Reversing Gender Norms
Whilst having more egalitarian gender roles may work better for some in the modern day, does flipping gender roles entirely make for better romantic relationship outcomes? Apparently not.
An increasing body of research suggests that when traditional gender roles are reversed in romantic relationships, where women have attained higher societal status than their male partner, the relationship suffers.
Researchers Test How Traditional Norms Affect Perception & Outcomes
Researchers conducted three experiments: two involved 223 participants from the United States and 269 participants from the Netherlands; and one used 94 couples from the Netherlands (188 participants) who had been in a relationship for at least one year, were at least 18 years old and where each partner worked at least 12 hours a week .
In the first two experiments, the researchers uncovered whether people would:
a) view individuals who were in role-reversed relationships as violating gender roles by rating the men as weaker than their female partner, and by rating the women as more dominant than their male partner, compared with those in traditional role relationships; and
b) assume that those in role-reversed relationships had lower quality relationships; and
c) negatively rate the men and women in role-reversed relationships, i.e. less likeability for women and less respect for the men, because they have violated the traditional gender roles.
In the third experiment the researchers sought to test whether men and women who were themselves in role-reversed relationships:
d) viewed the female as the more dominant one and the male as the weaker one; and
e) whether such perceptions were linked to lower relationship satisfaction.
Studies 1 & 2
Role-reversed couples – where the female has the higher occupational status than the male – elicit both positive and negative perceptions from onlookers.
Participants perceived females in role-reversed relationships as the more dominant and agentic one (taking control of their goals, actions and outcomes) and judged the women in role-reversed relationships as being less likeable for their dominance but more likeable and respected for their relative agency.
Participants perceived the men in role-reversed relationships as being the weaker one in the relationship, and had less respect for these men.
Furthermore, they expected those in role-reversed relationships to be in a less satisfying relationship compared to more traditional relationships, based on the perception that the men were weaker and the women more dominant in the relationship (not due to the women having more agency).
In the third experiment, where participants were themselves in a role-reversed relationship, they also perceived the woman to be the dominant one and the man to be the weak one in their own relationship when they felt the woman had the higher social status.
And when couples in these role-reversed relationships reported that they perceived the man to be the weaker one in the relationship, they also reported lower relationship satisfaction compared to those in traditional relationships.
Traditional Norms Persist
It’s great that women were not regarded negatively for their agency. Women should be allowed to realise their potential and achieve their life goals without being disliked for it. On the contrary, they should receive due praise for their achievements.
However, it also makes sense that others expect, and role-reversed couples themselves experience, lower relationship satisfaction when they perceive the man as the weaker one and the woman as the more dominant one. Why? Because from an evolutionary and biological standpoint, men are expected and biologically built to be providers/protectors, and women are expected and biologically built to be nurturers/caregivers. And that’s a beautiful thing.
And whilst you might argue that the results of this study are affected by how we have been socialised since the dawn of time, perhaps this research is actually a good example of the influence of nature vs. nurture when it comes to how society evolves in the modern day.
Just because we are being socialised to accept role-reversed relationships, doesn’t mean they are good for the long-term relationship satisfaction of those individuals in the relationship. Certainly, this research points to that being the case: role-reversed relationships being good in theory but not always so good in practice.
The fact that others also expect those partners in role-reversed relationships to be in less satisfying relationships, could also be seen as an intuitive hunch that reversing roles, whilst perfectly acceptable, may not produce the relationship quality most hope for when thinking of their ideal relationship/marriage.
Positive Actions Whatever Role You Both Have
In my practice I see the costs and benefits posed by traditional gender role relationships, more egalitarian gender role relationships, and role-reversed relationships. So here are a few thoughts on what might be helpful for you.
1. If you’re a single male, seeking out a female who makes you feel secure in your identity as a man will result in more relationship satisfaction. Whilst you may like women who are nurturing, if you seek relationships with women who are nurturing but also significantly more successful than you in the work arena, and are much more bold and confident than you, the nurturing aspect may not be enough to keep you feeling good about yourself long-term. Insecurity and resentment may creep in.
2. If you’re a single female, seeking out a male who has a higher occupational status than you may result in more relationship satisfaction. It will likely help him to maintain his confidence, help you to feel protected, and help you both to emulate some of the healthy couple traits you saw in your parents and grandparents and their friends.
3. If you’re in a traditional relationship and feel judged for being a stay-at-home mum, or are judging yourself for it, even if it is only a temporary phase, then own it with confidence, enjoy it, and ignore the negative comments from others which may actually be steeped in jealousy. Especially when you have very young children, being available to nurture them is crucially important, something you would find difficult to do if you had a busy career too. It also means that as your spouse is working to provide for you all, you can immerse yourself in the role of nurturer for all. It’s perfectly natural and acceptable, and much more common than you might think.
4. If you’re in a more egalitarian-relationship whilst still traditionally-skewed, where the man earns more than the woman, even though you might work a similar amount of hours each day, enjoy it; balance the rest of your mutual chores in a way that feels fair; balance the free time, especially the me-time; and sincerely appreciate one another for all that you do bring to your life together.
5. And if you’re in a role-reversed marriage, do what you can to empower one another to feel good about yourselves and each other (as you should in any relationship). Think about how you might address any power imbalance that either of you feel exists in the relationship, and how you can increase respect for the husband and increase the nurturing role of the wife. These are crucial bidirectional elements of a relationship for both men and women, respect and nurturing.
How Do You Feel?
What are your thoughts and feelings? Do you view men and women in role-reversed relationships more negatively? Or if you’re in a role-reversed relationship, do you view your own relationship more negatively and do you experience less relationship satisfaction as a result?
Why do you think it’s important to maintain respect for one another and to consistently nurture one another? What happens when you don’t do those two things? Are you doing them in your relationship right now?
How much do you let society and your social network, online and offline, determine your happiness level based on their judgements? And is that serving or sabotaging your relationship?
Always focus on what works for you and your partner. Even if it goes against what others say. If you have a happy and healthy relationship – wonderful! It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. But be honest with yourself and your partner about what you are feeling about your relationship dynamic and seek out solutions to address any discomfort.
1. Vink, M., Derks, B., Ellemers, N., & van der Lippe, T. (2022). Penalized for challenging traditional gender roles: Why heterosexual relationships in which women wear the pants may be more precarious. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 88, 130–154 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-022-01339-5