By Amanda M. Pollitt, Brandon Andrew Robinson and Debra Umberson
Marriage is often considered a place where two equal partners come together to start a life, form a family, and grow old together. However, there has been what seems like an increase in news and blog articles about women in different-sex marriages who feel that their home lives are anything but equal. For example, in her article about emotional labor (http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a12063822/emotional-labor-gender-equality/), Gemma Hartley describes the emotional and relationship toll that being her family’s manager had: “It’s frustrating to be saddled with all of these responsibilities, no one to acknowledge the work you are doing, and no way to change it without a major confrontation.”
Feminist theorists have been talking for decades about heterosexual marriage as a place where inequalities between women and men are created and recreated, and these themes persist even today. Nearly as many women work outside the home as men. Still, women married to men continue to do the majority of unpaid labor in their relationships. This is true even when women make more money and have more highly respected careers than their husbands, and even when their husbands are stay-at-home dads. Clearly, gender inequalities between women and men in marriages persist.
However, what we know about power inequalities in different-sex relationships has relied on comparisons between women and men. These comparisons do not address the degree to which women and men within these couples are gender conforming, or how women conform to femininity and men conform to masculinity. When couples enact gender in conforming ways, this can maintain gender norms and inequalities in relationships, such as the belief that men should hold more power in marriages. For example, some research shows that within marriages in which women earn more income than men, women and men do more and less housework, respectively. These couples recreate relationship inequalities in household labor to maintain gender norms.
Now that we have marriage equality for same-sex couples in the U.S., questions arise about power dynamics and equality within these couples. Some scholars have argued that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in same-sex marriages have more equality in their relationships because the traditional divisions between women and men are not at play. This may be because lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are less gender conforming, or assumed to be, than heterosexual people. There may also be less pressure to adhere to the same power dynamics that heterosexual spouses tend to follow. At the same time, same-sex couples may feel pressure for their relationships to look similar to heterosexual relationships to combat stereotypes and gain legitimacy.
Understanding how gender conformity influences inequalities is important because these inequalities contribute to poorer relationship quality in marriages. In our recent study in Gender & Society, we wanted to explore how gender conformity shaped perceptions of shared power in same- and different-sex marriages and how these perceptions influenced relationship quality. It is important to expand our understanding of relationship dynamics in same-sex marriages which have received much less research attention than different-sex marriages. However, it is also important to consider how gender conformity shapes power dynamics in heterosexual couples.
We examined survey data collected from both spouses in lesbian, gay, and heterosexual marriages which allows us to consider not only how each spouses’ responses influence their own outcomes, but also how spouses influence their partner’s outcomes. We asked participants to what extent they agreed that their physical appearance and demeanor and interests, hobbies, and skills are typical of someone of their gender. We found that women married to men, men married to women, and men married to men who were more gender conforming believed that their relationships were more equal in terms of how much power they shared. These findings suggest that maintaining masculinity norms is particularly important in relationships involving a male partner. This could be true even among gay men who many would assume have flexibility in gender expression, perhaps because these men want to appear masculine so that their relationship appears more “normal”. Our findings also suggest that power between women and men in different-sex marriages may be seen as more equal when both partners are gender conforming. Considering few heterosexual marriages share power equally between spouses, these couples may perceive greater shared power because their relationship dynamics map onto gender norms and inequalities.
In contrast, we found that gender conformity had little to do with perceptions of shared power among lesbian couples. Inequalities in lesbian marriages may relate to types of femininity we did not measure in our study, such as motherhood roles. These women might also share power by creating relationship dynamics outside normative relationship structures, such as the belief that work inside or outside the home should be divided separately between partners, because there is no male partner in their relationship or because they consider gender less important.
We found that greater perceptions of shared power are better for relationship quality. Though we expected this finding, our work shows that, among women married to men, men married to women, and men married to men, relationship quality may require maintaining gender norms including men’s power in marriages. For different-sex marriages, this finding is in line with research showing that women who believe in traditional gender roles in unequal different-sex marriages have more relationship satisfaction than women who hold egalitarian beliefs in unequal marriages. Finally, we found that partners of men, regardless of their own sex, gender, or gender expression, might need to ensure that the men in their lives perceive there to be shared power in the relationship in order to maintain their own relationship satisfaction. This negotiation of power has the potential to reinforce inequalities in relationships because it is the man’s perception of power that influences their wives’, or husbands’, marital quality. Rather than assuming women and men express gender in conforming ways, we considered how gender conformity is associated with perceptions of power and marital quality to add to our understanding of the ways that gender influences how spouses interact with one another to shape inequalities in marriages.
Amanda M. Pollitt is a NICHD Postdoctoral Fellow at the Population Research Center at the University of Texas-Austin. Her research focuses on the health and wellbeing of sexual and gender minority people across the life course. Currently, she is extending that work into research on intimate relationships.
Brandon Andrew Robinson is a UC Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at UC Riverside. Brandon’s research focuses on gender and sexualities, race and ethnicity, health and HIV/AIDS, and urban poverty and homelessness. Their co-authored book Race & Sexuality is forthcoming with Polity Press.
Debra Umberson is professor of sociology and director of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas-Austin. She studies social ties and health across the life course. Recent work considers marital dynamics and health of same-sex couples and racial disparities in the loss of relationships across the life course.