The Impact of Social Values on the Psychology of Gender among Arab Couples: A View from Psychotherapy/Commentary

Article excerpt

Khawla Abu-Baker, PhD

Department of Behavioral Science, Emek Yezreel College, Israel

Abstract: Three major psychosocial conditions have an effect upon the establishment of psychological problems within individuals and in the relationship of couples in the Arab family: (a) gender-dependent assessment of emotions, i.e., holding two different unequal yardsticks for two highly-genderized value systems; (b) imposing conflicting value demands on women; (c) glorifying and giving much respect to the notion of women's suffering in silence, a state described here as the "Mastoura" (tight lipped) woman, equivalent to the "learned helplessness" state. This article will also focus on the common forms of the manifestation of psychological or marital problems: sexual dysfunctions, somatic behavior and the usage of metaphoric language of psychosomatics. The article presents frequent complaints of couples who seek marriage therapy and the characteristics of each group.

Although Arab societies vary in their structure and their complexity and even though what has been termed the "changing family" has begun to emerge, it is still possible to generalize and say that Arab family declared values have remained essentially traditional. These values emphasize the collective, the family and an agreed-upon structure whereby preference is given to males and to age (1, 2). Hence, despite the techno-economic changes currently impinging upon the entire Arab world, modern patterns developing within Arab societies are rebuilding and recreating the structure and function of the hamula or extended family, often with semi-modern embellishments (see also 3).

This paper is based on content analysis of 90 cases of couples who sought therapy or counseling during five years (1999-2004). It will try to analyze: (a) the clients' reasons for seeking therapy, (b) the clients' complaints about their partners, (c) the clients' suggestions for improving their situation, and (d) the reactions of the significant others to the clients' problems. All categories suggested were used by the clients themselves.

Three major trends in the values underlying the psychosocial structure have a direct effect upon the emergence and establishment of emotional problems. The impact of these trends crosses individual and demographic lines and can be seen among all couples. The trends are as follows:

Gender-dependent assessment of emotions in the Arab family

Arab society and the Arab family relate to the feelings of men and of women using two different yardsticks. Females are encouraged to express emotions that elicit support and reflect weakness, such as fear, unhappiness and helplessness. Men, on the other hand, are encouraged to express emotions that encourage action, such as anger, anxiety and revenge (4, 5). During the socialization process, members of each gender group learn to adhere to those emotional behaviors that have been designed for them and that indeed mold them into who they are. For either gender group, crossing the boundaries occasions harsh social sanctions.

The differential psychosocial value applied to a husband's emotional grievances and those of his wife have led to the development of two versions of social therapy for such grievances, one for each gender group. Both the attitude taken toward a problem and the type of support provided differ depending upon who is seeking help. Women seeking support are given sympathy and are thought of as unfortunate creatures in need of protection from their parents or their extended families, but are rarely afforded any other response. In contrast, when men seek help, the response is usually to bring about a rapid change in the circumstances that led to his distress. For example, if a man complains about emotional anguish because his wife refuses to have sexual relations with him, the social group surrounding him will intervene and try to change his wife's behavior. If that does not succeed, he will be helped to divorce her and to marry another woman in order to fulfill his right to sexual satisfaction. …