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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