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How Gender Role Stereotypes Are Crippling Our Love Lives

Gender-role rigidity and the paralysis of modern love

Sadly, countless people’s dating lives and relationships are being hamstrung by a modern brand of stealth-sexism. The result? A generation trapped in the quicksand of crazy-making advice: "Women, be strong and independent, but for God's sake, don't scare men away! Men, be sensitive, but if you’re not an alpha male, you’ll always be the second choice."

And LGBT folks — better come back tomorrow. We're confused enough as it is.

In love, as in all areas of our lives, we’re faced with endless variants of the same existential choice: authenticity versus a pre-packaged, safe persona. Tragically, strong women and gentle men — and just about everyone else — are still being taught to forsake their authenticity again and again in the arenas of dating, romance, and love.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

A classic example is the successful woman leaving her high-powered job to go on a date. Successful women are told to “leave their fake balls at the office” or risk a failed connection with "real men." This sounds very 1950s, but I can't tell you how many successful women I know who are still haunted by that fear — and how often it's validated for them by friends, family, and popular dating advice.

Susan is a very successful executive, and she's headed to her second date with Jim, a guy she's feeling excited about. She’s just closed the biggest deal of her career, and she's walking on air, bursting with excitement. She can't wait to share her success with Jim, but then she remembers the dating advice she's heard again and again: "If you're not in touch with your femininity, you won't be able to attract guys. If you're too powerful, you'll turn them off. So, soften up, or run the risk of failure in love."

Susan is torn between two worlds.

What does she really want? A fist-pumping, raucous celebration of her coup.

She's feeling fierce and powerful, but "fierce" and "powerful" don't feel feminine. And she likes Jim a lot.

So Susan tells Jim about her success, but downplays it, substituting "fierce and powerful" with "fun, charming, and unintimidating." Not surprisingly, the date falls flat. Awkwardness, the clay-footed compromise between impulse and inhibition, takes over, and neither Jim nor Susan can find the easy connection they felt in the past. Susan leaves, feeling vaguely hollow and disappointed.

Let's look at what went wrong.

First, Susan was bursting with authentic joy, ambition, and power. She had to own that sense of empowerment or risk disappearing. Yet that ran contrary to a slew of dating advice she'd read. In order to be authentic, she had to cross a line of gender taboo, and it just felt too risky.

Second, there's wisdom in the advice to get out of work-mode before a date, but isn't that everyone's job, not just the woman's? Is emotional availability, receptivity, and vulnerability just the woman’s responsibility? Women are still being told to hold themselves back for fear of injuring a man’s ego. Stripped down, it’s the same disheartening message women have been taught for millennia.

Third, there’s a toxic message here: "It’s fine to step out of your traditional gender-role for a period of time, but if you don't return to it, you won't find love." This gender-conformity pressure has shaped our lives in numerous toxic ways, yet we rarely see it for what it is. Hiding our authentic self is an act of quiet violence. It holds us back from our ability to love authentically. If we're single, it keeps us choosing the wrong partners.

Third, there is an assumption that strength, empowerment, passion, and drive are predominantly male attributes, and that receptivity, expressiveness, kindness, and gentleness are the domain of the female. Which is why researchers who study gender roles use terms that are not based on biology: "Instrumental" traits include assertiveness, decisiveness, independence, dominance, and ambition. "Expressive" traits include sensitivity to the needs of others, altruism, warmth, and cooperativeness (Spence 1991). Both are rich aspects of everyone's experience. There are countless women with predominantly instrumental natures, and countless men with predominantly expressive natures. And successful, healthy, wonderful people of all genders are attracted to each of these types. Truly, in the matter of personality and romantic love, there is someone for everyone.

With all this in mind, let's re-imagine Susan's date with Jim — through two different scenarios.

Scenario 1: Susan lets herself share her full excitement with Jim. "This is who I am, and who I want to be," she decides, "and if that makes him uncomfortable, then I'm dating the wrong guy." Jim is awkward. Though he congratulates her, she can tell he feels intimidated, or perhaps disinterested. She leaves the date feeling disappointed, but clear on who she is and what she's looking for.

Scenario 2: Susan lets herself share her full excitement with Jim. And he's thrilled. They celebrate together — loudly — and she feels seen and appreciated while in her power. They both feel closer, and best of all, she feels as though Jim gets her.

Susan has learned one of the greatest lessons of modern dating and healthy love: When faced with the choice between gender-conformity and authentic expression, strive for authenticity. Even when it's scary.

When it comes to gender roles, we've been taught terribly wrong. For example, we're taught that opposites attract — and they do. But so do similarities. Two predominantly "expressive" people of any gender can fall deeply in love, as can two predominantly instrumental people. In fact, research shows that spouses with similarity in gender roles are more happily married (Gaunt, 2006).

Masculine qualities and feminine qualities exist in each of us. There is no one size that fits all! We cannot assume that women are all essentially feminine, or that all men are essentially masculine. Or that all men are attracted to women, and women to men. The choice of personal expression is limitless and fluid. The goal is freedom from our hardwired fear of expressing all aspects of ourselves, both masculine and feminine. Again, research backs this up. For example, very masculine husbands and very feminine wives feel less understanding, less love, and less contentment in their marriages (Helms et al., 2006). And couples with nontraditional gender roles are shown to have more satisfying sex lives (Kiefer & Sanchez, 2007; Sanchez et al., 2006).

Again and again, I've watched clients cross the electrified trip wires of gender taboo and discover that those very parts they were frightened to embrace held the key to finding happiness in love.

In your relationships, in your creative pursuits, and in your sex life, for that matter — have you ever felt timid to express something, because it crossed some subtle or not-so-subtle gender taboo? Try breaking the gender rules, and watch what power emerges, what depths of self. And when you meet the person who loves what they see, no matter how many traditional gender lines it crosses, then you've found someone who can love you for who you are.

Thankfully, there are more and more psychotherapists, teachers, experts, and coaches who value authenticity over traditional gender roles, who embrace and welcome the LGBT community, and who encourage their readers, patients, clients, and students to cross the lines of gender taboo in their own journeys of discovery.

In future posts, I’ll discuss how women and men can experience breakthroughs in their intimacy lives by breaking free from outdated gender roles, and what psychotherapists, coaches and dating experts can do to help their clients do so.

© Ken Page, LCSW 2017. All rights reserved.


Masculine Instrumentality and Feminine Expressiveness: Their Relationships with Sex Role Attitudes and Behaviors

Janet T. Spence, Robert L. Helmreich

Psychology of Women Quarterly

Vol 5, Issue 2, pp. 147 - 163

Couple Similarity and Marital Satisfaction: Are Similar Spouses Happier? - Gaunt - 2006 - Journal of Personality - Wiley Online Library

Spouses’ gender-typed attributes and their links with marital quality: A pattern analytic approach

Heather M. HelmsChristine M. ProulxMary Maguire KluteSusan M. McHaleAnn C. Crouter

Journal of Social and Personal Relationships

Vol 23, Issue 6, pp. 843 - 864

Scripting sexual passivity: A gender role perspective - KIEFER - 2007 - Personal Relationships - Wiley Online Library

Kiefer, A. K., Sanchez, D. T., Kalinka, C. J., & Ybarra, O. (2006). How women's nonconscious association of sex with submission relates to their subjective sexual arousability and ability to reach orgasm. Sex Roles, 55(1-2), 83-94. DOI: 10.1007/s11199-006-9060-9

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