Generally speaking, relationships take a lot of work in order to create harmony and understanding between partners. But from what I've gathered from many of the couples around me, both young and old, gender roles in relationships (or lack thereof) can make or break you. Especially in cishet pairings, it's easy for partners to fall into certain stereotypes assigned to their gender, as well as unfairly placing these expectations upon their lover. And when there's so much pressure for the man in the relationship to provide a steady income, or so much guilt wracking the woman who may not enjoy cooking, a lot of tension and resentment can be created. Even in some queer couples, there's pressure to inhabit certain gender roles in an effort to create balance in the relationship.
But my partner Skylar and I are not one of those queer couples. Though the idea of gender roles existing in relationships sounds archaic to us, and is certainly increasingly disappearing from the culture, it's apparently still relevant enough for folks of all ages to question us about who does what in the relationship. We always get strong reactions from people when they find out that Skylar loves cooking for me, while I pretty much never cook for them (I hate being near the stove and am terrible at cooking). My partner is often condescendingly rewarded for being such an enigma as a person with a penis who loves to cook. Sighs. I, on the other hand, am always shamed when I say "I hate cooking," and am often told that I'm very lucky that Skylar enjoys making me food so much.
Each of these responses are frustrating to us, as people who refuse to be defined by the genitals and gender assignment we were born with. As genderqueer people, trying to classify and compartmentalize our relationship on the basis of binary gender roles just doesn't make sense to us. But most importantly, we both firmly believe that gender roles are deeply harmful. And as a pair who values just how healthy and close our relationship is, we don't want to jeopardize it with that kind of unnecessary tension.
Skylar was raised by folks who disregarded gender roles, as their parents have always split the domestic duties and created a very reciprocal, loving dynamic. They served as perfect role models for my partner, as they applied their parents' approach to their own relationships.
I, however, lived in a household where gender roles were prioritized, and I saw the negative effects such an approach had on my parents' marriage — something that prompted me to strive for the opposite in my adulthood. My dad is the "breadwinner" of the house, so to speak, and controls all the finances (which has led to manipulation in the past). And because work is his life, all the domestic responsibilities fall onto my mom — duties that my dad quickly dismisses as "that's your mother's area" when I ask him something household-related. When we adopted our first dogs, my dad even announced beforehand that he refused to take any part in the care and keeping of the animals (but of course, he can't help but resist chiming in with his input about how my mom does these things incorrectly). Because of this, my mom is often left feeling taken for granted, which leads to lots of pressure and other not-so-nice feelings.
Some friends and acquaintances have mistakenly assumed that Skylar and I's roles are just reversed, with me making the money and Skylar taking care of all things domestic. And while lately we tend to fall into that pattern, it's certainly not a conscious reflection of gender roles. Above all else, Skylar and I prioritize a very equal give-and-take dynamic to help support one another in any and every way that we can. When they do something sweet for me, like do a load of laundry or make me a snack, I try to reciprocate their kindness with my own by cleaning dishes and taking care of our many pets. I don't feel pressured to do anything: rather, my love for them and desire to take care of them motivates me to be the most present and communicative partner I can be.
But these roles that we tend to fall into are not permanent. Rather, it often has to do with our mental health — something that entails loving, emotional labor from both sides. In the head space I'm in now, disorganization and the act of cleaning is very triggering for my anxiety. Skylar takes care of these things not only because they won't get done otherwise, but as an expression of love to me. And though they do it so often — and for now we may even call it their "role" — I'm never short of feelings of gratitude for them.
Unfortunately, it seems terribly common for the 'thank yous' and romance to disappear from these loving acts when we tell ourselves, "This is our role as a masculine person/feminine person, so it's expected of me." Sure, it's nothing new that Skylar did our laundry today and it's certainly not unusual for them to cook meals for me. But each time they do it, my heart is filled to the brim with love and I express my gratitude in multiple ways each time. Because I love them and because their kindness nourishes me, this never feels forced or exhaustive. It's just how I feel: and they deserve that loving feedback, in the same way that they thank me for taking them out to eat or bringing us to the movies.
Despite this, we are sure to keep lines of communication open to make sure the other partner is feeling good and well enough to perform certain duties on a given day. And on days when Skylar is too sad to get out of bed, I lovingly and unhesitatingly rally to get them going, fixing them snacks and cleaning their dishes. Because above all else, though we each have found our comfort zones for the most part in our cohabitation, we are checking in constantly to see what we can do to help the other be their best.
It's important to remember that doing things like cleaning the dishes or folding laundry are, above all, acts of love. By taking part in all kinds of chores regardless of what you perceive as your gender role, you make your partner feel appreciated and cared for. And though there are definitely some folks who genuinely enjoy the gendered aspects of relationship duties, I've personally only seen gender roles damage the happiness of couples. For example, my dad refuses to do any "women's work," and so my mom is constantly overwhelmed and frustrated. And that's unfair.
Though we've fallen into habits in our relationship, Skylar and I don't feel confined to them as roles. Once they graduate college and have more time on their hands, I won't be the only one making money. And once my anxiety improves, I'll pitch in more with the laundry and the dishes. Even though I don't enjoy it, maybe I'll cook them a meal every now and then if the mood strikes. Rather than being preoccupied with gender, Skylar and I want to make sure that we are giving each other our all. And on the days we can hardly afford to give anything, bogged down by sadness and anxiety, we never make one another feel guilty and ashamed. Because making each other happy and extending as much kindness to the other as we can is our top priority in life. We're a team, after all.
Images: Meg Zulch