We often talk about all the ways relationships are influenced by gender norms; after all, from unequal division of labor to lack of attention to women's desires, there are many, many ways these prescribed roles and deeply ingrained cultural beliefs affect how we interact with each other, especially in the case of intimate partners. But then what? How do you break down gender norms in relationships?
Even as an outspoken feminist, my relationships are one area where I really struggle to address gender norms. As a feminine-presenting person who has primarily dated men, I've been taught that being too masculine could hurt my relationships. I've even been told that because I'm a feminist and I don't shave my legs, no guy will want to date me. The point being: Gender roles in relationships are alive, well, and embedded in our subconsciouses. So, challenging them requires a conscious effort.
Gender roles, by the way, come up inside every type of relationship, not just straight ones. For example, people often expect same-sex relationships to include a "top" and a "bottom." The way we think about sex and relationships is very much tied up with the way we think about gender.
Undoing this way of thinking can be liberating for people of all genders and all sexual orientations. Even if you find that you want to practice gender roles in your own relationship, it can still be empowering to make that a conscious choice, not something you're doing by default.
Her are a few ways you can consciously challenge gender norms in your relationships.
1. Take Turns Paying
Since society expects my dates to cover my half of the bill, they're often pleasantly surprised when I offer to split it or to totally cover the next meal out or activity we share. This may differ if, for example, one person in the relationship can't afford to cover dates. But even if you're in this situation, just offering to buy someone you're dating a coffee — or, if you're on the other side of things, accepting their offer — can go a long way toward both making them feel appreciated and challenging gender norms.
2. Create A System For Dividing Chores
Disappointingly, in many areas of the world, women still do the majority of the housework, according to a recent study in Demographic Research. To actively combat this tendency, you and your partner can sit down and figure out who wants to do what tasks or even create a chore wheel. This helps you make sure there aren't any loose ends, since it's often the woman or the more feminine-presenting person who ends up tying them up.
3. Talk About You Sexual Preferences
The model of sex we're taught doesn't really acknowledge queer people or kink or consider the desires of people other than cisgender men. So, it can be very, very hard to speak up about your sexual desires and preferences if you're a member of a marginalized group. But that's exactly why we need to. Rather than having sex the way you've been taught by default, exploring all the other possibilities out there can empower both people to defy what's been socially prescribed (or not — the point is that it's up to each individual).
4. Let Your Partner Know It's OK For Them To Defy Gender Norms
Even when our partners don't tell us they're looking for a masculine man or a feminine woman, we sometimes feel like we have to be one way or the other because we've been taught that's what's desirable. So, if you're dating a man, it may help to let him know he can cry in front of you. And if you're dating a woman, she might like to know you appreciate how independent she is. We shouldn't need validation from our partners in order to be ourselves, but since gender norms can be so powerful, some of us still appreciate it.
5. Give Your Partner The Chance To Do Non-Stereotypical Things
Sometimes, we assign people tasks based on their gender without thinking. For example, when we need to get somewhere, we might subconsciously ask men to help us with directions, and when we need someone to take care of our kids, we might ask a woman first. When you and your partner need to get something done, challenge your instincts about who should accomplish what. Maybe the woman is actually the one who can find her way around the city most effectively — and maybe she doesn't always get the chance to exercise that strength. Letting your partner be their whole self not only challenges gender roles but also is just part of being in a healthy relationship.