If you think men don’t derive the same kind of benefits from their romantic relationships as women do, you’re actually sort of right, but you may be wrong about how these differences play out in terms of behavior and feelings.
A new study finds that men and women do “use” romantic relationships differently, insofar as relationships shape one’s self-concept differently for men and women. But this is not necessarily a bad thing, and may just give us a little better understanding of what makes men and women tick when it comes to relationships.
Men tend to define themselves less by their relationships than by other areas in their lives (namely, work) according to research; but other research suggests that men may actually cling more to their relationships than women do and that their mental health is more tightly tied to their relationships than women’s.
Because of this seeming discrepancy, the authors set out to determine just how relationships influenced men’s and women’s opinions of themselves, by asking them a series of questions over three experiments.
The results of the study may help explain why men are less likely than women to voice unhappiness within a marriage.
The first study sought to discover how much being in a relationship affected one’s self-worth. They asked male and female participants questions like, “In general, how much do you think men and women base their self-esteem on being in a relationship?” and “In general, how much do you think men and women base their self-esteem on the connection and intimacy experienced in their relationships?”
Men did indeed base their self-esteem more on relationship status than women did. But interestingly, other aspects of relationships (like relationship quality) did not have the same effect on men’s self-worth. Men also rated social standing as more important when it came to the benefits that a relationship can offer, compared to women.
Then researchers looked at previous findings and compared them to their own new data. This second study confirmed that men consistently score higher than women when it comes to relationship status as an important contributor to self-worth.
The first two studies strongly suggested that men see romantic relationships as important to their self-worth, largely because they perceive them as being important to social status. The third study put this finding to the test, by watching it action.
The team looked at how people’s use of certain words changed when relationships were “threatened,” or people were imagining a breakup.
Our use of certain words increases when we’re concerned about something — terms like earn, achieve, win suggest a concern for social standing; and words like hurt, ugly, nasty reflect negative-emotions; while we, us, our suggest relationship concerns. So the team counted how many times words related to social status came up as the participants were envisioning a breakup and writing about how their lives might be affected by it.
The researchers found that men were much more likely to use words suggesting concerns about social status when envisioning a breakup, whereas women were more likely to use words suggesting concerns about loss of the connection with their partners.
The authors say that they’re not surprised at the results of the study, which may help explain why men are less likely than women to voice unhappiness within a marriage. Since men are, at least on average, less concerned about the interpersonal connection than what the relationship offers for their social standing, it makes since that they’re also less likely to leave an unhappy relationship.
These results are interesting both for what they say about gender differences and because they may help psychologists (or anyone who has a partner) understand some of the motivations behind people’s behaviors. That said, these results are very general, and shouldn’t be taken to mean that men’s single motivation in marriage or partnership has to do with gaining social status.
More research will be needed to understand more of what makes us get into and out of relationships, but the current study does give some insights into different motivations that probably evolved long ago, but can still be relevant today.
The study was carried out by a team at the University of Texas at Austin, and published in Psychological Science.