Patriarchy hurts men and women -  how can therapy help us get rid of it?

by Naomi Snider

Since the 2016 election in the USA, talk of “Patriarchy” has burst into the public arena. From signs outside coffee shops declaring “Smash the Patriarchy” to a Guardian newspaper’s column “The week in Patriarchy” – the term is definitely in vogue. But what exactly does it mean? What impact does it have on your life? And what role, if any, can therapy play in getting rid of it? 

What is Patriarchy?
Patriarchy is a set of cultural rules and values that specify how men and women should be and act. It is based on a belief that men have an inherent right to dominate and that women should be subservient, selfless caregivers. One example of the persistence of this gender hierarchy is America’s ever-growing body of laws restricting women’s reproductive freedom. 
This hierarchy polarizes human capacities into “masculine” traits (stoicism, self-reliance, rationality) versus “feminine” attributes (emotional sensitivity, selflessness, relationality). Patriarchy overvalues the masculine, harming men and women by forcing the former to act as if they don’t have or need relationships and the latter to act as if they don’t have or need a self.

Patriarchy is different for different people
Patriarchy does not affect everyone in the same way. My encounter with it, as a heterosexual, cisgender, professional woman, will for example, be very different from that of a non-binary person or a woman of colour. 
My experience of patriarchy is a feeling of terror and not knowing whenever I’m faced with the question “what do you want?”. So accustomed am I to moulding myself to the desires of others, I have become divorced from my own. Patriarchy is the ways I have whittled down my sharp edges in the attempt to become one of those prized women – valued in the eyes of the world – yet a stranger to myself.  It encompasses the years I spent trying to hide and transform my body, getting rid of its soft parts and making myself smaller so I could feel bigger. Patriarchy was believing I was making myself invincible while, in actuality, I was making myself invisible. 
For my patient Rachel, a 27-year-old African-American woman, patriarchy is her frustration at bearing all the costs associated with being a woman, but none of the rewards that her white girlfriends - the “good girls” - enjoy. For example, when her white girl-friends express sadness, people show concern. However, when she cries, people back away – her tears are read as aggressive.
For Mark, a gay patient with a high-powered job in media, patriarchy is the pressure to seem like a “guy’s guy”. It is not having cried since he was 12.  
Andrea spent 30 years in a marriage without an orgasm. Patriarchy was her barely noticing or caring. 

Patriarchy gets in your head
Patriarchy is not just something external. It also resides in our minds. Once the patriarchy gets into our heads, it affects the way we perceive and judge our self, our relationships and the world we live in. It causes many men to experience their vulnerability as weak and shameful. It causes some women to perceive self-care as selfish—or expressing their honest voice, one that stands up for what they really think, as aggressive.  
Patriarchy leads to reinforcing stereotypes that one might consciously disagree with. For example, research shows that baby boys and girls are perceived differently: under-estimating the sociability of baby boys and the climbing skills of girls. Yet this happens out of conscious awareness. Even the most “woke” among us are not immune. My patient Jean has spent much of her career advocating for women’s equality, but feels guilty whenever she puts her own needs forward and discomfort when other women do the same.  Similarly, many of my male patients, including feminist men, often describe feelings of anger and shame whenever their sense of autonomy or power is threatened or their vulnerability exposed. 

How does the Patriarchy get into our heads? An example:
Peter came to therapy because his wife was frustrated at his “emotional unavailability.” While keen to “fix” the problem, Peter could not understand his wife’s complaints. 
Peter claimed to feel satisfied in all his relationships. As he began to explore childhood memories, thoughts of Max – his best friend throughout middle school and into high school – resurfaced. They “shared everything” and “really loved” each other.
Why had Max disappeared? “Just one of those things, we grew apart … no big deal.” Over time, we discovered that beneath his dismissive exterior lurked painful memories of betrayal and rejection, of Max no longer wanting to hang out and talk with Peter; of the teasing when he confided in Max that he missed their closeness (“stop being so gay”); of his shame and embarrassment for being so open and vulnerable. “Nobody wants to be with someone like that”, Peter claimed. “My wife says she wants me to be more open, but if she hears all this she would run a mile.”   
Over time, Peter opened up more. His assumptions about the inevitability of rejection waned.  A desire for deeper connections re-emerged. As he came to feel increasingly frustrated with the superficiality of his relationships, maintaining his “guy’s guy” persona became increasingly painful. Peter came to see that his “tough man” persona didn’t really fit who he was. His wife was inviting him into the very thing he most wanted, closer connection. “Why in the world would I walk away from that?” he wondered.

If the Patriarchy exists in our heads, how can we get rid of it? 

Patriarchy gets into our head by shaming parts of ourselves that stand in its way.  

  • To get rid of the patriarchy in our heads, we must re-find, cultivate, and strengthen our protesting voice.
  • Bring the protesting voice that speaks to our desire for recognition and responsive connection into our relationships.
  • Resisting the patriarchy does not just happen on marches or at the ballot box; it occurs in conversations with friends and family, at work, at home and even in the consulting room.

By calling for relational respect, if not always agreement, our protesting voice is key to establishing and maintaining egalitarian relationships. Therapy offers a powerful opportunity for therapists and patients to work on re-finding this voice in a safe environment.

Naomi Snider, LLM, is a candidate in psychoanalytic training at the William Alanson White Institute and co-author of Why Does Patriarchy Persist? (Polity, 2018), written with Carol Gilligan, PhD.