or get into contact with you?
EK: Sure. The easiest way would probably be my email address, which is my first initial, firstname.lastname@example.org or they can contact our registration team and they'll be able to help connect people to me as well.
NV: Emily, what type of clients or what type of problems that clients experience that would be very helpful to contact you?
EK: Yeah. I think a big one is I do a lot of couples work, but I also work with individuals who are struggling with it. I do a lot of different transitions to parenthood, fertility, as we mentioned earlier. I do couples considering adoption and like helping unpack that journey, and that navigation. I do a lot of parenting work with couples. I'm pretty transparent, I don't work with children. We have other fantastic resources here at The Family Institute who do that. Like most of our conversation, I also do a lot of dual-income parenting, sandwich generation, helping couples navigating financial challenges in relationships. And then, as most of us couples therapists, I help couples navigate affairs and infidelity too.
NV: Emily, thank you so much.
EK: Thank, you, Neil.
NV: This has been an absolute pleasure talking to you.
EK: It's a great conversation. Thanks.
NV: This podcast is brought to you by The Family Institute at Northwestern University. A nationally recognized leader in the field of behavioral health. We bring together the right partners to support children, adults, couples, and families across a lifespan. As researchers, educators, and therapists, we work with our clients, and partners to see change. If you'd like to request an appointment, please call us at 847-733-4300. You may also visit our website at family-institute.org and please follow us on Facebook and Twitter for relationship tips and tools, and for updates of the new podcast episodes. Thank you so much for listening.