As children, we were conditioned to act like a “boy” or a “girl.” Some messages were explicit, as when parents admonish their sons not to cry or tell their daughters to stop climbing trees. Other messages are less obvious: Our parents showed us how to be masculine or feminine. This kind of role modeling is called gender role socialization.
Parents aren’t the only ones who show us how to be in our gender roles. From the time we could understand words, the government, schools, and places of worship showed us how to be male or female. Instances of gender role socialization abound in religious teachings, from women being taught to do “women’s work” and to be subservient to their husbands, who are supposed to be the “breadwinners.” The corporate world and the government reveal their lopsided view of the sexes when you see men outnumbering women four (or more) to one in positions of power as well as a higher amount of earning power among men.
While socialization is intended for heterosexuals, LGB individuals do not escape their effects. As we grew up, gender role socialization was so pervasive that we acted out our gender expectations unconsciously. Gender role socialization plays itself out most visibly between couples. Knowing when these messages play out can be a powerful tool to learn when they are coming up and how to deal with them.
When they come up with Gay Male Couples
Some of the messages that society taught you is that to be a man, you should be independent, aggressive, and competitive. You were also taught that when there is a problem, you should fix it, and you should never expose vulnerability.
One result is each partner in a male couple fighting for who’s going to be on top. With two tops, there’s not much room for negotiation. That, unfortunately, leads to impasses and possibly to ongoing conflict. Gay men who are locked in conflict tend to focus on who is “right,” as he builds a case against his partner.
When they come up with Lesbian Couples
Turning to female role socialization, girls are taught to be submissive, to sacrifice their feelings, and to be “pretty” to attract the opposite sex. As opposed to men, women are taught that when there’s a problem, they should share their feelings.
Women play out these notions by being hesitant to speak up or confront her partner for fear of creating conflict. With conflict avoided, frustrations and problems can build up for the sake of preserving harmony.
Solutions to problems may take longer because of the belief that women should sacrifice their needs for the sake of the other person. If neither partner will speak up about what she wants or needs, or about problems between them, they often preserve the status quo.
What you can do About it?
For same-sex couples who approach their challenges with their respective gender roles intact, it may lead to a similar outcome for both men and women: Two frustrated individuals with little hope for resolving their challenges.
Same-sex couples can benefit from first learning how each partner is impacted by the amount of buy-in s/he has in terms of gender role socialization. So, the first part of the solution is to have an awareness of when and how these subliminal messages have infiltrated your relationship.
For lesbians who learn to accept conflict as a part of being in a couple, you can be helped by understanding that the ebb and flow of relationship growth, which is intertwined with individual growth, is smoother when conflicts are brought up and handled as they arise. You can welcome otherness, viewing differences as a source of relationship strength rather than as a threat. You can view aggression not as “male” but as a part of the human condition.
For gay men who realize that cooperation, compromise, and surrender are better than fighting about who’s right, you can work through stalemates and make progress toward solutions. You can also understand that if you are willing to risk showing your vulnerability, you are emotionally stronger than a (fearful) person who isn’t willing to. You’re more courageous when you risk vulnerability when you put your feelings on the line by expressing them directly rather than by holding them in and later exploding in anger (or acting them out in some other way).
Same-sex couples can benefit from knowing that power struggles often result from the gender role assignment of aggression (for men) and submission (for women), and there are no winners in these struggles. In fact, you should come to grips with the fact that both you and your partner lose as the bonds of trust and respect begin to unravel, and you both lose in the battle to change each other.
On the other hand, you “win” every time you are willing to let your partner be who s/he is, give in now and then, and risk vulnerability. By being more flexible in your gender role, you learn that winning happens when you cooperate with your partner by sharing your feelings as you work toward a solution.