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Women are socialised to find self-worth by living with a man

– Posted in: Gender socialisation Social Institutions & Abuse

Speakoutloud.net women's socialisation Clare Murphy PhDWomen continue to be bombarded with social messages that suggest they can find self-worth by marrying or committing to live long-term with a man

But this does not mean they enter a relationship that leads to abuse and control. However, this was the case for many of the women I interviewed in my Masters research, and many of the women I see for counselling.

Some women talk about having their life mapped out for them. For example, whether or not they worked, or not, after leaving school, some women said that time was about “waiting for Mr Right”. One woman said:

“I grew up with this idea that I would work for a while then I would get married and I would have children. It never occurred to me that I didn’t have to be married. There was quite a lot of security in the idea of getting married and having children because that’s your life taken care of. You don’t have to make any more decisions, it’s like ‘there it is, that’s what you do’. I can be a wife, I can get up and make the breakfast.”

Other women said they married because they were past their “due by” date. Some women talk about feeling “desperate” to marry, which was the case for a woman who was four or five years older than when her family members usually married. Social messages shape the idea that it is humiliating for women to be “left on the shelf”.

Several women believed that remaining single meant being a failure. For example:

“It was terrible, it was horrific, to be single, aah, no I couldn’t even entertain it, it was just too much to even think about. A failure, unloved, unworthy, no value, don’t bother being here. I think if I never had married him, I probably would have suicided because it just reinforced the belief that I was nothing.”

Many women say they were aware that there was something wrong before they married their boyfriend. For example, those women saw warning signs that their partners were nasty, lying, neglectful, did not respect women, or that he took her for granted. But, despite seeing such behaviours many women believe they have to marry to prove their worth. For example, a woman who married at age 32 said:

“I’d finally made it, finally had a sense of worth. The day I wore a wedding ring I felt it in my body, every part of me, as if I had just risen in status. I was so proud to say my name was Mrs instead of Miss. I felt that people looked at me differently and treated me differently as if they had more respect for me. It gave me a real sense of confidence and certainty that I now had a place in society.”

And several women said as this woman did:

“It was like an achievement, my mother used to make comments about how no-one would ever want to marry me and it was like, ‘Look, they do, they do, I’ve done it. I’m a real person’ (laughter).”

Not all women who detect problems early in the relationship continue to stay, for example one woman who had been living with her partner for 20 months, said that she knew from her experience of the abuse that she “wouldn’t have married him if he asked”. However, this decision did not mean the end of abuse. At the time of interviewing her, she was experiencing ongoing custody battles that were eating into her finances. Court orders that favoured the abusive and controlling man’s requests meant that she was not legally permitted to move with her child out of town to where she could pursue better career prospects.

Fairy tales, Hollywood movies and ordinary people who live next door, give out messages that young women should find a “Mr Right”, settle down and remain married for better or worse. Whilst marriage or living with a man continues to be perceived as superior to being a single heterosexual woman, this leaves victimised, abused and controlled women in a tough position. If living with “Mr Right” turns out to be living with “Mr Wrong” many women then experience shame. Shame for speaking out about abuse, shame for not standing up against warning signs, shame for not seeing warning signs, shame for staying and shame for leaving. Many women lose friends if they stay and they lose friends if they leave. Sisters, mothers, girlfriends and fathers encourage women to stay – “you’ve made your bed, you lie in it”. Cliché after cliché of this type robs women of self-belief, self-confidence and intuition.

Not all women believe marriage is the only source of self-worth

On the other hand not all women I’ve interviewed, or whom I’ve counselled, believed marriage or living with a man was the only source of self-worth. Nor did all women experience any warning signs of abuse and control early in their relationships. Nor did all women have doubts that they were definitely being psychologically controlled.

But . . . many women have never learned to critique social messages

For women who are abused and controlled by a man they love and trust, if those women have not yet learned to critique social messages that guide their relationship decisions, those women experience a double-bind to contend with. 1. Abuse and control by their partner and 2. Controlling social messages.Both of these rob women of their right to self-determination and free choice.

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  • Esther 16 August 2009, 8:19 am

    Well said. I’m a married woman who doesn’t think that my self worth comes from my marriage. Oddly, I was raised to believe that marrying was the only thing that would fulfill me. For some reason the message didn’t take with me. I am happy to be married, but if I hadn’t met my wonderful hubby I’d be okay. I hear people use the term “he completes me” often in reference to a spouse. It’s like a woman is only half a person without a man. I like to think of myself and my husband as two whole people who help one another along in life. Kind of the equal partnership view, I guess.

    Thanks for writing this. It’s nice to see someone contending with some of the negative messages out there.