Understanding Gender Roles and Their Effect On Our Relationships

Father and little daughter cleaning the living room together
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While they ought to be outdated, there are certain molds that men and women are traditionally taught and pressured to fit into: A man is strong and takes financial care of the family, while a woman is nurturing and takes emotional care of everyone.

Men take out the trash, and women do the dishes. Men pay for dinner, and women take care of the children. Men make straightforward, unemotional decisions, and women fret and follow along.

These are but a few of the many gender roles that perpetuate in society, forcing people into small boxes and frustrating dynamics. These ideals of how a person should behave based on their gender can harm an individual’s mental health and relationships as a whole. 

“Gender roles can have a significant impact on our relationships by creating power imbalances and limiting our ability to express ourselves authentically,” says Satadeepa Som, a psychologist and sexual wellness therapist at Allo Health, India’s first dedicated sexual health clinic. “When we internalize traditional gender roles, we may feel pressure to conform to certain expectations of how men and women should behave in relationships. This can lead to frustration, resentment, and a lack of intimacy.” 

Identifying, understanding, and challenging gender roles aids in dismantling their power and removing their limitations from existing and future relationships. To that end, here’s what you need to know about gender roles, how they limit people, and the importance of breaking them down. 

What are gender roles?

“Gender roles are not biologically determined,” says Som. “Gender roles are socially constructed and can vary widely between different societies and cultures.”

At their core, gender roles are an arbitrary set of characteristics society believes each person should embody based on their gender. For men, this often means foregoing emotion in favor of a big wallet and a strong presence. Women are supposed to be subdued, emotional, and caring, with an underlying subservience to the men in their lives. 

Gender roles based in patriarchy, a system of social, legal, economic, political, and cultural practices that position men as the dominant social group, have been shaped and further emphasized in a myriad of places around the world.

Cultural beliefs throughout time have reinforced the part of men as the provider and women as the homemaker in spaces such as religious and educational institutions and in government bodies, says Som.

Societal norms have reflected the teachings of these establishments, with families, peers, and the media following “unwritten rules about what is considered acceptable behavior for men and women in a particular society or culture.” Everything, from television to magazines, has also helped curate how women and men “should” each act. 

Traditional ideology separates men’s and women’s tasks as they have historically been treated—men are the breadwinner, and women are the caregiver. An egalitarian stance, on the other hand, seeks to remove gender as any determination of who takes on what tasks. In the middle, where much of society, consciously or unconsciously lives, is something known as transitional ideology, the man is the breadwinner, but he also supports the woman in household tasks. 

How gender roles are limiting

Feminist movements throughout the 20th century fought for gender equality and women's rights. Feminists call attention to and address a number of issues affecting women and girls around the world and advocate ending sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression to achieve full gender equality in law and practice.

This resulted in significant and important changes.White women were granted the right to vote in 1920, Black women gained the right to vote in 1965, and women began wearing pants, getting graduate degrees, holding full-time jobs, and, overall, becoming more independent with greater freedom, choices, and opportunities.

Over the past two decades, activists have continued to push for an extinction of gender roles and a society in which people are defined by who they are, not the gender they are. Progress exists but is still slow, with many people inclined to default to and protect gender roles and keep people in small boxes. 

To this day, the ways in which gender roles can impact people are endless. Regardless of if a person thinks these stereotypes are helping them or making them look tough or caring, being forced into a box based on your gender is incredibly limiting and can cause a range of repercussions.

According to Rebecca Minor, LICSW, a gender specialist and part-time faculty at Boston University specializing in the intersection of gender and sexuality, three major areas where this is the case are job choices, emotional expression, and household responsibilities.

There are certainly many men who love finance and many women who want to be a teacher or an artist. But there are also lots of women who love math and men who want to instill lessons into young minds.

It’s not wrong for a person to want a job that falls within their traditional gender role, as long as they have the option to do any they please—and get paid equally for it. Without that opportunity, a person can get stuck in a job their entire life that is in no way related to their passions. 

Emotionally, men are told that they shouldn’t dare have any sensitive emotions, and if they do, they better bottle them up quickly. Women can be emotional and nurturing, but they’re not allowed to be strong or powerful. “These expectations can hinder individuals from expressing their emotions authentically, leading to emotional suppression and strained relationships,” says Minor. 

Regardless of if women work, household tasks and child caring are often left to them. If the man makes more money (which is not always the case and ignores the pay gap), why should they help out at home? If they do, some people still view it as demeaning or unusual. 

Gender roles can also have a tremendously negative impact on a person’s mental health. “Oppressive gender roles and stereotypes can have a negative impact on mental health by creating feelings of shame, self-doubt, and low self-esteem,” says Som. “When individuals are unable to meet society’s expectations of how they should behave based on their gender, they may feel isolated, misunderstood, and even punished.” As a result, individuals might develop a sense of failure, anxiety, stress, or depression. 

Breaking down gender norms for healthier relationships

Dating and relationships often prove to be the ultimate test for gender roles. They create this idea that there is a “right” and “wrong” way for each person to behave in a relationship when all that matters is their character and compatibility. “Traditional gender roles can also limit our ability to express ourselves authentically in relationships,” says Som.

Not only are gender roles in relationships archaic, but many people are not even in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship. “Gender roles can reinforce stereotypes and lead to discrimination and oppression,” says Som. “For example, LGBTQ+ individuals may face discrimination in relationships and society based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. This can create feelings of isolation and impact mental health.”

When we let go of these unnecessary ideas of how a person should act in a relationship, it creates space for a healthy, supportive relationship. “Breaking down gender roles allows individuals to communicate openly and honestly about their needs, desires, and emotions without fear of judgment or reprisal,” says Minor.

“This leads to more effective and empathetic communication, fostering greater understanding and connection between partners.” It also provides space for people to pursue their interests, work on power imbalances generated by society, and create an intimate, healthy space for the relationship to grow. 

1 Source
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  1. Somech, A., & Drach-Zahavy, A. (2016). Gender role ideology. In A. Wong, M. Wickramasinghe, renee hoogland, & N. A. Naples (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies (pp. 1–3). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118663219.wbegss205