Tackling Sexism in Relationships

by | June 2, 2014
filed under Feminism

Black and white photo of couple sitting on bench looking over a city

Although sexism may be one of the most significant issues women face in their lifetimes, only a handful of girls and women receive training about the basics. Lack of education on the topic prevents women from identifying and calling out sexist patterns and makes them vulnerable to accept oppressive behaviour.

One of the most delicate contexts in which heterosexual women face sexism is in relationships. Even in the best cases, with genuinely nice guys, tackling the impact of systemic sexism in a relationship may be an uphill battle: from identifying the problem, to articulating how it affects the partnership and finally, to being heard. Let’s face it, unless two partners were born somewhere other than Earth, they probably haven’t escaped the patriarchal training that each of us receives from birth.

Disputes with partners can be confusing and disappointing, even for women who are familiar with power struggle dynamics. Many women blame themselves, viewing these disagreements as a personal shortcoming in “being a good woman.” But if carefully analyzed, relationship arguments around a range of issues – finances, housework, childcare, meeting or not meeting partners’ expectations and needs – can be linked back to deep-seated patterns of male supremacy.

This ingrained patriarchal training was not obvious to me in my early twenties, before I immigrated to Canada. In my first few years of living here, I was grappling with assimilating to a new system of beliefs, one in which women had considerably more power than what I was accustomed to in my country of birth, Macedonia.

My first memory of noticing the difference—and thus becoming aware of my internalized sexism—was when I tried to stop my then-boyfriend from cooking for me, probably because I had never seen my father cook. In my childhood, the role of cook was one solely reserved for women.

The Barriers to Identifying Sexism in Relationships

Undeniably, the life that women live in North America can offer empowering opportunities. However, Western countries have their own way of keeping patriarchy alive and operational in society, as well as in intimate relationships.

To start with, many North American women perceive their relationships as equal because society teaches us that several waves of feminism took care of sexism and that we are now liberated: we can work and we can have family, we can have sex with whomever we wish, and so on. This attitude makes it difficult to identify gender inequality in the first place.

Another barrier is the lack of theoretical framework to put into words when women feel they are being targeted by sexism. When we do have the intellectual framework and common language with which to articulate sexism, it can still be difficult to verbalize the issue for fear that our views might not be given credibility.

Ways Sexism Manifests in Relationships

Meme photo of Don Draper from Mad Men throwing up his hands and the caption: "They way women's work is never done; maybe that's why they get paid less."

One of the most obvious effects of sexism is income inequality. Even today, it is all too common for a woman to be the lower income-earner in the relationship¹. There are two interesting questions related to this issue: why might be women earning less, and what can they do to balance wealth distribution in a relationship.

One of the reasons why women might earn less than their male partners is due to the wide-spread belief that if earning more will have negative effects on the relationship, such as less happiness, more arguments and higher separation chances. This is why women might choose to date men who are earning more than themselves².

Second, if a woman is already making less than her partner it is important to ensure that she participates in the mutual expenses proportionally to her income. However, in striving for equality, the pressure on women to participate equally is increasing, regardless of the fact that our incomes are still lower than mens’.

This attitude is making it tricky to deliberately seek income redistribution within the relationship without being pegged for an opportunist. Discussing an arrangement of this type might be more accepted in a marriage, rather than when dating or in a newer relationship.

After my partner was on board with the idea that pay inequality in our relationship fell into a pattern of sexism, we agreed that we would offset this gap by changing the fraction of financial contributions we were making towards our mutual costs.

Another common manifestation of sexism in a relationship is when a couple is faced with relocating to another city, which usually happens because the male partner is pursuing an employment opportunity. When I first moved across the country to follow my partner for an academic job, I was invited to a “meet and greet” where I could learn about the city and meet other partners of new faculty at the university.

Among the 30 people who came, only one was a man. It was a room full of women from all over the world who had put their male partners’ careers first. After catching up with some of them, I learned that like myself, they had not only left behind their careers but also enriching friendships, communities and for some, their entire families.

One other pervasive sexist aspect of conventional heterosexual relationships is housework. Chores seem like a petty thing to bring up when discussing sexism, but unequal division of labour in the relationship may mean that the woman has less time to invest in her own development and career.  While most husbands on the average contribute 15.7 hours, wives spend 24.6 hours on the same chores (cooking, doing laundry, indoor cleaning and buying groceries)³.

However, even this unequal participation in household labour, often leads men to believe that they are doing their part, leaving to women the leadership role, such as planning and prompting, around household obligations. When a male partner doesn’t proactively think about their share of the chores and frequently lets it slip off his radar, this is also passive sexist behaviour.

Disagreements are normal in relationships. This might be one of the reasons why it may be difficult to notice when sexism creeps into interactions. There are days when I am more perceptive of the ways in which my partner may control the discussion with opposition and domination, but there are also days when I am tired of standing up for what I perceive to be a reciprocal and compassionate exchange of ideas.

Just think about the many times when your partner volunteers to “improve” your ideas, work and lifestyle. It might be reasonable to let them off the hook if they are influencing your thinking occasionally, but watch out for recurring patterns.

Baby Steps to Tackling Relationship Sexism

Even for women who are attuned to the subtle sexist patterns they face daily, it may be hard to keep  pointing them out, because they’ve learned it can lead to being pegged as “nagging” or “angry”.

Should you decide that addressing the effects of patriarchy and sexist behaviours in your relationship is a battle worth your time, intelligence and effort, teaching your partner about male privilege and dominance will most certainly be a long-term project that needs patience and deliberateness. It is also a project that requires a great deal of trust in one another’s intentions.

During the first year of my present relationship, I spent time building trust and getting to know my partner’s beliefs and values. When I was certain that I wanted to be with him for the long term, I knew I had to invest in teaching him about the subtleties of sexism, if I was to be mindful about my personal wellbeing. I then set out to challenge his sexist behaviours that, to my understanding, had never been challenged productively before.

Tackling sexism in relationships requires commitment and fierce development of a woman’s own knowledge, tact and diplomacy. When we talk about sexism with our partners we need to use language they are more likely to respond well to. I found my initial approach of stating things with a lot of passion proved ineffective. It was also difficult to articulate the issues without feeling defensive and hurt. But, I had to contradict my internalized sexist conditioning that told me to give up when things become difficult. Eventually, I taught myself how to level with my partner from a position of power and strength, rather than as a victim.

The most valuable lesson I can share is that stating a clear difference between sexism and men goes a long way. Most men are not aware when their behaviour is dominating, nor do they purposely hold sexist beliefs. Ensuring that your partner understands that men are not the problem, but rather the agent of oppression, may dissolve the us/them dynamic and gain you a committed ally with whom you could fight the patriarchal system for the benefit of both of you, and all people on the planet.


¹Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, “Wives who earn more than their husbands, 1987–2011,” Annual Averages (2012).

² Bertrand, Kamenica, and Pan. 2013. Gender identity and relative income within households. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 19023. p. 23-24.

³ Bertrand, Kamenica, and Pan. 2013. Gender identity and relative income within households. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 19023. p. 27 – 28.

Photo credit: Granada!!! =oP / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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  • Roxanna Bennett

    This is great, thank you for writing this. It’s often difficult to pinpoint and identify problematic behaviours in an intimate partnership.

    I understand exactly what you mean when you say that women need to use tact and diplomacy (having learned to use this method of communication effectively in my own life), I feel uncomfortable with the idea that women “have” to use that language. While I know it is a valid communication tool there’s something about the onus and burden of educating a partner. Or perhaps I’ve spent too much time online where I see feminists being asked to explain themselves over and over again, to “teach” whomever is playing Devil’s Advocate that day. I know that strangers on the internet are very different than a partner you choose to share a life with, it’s still a daunting task.

    I think this is a really good conversation and that this post is an excellent way to begin to deconstruct and have a dialogue with this dynamic.

  • Aeksandra N.

    Hi Roxanna,

    That’s a great point. I thought it would come up. I agree with you – Taking the time to teaching our partners about their oppressor material, plays directly into the oppression. I don’t believe that we ‘have to’ use that language always, and especially not if we are working to create awareness around sexism in other contexts (e.g. workplace). But I certainly think that if you want to tackle sexism in the relationship, to begin with, when you are first introducing the idea, you will have to be more thoughtful of how you approach it. Obviously, some women might decide this is not worth their time and effort, which I completely understand, this was the case with me as well for a long time and quite frankly it still is sometimes. I sort of approach to ‘teach’ men about their domination patterns, on case by case basis. Usually, there has to be something in it for me, for example, if I know that person is influential and can make a difference in their workplace, or they are a policy maker. It is so interesting and extremely fulfilling to see my partner put this knowledge / awareness into action in his workplace, and be an ally / supporter of women’s interests.

    Again, just one of the ways doing things :) I do hope for more discussion on this topic and I am curious to learn about other approaches. We can learn a great deal from each other!

  • Nicki B

    You wrote a great article here. I especially loved your point about the pay gap playing a role in perpetuating internal sexism, and how to how to intentionally re-distribute the financial contributions knowing this — while not feeling that if you don’t contribute the same amount, you don’t get to have the same amount of say in the decision making process. It must be pretty tough, though, trying to quantify your jobs duties versus pay ratio, and then compare them to each other. (Especially if you have had different educations, different work experience, different work ethic, etc. – while being able to differentiate from gender inequality/opportunities.)I’m in the same boat, except I got lucky – my husband went to my college and we’ve had the same amount of jobs/internships. (We can quantify pay grades of career fields in each with the average male pay. I suppose at some point you do need to become accountable for the fact that you chose your career and might possibly not earn as much because of that.)

    I do wonder, though: You said you waited about a year to start introducing your partner to his incidental sexism. Is there a reason you waited so long? I know you said you are careful with your words (which I think is more about decency, tact, and basic-human productive conversation rather than continuing to be oppressed by sexism). It sort of seems (excuse my wording) like a bait-and-switch. I don’t mean to sound rude or insensitive, so I apologize if I do. I think what worries me is establishing a relationship based on a series of understandings, both spoken and unspoken, deciding you want to continue for the long-haul, then introducing a complete game changer. Being upfront, from the beginning of the relationship, without being angry or confrontational, seems more honest.

    My other concern is the wording of ‘teaching’ him rather than coming to a mutual understanding of what is bothersome. It seems a bit elitist (since we’re contemplating things such as if we should be careful of how we word things). I think using that word while discussing the issues to a partner inherently comes across as condescending. Again, I’m not trying to be rude; I’m just trying to discuss. Anyhow, thank you for your great article. I know you have great intentions, so what I am saying is probably a bit nitpicky.

    • Aeksa N.

      Hi Nicki,

      Thank you. I am glad you enjoyed it.

      Looking at the income difference, I think there are two ways we can go about it: one to look at the income between men and women who have same level of education and hold same / similar positions; second look at the income within marriages / partnerships. I notice that policymakers are interested in both, for different reasons.

      Second, no offence at all. I think it’s important to ask/ clarify. I had come up against great resistance to the ideas in the past, so with this relationship I wanted to take my time. I am also a bit reserved when approaching relationships, I wanted to take time and decide if this relationship was for me. Around one year I thought I should begin introducing the sexism convo. However, these ideas were not novelty for my partner, so I was sharing more of the subtleties to which he might have been less sensitive to and all of the complexity of deeper feminism (not touched on in this article). Even with some of my female friends who are not necessarily into feminist theory I took time to share my views. I sort of feel out the situation and evaluate how much can a person take – not an easy topic after all. I do find even the most progressive people are sensitive to discussing sexism in depth so I take time when introducing theory / ideas, and in bite-sizes to start with.

      I agree that the word may be perceived as condescending. On teaching – the issue is two fold. Some of the subtleties of the English language still escape me, although I have been thinking in English for the last 10 years. Second, I believe there’s something to be said about re-claiming positions of power and being in the role of the teacher in a relationship. I don’t know about you, but as a young woman I had partnerships where I was mostly on the receiving end of learning, from skiing to outdoor skills, to economics or climate change issues. I noticed that very often my advances to ‘teach’ my partner something were not taken up, for example Yoga or peer-counselling. Or not taken seriously enough. After consulting with some of my mentors on my observations, and reading more literature, I discovered that this happens with many women, that in fact it is much more likely for a man to introduce things (lifestyle choices, ideas) to a woman, rather then the other way around. This is also one of the way that sexism manifests. Sexism conditions men to not value our ideas as much as their own, and teaches women to value men’s ideas more than our own.

      Again, these are my personal experiences and reflections on my relationships, so I understand that other women might have different experiences and might be on top of things with their partners. For me, there was a learning curve, which is partly why I wrote this article.

  • Edward

    You are using the claims of sexism to control your men. That to me is pretty sexist. The equal footing we are on is either can leave the relationship. Assuming people are dominated by old gender roles in 2014 is really stupid. We abandoned those traditions in a time where 20% of men 18-34 now live with their parents but only half as many women (10%). Get with the times and stop dreaming up the olden days where feminist arguments like this had resonance. Right now a young women would be lucky to find a man making more than her because it’s not very likely. She’d be lucky to find a man with a job period. Male dominance isn’t a given when women are now earning 50% more degrees or exceeding male incomes on average in major cities.

    Get with the times.

    • Isabel

      See, Edward, you’re assuming that income should be a determinant in choosing a partner in the first place, which is misguided and wrong. If your answer to that is “well the man should earn enough to provide for the woman” then you’re just reiterating the sexist belief that women cannot provide for themselves. I think it’s you who needs to get with the times ;)

  • Derrington

    Scuse me, in male sexual media women are referenced by dehumanising language such as cunt and whore. Think men really dont understand how much gender hatred there is in their own culture and that most violence in the home is down to enforcing who’s the bitch – to use a sexist phrase so beloved of men. There is no way to have much of a conversation with men about male culture since most of them are so invested in male supremacy or dominancy that they simply will not admit they have anything to answer on this and are busy positioning women even defending themselves from violence as co aggressors. Next they’ll be telling us that paedos are the real victims and children are co abusers of adult men who are simply trying to make children happy and loved.

  • Derrington

    Part of that learning curve for me was finding that even when I was an Ocean Yachtmaster and had delivered boats across the Atlantic, my ex partner would argue against every safety call I made to the point where I seriously feared for my life. When I caught his brother out tricking me in a business venture he took his brother’s side and hit me to silence me from stating what had happened. Most DV is actually sexist violence and I would certainly urge your female readers to go very carefully in this area. Most men do not like feminism or equality and can get extremely violent when confronted by their own bigotry.

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  • LR

    Men earn 77% more degrees and still exceed female incomes, especially in the South.