Coupled and Gender Troubled
I am keenly aware human beings are unique individuals, and I love this fact. I love learning about people’s stories because they show how we each have beautiful combinations of strengths, weaknesses, insecurities and confidences. I also love how these things weave into the ways we each uniquely perceive ourselves and express ourselves to the world.
In spite of the socializing forces for various human identifiers (women, white people, college graduates, queer people, etc.) we move through the world as distinct people with some degree of individuality. And yet, despite this individuality as people, our relationship dynamics do not always reflect this. The relationships around me so often begin in similar ways, have similar problems throughout them, and end somewhat identically.
A few examples:
Girl should let guy pursue her more than she’s supposed to pursue him (initially).
Guy gives girl jacket if they’re in a cold environment.
Girl does most of the housework, while guy helps her out with the housework.
Guy deals with matters related to the car.
Girl expresses and communicates her emotions more than guy.
Guy cuddles girl and is most often the big spoon.
Guy tops in bed.
Guy’s sexual needs are prioritized in bed.
Guy proposes to girl.
Guy tells girl he’s “emotionally unavailable” and leaves her.
I obviously have not captured every facet of relationships in these examples, but I think that at least a few of them resonate with relationships many of us or our friends have been in. The fact that these gendered dynamics are so relatable shows how similar our romantic relationships can be, and perhaps the importance of noticing these similarities that exist despite the uniqueness of people. These commonalities then must have little to do with the individuals in the relationships and must more so be a result of an overarching cultural phenomenon we are taught to subscribe to, in some cases subconsciously, from a young age.
I believe couple dynamics can be so similar because of the overarching phenomenon of socially constructed gender roles and how people behave in certain ways in the presence of individuals of particular identities. Persons born male are taught to behave in dominating and assertive ways, as well in less emotional and self-expressing ways. On the other hand, persons born female are taught to behave in the opposite way of men. The many men and women behaving in ways pushing back against these norms, however, have proven time and time again that men and women are not naturally like this. The media, family, schools, books and religious institutions are some of the many forces that push people to behave in particular ways based off of their sex. This contributes to common dynamics in relationships— because when two individuals of opposite gender expressions interact with each other for the first time, they do so in a way that is in accordance with how they have been differently socialized.
However, this does not fully explain the commonalities across relationships. The way my girl friends interact with me or other girls is different than how they interact with guys. Not only are we socialized to behave certain ways based off of our sex, but we are also socialized to behave in particular ways when interacting with individuals of opposite gender expressions. These interactions reinforce our socialization as girls and guys further. Since guys and girls are taught to behave in ways that inhabit opposite ends of binaries (passive/assertive, emotionless/emotional, sexual/not sexual), their interactions push them further into their socially constructed gender roles. This socialization process is incredibly pervasive and maintained by immense social pressure. One of many examples of this is the way that gendered toys teach children which behaviors are acceptable for girls and boys. Trucks and action figures encourage boys to be louder and take up more space, whereas dolls and plastic kitchens encourage girls to be quieter and take up limited space relative to their boy counterparts.
Even as someone who has long been aware of these social forces, I was not immune to them initially playing a large role in my relationship with my girlfriend— after all, same-sex couples are not entirely immune from gendered relationship dynamics. Though two women or two men in a relationship have both been socialized in similar ways, often times same-sex couples still experience a level of social pressure to have one individual embody a more masculine role and the other to embody a more feminine role. This social pressure put a palpable strain on our relationship. We reached a point where we decided we were not fulfilling ourselves or each other as best we could because we were trying to shove ourselves into the gender role binary. We had fallen into feminine and masculine roles when it came to paying for dates, cuddling, dancing in clubs, which person should propose when it’s time, and even chores around the apartment. Especially considering that we were two girls, we knew that it did not make much sense for us to keep doing this.
Ever since this realization, my girlfriend and I have tried to reimagine how we want to perform gender as a couple. Taking up a queerer approach, I didn’t lose my self-defined femininity, and my partner didn’t lose her self-defined masculinity; now, we focus more on how we want to interact based off of our wants and needs. Sometimes I enjoy holding my girlfriend, and sometimes she enjoys being held, so we communicate with each other. I recognize this may seem trivial, but this example demonstrates the communication that goes into not letting outside gender roles dictate how we interact.
This type of communication does not ensure that every want is always fulfilled. This communication requires negotiation and compromise that strengthens us as a couple. I also recognize this can seem difficult to do for some, especially for more masculine-identifying people because we are taught to predicate masculinity on power. However, the greater fulfillment my girlfriend and I have experienced in doing this has only made our relationship stronger and us more fulfilled as individuals.
So I urge you to reexamine how you perform gender when in a relationship. How socially constructed do you and your partner allow your gender expression as a couple to be? And how socially constructed do you want to be?
Maya Glenn is a Gender and Sexuality Studies major and a Sociological Research minor at Northwestern University. She is concerned with issues of intersectional politics and marginalized communities. She is currently working on a research project with Dr. Jennifer C. Nash about non-compliancy and black mothers. When not in a gender studies class, you can find her dancing with Northwestern’s Refresh Dance Crew.
(Graphic by Emma Kumer)