Breaking gender roles in stereotypical relationship settings sounds easy. But it’s not. Not for all of us. Without realizing it, we can fall back into outdated societal paradigms.
Let me give you a personal example. When I was young and in a fresh relationship, I felt my manliness threatened by the thought of not being handy enough. My parents are both teachers, they’ve never been handy themselves. Therefore, I didn’t learn much of anything in that regard during my childhood.
My girlfriend back in the day came from a very handy family. Her father knew everything, it seemed. So, what did I do? I oversold my competence in handy work. To appear more manly to her. I told her how I had renovated my old place by myself. I assured her of my talents in painting, laying flooring or tiles.
Instead, I could have taken the time to learn those things from my girlfriend or her father. But I was too threatened by this “loss” of manliness to even try.
Where did lying take me? I moved in with my girlfriend a few months later. Time to renovate, right? That backfired quickly. Not surprisingly my girlfriend realized right away that I had no idea what I was doing. However, instead of knocking my “lack” of manliness, she enjoyed teaching me.
Even more so, she loved the idea of me bonding with her father over this learning experience. To be honest, it still felt like I was letting her down in the beginning. But that quickly turned into a deep satisfaction after acquiring the skills and having spent time with her father.
We men are mysterious creatures. As the “strong” sex, we’re all too often overcompensating for our shortcomings.
A 2015 study in the scientific journal “Social Psychology” investigated the effect on male college students with a series of experiments that seemed to threaten their manliness. They identified two basic strategies how men counter this threat:
- Exaggerating their manliness
- Rejecting stereotypical feminine preferences
The made-up bell curve
The scientists from the University of Washington under lead author Sapna Cheryan invited a number of male college students to allegedly participate in an experiment targeting the effect of exertion on decision-making.
After squeezing a handheld device with each hand, the scientists showed a made-up bell curve with reference points for male and female exertion averages and the results of the participants. This graph suggested that their grip was either below average for males — and closer to the lower female counterpart — or within the male average (the control group).
Right afterward, all participants were given a questionnaire asking about height, number of previous relationships, numerous personality traits, and their interest in a variety of products. These study-specific questions were mixed with other random ones, not important for the outcome.
The results of experiment number 1 were surprising. The men that scored lower than average on the contrived bell curve exaggerated in several answers.
Interestingly, height was one of the most played-up traits. A number of men claimed to be on average 3 inches taller than they are. Height is one of the key factors in masculinity, manliness, and male attractiveness.
The men also predominantly overstated the number of sexual or romantic partners, athletic performance, and aggressiveness.
In contrast, the control group — with the men that scored average or above on the made-up graph — didn’t exaggerate their answers.
The masculinity multiple-choice test
In a second experiment, another group of male participants took a multiple-choice masculinity test. This test featured questions about consumer product preferences and personality traits.
To evaluate the validity of their answers, the research team provided them with a “masculinity scale”. A meridian score between 72 and 100 — the latter being the most masculine — was supposed to relate their masculinity scores to other males. Random points — between 26 and 73 — were given to each study participant.
At the end of experiment number 2, the researchers showed a range of products the participating men could receive as compensation for their time.
The men that scored lower on this masculinity scale did not pick products that were “feminine”, i.e. perceived as feminine consumer products, whereas the control group — the men with scores closer to the range of high masculinity at 72 to 100 — remained neutral in their decision.
“This research shows that men are under very strong prescriptive norms to be a certain way, and they work hard to correct the image they project when their masculinity is under threat,” said study co-author Benoît Monin, a professor of organizational behavior and psychology at Stanford University.
This study exemplifies that men react in a certain way under pressure, oftentimes slightly, sometimes harshly overcompensating for a “lack” of manliness. These experiments and results seem amusing for now but there are much more dangerous consequences of this pressure to be manly.
Other studies have shown that men who scored lower on made-up masculinity tests or feel their manliness otherwise threatened have a higher tendency to engage in anger, domestic violence, harassment, or aggression towards other men. This tendency is further amplified in unemployed men where employment and providing for the family is seen as a pillar of manliness.
What this means for relationships
I had to learn that there was no need to oversell my manliness. Manliness is not the things you are but the confidence to acknowledge your flaws and trying to improve. Not so coincidently, femininity means exactly the same. In some aspects, my girlfriend is more manly and I’m more feminine.
In a society where men are supposed to be powerful and strong — or handy in my case — falling short of those attributes can manifest in harmless exaggerations. Or in dangerous reactions under pressure. When it should be an opportunity to grow, instead.
Without downplaying the role each individual man plays in this, we have to rethink this societal stereotype, just as much as we have and still do the stereotype of women in our past and present culture.
It’s time to break the barriers of societal norms, cultural black and white thinking, and gender stereotyping in relationships and elsewhere to make room for equality, self-awareness, and unconditional love.
My girlfriend from back in the day is now my wife and the mother of my children. Her father is my in-law. I’ve learned a lot through both of them in 10 years together. If all that started with a “lack” of manliness, then I’m perfectly fine with not being too manly.