Head Games

What Freud never knew

Do Men and Women Value the Same Things in a Relationship?

A recent study finds that the sexes invest in romance for different reasons.

It is widely believed that women value relationships, whereas men exalt independence. Perhaps not surprisingly, the research has amply demonstrated that women show more interdependence, while men tend to be more autonomous. Popular culture also reinforces this thinking, such as in the images of the loner cowboy or the workaholic husband whose social ties are weak.

But in a recent study led by Tracy Kwang of the University of Texas, she and her team highlight the concerns among some researchers that perhaps there has been an overemphasis on the emotionality of relationships (e.g., connection and intimacy), and a de-emphasis on their instrumentality (e.g., instrumental help). Consequently, they argue, cultural images have come to promote the “feminization” of love, embodying stereotypical qualities such as tenderness, emotions, and weakness. In turn, this has encouraged researchers to focus on “companionate love,” and to overlook the possibility that relationships may serve other functions. After all, they note, it is the psychological health of men— not women — that is more strongly associated with relationship status. Moreover, when couples experience discord, it is men that cling to their partner even when women are disengaging from the relationship.

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In light of these lopsided developments, the authors proposed an alternative: Perhaps for men, relationships provide social standing or achievement, which can affirm their needs for autonomy. Breaking with popular notions on the matter, the authors investigated whether men gain different — but deep-seated — benefits from romantic relationships.

Kwang and her team conducted a series of three studies. For the first study, participants filled out self-report measures involving several tasks: 1) to rate the extent to which they believed men base their self-worth on various facets of relationships, and the extent to which they believed women base their self-worth on various facets of relationships (this assessed their lay beliefs about relationships) 2) to report the degree to which they based their self-esteem on the status and quality of their relationship, and 3) to imagine continuing or discontinuing their current relationship, and then rate the extent to which they thought five factors (loneliness, social standing, societal pressures, connection, and intimacy) would influence their decision to continue or discontinue their relationship.

What did the researchers find? As expected, participants' lay beliefs about relationships were in keeping with cultural stereotypes. Men were thought to base their self-esteem on relationship status significantly less than women; similarly, men were also thought to base their self-esteem on relationship quality and connection significantly less than do women.

Yet in actuality, men in this study reported basing their self-worth on relationship status significantly more than did women.

Finally, when contemplating continuing or discontinuing their relationship, significantly more men than women reported that social standing was a vital relationship benefit.

In the second study, Kwang and her colleagues wanted to see if their finding that men base their self-worth on relationship status significantly more than women do would be generalizable. Accordingly, they performed a meta-analysis of data from four new samples and two older data sets. Once again, their expectations were confirmed: Men reported basing their self-esteem on relationship status significantly more than women did.

In the third study, the investigators were interested to see whether this gender difference in terms of self-worth and relationships would hold true beyond self-report evidence. Thus, they tested whether a threat to relationship status, i.e., a breakup, would set off concerns about social standing for men vs. concerns about connection for women. To that end, they analyzed participants use of language in a five-minute free-writing exercise in one of two conditions: an imagined break up (a relationship-related negative event) or a dental appointment (a relationship-irrelevant negative event). Once more, the investigators' predictions were confirmed. In the breakup condition, men expressed more preoccupations with social standing, while women expressed more preoccupations about connection.

What can we learn from these findings? Kwang and her collaborators state that their results may in part explain why, by comparison to women, men appear less affected by marital conflict: For men, social standing apparently trumps relationship quality. Thus, men may be less attuned to emotional tremors — yet less inclined to flee a relationship should they arise. Conversely, while relationship quality may not be foremost on men's minds, they do benefit from a stable relationship. For example, married men are seen as more competent than single men — they also make more money than their unmarried peers.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said: “Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability.” For men at least, this study sheds light on why those words may ring true.

 

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Vinita Mehta, Ph.D., Ed.M., is a clinical psychologist and journalist. She was formerly the Development Producer and Science Editor of PBS's This Emotional Life.

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