Sexist men who think women are determined to control them are more likely to underestimate their power in romantic relationships and act aggressively, according to researchers.
Men who don’t think they have power are more likely to paradoxically exploit it, researchers at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, found.
To arrive at this conclusion, researchers honed in on a concept called hostile sexism. This idea is based around the myth that women want to control men, and paints relationships between men and women as a struggle for power, the authors wrote. This attitude finds its basis in the fear that men lose out as women gain equality.
Emily J. Cross, lead author of the study at the University of Auckland, commented, “The proposal that men who endorse hostile sexism will perceive they possess lower relationship power is important because a large body of theoretical and empirical work suggests that lower power motivates aggressive responses to restore power.”
In past studies, researchers have investigated whether hostile sexism causes men to behave aggressively toward women who challenge the status quo, such as career women and feminists.
For the paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers looked at how the concept affected how women and men regarded their own power in intimate, heterosexual relationships. Because couples are often interdependent, hostile sexism could be most damaging in that setting, the authors argued.
“This mutual dependence constraints an individual’s power,” argued Cross. “This can be very difficult for men who have sexist views because they are already concerned about losing power to women, and they may lash out at their significant other in harmful ways.”
She continued, “Aggressive behavior can have disastrous consequences on a relationship because the female partner is more likely to withdraw, openly share her dissatisfaction and become less committed.
“This can reinforce a commonly held stereotype among men with sexist beliefs that women are not trustworthy. It’s a vicious cycle.”
To investigate how hostile sexism affected the power dynamics of relationship, as well as the respective perceptions of men and women, the researchers enlisted 1,096 heterosexual men and women in committed relationships for four experiments.
Researchers asked the participants to fill in surveys about their daily interactions with their partners, which was designed to uncover how satisfied and secure they felt in their relationships. The survey’s questions also probed participants for potential sexist attitudes, and their perceived autonomy, levels of aggressive behavior and influence on their partners’ actions and opinions. In one experiment, the couples spoke on camera about their most serious argument.
Cross said, “Men who showed more hostile sexist views felt they had less power in their relationships, while their significant others thought otherwise, and those men were more aggressive toward their partners by being critical or unpleasant.”
This work could provide insight into why men and women behave in certain ways in contexts outside the home, such as the workplace, the authors said.
Dr. Nickola C. Overall, study co-author of the University of Auckland, commented: “A great place to start reducing sexist attitudes is in intimate relationships, because that is when we are at our most vulnerable and we are motivated to help and nurture our partners.
“If we can lessen the fear some men have about losing power to their partners, then we can reduce aggressive behaviors, and ultimately diminish the power struggles that uphold gender inequality.”
Last month, a separate study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sought to answer why unhappy couples stayed together.
The authors found that unhappy partners often feared their other half would struggle to cope without them if they ended the relationship.
Speaking to Newsweek at the time, Samantha Joel, an assistant professor of psychology at Western University, Ontario, and adjunct professor at the University of Utah, said, “Our research suggests that for people in chronically unfulfilling, unhappy relationships, concern for the partner’s feelings could be an important barrier to ending those relationships.”