Beware These 5 Gender Traps

Despite your commitment to gender equality...

Posted May 31, 2019

BEWARE…

Despite your commitment to gender equality, there are many ways you can get trapped in a traditional relationship.  If you are one of the millennials or beyond, you have a historically unprecedented belief there are no inherently male or female prescribed roles for being good husbands and wives.  And, you have signaled that you want an equitable and committed marriage.  However, there are still strong social and economic pressures that will push you toward a more traditional relationship.  I want to alert you to several common “gender-driven traps” that will work against your achieving this. 

Having a Child

The practical impact of childbearing and child-rearing has greater consequences for women than for men, even for couples who hold egalitarian beliefs.  Women still retain primary responsibility for children even when they work.  Trying to combine work and family leads many women to prefer giving up their career aspirations because it’s hard to manage both. 

Husbands nowadays are typically supportive of their wives’ decisions but are less likely to sacrifice their own work commitments.  While younger fathers are willing to take on childcare responsibilities, they are less likely to take on traditional household chores. 

For women who decide to “opt out,” returning to work after the children are in school seems like a good option.  However, by this time the husband’s earning power may have so outstripped theirs that wives come to think of their salary as “extra” money rather than as being a major contribution to the family.

Does Gender Equality Diminish Your Masculinity?

Should you check with your wife to have a night out?  Shouldn’t you be able to make decisions for yourself?  Should your wife question your choices even if you made them without checking with her?  Are you not the “head of the household?”  Here is how one newly married man described it:

Shortly after tying the knot, a friend asked if I wanted to watch a football game at a local bar and grill.  I hesitated.  ‘Maybe.  Let me check with the wife first.’ Then I quickly added, ‘I’m probably forgetting some plans we’ve already made, but if not, then I’m definitely in.’  The sinking feeling in my stomach begged two gnawing questions.  First, did I give up my decision-making power at the wedding altar?  And, second, did I lose some manhood along with it?[1] 

Being married gives you the chance to examine and challenge your own, often quite sub-conscious, traditional sense of masculinity, which revolves around a set of core features: power, authority, rationality, risk-taking, dominance, control, and suppression of emotions. 

In marrying, you will be going from independent bachelor to interdependent married man.  In being interdependent you will share authority with your wife.  Sharing authority does not mean a loss of masculinity; it is how you interact with one another.  You don’t cede authority; you negotiate with your wife.

It’s the Feminine Thing to Do

As a wife, you can fall into the marital trap of being “nice” to your husband—society’s instruction to be “nurturing” and “caring” to others.  Being feminine also means being receptive, empathetic, sharing, tender, and patient.  Being “nice” leads to unilateral accommodations to your husband—“I will make sure you get what you want, even without your having to ask me for it.”  For your marriage to work, you must invest in yourself, which is not about being “nice.”  It is about “being” something—meaning you have things you desire to flourish in life that are not determined solely by your gender.

Husbands May Resist Change

Because the gender revolution is an “unfinished revolution,” wives are more likely to push for change. When a wife raises an issue, it is likely to ask for change.  Her husband, quite without conscious awareness, may become resistant. 

Pay attention to how you react when your wife raises an issue for discussion.  Is your first tendency to resist?  Note:  You cannot put your wife in the position of identifying and naming your resistance.  You will perceive her as critical and you will become more resistant, upping your resistance tactics. 

A pattern develops when husbands are repeatedly resistant to letting their wives influence them.  It is called the “demand-withdraw” dynamic in marriage.   The demand-withdraw pattern usually starts when a wife seeks a change followed by her husband engaging in some avoidance tactic.  Over repeated instances of this interaction, her requests become more insistent—in his mind, they become “demands,” which justifies his increased resistance setting up the ongoing “demand-withdraw” pattern.

Emphasizing Gender Differences Can Be Harmful

Emphasizing differences between the sexes so that it seems like “men are from Mars and women are from Venus, which is certainly touted in the popular press and even in some academic circles, can be harmful to a marriage relationship.  Adhering to gender stereotypes gets in the way of looking at one’s partner as an individual.  When something goes wrong, it is too easy to stereotypically blame the other partner—to your wife, "you're being emotional, you are overreacting!"  

FOUR WAYS TO AVOID THE TRAPS

There are things you can do to avoid falling into the patterns that will limit your efforts to create a new way of being married.  Here are a few of them.

Pay Attention to Times of Transition in Your Life

Your decisions at important transition times in your life can be easily influenced by old ideas.  Here are some things that have been found to influence women’s and men’s choices toward a more traditional marriage.

Impediments for wives:

  • Viewing your work as a job rather than a career
  •  Delaying your education due to family planning, husband’s education, etc.
  • Viewing your own income as “extra” money devaluing your contribution
  • Opting for “pink collar” jobs known to have glass ceilings
  • The difficulties of managing your career and family life 

Impediments for husbands:

  • Being seen as not fully committed to your job if you take time off for your family
  •  Not hearing other men talk about families at work
  •  Believing that what you do is who you are
  • Believing that women are better at taking care of children        

"She Wants to be a Stay-At-Home Mother"  

It is too easy for you to see decisions about work and family arrangements because of individual preferences, even convincing yourselves that these decisions were decided by the two of you.  Remember, being supportive of “your wife’s” decisions about family and work is not the same thing as truly negotiating such arrangements.  This sub-consciously places the responsibility for work-family outcomes on her.

Be Up Front

It is really a good idea to “be up front” from the beginning of your relationship about work and family issues.  “Being up front” is something you should do throughout your marriage because there is always a strong pull toward a traditionally defined relationship—it’s called actively managing your life together. 

Push to Negotiate Everything

Because marriage has been organized around gender, individual wants and desires are viewed in terms of marital roles.   These things are not negotiated, they are assigned per the traditional view of wife and husband roles.  For you to have a satisfying and sustainable equal marriage, you must push to negotiate individual wants and desires that flow from your individual and joint life plans, not from gender scripts.

A FINAL NOTE

Don’t get me wrong, gender attributes may shape wants and desires, but the fact that something is gender-related does not have to dictate how you organize your marriage.

References

Sentell, Eric. "Why Sacrificing Power Helps Husbands Gain Masculinity." Role Reboot: Life Off Script (Blog), September 13, 2011.