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When our lives don't match cultural gender-based expectations (and how it can affect relationships)

During the pandemic, many people were forced to stay home for a while, as their businesses or places of employment were closed by state or local orders. Now, many of those workplaces (but not all of them) have re-opened. But things are still not back to normal. For families with children in school, if the schools have chosen to do virtual classrooms instead of in-person instruction, chances are one or even both of the parents has to stay home to supervise the child, complicating the routine of how each parent goes to work and gets their paycheck. Parents, or just married partners, have to negotiate who will go to work when, and some of that work might be from home, with children around to increase distractions and reduce productivity. 2020 has upended many routines, and it is causing increased stress and conflicts within relationships.

This casts into relief the balancing act between home duties and work duties, and more importantly for this post, the traditional roles that men and women have had historically when it comes to these two spheres of life. Of course, men have been viewed more as the breadwinners and women as the homemakers. (Whether this view accurately reflects history is a conversation for another time.) For now, and just as importantly though, this pattern gets internalized as how men and women view their responsibilities and obligations in their mind-- men think they are “supposed” to earn a living to support the family, and women think they are expected to take care of the home and family.

But it is more common today to find women who outearn their husbands (29% in the U.S., as of 2017), and 7% of fathers stayed at home while their partners worked in the US in 2016. Sometimes this is through necessity (say, if the combination of child care costs and relative incomes mean that it makes sense for the father to stay home and the women to keep her higher-income job, or the husband loses his job), and sometimes it really is a voluntary choice for the couple. Regardless of how this arrangement comes to be in any given couple, there is something that happens when the duties we have in the real world don’t match those that we think we should have because of our gender. That is, when men are taking care of stuff at home like cooking and cleaning and child-rearing, and when they are not climbing the professional ladder. For women, it is flipped-- when they are busy in their professional life, but not as involved in home tasks, especially raising children. Both men and women tend to feel worse about themselves, and have increased levels of stress, when their actions don’t match their gender roles. This is called gender role strain.

Men tend to feel reduced self-esteem and have an increased risk for depression and anxiety, as well as decreased sexual confidence. Some men even feel the need to hide their status, make excuses for why they’re not earning more or working more, or even lie to others about it. In short, they feel ashamed for not living up to the idea of what they should be.

Women tend to experience conflict in their role as a mother and a worker. They are especially prone to feeling guilty for not being there for their kids as much as they should be. In a Danish study, married women who earned more than their husbands actually had higher rates of depression and anxiety and an increased risk of insomnia.

As far as the relationship outcomes went, in one study men were more likely to instigate extra-marital affairs if they were earning less than their wives. The reasons for this aren't entirely clear, although the authors speculate that it is because men feel a need to demonstrate their masculinity to themselves, which they are unable to do in their relationships due to their 'deprecated' role. (Women were actually less likely to have an affair when they earned more than their husbands.) Some women though, despite logically understanding the specifics of their relationship, still feel increased resentment towards their husbands, due to a perception that the husbands weren't living up to their expected contributions. So it is clear that there are increased risks for the relationship, even if the system 'works' for the couple on the surface of things.

There are some silver linings though. Some men have actually experienced greater life satisfaction when they incorporate these non-traditional tasks into their responsibilities. Women can also feel that the time they do spend with their children is more quality time, since less of it is the tedious variety of helping children do the things they need to do but aren’t as fun. Women also can feel a greater sense of pride and competence since they are being recognized outside of the home. Men who stayed at home tended to have higher marital satisfaction. One protective factor that has been identified is egalitarian attitudes towards gender roles. That is, the more men and women believe that it is not a bad thing for men to do domestic chores, and for women to be ambitious professionally, the better their mental health outcomes are.

This area of research is young, and there is not a lot of data regarding more diverse couples or same-sex couples. It will be interesting to see, as more research is conducted, what a more diverse array of relationships will reveal about gender roles, or even whether changing cultural attitudes will alleviate the stresses associated with gender role strain.

So, what should we do, knowing this information? Actually, given the findings, merely understanding what might be going on for one’s partner because of the strain against traditional gender roles is a great start. If they seem to be struggling with things, you can have an honest conversation about whether they feel like they’re living up to cultural expectations. Letting each partner talk openly about what they’re feeling, and whether their self-esteem is impacted, can be therapeutic in itself. We know that having a supportive partner is related to improved mental health, so it is important as the listener and the partner who is perhaps not struggling as much to be there for the other. If problems continue, individual or couples therapy is always an excellent avenue through which to have these discussions and improve the satisfaction in your life and your relationship.

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