It is widely believed that women value relationships, while 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 through stock characters like the lone cowboy or the workaholic husband with weak social ties.
The assumptions may be wrong.
A recent study led by Tracy Kwang of the University of Texas highlights 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 of their instrumentality (e.g., instrumental help). Consequently, cultural images have come to promote the “feminization” of love, embodying stereotypical qualities such as tenderness, emotionality, and weakness. This has encouraged researchers to focus on “companionate love,” and to overlook the possibility that relationships may serve other functions. After all, Kwang and others 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 who tend to cling to their partner even as women may disengage from a relationship.
In light of these lopsided developments, the authors proposed an alternative: Perhaps for men, relationships provide evidence social standing or achievement, which can in turn affirm their needs for autonomy. Breaking with popular notions, then, 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, participants filled out self-report measures involving several tasks:
- Rating 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 baseline beliefs about relationships.)
- Reporting the degree to which they based their own self-esteem on the status and quality of their relationship.
- Imagining that they continue or discontinue their current relationship, and then rating the extent to which they thought five factors—loneliness, social standing, societal pressures, connection, and intimacy—would influence their decision to continue or discontinue.
What did the researchers find?
As expected, participants' baseline 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. But in actuality, men in this study reported basing their self-worth on relationship status significantly more than women did.
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 discover 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 would hold true beyond self-reported evidence. To do so, they tested whether a threat to relationship status, i.e., a breakup, would set off concerns primarily about social standing in men, and primarily about connection in women. They analyzed participants' use of language in a five-minute free-writing exercise on one of two conditions: either 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, compared to women, men appear less affected by marital conflict: For men, social standing apparently trumps relationship quality. Thus, men may be both less attuned to emotional tremors and less inclined to flee a relationship when 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—and they also earn 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 be true.
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Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. Dr. Mehta is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.