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Why Sexist Men Think Women Have All the Power in Relationships

Hostile sexism, power struggles, and aggression operate in a toxic love triangle.

Hostile, sexist men tend to believe they have less power in romantic relationships than they actually do, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association. Such perceived power imbalances could cause men to overcompensate with aggression, which can escalate to violence, scientists warn.

“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,” study coauthor Emily J. Cross, a professor of psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, said in a statement. “This can reinforce a commonly held stereotype among men with sexist beliefs that women are not trustworthy. It’s a vicious cycle.”

When men believe that they are in perpetual competition with women for the upper hand, the result is known as hostile sexism.  Such men act out aggressively when they encounter women who threaten their power, such as female leaders, studies suggest. There’s evidence that, the more men endorse hostile sexism, the more they fear their partners will exploit them, or keep them “on a tight leash”. Hostile sexism also appears to increase men’s levels of verbal aggression, and in some instances, their ability to justify domestic violence.

“Power dynamics are not as simple in intimate relationships because even in well-functioning relationships, both partners are inescapably dependent on each other,” Cross explains. “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.”

To learn more about what makes hostile sexist men lash out, Cross and her team conducted a series of four experiments that included a total of 1,096 heterosexual men and women. They assessed each participants’ sexist attitudes, as well as their perceived power in their relationships, aggression, relationship satisfaction, and attachment insecurity through a combination of surveys, diaries, and videotaped sessions of couples talking about their worst conflict. The findings uncovered an association between hostile sexism, perceptions of lower relationship power, and reports or observations of aggression across each experiment. 

“Men who showed more hostile sexist views felt they had less power in their relationships, and those men were more aggressive toward their partners by being critical or unpleasant,” Cross said.

Based on this study alone, researchers cannot conclude that hostile sexism causes men to yell at and demean their partners. Still, study coauthor Nickola Overall, a professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, is confident that perceived power imbalances aren’t the problem, and that hostile sexism is. “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,” Overall said.

“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.”