Heterosexual couples who don’t follow traditional gender roles may be more likely to experience lower relationship satisfaction, and according to a recent study, this observation could at least partially be explained by the fact that while individuals may not set much store by gender norms, they’re so ingrained in our societies that it’s difficult to escape their effects.
In heterosexual relationships, the idea of the man being the “provider” and the woman being the “nurturer” has been embedded in Western society for generations. Gender-based expectations mean that women are typically expected to devote more time to caretaking responsibilities, disadvantaging them in the workplace. Meanwhile, traditional ideas about masculinity are thought to be a big contributor to poor mental health in men.
In recent decades, it’s become much more common to see these age-old gender stereotypes challenged – many men choose to stay at home and care for their children full-time while their wives go out to work, for example. People feeling empowered to ignore gender expectations in favor of pursuing a lifestyle that better fits their own goals and family structure is surely a good thing – but according to psychologists, there may be a fly in the ointment.
“There is growing evidence that heterosexual relationships in which traditional gender roles are reversed because women have attained higher societal status than their male partner are more precarious,” say the authors of a recent study. The team, from Utrecht University, suspected that this trend could be partially explained by the fact that the persistence of gender stereotypes means that such couples are viewed more negatively by those around them, which has a knock-on impact on the health of the relationship.
The researchers performed studies in the US and the Netherlands, including over 200 participants from each country. They were asked to provide an opinion on a fictional couple with either traditional gender roles, a status-equal relationship, or gender role reversal. Both groups of participants perceived that the woman in the role-reversed relationship was dominant, while the man was perceived as weak and commanding less respect. The participants also expressed the expectation that role-reversed relationships would be less satisfying.
In the third experiment, the authors surveyed 94 heterosexual couples and found the same preconceptions that had been evident in the first two studies.
“Specifically, both men and women in role-reversed relationships perceive the man as the weaker one and the woman as the more dominant one in the relationship,” the authors explain.
Notably, where women in role-reversed relationships were thought to have greater agency, this had a positive impact on how they were perceived, with participants stating they felt greater respect towards these women and found them more likable. It was only the perception of the man as the weaker partner that was found to be linked with overall decreased relationship satisfaction.
Although this study focused on heterosexual relationships, the authors point out that the inclusion of same-sex couples in future research would provide a broader understanding of how gender stereotypes can have an impact on non-traditional partnerships.
The authors concluded that their findings show just how impactful persistent gender stereotypes can be, even in societies where gender equality is considered to be protected under the law and among individuals who themselves have chosen not to observe conventional gender norms.
“These findings suggest that backlash effects for role-reversed, heterosexual relationships are another way in which the gender hierarchy is protected and why traditional gender roles are persistent and difficult to change.”
The study is published in the journal Sex Roles.