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How Do Gender Roles Impact Marriage?

A look at traditional versus modern roles.

If we judge by divorce rates, marriage was easier years ago. At least that’s how things looked on the surface. Divorce in those days wasn’t socially acceptable, and so couples stayed married regardless of whether or not they should. We’re sure there was a good deal of silent suffering for those whose marriages were unhappy.

There are lots of reasons why marriages can fail today, and one has to do with how gender roles have changed. Historically, men typically "wore the pants," or at least that’s what men believed. Their opinions on most things relating to the home and family were very often decisive. Both men and women outwardly seemed to accept this arrangement, although no one should believe that many women were happy about it. As one positive, couples had fewer reasons to argue because they both, or more accurately, women, knew their "place."

Thankfully, the world is different now. Although we’re far from done, social movements have allowed women to achieve a greater level of equality. However, not all marriages have partners who are on equal footing, and in some cases, that’s by choice. Couples generally fall into one of two camps: partners either lean towards the traditional perspective of male breadwinner/female homemaker, or hold the more contemporary view that men and women are equal and have shared responsibilities.

While this post refers to husbands and wives, gender roles can also apply to same-sex couples. For example, it's not uncommon to find a same-sex relationship where a more masculine partner takes on a breadwinning role and a more feminine partner within the marriage takes on a homemaker role. However, many contemporary same-sex couples will prefer a partnership with shared responsibilities as well.

Whether partners hold onto traditional or egalitarian roles really doesn’t matter much, or at least not as much as that they hold the same perspectives on the roles of husbands and wives. However, when one partner holds one perspective and the other partner the opposite one, they can have a hard time as they progress into their marriage.

In the case of traditional marriages, both husbands and wives are comfortable with the idea that the husband is dominant. They have a set of expectations about how each partner should behave and they find their respective roles to be natural and even preferred. While they might admit to themselves that their relationship is many ways imbalanced, they are willing to live with things as they are because that’s how they see the way of the world. We should point out that these relationships are acceptable only if the husband is dominant. Neither partner likes the arrangement when the wife is dominant, possibly because this represents too extreme a departure from traditional male and female roles.

However, the reality is couples who hold onto traditional gender roles are not as satisfied with their marriages as those who accept more contemporary roles. Modern thinking couples are sometimes referred to as androgynous, because the two partners share a number of personal traits. Both husbands and wives possess some degree of what might be considered masculine traits, such as means-ends problem solving, and feminine traits, such as emotional expressiveness.

Androgynous couples do better because they can identify with each other. When two people have similar ways of thinking, they have an easier time communicating because they understand each other. In contrast, those who are more traditional might have difficulty at times seeing their partner’s side of issues. When conflicts arise, they are not as well equipped to handle them because they see the world primarily from the perspective of their different gender roles.

Modern thinking couples can also have their difficulties, but their problems tend to be different than those of traditional thinking couples. Women who expect equality and reject traditional gender roles won’t sacrifice their personal happiness to save their marriage out of respect for the institution. They are particularly vigilant of their relationship and will watch carefully how much their husbands contribute to home maintenance, how involved they are with their children, how committed they are to their marriage, and so on. When things are unfair and out of balance, they will react strongly.

With equality, there are more opportunities for conflicts. Because both partners believe they should have a say in all decisions, couples are forced to do more negotiating and compromising, and that increases the chances of fighting. Furthermore, as each partner works hard to safeguard their equality, any social exchange imbalances become more of a point of contention. A wife who thinks she’s working harder than she should around the house and a husband who thinks his wife doesn’t respect him, are more likely to confront their partner about these issues. This doesn’t necessarily mean couples are less happy today, but anything that increases the chances of conflict puts a marriage at risk.

While the edge goes to modern thinkers, both traditional and modern couples can still be happy. As we said, what’s most important is that their perspectives are in harmony. Where relationships can get particularly tricky is when they’re mismatched. It’s not hard to imagine that much bigger problems can arise when couples are mixed, especially if the husband is extremely traditional and the wife is not. Consider, for example, how such a couple would deal with housework. A traditional thinking husband would feel it is "women’s work," while his egalitarian thinking wife would demand that he do his share. In these marriages, partners have a very hard time understanding each other and there are a lot of opportunities for conflicts. Very often, their conflicts can’t be resolved because the two partners believe very different things. Ultimately, all the turbulence can weaken their commitment to the relationship.

More from Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera Ph.D.
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