Navigating Traditional Gender Roles: Where they come from and the impact on a relationship

What are traditional gender roles and how are they learned?

When most people think of traditional gender roles, they might picture a “Leave It To Beaver” family with a stay-at-home wife who keeps a perfectly clean house and has dinner on the table when her husband gets home from work. Gender roles, are more complex than just that though, they are the actions and attitudes we adopt regarding our genders, based on learned and perceived expectations from external sources.  According to Alice Eagly, men are generally thought to have agentic and self-assertive traits— competent, assertive, independent, and achievement oriented. Women, on the other hand are thought to be perceived as more communal— warm, selfless, emotionally expressive, and relationship oriented. These perceptions can lead to inequalities in the workforce and at home.

Common male gender norms include working a labor intensive job, mowing the lawn, fixing the car, or playing catch with the children.

Common female gender norms include being a stay at home mom, meal planning & preparation, or folding the laundry.

Typically speaking, gender identity is developed in early childhood. At an early age we realize  “I am a boy.” or, “I am a girl.” Of course, we are told this by our parents, siblings and caregivers from very early on, but it is in the toddler years when we can identify that our gender is different from that of another person’s. We begin to notice the subtle differences between how boys are treated and girls are treated, store this information, and recall it in later years. There are several ways we learn this information, from picking up on cues from our parents, friendships, and other caregivers to modeling behavior we see on television shows and in movies. We begin to make our own rules regarding how we should act as boys or girls, and even how we should behave in our relationships.

Credit: John Mark Smith
Credit: John Mark Smith

How do gender roles affect your relationships?

So, how do gender roles affect most American marriages? Historically speaking, it meant women stayed at home, cared for her husband and children, kept the house, and took care of other domestic duties, while men were the breadwinners and decision makers. As women have started entering the workforce, however, that tradition is slowly becoming something of the past. It is more common now for men and women to equally split domestic responsibilities and for women to have a final word on important decisions. Studies still conclude, however, that even when both partners of a marriage work full time, women still perform the bulk of household work and childcare. This is because of learned gender norms, and the perceived personality traits of women. As women, we are perceived to be more inclined to notice when something needs to be done, and to do it without having to be asked or reminded like folding the laundry or vacuuming the carpet. Women are also perceived as being natural caregivers, and the unpaid work done at home is one way that we can take care of our spouses.

In some marriages, men and women have found an even balance and can split responsibilities in a way they feel is fair. This is something that most couples consider and talk about before getting married to set expectations and ensure both parties are on the same page. Sharing the chore load is also something that ebbs and flows depending upon several factors which will probably change over the years. Consider if you travel for work, your spouse will manage the household while you are gone, but if your spouse gets sick, you will take care of his responsibilities until he is well again. 

In many marriages, however, women still shoulder the burden of unpaid work, and can become overwhelmed, burned out and resentful. It is nearly impossible for one person to work fulltime, manage all childcare and household responsibilities, maintain a healthy marriage, social life, hobbies and various other obligations. It is vital for both parties of a marriage to assume responsibility for unpaid labor that is required in running a home.

Credit: Sydney Sims
Credit: Sydney Sims

What is emotional labor?

Emotional labor is a term that is starting to become more popular among many women. Emotional labor is the term used to describe the burden of having to control your emotions for the benefit of someone else. Consider careers where you must put your own feelings aside to ensure a better experience for a customer or client— food, hospitality, and customer service industries are most notable. Keeping a happy and peaceful demeanor is, of course, a part of the job in these instances, and most employees are able to maintain genuine feelings of happiness during their shifts, letting a negative experience with a customer simply roll off their backs.

Now consider other careers where the emotional labor might be more difficult to bear— teaching, social work or nursing, or being a stay at home parent, for example. The emotional labor can prove to be exhausting for people in industries like these because of the extent to which the emotional labor can affect you.

Initially, emotional labor was thought to only affect you at work, and mostly only affect people in customer or patient focused careers.That thought has shifted though, and we are realizing more and more that emotional labor is something most people bear on a daily basis, either at work, in life, or at home. We deal with emotional labor without thinking about it, and unless we ask for help, other people don’t typically think to help carry the load.

Now, let’s think about  some circumstances where you might take on emotional labor in a career that doesn’t require putting others first, or even outside of work Think about if you find yourself doing any of the following:

  • Planning birthday parties, baby showers, or other events for coworkers or friends
  • Putting together holiday events such as a gift swap or potluck
  • Taking a coworker or friend out to drinks when they are stressed
  • Remembering your spouse’s parents birthday gifts
  • Avoiding the office creep instead of reporting him to HR to avoid causing drama
  • Not telling your friend when she hurt your feelings
  • Answering the phone when your mom calls even if it is a bad time.

All of these are examples of emotional labor, and you’ve probably carried the burden of at least one of them in your life. Some of these are more obvious than others. Avoiding the office creep and choosing not to report him to HR is an obvious display of putting your own feelings aside to benefit someone else, but what about planning parties, or taking your coworkers out when they’ve been stressed? These are much more subtle ways that we take on emotional labor. While planning a party is fun, it can be stressful and time consuming— it’s worth it though, right? So that your work friends are happy?

Credit: Jeff Sheldon
Credit: Jeff Sheldon

How does emotional labor affect me or my relationship?  

Emotional labor is remembering all the things that have to get done, all the small stuff that people don’t always notice, and doing things you’ll never be thanked for. If we take a moment to think back to gender roles, we’ll realize that it is most common for women to take on most of the emotional labor in a relationship because of perceived gender norms.  We have been conditioned to think that men are forgetful, bad at cleaning, or lazy while watching the children. We are taught that women can juggle 100 things at once, and still keep a spotless home. 

Did we ever stop to think that maybe we can juggle 100 things at once is because we have to?

The other part of emotional labor in a relationship deals with actual emotions and processing your partner’s emotions, as well as your own. Many women feel they need to avoid certain topics to keep the peace in their home, they don’t bring up the hurtful things their husband said, how he ‘forgot’ their anniversary, again. Having to bear the responsibility of maintaining a healthy emotional relationship is emotional labor— it is something that should be shared but often is not.

No one person can keep up with all the small details of life, and work full time, keep the peace in the marriage, and do all of it flawlessly. This will inevitably lead to exhaustion, burn-out, and resentment.

Check out our Tips To Help Your Partner Understand Emotional Labor

Credit: Andrik Langfield
Credit: Andrik Langfield

Understanding traditional gender roles and how they play a part in carrying emotional labor can make a huge difference in your life. Now that we know that gender norms assign us with certain tasks and responsibilities simply because of perceived traits, we can start to undo a lot of damage we’ve done by taking on too much.  Realizing how much extra weight you carry around to benefit others, and just how much extra work you put on yourself can be extremely eye opening. Asking your partner for help carrying this burden may not be an easy task, but opening up and letting him help you out will not only strengthen your relationship, but help you start becoming a team. Working together to tackle all of life’s tiny details and navigate bigger issues will enable you to both live a happier, stress free life.

About the author: Amanda Young
I am passionate about empowering women through my experiences, stories, and writing. I'm happily married to my husband of six years, and enjoy spending time with him and our two dogs in my free time.

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