I’ve written before about different types of domestic abuse. New research shows that when people subscribe to traditional social norms about gender and romance, they may be more vulnerable to such abuse.
How traditional gender norms can promote domestic abuse
Gender norms highlight the expected or typical behaviour of a person based on their gender.
Traditional gender norms hold men as strong, dominant protectors and women as kind, nurturing caregivers. Gender norms don’t consider gender diversity or fluidity. Although such norms seem positive—emphasising chivalry towards women, for example—these ideals are restrictive of both men and women. Women’s perceived competence may be lowered, and men may be less able to express their emotions and vulnerability.
Many people who hold traditional views of gender have loving, equal relationships.
For others, gender norms can promote a power imbalance that may manifest as abuse within relationships.
Research has shown that women who endorse traditional gender norms are more likely to experience intimate partner violence in their romantic relationships. The same is true for people who believe in traditional romantic beliefs and norms.
Why subscribing to romantic norms makes some women vulnerable to abuse
Traditional romantic norms emphasise the importance of being in a relationship and promote the ideals of love at first sight, one true love, and love conquers all.
These ideals are ever present in Western cultures. Even in early childhood, Disney movies and fairy tales promote love at first sight and the power of love to triumph over all obstacles to an unrealistic degree. Similar messages persist through teen and adult romance novels and films.
Contrary to intuition, women who accept such romantic norms are actually more likely to experience abuse within their romantic relationships.
When internalised, romantic norms may encourage women, in particular, to view their romantic relationship’s success or failure as a reflection of their own self-worth. That’s when such norms can become dangerous.
Accepting romantic norms may motivate people to ignore or romanticise the warning signs of an abusive relationship.
Possessiveness and jealousy can be easily reframed as romantic rather than controlling.
Popular media Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, for example, both strongly romanticise controlling behaviours as a sign of passion and commitment. Characters in both series express the desire to restrict the behaviour of their love interest for reasons motivated by jealousy and possessiveness.
But acting on jealousy in this way by controlling who your partner spends time with and when, is a form of abuse.
Where do we go from here?
Differences and complementarity can lead to mutual respect and care. Vulnerability can be a part of intimacy. In contrast, abuse in romantic relationships is typically about control. Traditional gender norms, and idealised romantic norms provide a framework that can be used to justify or romanticise control and power imbalances. As we move forward we need to challenge our understanding of romance and gender. We need to focus on trust and equality as the foundations of healthy romantic relationships.
- Kiara Minto
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All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.