Men who are sexist are more likely to underestimate how much power they actually have in their relationships – causing them to act aggressively to their partners, a new study shows.
Researchers at the University of Auckland found sexist men that are aggressive in relationships often have a deep-rooted fear of women having more power than them.
The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, looked at an idea called “hostile sexism” which is based on the notion that women want to control men.
It found men who think women are eager to control them are more inclined to miscalculate how much power they possess in their relationship – leading to increased hostility.
“Aggressive behaviour can have disastrous consequences on a relationship because the female partner is more likely to withdraw, openly share her dissatisfaction and become less committed,” Emily J Cross, the lead author of the study, said.
“This can reinforce a commonly held stereotype among men with sexist beliefs that women are not trustworthy. It’s a vicious cycle.”
The academic said power dynamics in romantic relationships are not as straightforward because even in highly functional and healthy relationships both parties are “inescapably dependent” on each other.
“This mutual dependence constrains an individual’s power. 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 said.
The study looked at how hostile sexism influences power dynamics in relationships and how men and women experience those dynamics. It included 1,096 heterosexual men and women who were all in committed relationships across four experiments.
Researchers asked the participants to fill in surveys about their daily interactions with their partners. In each experiment, the men and women completed surveys about their daily interactions that assessed views of autonomy, sexist attitudes, aggression, the influence of their partner’s behaviour or opinions, relationship satisfaction and security.
In one experiment, the couples spoke on camera about their most serious conflict.
“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,” Ms Cross said.
She said this behaviour was motivated by men trying to restore the perceived power imbalance rather than because they desired more dominance over their partners.
The study also looked at women who have hostile sexist views or believe men are better suited for powerful positions in society and that women should support men’s power. It found these women had less desire for power in their relationships.
“Sexism persists even in highly egalitarian societies and arises from the traditional gender role structure that socialises people to think about men and women differently,” she said.
The piece of research purposely centred on people in romantic relationships and couples but the researchers argue the findings can be helpful in other areas such as the workplace.
“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,” said Nickola Overall, a co-author of the study, said. “If we can lessen the fear some men have about losing power to their partners, then we can reduce aggressive behaviours, and ultimately diminish the power struggles that uphold gender inequality.”
Katherine Twamley, a senior lecturer in sociology at University College London who specialises in gender, love and intimacy, said the findings of the study did not surprise her.
“It makes sense that men with ‘hostile sexist’ attitudes will have a skewed sense of power relations and that they would be more aggressive with their partners,” she said.
“Previous research has shown that the wife’s share of household earnings is positively related to the likelihood of her experiencing abuse from her husband if she is married to a man with a traditional gender ideology,” she continued. “So there is a precedent to this study, in the sense that perceived inequality based on material differences/earnings, in this case, can provoke or encourage traditional, and for sure sexist, men to be abusive, when the man’s status in the relationship is challenged.”
The sociologist said men who have “hostile sexist” attitudes are scared of losing power in relation to women in a range of spheres but in the context of a relationship this manifests itself as a worry of being manipulated or controlled by their other half.
“This then leads to more aggressive interactions as men lash out against the perceived manipulation and in order to ‘rebalance’ what they see as more appropriate power relations within the couple,” she added.
“Other research has shown that where men have egalitarian attitudes, their relationships are more stable … I think sexism needs to be addressed across all spheres. As much scholarship has shown, practices in the family, including within the couple, have repercussions which go far beyond the family context.”
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