Marianismo in Counseling

Marianismo is a term first proposed in the literature in the 1970s as a way to describe a set of values and norms associated with being a woman in Latin American culture. It was initially conceptualized as a response to the term machismo, suggesting that marianismo occurs in the context of machismo. Marianismo generally refers to the cultural expectation that a woman be passive and submissive along with being sexually pure. These traits respond to those prescribed by machismo, which expects a man to be active, aggressive, and sexually experienced.

Marianismo traces its roots to the Spanish colonization of Latin America. One of the biggest legacies of the Spanish conquest was their religious beliefs. Roman Catholicism holds in high regard the figure of la Virgen Maria (Spanish for “the Virgin Mary”). Only the purest of women could be chosen by God to be the mother of His son. Mary lived the ultimate sacrifice in giving herself up to God’s will: a life of self-denial, purity (e.g., virginity), and devotion to motherhood that was duly rewarded with eternal salvation and the privilege of giving birth to Jesus.

Marianismo stems from these ideals. The term refers to the expectation that women live as the Virgin Mary did. Women are expected to be submissive to men and meet their every need in a passive and unassertive manner. They are loving, caring, and docile—completely devoted to their roles as wives, mothers, and life bearers. To accomplish this, women must renounce their own needs, acting in a spiritual and immaculate manner.

Marianismo prescribes a set of norms that encourages women to maintain and promote cultural values at their own expense or face public scrutiny as an alternative. Women are held in high regard by others if they have children and are caring mothers. Single mothers and divorcees are frowned upon, as they have acted in a self-serving and egotistical manner by disrespecting the sanctity of matrimony and placing their own needs before those of the family. These values are passed down from generation to generation. Caring mothers teach their young men to be wary of sensual, manipulative, and possessive girls who see sex for anything other than pro-creating. (These “bad” women are thought of as loose and deceitful or as whores.)

Marianismo will impact the way counselors work with and conceptualize clients. Help-seeking behavior is discouraged, and women may have a difficult time committing or engaging in therapy. They may present with concerns related to gender-role strain and may be more prone to accept problems as “part of being female.” Gender-inconsistent behaviors (e.g., substance abuse, aggressiveness) may increase a sense of worthlessness. Confrontation is often avoided. Sexuality and other intimate concerns may be brought up with much shame— if at all. Infidelity is tolerated only if it comes from men. Men may also view assertive women as “problematic” and may sabotage self-promotion efforts of women who “argue all the time.” Both men and women may initially see female therapists as caretakers, more capable than male therapists of solving problems in a fair and unselfish manner.

Culturally competent counselors who want to appropriately work with marianismo in therapy will need to increase their level of comfort with, and knowledge of, traditional gender norms. They may need to determine the level of acculturation of their clients to assess how engrained these cultural values are. Interpersonal conflict may surface between men who ascribe to traditional machismo cultural values and women who denounce marianismo (and vice versa). Exploring family relationships will also help counselors to understand the extent to which marian-ismo values are present. Women may choose male partners haphazardly and may stay in potentially abusive relationships longer for the sake of their children. Marianismo has also been associated with poorer physical and mental health in women.

As the definitions of marianismo have developed, so have the terms associated with it. One such term is hembrismo. Hembrismo seizes on the more positive traits of marianismo to redefine the role of women in Latin American culture. Aligned with the power that the Virgin Mary demonstrated in helping shape Catholicism by giving birth to Jesus, hembrismo conceptualizes women as strong, proactive players who shape lives—their own as well as those of others. They are morally and spiritually superior to men. They also carry the strength to help keep families together, transmitting norms and cultural values in their roles as single parents, mothers, breadwinners, and heads of households. Hembrismo is therefore not quite the counterpart or response to machismo that marianismo is but rather an additional and more affirming way to conceptualize Latinas.

References:

  1. Gil, R. M., & Vazquez, C. I. (1996). The Maria paradox: How Latinas can merge old world traditions with new world self-esteem. New York: Putnam.
  2. Stevens, E. P. (1973). Marianismo: The other face of machismo in Latin America. In A. Pescatello (Ed.), Female and male in Latin America (pp. 90-101). Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

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