It has never been easy to make sense of love and romantic relationships. This is especially true in our current time of social change, though, where it seems an increasing number of women can't find a good man, and men are frustrated with relationships too.
At least some of this current confusion may relate to changing social norms and roles, given that such norms generally help us make sense of uncertain situations. Specifically, as the social norms and roles that clearly define courtship and relationships become less certain, it can become more difficult to figure out when someone likes you, more uncertain as to how to find a good partner, and more challenging to identify satisfying romantic relationship goals as well.
Nevertheless, relying on such social norms and roles has a potential downside too. Particularly, norms can influence our behavior and persuade our choices. In turn, that influence and pressure to conform can be constraining, particularly for individuals and personal goals less aligned with those norms and roles. Therefore, traditional roles can also make it harder for some individuals to share their unique characteristics, stay true to their own socio-sexual preferences, and self-determine their own behavior in relationships. Given that those individual preferences and behaviors are important for satisfying relationships too, it is generally unclear as to whether following traditional norms and roles of masculinity and femininity ultimately helps or hurts a relationship.
With that uncertainty in mind, I took a look at what the research had to say. Most of it was conflicting as well, going back-and-forth as to whether gender roles were helpful or hurtful to relationships. Fortunately, though, I found a more recent line of research endeavoring to sort it out.
Gender Roles and Relationships
A dissertation by Redlick (2018) began to make sense of this question by assessing several different effects of differing from traditional gender roles within close relationships. To do so, Redlick (2018) provided participants with a questionnaire measuring their perceived gender role departure (how masculine/feminine they perceived themselves—and how masculine/feminine they felt others perceived them to be as well). In addition, participants were also provided with questionnaires measuring how stigmatized they felt in their current romantic relationship, as well as their levels of intimacy, commitment, investment, and satisfaction in that relationship. Finally, the participants were also asked to evaluate their perception of the quality of alternatives to their current relationship partner and the level of uncertainty that they felt about the relationship too.
Looking at the relationship among these measures, Redlick (2018) identified some informative patterns of connections. Specifically, individuals who believed that they differed from traditional gender roles also tended to feel more stigmatized in their current romantic relationships. In turn, that feeling of stigmatization related to those individuals feeling more uncertain about their relationship, as well as less intimate, invested, committed, and satisfied. In contrast, those adhering to traditional gender roles felt less stigmatized, which related to them having better evaluations of their existing relationships too.
Nevertheless, individuals who differed from traditional gender roles and felt stigmatized were also more likely to perceive that they had better relationship alternatives elsewhere. As Redlick notes, "It is possible that these individuals, those who feel that they are stigmatized on the basis of their gender identity, also feel that they know and have access to others who share in their experience as a result of being enmeshed in a community of empathetic others" (p. 80). Thus, while those individuals might not experience a good fit in their current relationships, there is a positive perception and direction toward finding significant others who will value them for who they are too.
A follow-up study by Redlick (2019) evaluated the connections among adhering to traditional gender roles, perceptions of uncertainty about a romantic relationship, and satisfaction with that relationship. The results of those analyses also indicated that, in some cases, holding on to traditional gender roles helped to decrease uncertainty in relationships—which could lead to greater relationship satisfaction. This benefit appeared to be most likely for participants identifying as masculine, who reported being significantly less certain about their relationships than those identifying as feminine. Thus, Redlick (2019) suggests, "endorsing traditional gender roles may serve to clarify, rather than confuse, individuals (and particularly men) as they endeavor to establish and understand their close relationships" (p. 12).
Matching and Fitting Together
Redlick (2019) concludes the assessment of findings by noting that the match between the roles of both partners may be driving these positive effects. Specifically, "it may be that it is not if an individual strongly endorses a particular traditional gender role, but whether their partner strongly endorses traditional gender roles as well" (Redlick, 2019, p. 13). This relates back to the perception that stigmatized individuals could find greater happiness elsewhere, too (Redlick, 2018).
Put simply, when the personal role expectations and perceptions of both partners match up (regardless of whether individuals conform or depart from traditional roles), there may be a greater likelihood for certainty and satisfaction. When the role expectations of partners do not match, however, there may be more uncertainty, feelings of stigmatization, and desire to look elsewhere for a better-fitting relationship.
This process relates to a similar dynamic discussed in organizational psychology as Person-Role Fit. Particularly, the greater the match between a worker's characteristics and the expectations of their work role, the more likely they are to feel efficacious, satisfied, and perform well in that role (DeRue & Morgeson, 2007). A "role fit" concept is also suggested by Lewis (1972, 1973) in the development of romantic relationships. In that case, however, role fit deals with the matching among the personalities of partners, their needs, and their roles within a romantic relationship.
This idea of fit and matching also relates to the pattern of assortative mating in humans in general, where individuals often pick partners of similar age, education, religion, ethnicity, attitudes, abilities, and/or lifestyle (Luo, 2017). Overall, then, in both work and romantic situations, it appears that a good "fit" between a person's characteristics and the expectations of the role they are trying to fill leads to more stable interactions and greater satisfaction.
Matching Roles in Your Relationship
Given the above, we can see how finding a partner and maintaining a relationship are often quite similar to filling a role in the workplace. In both situations, it is important to have a clear idea of the "job description" and know what you want that partner to do within the role. Then, it is a matter of looking for someone who matches the requirements, communicating with them, and seeing how they do in that role. Of course, given that relationships are a two-way social exchange, it is also important to remember that you have to fill the role they are looking for too!
Creating a completely new and unique job description can be a complicated process, though. That is why customary jobs and roles, with familiar job duties, often just follow established and standardized job descriptions. This is the potential benefit of more traditional gender roles as well. Within those roles, people basically know what is required of them, whether they have the abilities and motivation to fill those roles, and that they will generally satisfy many of the typical wants and needs of both partners in the relationship.
Put simply, standard and traditional roles help people know what to expect in a relationship. Therefore, if you are more traditional in what you want in a mate, have a more conservative socio-sexual preference, and/or are ready for a traditional type of commitment, then matching with a partner who shares more traditional gender roles may be of benefit to you.
Nevertheless, just as there are many specialists in the world of work, there are also many romantic partners who want something a bit less customary too. Fortunately, though, by finding a good fit, those who do not fall into typical roles can be satisfied and happy as well. Given that, if you have more unique features or interests and want to be more individual and true to yourself in your approach to relationships, then creating a more specific job description might be the approach for you.
In this case, though, it will be important to understand the features you personally find attractive and compatible—and then to clearly communicate those features that make someone a great romantic partner to significant others as well. Also, being accepting of your partner and sharing your own self-disclosures can help to create satisfying connections too.
In either case, though, given that we are in confusing times, following the ever-changing preferences and fads in modern media can create unrealistic expectations and lead you astray. So instead, be true to what you intrinsically and personally want, whether that is something more traditional or unique. In the end, that type of self-determination is essential for having a good "role fit" in your relationship and a satisfying love life, no matter what role you choose.
© 2020 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
DeRue, D. S., & Morgeson, F. P. (2007). Stability and change in person-team and person-role fit over time: the effects of growth satisfaction, performance, and general self-efficacy. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 1242-1253.
Lewis, R. A. (1972). A developmental framework for the analysis of premarital dyadic formation. Family Process, 11, 17–48.
Lewis, R. A. (1973). A longitudinal test of a developmental framework for premarital dyadic formation. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 35, 16–25.
Luo, S. (2017). Assortative mating and couple similarity: Patterns, mechanisms, and consequences. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(8), e12337.
Redlick, M.H. (2018). Beyond the eye of the beholder: Perceived gender role departure in close relationships [Doctoral dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin]. University of Texas Libraries.
Redlick, M.H. (2019). Traditional gender roles and their connections to relational uncertainty and relational satisfaction. Psychology & Sexuality, 10, 1-16.