Double standards and Double binds: how gender stereotypes hurt our relationships

In this post I’m going to ask you to question some of your assumptions about men and women. I’ll confess that my ears perk up and I become skeptical whenever I hear someone tell me something like “you know how women are” or “he’s just a typical man.” These often set up unfair double standards and impossible double binds. I’ll share a few reasons I think these types of statements are problematic.

  • First, they are too general. When I’m working with a couple, we’re talking about the specifics of their relationship. “How men are” or “how women are” doesn’t matter as much as who these two individuals are. Maybe most men and women really are like the stereotypes say or maybe they’re not at all. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is how the two of you build your relationship and life together, accommodating to your individual personalities and strengths.
  • Second, they are often negative and critical. I’ve written elsewhere about the damaging effects of criticism. Saying that your spouse is “one of those” stereotypical men or women carries with it a lot of negativity and blame. And that’s damaging to relationships.
  • Third, they can be used as excuses. We may bring these things up in our own defense as a way of avoiding responsibility for our behavior. “I’m just a dumb guy.” “I was being irrational again.”
  • Fourth, they often carry with them impossible double binds and unfair double standards.

What’s the big deal?

A double standard is where different sets of rules apply to different people; what’s okay for me isn’t okay for you. The presence of double standards are often bad-news for relationships. They are unfair and invite resentment and frustration. A double bind is a no-win—damned if you do, damned if you don’t—situation. No one likes to be in one of those, especially not when it’s our partner that puts us there.

To be clear, I believe most people who place double standards on their partners (or themselves) or who put their partners in double binds do so unintentionally. That’s why I’m bringing these ideas to your attention. You may not realize the rough spot you are putting your partner in and their emotional reaction doesn’t make sense to you. Learning to recognize and change some of your assumptions may make your conflict discussions go better and may even help you get closer as a couple.

Examples: Double standards

  • Women who want to snuggle are affectionate. Men who want to snuggle are needy.
  • A married woman without a job is a homemaker. A married man without a job is a failure.
  • A man who speaks his opinion is strong and passionate. A woman who speaks her opinion is bitchy and shrill.
  • A woman who raises kids is ‘natural.’ A man who raises kids can’t find something meaningful to do.
  • Men who like sex are admired and powerful. Women who like sex are sluts and whores.
  • A woman who cries is in touch with her feelings. A man who cries is weak.
  • A woman who gets angry is irrational. A man who gets angry knows and gets what he wants.

Even if you read some of these and think they are true, remember what I said at the beginning of this post about the general and the specific. We are all human and capable of feeling the full range of human emotions. Women get angry and have opinions, just like men. Men have emotional needs, have sensitive spots, and get moody, just like women.

Sometimes when we step outside of our ideas about how men are and how women are, we see our partners more fully. We see them as complex human beings. This isn’t some ‘needy man;’ it’s Mat. He’s my best friend and likes to feel touch. This isn’t some ‘irrational woman;’ it’s Terri. She’s my partner and my inspiration; she’s passionate and feels things deeply.

Mentally switching genders can help identify unfair double standards. Try this if you’re not sure when you’re doing it. If your best buddy or your brother said the same things your wife is saying, would you interpret it any different? If your closest girl friend was saying what your husband is saying right now, would your reactions change?

Examples: Double binds

  • Tell me how you feel. & Be a man. Don’t be a sissy.
  • Be my protector and provider. I need you to be strong for me. & Why won’t you show emotion? You never say what’s bothering you.
  • Just tell me how you feel. & Don’t be so emotional.
  • Just say what you want. & Don’t be so demanding.

Any of the above situations is a lose-lose. We send mixed messages. I want you to be tough and strong but then I’m frustrated that you don’t ever show a softer side. I want you to be open and direct with me but then I call you argumentative or demanding when you say what you want. Again, it’s our assumptions about how men and women are ‘supposed’ to be that cause us problems here.

We can either have our ‘perfect’ mate or we can have an intimate relationship with our partners but not both. Allowing each other space to be full and complex people opens the opportunity for us to know each other better, to love each other more fully, and to allow our relationships to benefit from the strengths each individual brings.

If you’d like individualized help getting out of double standards and double binds, give me a call at 951-999-7775. I’d love to work with you.

Double standards and Double binds: how gender stereotypes hurt our relationships
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