What it means to be married or in a domestic partnership has evolved significantly over time. Why? Cultural, societal, and legal factors have changed. Gender also plays a crucial role in shaping the dynamics between married or domestically partnered couples. Let’s explore the role of gender in marriage and domestic partnerships, digging deeper into how it impacts various aspects of these unions.
Hold on. What’s a domestic partnership?
In case you weren’t aware, a domestic partnership is a relationship between partners who live together and share a household life together, without being married, but still have some legal record of their relationship. This is only available in select states. Ever since same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S., many states dropped the option for domestic partnership. In those states where it is still available, domestic partners are entitled to certain legal benefits. Domestic partnerships can usually be opposite-gender or same-gender couples, just like in marriage.
Understanding gender roles in both domestic partnerships and marriages
Traditionally, social norms around gender have shaped the duties and responsibilities assigned to men and women in relationships. For example, men have traditionally been seen as the breadwinners and the heads of households. They have held authority and have been expected to provide for the family financially. Women, on the other hand, have typically been assigned nurturing duties, such as cleaning, caring for children, and cooking. However, all this is changing–and it’s changing fast.
Gender roles: Why they’re changing
Let’s face it. Gender roles are changing. Gone are the days when the man is the breadwinner and the wife stays home. We’re moving towards an equal partnership in marriage or even swapping the traditional roles completely. Why? We discuss below…
- An increase in dual-income families
With more women not only having entered the workforce but maintaining high-paid positions, the traditional gender role of men as sole providers is coming to an end. Dual-income families have become more common, leading to a more equitable distribution of financial responsibilities alongside greater financial empowerment and freedom for women.
- Sharing household duties
Modern marriages often (but not always) see a more equal division of household chores and parenting duties, with both partners actively participating in these responsibilities. When both partners are working, there is no reason for women to disproportionately take on the majority of housework and childcare tasks.
Despite the fact that most women work these days, however, the underlying assumption that women should be responsible for housework still persists to some extent in many partnerships, with men who do housework often framed as ‘helping’ their wives or partners rather than simply pulling their weight.
- Relationship power dynamics
Gender roles have also shifted in terms of decision-making and power dynamics within marriages. Women now have more influence and agency in major and minor family decisions. For example, in the past men had more say in decisions like when and how to engage socially outside of the house, where to live, and what health insurance and care to select. Nowadays, women have a say in what happens because they are contributing financially, sometimes as the breadwinner.
Gender and emotional expression
Historically men have been expected to display stoicism, emotional restraint, and a sense of toughness. Expressing vulnerability or sensitivity was often seen as a sign of weakness and could lead to social stigma. Women, on the other hand, have been encouraged to be more emotionally expressive, nurturing, and caring. This division of emotional labor reinforced stereotypes about men being unemotional and women being overly emotional. Although this stereotype has not yet completely disappeared, evolving perceptions of gender are leading to an ongoing normalization of male emotional expression and sensitivity alongside a push not to dismiss female emotional expression.
Gender and communication
The influence of societal expectations surrounding gender on emotional expression is reflected in communication patterns within partnerships. Many men find it challenging to openly express their feelings, leading to communication barriers and difficulty in sharing their emotions with their partners. Women frequently face the burden of being the emotional caretakers in their relationships; they are expected to provide endless emotional support, attention, and understanding to their male partners without necessarily receiving the same level of emotional care in return.
Gender-based stigma around mental health
Historical attitudes towards emotional expression have also contributed to the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Men are unfortunately far less likely than women to seek help for emotional or psychological challenges due to fears of being perceived as weak or less masculine–especially in more traditional cultures. This hinders the development of supportive and understanding environments within relationships. Not only that, but women are more likely to seek mental health help, so they may have a better understanding of themselves and their emotions than their male counterparts.
In LGBTQ+ marriages and domestic partnerships, gender dynamics play out in various ways, shaking up the traditional norms and forming distinct dynamics shaped by the genders of each partner (and sometimes not shaped by gender at all!).
- Gender role flexibility
In many LGBTQ+ relationships, there is often greater flexibility and fluidity when it comes to traditional gender roles. Both partners may share responsibilities and make decisions without being tied to societal expectations based on gender. For example, in some same-sex relationships, neither partner feels obligated to conform to traditional expectations of “breadwinner” vs. “stay-at-home spouse.”
- Breaking stereotypes
LGBTQ+ relationships break gender stereotypes. For instance, in some same-sex relationships, both partners may openly display emotional vulnerability and affection without being afraid of being perceived as less masculine.
- Understanding gender identity
People in LGBTQ+ relationships sometimes have a deeper understanding of gender identity and may be more supportive and empathetic towards each other’s journeys of self-discovery. A non-binary individual dating a transgender person, for example, will share a deeper awareness of most of the complexities of gender identity.
- Supporting gender transition
In transgender relationships, one or both partners’ gender transition(s) can be an essential aspect of their journey together. Such couples navigate things like name changes, pronoun usage, and medical procedures, strengthening their bond via mutual support and understanding as they journey through uncharted territory as a team.
- Family and Parenting
LGBTQ+ couples face unique challenges in starting families or parenting, particularly in cases of adoption or assisted reproduction methods. As opposed to traditional heterosexual relationships in which women traditionally play(ed) more of a role in childcare, both partners in an LGBTQ+ marriage or domestic partnership may actively contribute to parenting responsibilities. Since they’re less influenced by traditional gender roles, these couples’ roles can be adapted based on individual strengths and preferences.
- Cultural and regional variations
LGBTQ+ relationships are subject to different dynamics based on the cultural and regional context in which they exist. Societal attitudes towards gender and sexual orientation vary widely around the world, leading to diverse experiences for couples in different locations.
- Celebrating individuality
Since LGBTQ+ relationships challenge traditional gender norms, they often celebrate and value individuality and self-expression. Partners are more likely to encourage each other to embrace their true selves, beyond societal expectations or gender roles. This kind of encouragement contributes to a strong foundation for a supportive and authentic relationship.
Cultural and religious influence
Cultural and religious beliefs also impact the gender-based roles and expectations assigned to individuals within marriages and partnerships. From arranged marriages to cultural rituals, there are many different influential aspects of gender roles.
- Arranged marriages
In some cultural and religious traditions, arranged marriages are still common, and not a thing of the past. In many South Asian cultures, for instance, parents take the lead in selecting suitable partners for their children. This practice often involves the payment of a dowry by the bride’s family to the groom’s family. The capacity of the bride’s family to provide a generous dowry influences the amount and quality of potential partners available to women seeking marriage. Additionally, in many arranged marriages, educated women who work are expected to stop working after marriage and become homemakers. In these cultures, the female partner usually goes to live with the groom’s family after marriage.
- Modesty and purity
Some cultural and religious beliefs emphasize modesty and purity, particularly concerning women’s behavior and appearance. In conservative Islamic cultures in the Middle East as well as Central and Southeast Asia, for example, women are expected to cover their heads and hair as a sign of modesty and adherence to religious principles. Women who don’t conform to these norms may have difficulty finding partners for marriage.
- Gendered rituals
Cultural and religious rituals surrounding marriages often reinforce traditional gender roles. In Orthodox Jewish weddings, for example, the bride circles the groom seven times during the ceremony, symbolizing her creation of a sacred ‘home’ space around her husband and cementing her role as the heart of the home.
- Gender and divorce
Cultural and religious beliefs also impact attitudes toward divorce and separation. In societies where women have limited access to financial resources or employment opportunities, they are apt to feel economically trapped in unhappy marriages, making it more difficult for them to seek divorce.
- Progressive interpretations
It’s crucial to note that interpretations of cultural and religious texts and principles are constantly evolving. Some communities, like progressive Jewish and Christian groups, reinterpret traditional rituals and teachings in order to promote gender equality within marriages and domestic partnerships.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about the role of gender in domestic partnerships and marriages
Q: How can couples foster equality in their relationships?
A: Couples can foster equality by sharing responsibilities, making a conscious effort to be aware of their underlying assumptions surrounding gender roles, updating or re-interpreting their cultural or religious beliefs and principles surrounding gender, and challenging traditional gender norms in their relationships.
Q: To what extent have gender roles been eradicated in modern marriages in the USA?
A: While the rigidity of gender roles has softened, remnants of traditional gender roles persist to varying extents in most marriages and domestic partnerships. Younger generations are more likely to consciously discard traditional gender norms in their relationships.
Q: How can I show that I support people in non-conventional partnerships?
A: You can offer support by promoting inclusivity and openly challenging stereotypes surrounding gender and relationships.
Q: How does gender impact parenting styles?
A: Gender influences parenting styles significantly. Fathers often adopt a more authoritative role, while many mothers take on the role of nurturer and emotional caregiver. However, these roles are not fixed and can vary based on individual preferences, strengths, and progressive values.
Q: Does gender affect marital satisfaction?
A: Yes, studies have shown that gender can play a role in marital satisfaction in that gender influences attitudes towards things like communication styles, division of responsibilities, parenting roles, and expectations surrounding intimacy and emotional support, and all of these areas play a role in determining marital satisfaction.
Q: How do gender roles influence financial decisions within a marriage?
A: Gender roles can impact financial decisions, with traditional norms often assigning financial responsibility to men. However, modern couples are embracing shared financial decision-making for a more balanced approach.
The role of gender in marriage and domestic partnerships is multifaceted and continually evolving.
Historical gender norms still prevail to some extent, but a huge shift is underway, especially in the United States. In some countries, traditional gender roles are still strongly intact and don’t look like they will be going anywhere soon. At the end of the day, gender has a major effect on marriage and domestic partnerships. From the emotional expression to the chore divide, gender plays a huge role. It’s important to recognize how gender affects your relationship and the ways you can address inequities to avoid strain on your partner.
David F Khalili is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, board-certified sexologist, author of Mental Health Workbook for Men, founder of Rouse Relational Wellness, a boutique sex and relationship therapy center serving San Francisco and all of California, and recently started Rouse Academy, an online learning platform to address sex and anxiety. You can learn more about David’s practice at rousetherapy.com.