Not to brag, but for my wife’s birthday last year, I got her an incredible gift. A month or two prior, she had passively mentioned that she really liked the idea of getting a record player, and that she was tired of our listening to music on our phones while chilling out in our apartment. My solution was acquiring a sweet audio system that included a record player, CD player, radio, and AUX input. She cried; that’s how well it went over.
The next day, we decided to try it out, plugging in my phone to listen to a little Christina Aguilera while she shopped online for vinyl. I hopped over, ready to direct the whole operation of setting up cables and dials, despite the fact that it was her gift, which she wanted to figure out.
Her response to me more or less amounted to, “Darling, stop being such a dude about this.”
Those aren’t comfy words for me to hear. They flash me back to my father taking building projects and maintenance tasks out of my hands because I was his very non-masculine son who clearly wouldn’t be able to handle that sort of work.
My reaction, the only appropriate reaction, was an apology. I backed off and went back to my writing, because while my wife doesn’t have my years of A/V training or experience with complicated electronics or any of my other personal traits that sprang to my mind as counter-arguments, she doesn’t need them to set up a basic audio device. It just isn’t that complicated. She did just fine with it.
In the spirit of reflecting on this encounter, it’s time the heterosexual couples among us interrogate the gender roles we’ve been socialized into in our relationships. Here are three ways to challenge those norms in the hope of cultivating more equitable power dynamics.
1. Divide Up Household Tasks
Both my wife and I grew up with traditional gender roles modeled in our families. We had fathers who lectured and fixed things and were at times stingy with money and affection. We had mothers who coddled and did most of the cooking and at times didn’t work while their husbands did, despite being arguably more qualified or educated.
When I initially sat down to ponder where we as a decidedly progressive couple have diverged our relationship dynamics away from these influences, I realized that a lot of the discussion seems to be tied to very surface-level matters. It can be easy to look at a heterosexual couple and say that because the husband does most of the cooking or the wife makes the bulk of the money (two truths about our household), they’re a lot more enlightened or advanced than their forebears.
Unfortunately, it’s rarely that easy. A couple can trade domestic tasks all they want, but that doesn’t mean a husband has let go of the societal expectation to be a “head of household” and all the toxic elements that coincide with that. It also doesn’t mean a wife has completely purged all internalized messages from growing up in a patriarchy: that she should defer and be demure, that her well-being should be the first sacrifice made for the maintenance of a happy home.
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The division of household tasks is important because the macro environment is absolutely determined by the micro environment. Unlike a home in which factors like availability of time, opportunity, knowledge, or physical ability dictate tasks, one in which day-to-day burdens are left unexamined and divided by gender is inherently unequal.
This was one of the easier splits for me and my wife: we divide most chores pretty much down the middle, with the other stepping up when there is a deadline, illness, or other obstacle. My wife does the dusting because she hates the laundry, and I do the laundry because I hate the dusting. These are the least complicated of our compromises.
2. Recognize and Intervene in Unfair Gendered Power Dynamics
My wife and I dated for the better part of a decade before actually getting married, so I had a delightfully infuriating front-row seat to all of the instances in which friends, family, and perfect strangers asked her, not me, when we were going “seal the deal,” “take the plunge,” “get on with it,” and so on. Because of this, she admitted that my proposal was a relief to her, even as we’ve both agreed that had we attempted to marry earlier, we probably wouldn’t have been as strong as we are now.
The funny part about the pressures associated with gender roles is that they don’t really go away once you follow their path; they simply shift. Marriage is emphasized as an end goal in so many heteronormative narratives, especially for women — and what follows is not the freedom of “happily ever after,” but rather new constraints imposed by marital expectations.
Whether it’s the Bible or an episode of The King of Queens, wives are expected to be the endlessly patient and supportive partners as their husbands do the important stuff. Our internalization of this damaging narrataive can lead to debilitating shame. Even moving past the obviously outdated belief that a wife must be a housemaid or cook in her household, there is still the expectation she will be a cheerleader, a sex kitten, even a motherly coddler.
Men need to do the work to recognize when we’re buying into these dynamics, even unwittingly or subconsciously, so we can stop.
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3. Create a Partnership of Equals
The most radical act of subverting gender roles in my marriage is the staunchness with which we treat our partnership as one of equals, in which we remain our own individuals.
Many couples call themselves partners with too little regard for what true partnership looks like. It is being a pair of individuals who work together, rather than being some machine made of two parts that must each perform certain tasks within the mechanism to function.
We all make happy awww noises when couples say during their weddings and their anniversary dinners that their partner is the rock upon which they’ve built their lives. If this is a poetic nicety, there’s no harm in it. If the metaphor is too applicable, though, there’s a problem. The husband who says this of his wife is possibly relying on her ingrained gender roles at her expense. The wife who says this of her husband may be allowing him to indulge himself in a dominant, often toxic role as the head of their lives.
By remaining individuals, however, and in keeping our mental well-being a priority, we can better function as a couple. A true partnership has no mechanical designations for roles and duties; it is a pair of self-aware people working and struggling to bolster one another, rather than sinking to hold afloat the other.
Challenging gender roles has much less to do with trading stereotypical expectations and more to do with throwing them out entirely. And sad as it may be, it’s possibly the most difficult — yet worthwhile — challenge a heterosexual marriage can take on.
[Headline Feature: A grey scale photo of two people whose eyes are closed peacefully as they lovingly embrace. The person on the left has long dark wavy hair, while the person on the right has short dark hair and a dark shirt. Source: Jerry OConnor]