April 17, 2020

The Actual Difference Between Men and Women in a Relationship


It once seemed like gender reveal parties were taking over Facebook. They were creative, engaging, and a big part of a relationship. Now, it seems like Facebook could be a thing of the past, along with gender reveal parties. Why has gender historically been such a crucial part of an individual’s identity and had such a big impact on a relationship? Perhaps if we explore that we will understand why gender reveal parties were created (perhaps not). We will however, dive into how gender affects a relationship. Discussions about gender have greatly changed over time. People once referred to brains as being either blue or pink. It may seem funny now that there are majors offered at Universities that are dedicated to studying gender, but the way the world used to view gender built a wall between people greater than any wall that could be built today would, should such a terrible thing occur. How truly different are women and men?

By the time a baby is three months old, it already shows a clear preference for female faces. One of the first things we do when we see someone’s face is classify it as male or female. Attempting to categorize faces has become automatic in our world. Faces that are more easily recognizable as male or female are commonly perceived to be more attractive than faces that are not. This habit of boxing people in without even knowing them also includes assumptions about their socioeconomic status, stereotypes, and whether or not they are available for a romantic relationship with us. A person’s sex refers to the biological anatomy they were born with which characterizes males and females of a species. Primary sex characteristics support reproduction (i.e. genitals, sex hormones, chromosomes). Secondary sex characteristics further distinguish females from males and are further developed throughout puberty to indicate fertility and maturity (i.e. breasts, subcutaneous fat in females and facial hair, deeper voices, and larger muscles in males). Historically, research comparing and contrasting sexes in humans led to assumptions that that there were only two, male and female. There was also a binary assumption that these two sexes are divided in a way that does not change and that the two do not overlap. Contrastingly, scientists have found that many animal species have less rigid sex distinctions. For example, slugs and snails have features of both sexes and clownfish switch between the sexes throughout their lives. Modern research has found human biology to have less rigid sex distinctions than previously thought. Sure, most people have chromosomes which clearly match DNA patterns labeled as male (x and y chromosome) or female (two x chromosomes). However, some people are born with less clear DNA patterns that vary in chromosome numbers. Some people are not born with body parts that clearly fit a female category with a vagina and ovaries or a male category with a penis and testes. 1-2% of all people actually identify as being intersex and having chromosomes or physical characteristics that cannot be clearly labeled as male or female. Finding the various ways biological markers of sex in humans can behave has led to questioning of the original binary assumption that one is either male or female. Invisible to the eye and causing even more questions is the problem that most sex characteristics are invisible or hidden. We don’t see someone’s chromosomes or hormones when we first meet someone, and most of the time we don’t see someone’s genitals when we first meet them. We try to classify them as male or female based on how they behave, their clothes, accessories, and how they present themselves which is not shaped by biology but by culture. By doing this, we are no longer thinking about sex, which is based on biology, but gender which is based on attitudes, traits, and tertiary sex characteristics; behaviors a specific culture categorizes as masculine or feminine and the expectations and beliefs about acceptable and appropriate social roles for men and women. Gender expectations are everywhere and affect our daily lives. Common expectations include how people should dress, who is qualified to be the head of a household, who can be a religious leader, who can be in charge of corporations and governments, and how one should behave in a relationship. This doesn’t just affect how societies and individuals prescribe masculine and feminine behaviors for others, it strongly affects how people perceive themselves as masculine or feminine. Realizing and recognizing that gender’s a social construct supports the fact that one’s gender identity does not have to match one’s sex (biological and physical characteristics). People with a gender identity that matches their assigned sex at birth are cisgender. Transgender people make an explicit distinction between their sex assigned at birth and their gender. Sometimes altering their bodies with hormone therapy, surgery, or both to change their assigned sex to the sex that better aligns with how they see themselves. Many transgender people choose to dress differently, change their name, and ask to be addressed by a different pronoun.

Gender Expression

One does not have to identify as transgender to express their gender identity diversely. For example, the famous aviator Amelia Earhart identified as a woman, but her gender expressions were generally associated with men. She was heavily invested in her work, unwilling to commit to a relationship, wanted to keep her sexual options open, and had an inclination to disengage and assert control. There are different ways a single gender can be expressed even among people who identify as having the same gender. Researchers are working hard to describe the different ways this is possible and have expanded on the outdated idea of an opposite-sex relationship or a dimension ranging from masculine to feminine by realizing this creates problems. In a world where traits classified as masculine are respected and rewarded more than feminine ones, defining women as lacking masculine traits is not okay. Alternatively, these traits can be better understood as two distinct dimensions. Anyone can be described as relatively high or low in stereotypically masculine qualities and separately as relatively high or low in stereotypically feminine qualities. Historically, traits seen as desirable in men are associated with having power, and traits seen as desirable with women are associated with serving others. Gender stereotypes typically reinforce social structures which give control and authority to men. Interestingly, expressing so-called masculine traits predict objective career success indicators while expressing so-called feminine traits predict the ability to form a long-lasting relationship. Researchers know masculine and feminine stereotypes do not accurately distinguish between people who identify as male or female. They know that regardless of gender identity, anyone can express masculine and feminine traits to varying degrees. Androgynous people express both masculine and feminine traits. They are less restricted, thus have an advantage over people who are more stereotypically masculine or feminine. Androgynous people tend to have higher self-esteems, less anxiety and higher levels of emotional intelligence. They readily express their emotions and are more adaptable to various situations. As a result, they are more desirable partners and are more secure in their relationship. It seems every day there are less people who subscribe to the old usage of masculine and feminine labels.

The Relationship between Gender and Behavior

Gender schemas are the cognitive representations which organize ideas and beliefs about what it means to be a man or a woman. They alter how we perceive and relate to others, especially in a relationship. Studies show that when men think they are negotiating how to divide labor with a coworker they cannot see and assume is a woman they negotiate more aggressively and assign their co-worker more feminine tasks. When women were incorrectly perceived to be men in the study, they were less likely to choose feminine tasks for themselves. This means that being perceived as a certain gender affects behavior, which also affects a relationship. The two imperfect categories of female and male have historically shaped how people think about each other and about intimacy in a relationship and continue to do so. A study found that the way people present themselves on social media supports the various ways a range of behaviors, affiliations and communication habits are shaped by ideas of gender. Self-identified women mostly posted about friends, family, and their relationship while self-identified men mostly posted about objects instead of people, feeling angry and using curse words. The biological makings of women and men are pretty stable but what it means to be a woman or man varies historically, geographically, socially and culturally. For example, in the United States the idea that pink is for girls and blue is for boys was once reversed because blue was seen as delicate and pink was seen as being a stronger color. Fortunately, there have been movements which have led to more flexibility in expected and accepted behaviors of women and men in or out of a relationship, especially in western countries like the United States. For example, more women have joined the workplace and graduate from higher level learning institutions such as graduate school than ever before, and there are many more stay-at-home dads. Unfortunately, the World Health Organization has found women to continue to be described as vulnerable and men as strong and independent world-wide, which threatens the health of both women and men.

Similarities and Differences in Men and Women

Ideas and perceptions of gender are evolving but the categories, women and men, are still as powerful and influential as ever. Combining research on one variable, like whether someone identifies as a man or woman to another characteristic like empathy, aggression, or sex drive to indicate the degree of similarity between men and women on a particular characteristic. The number that captures the degree of similarity between men and women is known as a d statistic. When d = 0, men and women don’t differ on the characteristic in question. The further away d is from zero, the more men and women differ on this characteristic. Negative d values indicate women score higher than men on a specific dimension while positive values indicate men score higher. For example, men are more sexually attracted to women than women are (d= 3.52) and that women are more sexually attracted to men than men are (d= -3.99). This supports that different-sex attraction is more common than same-sex attraction. However, d values rarely exceed 1. For the social media posts study d= .63 meaning women and men overlapped by at least 75 percent and used similar words even though there was an average difference.

On average, men are more physically and verbally aggressive than women but when provoked, d =.17. and there isn’t a big difference between how aggressive men and women are. On average, women are more skilled at expressing emotions than men, while men are more likely to make intrusive interruptions. On average, women are more likely than men to seek out emotional support to cope and discuss challenges faced. On average, women are more likely to emphasize social class and ambition when describing their preferences for a relationship partner while men are more likely to prioritize physical attractiveness. On average, women are more likely to feel anxious, guilty, and fearful about sex while men are more likely to have a more positive attitude about sex in an established relationship and even more in a casual relationship. On average, women and men reported similar levels of happiness and self-esteem. Accumulated research suggests women and men are not that different differing more in degrees in regard to a specific characteristic than in having different characteristics altogether. The average scores of women and men on social and psychological characteristics are more similar than dissimilar and when there are differences, those differences are generally small.

Social scientists generally agree on validity of similarities and differences between women and men but there’s controversy on the approach to understanding what those findings mean, especially for a relationship. For example, it was found that on average men are more aggressive than women but an explanation for why was not found. What is responsible, nature or nurture? Are men biologically predisposed to being more aggressive which implies innate and unchanging differences between women and men? Is it a matter of nurture, societies and cultures providing more opportunities for men to be aggressive than women? That suggests what people believe about gender is a social construct and can be deconstructed.

Evolution’s Explanation

Evolutionarily speaking, women and men have faced similar challenges and now share various similar abilities. In order to successfully reproduce, they adapted to different challenges. Offspring require using limited reproductive resources, time, and energy during and after birth from women. Men don’t have limited reproductive resources and in fact donate from an endless supply of sperm with no comparable obligations. Even though men can and do contribute to raising children, mothers have a greater burden in reproduction. Evolution has found reproductive realities to imply the kinds of mates women and men prefer for a romantic relationship. Females prefer males who are able and willing to provide resources and protection for them and their offspring. Males prefer females that are physically attractive and youthful because male reproductive efforts are limited by the availability of healthy and fertile females. Since men don’t benefit from investing resources into children fathered by others, they seek out women who are trustworthy and faithful. These preferences are consistent cross-culturally and throughout history; women prioritize status and resources and men prioritize fertility indicated by physical attraction and youth. Intrasexual competition, the ways women and men compete for advantage in the mating marketplace also demonstrates evolved differences between men and women. Evolutionary psychology suggests differences in how women and men attract, keep a relationship, and replace partners can be explained by the unique problems our male and female ancestors faced and is consistent with modern differences today. However, anthropology fact checks certain findings of evolutionary psychology and warns us not to suggest that stereotypes about gender differences should be necessarily reversed but to be open to available data from anthropology and biology to examine what supports existing stereotypes or their exact opposite.

Learned Differences Affect Intimate Relationships

An individual’s capacity to alter the behavior and experiences of others while also resisting the influence others have on them is their power. This is extremely relevant in an intimate relationship because the roles men and women often have in society, both in the workplace and at home, are not equal. There is a disproportionate amount of men as members of the United States supreme court, as first responders in emergencies, and as CEOs of fortune 500 companies. Why? What does this unequal allocation of power and status across genders say to new generations? Social structural theory explains that differences in how money, power, and other resources are divided between women and men are important because this gender-based inequality affects social expectations for men and women such as which roles involving authority and decision making they will occupy and the steps they will take to meet expectations. Society doesn’t just teach these gender-expectations and stereotypes, it punishes those who dare to challenge the status quo. This is seen in reactions to parents who decide not to assign a gender to their children, and in violence against transgender people. When someone identifies as having a particular gender but violates social expectations for it, they are viewed less favorable and their actions are judged more harshly. Furthermore, their sexual identities are questioned. At an early age, children learn and behave according to these social restrictions to avoid being bullied. Gender-identity expectations correlated with unequal power keep people on certain paths in their intimate relationship and career lives and keep them from pursuing other paths in life. For example, when a child commits to becoming a police officer, they figure out it would make sense to behave aggressively to fulfill expectations and skill requirements for such an influential, dominant role. Contrastingly, if a child commits to a more submissive role, they’ll realize that developing cooperative and empathetic behaviors is the way to go. Patriarchal societies in which men have more power and resources than women reward men for independent and assertive behaviors while rewarding women for emotional sensitivity and sacrifice. All in all, the social structural perspective explains gender differences by examining unequal access to power and status which is reinforced by men behaving in ways that give them more superiority while women promote cooperation, nurture others, and adapt to the inferior roles available to them. Gender differences are not caused by genetic differences, they are made from social structures and maintained by unequal opportunities which place different limitations on women and men.

What This Means for a Relationship

Whether men prefer younger hot partners and women prefer older rich partners depends on how empowered women are in a particular culture and how equal men and women are viewed as being in that culture. In cultures where women are more empowered, gender differences in mate preferences are significantly smaller. As female empowerment and gender equality increase, women’s preference for older partners and men’s preference for younger ones decrease. This contradicts the assumption evolutionary psychology makes about cross-cultural mate preferences. Power structures lead to specific behaviors being associated with a particular gender. When women have more power, make more money, and hold a higher position in a company, they don’t behave the same way women without these resources do. The same can be said about the capacity for one person to accurately know what someone else is thinking, referred to as empathic accuracy. When men are told that instead of making them more feminine, empathic accuracy will actually make them more romantically appealing, they perform just as well as women do in expressing, interpreting, and decoding emotions.

Even preferences about sexual behavior are not hardwired but responsive to social changes. For example, premarital sex is more widely accepted than it once was. As a result, more young adults are sexually active. Interestingly, in the 1950s only 13% of young women had engaged in sex but by the 1990s 47% had engaged in sex. During this time, the negative consequences of sex for women such as unwanted pregnancies and social judgement also decreased. Gender is an extremely weak indicator of how someone will behave, especially compared to the influence of power and social status on behavior. The fact that gender expectations and behaviors have changed over time along with experimental research supports the finding that unequal distribution of power and status is what gives birth to gender differences in most societies.

Prior to the industrial revolution nobody talked about or tried to explain who was more responsible for work or family life because they were the same thing. Every member of the household, women, men, and children, contributed to the family farm. Everything changed with the development of manufacturing as family responsibilities split in two. The men left the house to work and women stayed at home to maintain the household and take care of children. Back then, both the men leaving the home to work and the women working at home were working in harsh conditions. Factory jobs that working-class men had were often flooded with safety hazards and women didn’t have washing machines, refrigerators and other helpful devices that are now available. However, men were getting paid for their work and women were not. Soon, men’s jobs were described as activities they pursued for money and status while women’s work at home was belittled as simply being their responsibility and something they did because it was in their nature. This led to the social hierarchy exaggerating the differences between life at home and the world. Worst of all, it changed the ideal personalities of women and men and made women financially dependent on their romantic relationship.

Now, research has found that men have strong physiological responses when their competence or dominance is threatened while women respond more strongly when experiencing disagreements in their relationship.

Relationship Awareness

The way men and women have been socialized to establish and maintain intimacy even affects how aware of their relationship they will be. For example, if Isabel and Christian introduce each other to their families, they will probably discuss how they met, and how their first date went. Isabel is likely to recall more accurate details and speak through the perspective of the couple than Christian is, because on average, women are more aware of their relationship than men are. Women develop mental representations of their relationship that are emotionally richer which explains why men are 8-10 times less likely than women to know why they are getting a divorce.

A summary of eight studies using a diary method and rankings to rate interactions with male friends versus female friends from 1 for superficial to 7 for meaningful shows that on average, men rate their interactions with their other men 3.4, and women rate their interactions with other women 4.2. Thus, men are not less capable of deep dialogue or expressing their feelings, they are just less likely to do so with other men. This is also seen in an intimate relationship such as a marriage. When asked to be supportive, husbands and wives provide virtually the same amount of positive, neutral, and negative behaviors. Men don’t lack the basic skills for expressing their emotions or being supportive, they can step up when a situation calls for it but, are likely to increase criticism when they increase support. For example, if Joseph’s wife Nicole vents about not having the time and effort she invests in her work valued by her supervisor, Joseph is likely to validate her feelings but criticize her, “ I know your supervisor doesn’t seem to value how hard you work or the work you do, life can suck, but I told you to quit months ago.” Men are not incapable of emotional work women do, they are just less likely to do it because they are discouraged from doing so, told it’s not their job, and risk being perceived as weak or less manly. Women are rewarded for empathic accuracy and nurturing those around them and are told it is their job in the relationship. Research on caregiving has even found that if a husband has a wife with cancer, he will have the same stress level as a husband with a wife that doesn’t have cancer while a wife with a husband who has cancer will be just as distressed as the husband battling the cancer.

Interest in Sex

Fortunately, physiologically speaking, women and men have sexual response cycles that are nearly identical. They are also equally physiologically capable of experiencing sexual pleasure and orgasm. Unfortunately, women and men receive vastly different messages about how acceptable it is to enjoy sex. From a young age, men are culturally pressured to want sex, pursue sex, and be ready for sex when an opportunity arises. Women receive contradicting messages and are shamed for expressing too much interest in sex or for expressing too little. They are encouraged to be seductive to men but to be chaste and pure. The media then further complicates things by portraying unrealistic body standards which leaves women unhappy with and ashamed of their bodies. We live in a world where sex is frequently a source of distress, threat and possible trauma for women on top of possibly causing unwanted pregnancies but also a world where sex is a source of rewarding pleasure for men. Since women face many disadvantages that men do not when it comes to physical intimacy, they are not given the same opportunity men have to holistically enjoy it. Acknowledging how socially and physically risky sex can be for women is the first step in a proper attempt to understanding gender differences in sexual interest and behavior, such as why men are more motivated to have sex. Research has found extensive lists of behaviors emphasizing gender differences in sexual behaviors and physical intimacy as including but not being limited to:

  • Men have more spontaneous thoughts about sex in a day.
  • Men have more sexual fantasies than women.
  • Men have more varied sexual fantasies women have.
  • Men want to have sex more frequently than women do.
  • Men want a more sexual partners than women do.
  • Men masturbate more than women do.
  • Men self-report an interest in a wider variety of sexual practices than women do.
  • Men are less willing to pass up the opportunity to have sex.
  • Men are more willing to make greater sacrifices than women for sexual opportunities.
  • Men are more likely than women to initiate sex.

Research also shows that women are more judged and stigmatized for engaging in the exact same behaviors men are praised for. Regardless of their gender, people perceive a woman who accepts an invitation to have sex with a stranger as less intelligent, less mentally healthy, and more promiscuous and riskier than a man who accepts the same invitation. Women are not blessed with the social and cultural support that men receive for pursuing and enjoying sex but are cursed with a greater threat of violence and social judgement than men are. With this in mind, it’s not hard to understand why even though women and men have an equal physiological capacity for sexual pleasure, women are on average less inclined than men to pursue or enjoy sex.

Ending a Relationship

Women are more likely than men to be aware of their relationship and are more likely to recognize problems in the relationship. This coincides with how women accept the need for relationship counseling earlier than men do and are more likely to initiate contact with practitioners and or more likely than husbands to want a divorce, bring up filing for one, and to actually file for a divorce. Women are socialized to be more sensitive than men to the quality and stability of their relationship and will likely be the first to detect what’s wrong with their relationship. Women are more likely than men to be financially dependent on their relationship partners and understandably so, if your survival depends on someone else caring for you, you’re going to make sure your relationship is solid, or you will find another romantic partner.


Once expectations about roles and responsibilities in a romantic relationship are recognized as being negotiable in a relationship and not pre-determined by society or culture, couples will have to question what many generations have, dare I say, blindly accepted and implemented about an intimate relationship. Some couples may experience distress because challenging our assumptions about gender can be confusing and threaten what we see as normal. Other couples will be able to breathe better and be more satisfied with their relationship once they are liberated and embrace an opportunity to choose how sensitive, aggressive, emotional, sexual, independent, and connected they will be as individuals, and as a happy couple in their relationship.

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