Recent research published in Sex Roles explored the consequences for heterosexual couples who do not follow traditional gender norms where the male is the primary provider. The study’s findings indicate that in role-reversed relationships, the woman is seen as more dominant and agentic, while the man is perceived as weaker. Additionally, women in role-reversed relationships are viewed as less likable, and men in such relationships receive less respect.
The study highlights the ongoing influence of conventional gender norms on relationships and the potential hurdles couples who depart from these norms encounter. The results imply that gender stereotypes in the environment can impact the perceptions of men and women about their partners, potentially leading to negative relationship outcomes.
Despite generational changes in Western societies, conventional gender stereotypes persist, suggesting men prioritize providing for their families while women prioritize nurturing them. Studies indicate that when couples reverse these traditional gender roles, they are likely to experience adverse outcomes such as reduced marital satisfaction, increased likelihood of divorce, and lower relationship quality. As expected, role-reversal couples face more significant relationship challenges in countries that strongly adhere to traditional gender roles.
Melissa Vink and her colleagues sought to examine the underlying mechanisms that account for adverse relationship consequences experienced by partners in role-reversed relationships, particularly in cases where women have achieved a higher social status than their male counterparts. The researchers hypothesized that the degree to which women and men are penalized for violating status norms in role-reversed relationships may elucidate why they encounter more difficulties and are less socially accepted than couples adhering to traditional gender roles.
“Focusing on relationships in which the woman has surpassed her male partner in social status, we draw on the status incongruity hypothesis to argue that these relationships may be more precarious because of the negative perceptions and expectations that people have about the status divisions that run counter to traditional gender norms in role-reversed relationships,” Vink and her colleagues wrote.
The research team explored whether heterosexual couples in role-reversed relationships face potential criticism from others due to the status differences that challenge traditional gender hierarchies. In two studies, the researchers recruited 223 individuals living in the United States and 269 individuals living in the Netherlands to assess how people perceive and evaluate couples who have reversed traditional gender roles.
In a third study, the researchers recruited 94 heterosexual couples in the Netherlands (who had been in a relationship for at least one year) to examine the potential mechanisms that affect relationship quality within role-reversed relationships.
The results indicate that individuals perceived women in role-reversed relationships as more dominant and men as weaker, leading to negative assessments of their relationship quality. In other words, women with a higher status than their male partner are vulnerable to a penalty for dominance, while men with a lower status may face a penalty for weakness. These penalties contribute to the perception that a role-reversed relationship is less fulfilling than a more conventional one.
Perceptions of dominance and weakness were linked to reduced levels of relationship satisfaction within role-reversed couples. The study emphasizes the potential consequences for couples who deviate from conventional gender norms and underscores the continued impact of these norms on relationships.
“Specifically, both men and women in role-reversed relationships perceive the man as the weaker one and the woman as the more dominant one in the relationship,” the researchers explained. “The perception that the man is the weaker one in the relationship may explain, in part, why couples in role-reversed relationships experience lower relationship satisfaction compared to traditional couples.
“These findings are a first indication that at least some backlash may spill over to the couples themselves and that couples in role-reversed relationships experience the negative consequences of deviating from the gender hierarchy when male partners have higher status than female partners.”
The study also examined the protective effect of relative agency for women. The perception that the woman is more agentic in a role-reversed relationship led to more favorable impressions of her, with individuals expressing greater liking and respect for her than women in equal status or traditional relationships. It is only when men’s status is perceived as weaker that there are consequences for relationship satisfaction.
This study provides clues to the persistence of gender norms in cultures where genders are equal under the law. Vink and her colleagues concluded, “Overall, these findings suggest that backlash effects for role-reversed, heterosexual relationships are another way in which the gender hierarchy is protected and why traditional gender roles are persistent and difficult to change.”
The study, “Penalized for challenging traditional gender roles: why heterosexual relationships in which women wear the pants may be more precarious“, was authored by Melissa Vink, Belle Derks, Naomi Ellemers, Tanja van der Lippe.