Mutual respect and liking, the key components of a solid intimate relationship, are shaped by many factors throughout our lives. In heterosexual relationships, this respect and liking involves not only how you feel about the other person, but also your general attitudes toward the other sex. Men’s attitudes toward women are classified according to the distinction between “hostile” and “benevolent” sexism. You can probably guess what hostile sexism looks like just from its name, though I’ll provide details shortly. Benevolent sexism sounds like an oxymoron. How can a good man be sexist? Wouldn’t being “benevolent” be a positive factor in any male-female relationships?
The answer is this: Sexism in any form is still sexism. Hostile sexists harbor deep-seated resentment toward women which they express in the form of angry comments about the females in their life. They believe, in general, that women are unfairly taking jobs away from men due to policies such as affirmative action. Hostile sexists regard women as manipulative and destructive, trying to gain control over men. Clearly, in the battle of the sexes, it’s the hostile sexists who will be women’s worst adversaries, right? As it turns out, though, benevolent sexist men may be the ones whose flanking strategy present more of a danger on the battlefield. In benevolent sexism, men express their negative feelings toward women by treating them as pure, special, and in need of a man’s protection. In the workplace, these attitudes can result in subtle or not-so-subtle discrimination, limiting a woman’s ability to proceed up the career ladder and compete for higher salary. In the home, benevolent sexism can lead a woman to feel that she must remain in a subservient role and defer to her mate on all decisions, large and small. Having a male partner who constantly treats you as in need of protection will eventually cause you to feel that you can't live without that protection.
There are vast arrays of evidence to support the idea that sexism is destructive to women’s mental health, ability to succeed in the world of work, and feelings of happiness and competence. It would therefore benefit a woman to be able to pick out the non-sexist male partner before she gets involved in the kind of relationship that could eventually bring her down. If a woman is already in a relationship, however, it's not too late. She can still prevail upon her male partner to see women in a different and more open-minded light.
New research on the connection between attachment style and sexism is providing ways that women can accomplish these goals. Attachment style is the approach to romantic relationships that you carry with you through your life based on the earliest traces in your mind of how your parents treated you. If you were neglected or made to feel that they wouldn’t provide for your safety and well-being, you will be more likely, as an adult, to fear that your romantic partners will abandon you as well. If you felt safe in your relationships with your caregivers, and that no matter what they would watch out for you, you are more likely to trust your intimate partners in adulthood. The two basic attachment styles, according to this framework, are insecure and secure. Within the insecure type, there can be a further subdivision. Anxiously attached people are afraid that they will be left uncared for, and therefore are more likely to be the needy ones in an adult relationship. People who have an avoidant attachment style express their insecurity by distancing themselves from others and never getting emotionally close to their partners.
Union College social psychologist Joshua Hart was the lead author on a study published in the prestigious Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2012 that examined the question of whether a man’s degree of sexism would reflect his attachment style. They began with the assumption, based on previous research, that men who are high in hostile sexism probably aren’t all that successful in their romantic relationships because many of their potential mates just plain don’t like them. If they are to succeed in the romance department, men who have underlying hostile attitudes toward women have to adapt by becoming sexists of the benevolent variety. Hart and his colleagues describe these men as being ambivalent sexists.
Surveying two nationwide samples of adult heterosexual men ranging from 18 to 65, Hart and his colleagues developed a theoretical model that tried to predict ambivalent sexism from anxious and avoidant attachment. In the process, they also examined two related sets of factors. Social dominance orientation is a worldview that endorses a hierarchy among social groups in which there are clear winners and losers. It’s a kind of tough-mindedness that leads people to favor their own group and be dismissive of those they perceive as their “out-groups.” The other factor they examined was men’s endorsement of romantic ideologies, or their belief in “true love.” Altogether, then, the Hart et al. study examined interconnections among 4 factors: attachment style, social dominance, romanticism, and ambivalent sexism.
Obviously, this was a correlational study and therefore the researchers can’t say whether attachment style “caused” men to be more or less sexist. However, by using complex statistical models, Hart and his team approximated a set of pathways that provide some sense of what might lead to what. In the first place, they found, as they predicted, that the anxiously attached men would be the ambivalent sexists, expressing endorsement of benevolent sexism (i.e. women should be placed on a pedestal). The avoidant men expressed their sexism in overtly hostile ways (i.e. women are manipulative and malevolent).
Tracing the pathways between sexism and attachment style, Hart et al. then concluded that the avoidantly attached men don’t necessarily feel sexist just toward their partners, they have sexist attitudes toward women in general. They get there by having strong beliefs in the superiority of their social group, i.e. men. In other words, it’s nothing personal when they treat their partners as underlings or worse, as opponents. Avoidantly attached men also reject romanticism, feeling pessimistic and cynical about love. Their derisive attitudes toward women and romance means that they will not be the ones to shower their partners with affection and attention.
The situation is more complicated for anxiously attached men. Their beliefs that they can’t live without intimate partners, who are central to their identity, lead them to become the heavy duty romantics in the relationship world. Unfortunately, however, they express their feelings by- you guessed it- putting their women up on that pedestal of benevolent sexism. The result is that their partners, though perhaps flattered and happy to receive all this romantic attention, are made to feel that they need their men to protect them from harm. As a result, they may question their own independence and sense of competence.
To sum it up, Hart and his fellow researchers have shown us that men who feel that they must compensate for being psychologically vulnerable are the ones most likely to adopt “isms” of various types, including sexism. Of the two types of sexism, though, benevolent is probably more favorable in some ways to the health of the relationship than the hostile variety. At least the benevolent men may be more open to hearing the opinions of their partners.
The best male romantic partner, when all is said and done, is the one who is securely attached and endorses favorable attitudes toward women.
How can you use this information if you’re looking for a new relationship? Needless to say, it may be a bit impractical for you to hand out a bunch of questionnaires assessing his sexism, romanticism, attachment style, and belief in male dominance. Instead, you can do your own subtle assessments using the following guidelines.
Men with a secure attachment style are able to handle separation from you without undue distress. They are also interested in being with you and though not clinging, try to see you as much as is reasonably possible. If you're checking your new man out, you might indirectly inquire about how he feels about his “in group,” whatever that is based on his social class, race or ethnicity, and possibly get a sense of his political beliefs. If he expresses strong endorsement of his own group’s superiority, but doesn’t show overt sexist attitudes, you might wonder if he secretly has hostile sexist leanings that he’s afraid to express to you. Then find out whether there is some ambivalent sexism lurking there as well. Do you get the feeling that you can’t do anything without him being present? Perhaps you get this feeling because he’s led you to believe that you need a man’s guidance at all times.
If you’re already in a relationship and feel that this research has touched a sensitive nerve, then you might try efforts of a more reparative nature. You probably already have a sense of whether your man is secure, anxious or avoidant in his attachment style. You probably also know what his attitudes are toward women, romance, and social dominance. Rather than trying to change his feelings about women in general and you in particular, you can start by addressing that insecure attachment style. If you feel that this is beyond your capabilities, find a therapist who practices attachment-based couples counseling. You don’t need to commit to years of psychoanalysis to see the benefits of this approach. And if your partner refuses to seek counseling with you, reading about the principles of this type of intervention may give you some new ideas for changing the dynamics of an unhappy relationship.
Men, lest you feel neglected by this discussion, if you recognize yourself in these pages, you too can benefit from looking at your own approach to relationships, women, and social attitudes in general.
Finding the right partner is a challenging enough proposition, as is changing the belief system of the partner you have. However, by approaching your relationships with this attachment style perspective in mind, you’ll have that much better success at achieving the kind of long-term relationship fulfillment that will benefit you both.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Hart, J., Hung, J. A., Glick, P., & Dinero, R. E. (2012). He loves her, he loves her not: Attachment style as a personality antecedent to men’s ambivalent sexism. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(11), 1495-1505. doi:10.1177/0146167212454177