Chivalry and Relationships


Image by Nic at Unsplash

Image by Nic at Unsplash

My wife and I often ride to work together. As a reasonable Southern gentleman, I (Jeremiah Gibson) open the door for my wife (or make sure that she goes through the automatic sliding doors before I do). I make sure that she has the first say in where we go out to dinner. A true Southern gentleman would give his seat up on the T; while I don't go that far--it creates more chaos for me to get up and fight my way into the middle of the crowd so someone else can have my seat--I do drive 95% of the time so that my wife doesn't have to deal with city traffic.

Even though I left the South almost 7 years ago, chivalry is alive and well in certain aspects of my life. My gender narrative involves taking care of women. I pay, even though we have a shared checking account. I pump the gas and run into the store if we only need one or two items, rather than my wife. Their needs go first, and mine are secondary.

Benevolent Sexism

Earlier this month, Constance Grady, a writer at Vox, criticized comedian Louis C.K., who explained to Conan O'Brien that he supported Hillary Clinton because she's a mother, and therefore more intrinsically in tune with the emotional barometer of America. She writes:

"C.K. obviously means well. He’s trying to compliment mothers in general and Hillary in particular, and to reframe the political liability of her gender into an asset. But he’s playing into a very old and unpleasant narrative that’s become weirdly popular among liberal men this election cycle: the idea that we need women in government because they are intrinsically morally superior to men. Women should be represented in our government, this story goes, not because they are people, but because they are better than people: They are angelic; they are virtuous; they are pure."

In 1996, Susan Fiske and Peter Glick deconstructed two different types of sexism. Sexism, by the way, gets defined as interactions and expectations between genders that are based purely on stereotypes, especially those resulting in the male having more overt power. There's the obvious form of sexism, "hostile sexism", as they describe. Women being called bitches (and worse). Women being expected to complete household chores and sacrifice their bodies and careers. Any interaction where a male perpetrates an act of force or abuse against a woman.

They coined the phrase "benevolent sexism" to describe a more subtle type of interactions that reinforce the stereotype that men have power. Women are delicate flowers, and should thus be protected by men. Women are kind and more compassionate, particularly mothers, while men are more assertive and dominant. Women should be taken care of because they fulfill men's sexual needs. Women should expect men to open doors for them.

Implications of Chivalry

I recognize that the term benevolent sexism can seem quite the affront to men who learned that valuing women involves putting them first. Perhaps we can find a better term to define this phenomenon moving forward that doesn't carry so much baggage. For this article, let's use the word chivalry. "Chivalry" represents the gender narrative taught to millions of well-meaning men (and women) how to do relationships.

So let's think about some of the systemic implications that chivalry creates.

Only 4% of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs, while only 17% have women in board of director seats. However, women hold 96% of the administrative assistant/secretarial jobs in these companies, according to the 2010 census. Stereotypical gender roles continue to play out in traditional ways in the workplace. Men are the dominant, assertive leaders. Women are the kind, empathetic assistants who take care not only of the customers, but also the boss. We tend not to trust assertive, methodical professional women (see Clinton, Hillary R.). And women continue to make 80 cents for every dollar that men earn, according to a 2015 study.

We also see negative implications of chivalry in couple relationships. Chivalry narratives (everything from King Arthur and Lancelot to modern day chick flicks) place women and romance as people/things to be obtained. Men and women have both authored these narratives, and they contribute to the objectification of women, so that women are expected to be both sexually attractive and sexual gatekeepers. Women who aren't able-bodied, thin, curvy, and physically attractive have a diminished sense femininity in chivalry narratives.

Lance Ferris, a researcher at Penn State, explains another kind of double bind that chivalry creates for women: Women have positive qualities that are worth protecting, but the ensuing protection communicates to many women that they are weak and incompetent. This becomes more relevant as women are expected to play more and more roles in 21st century society--partner/wife, sexual person, mother, employee/career-woman.

As I've undergone my own supervision and therapy, I've come to realize something significant:

Chivalry hurts men as well.

Let's use the lyrics of the song "500 Miles" by the 80s duo The Pretenders, as a fairly recent musical example of the chivalry narrative (and a future Under the Covers episode). I mean, this guy just walked 1,000 miles just to be the man who falls down at your door. The sentiment is sweet and chivalrous and everything, but that's so much effort to put into one relationship, and for what return?. 

I've worked with numerous individual men and heterosexual relationships where the male partner begins to lose his identity in an effort to fulfill the chivalry narrative. I've heard men (including myself) sacrifice his needs, saying to their partners, "It doesn't matter. I'll go along with whatever you want". The Pretenders link men's identity around work to the chivalry narrative in the second verse: "When I'm working, yes I know I'm gonna be, I'm gonna be the man who's working hard for you." Not for myself. But for my partner.

The chivalry narrative places men in a challenging double bind as well, encouraging men to defer to their partner (or assume that their partner will do certain things, such as household tasks) while pursuing and initiating sexuality. It discourages men from expressing needs, wants, and desires while expecting them to be able to concretely express what we want and expect in the bedroom. The chivalry narrative tells men to be happy whenever their partners are happy, rather than both partners finding individual happiness while also maintaining a relationship.

Creating More Equal Relationships

The chivalry narrative is one of many cultural stories that teach us both about how our gender affects expectations in relationships and that gender differences create power imbalances in relationships. And to be fair, some couples are okay with the traditional gender roles that the chivalry narrative encourages. Other couples have desires to break out of these roles, and for these couples, I offer these three tips:

  1. Talk with your partner about how you learned to be male/female. Ask these questions with your partner: What dynamics did you see from your parents/family that defined what it is to be male/female? What narratives have you received from the larger media (movies, books, etc.) that define appropriate representations of gender? How have these narratives been affirming, and how have they been limiting?

  2. Make relational decisions based off of your individual strengths, not off of gendered expectations. Make a list of your own strengths, as well as a list of your partner's. For some couples, individual strengths may connect very strongly to gendered expectations, but not for every couple. It may be useful to differentiate between gendered expectations and individual strengths. Ask these questions: What parts of my gender's expectations that create anxiety or stress? How would my sense of gender be different if I didn't have these strengths? If I was less ambitious, for instance, would that devalue my worth as a man? Decisions, then, can be made off of our strengths. I pay more attention to detail, so it makes more sense that I take the lead in these particular tasks. You have more flexibility and are able to think more abstractly, so it makes more sense for you to take the lead in these particular tasks.

  3. Be intentional about switching out of traditional gender stereotypes. We've seen this interaction happen quite commonly with couples around sex, where a man who's generally dominant and assertive in the workplace and family desperately wants to be submissive sexually, or a woman who's learned to be submissive through the "good girl's don't" narrative wants to shed that and be more dominant in the bedroom. Ask yourself: What are ways that we individually want to take care of, and be taken care of by our partners? What tasks have taken ownership of because of gendered expectations, and does this distribution work for both of us?

Creating the relationship that you want takes a lot of intentionality, and we would love to provide support for you through couples therapy. Feel free to reach out to us if you'd like to set up an appointment. Call at 617-750-0183 or book an appointment online.