Interpersonal Relationships - Sexuality, Relationships, and Work

The Psychology of Sex and Gender - Jennifer Katherine Bosson, Joseph Alan Vandello, Camille E. Buckner 2022

Interpersonal Relationships
Sexuality, Relationships, and Work

Consider how people’s ideas about marriage have changed from the 1950s to present.

Source: © Marks;

Test Your Knowledge: True or False?

· 10.1 College students in “friends-with-benefits” sexual relationships report that the quality of their friendship declines after they start to have sex.

· 10.2 In surveys of romantic partner preferences, men tend to rate “physical attractiveness” as more important in a mate than women do, and women tend to rate “good financial prospects” as more important in a mate than men do.

· 10.3 Just over half of all marriages worldwide are arranged marriages in which a relative or family friend selects the marriage partners.

· 10.4 In heterosexual romantic relationships, men tend to experience more jealousy than women do regarding the possibility of their partner falling in love with someone else.

· 10.5 In general, relationship satisfaction decreases after couples have children.


What Roles Do Sex and Gender Play in Social Networks and Friendships?

· Social Networks and Friendships

o Friendship Intimacy

o Cross-Sex Friendships

o Hookups and Friends With Benefits

o LGBTQ+ Friendships

What Roles Do Sex and Gender Play in Interpersonal Attraction?

· Mate Preferences: Similarities and Differences

· Mate Selection: Whom Do We Choose?

· Dating Relationships

o Dating Scripts and Paternalistic Chivalry

o Love and Romance

What Is the Nature of Marriage—Past and Present?

· A Brief Social History of Marriage

· Contemporary Marriage-Like Relationships

o The Changing American Family

o Arranged Versus Autonomous Marriages

o Polygyny and Polyandry

o Consensual Nonmonogamy and Polyamory

What Roles Do Sex and Gender Play in Committed Relationships?

· Happy Relationships: Equity and Love

o Making Decisions

o Dividing Labor and Childcare

o Showing Love

· Relationship Struggles: Jealousy and Conflict

o Jealousy

o Dealing With Conflict

o Debate: Did Women and Men Evolve Different Jealousy Reactions?

· Separation and Divorce

What Roles Do Sex and Gender Play in Parenting and Family Relationships?

· Parent to Parent: Gender and Parental Relationships

· Parent to Child: Gender and Caring for Children


Students who read this chapter should be able to do the following:

· 10.1 Analyze the roles of sex, gender, and LGBTQ+ status in social networks, friendships, and friendship intimacy.

· 10.2 Evaluate major theoretical perspectives on sex similarities and differences in mate preferences and mate choices.

· 10.3 Explain the roles of gender and gender norms in dating relationships and romance.

· 10.4 Describe diverse marital arrangements across sociohistorical contexts, races and ethnicities, cultures, and sexual orientations.

· 10.5 Analyze sex differences and similarities in the factors that contribute to relationship satisfaction, conflict, and separation.

· 10.6 Describe the roles of sex and gender in parenting and family relationships.


What do you envision when you think of a “traditional marriage”? Historically, for many Westerners, this term called to mind an image of a (typically White) 1950s-style couple composed of a breadwinner husband and a homemaker wife who married out of love after a romantic (but sexually chaste) courtship and then had two or three children together. Happy to divide work and family roles along typical gender lines, this couple did not divorce, even when the going got tough. As historian Stephanie Coontz (2006) notes, however, this form of “traditional marriage” is far from typical. Instead, it was unique to a specific location and time in history, reaching its heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s in Western Europe and North America and then morphing into something different. This form of marriage was not just short-lived but exclusive as well, for only people of certain economic classes could comfortably support a family on a single income. The iconic image of the single-earner, traditional marriage did not represent low-income, working-class, and racial and ethnic minority individuals. Thus, while marriage has existed in every known human society, it has only rarely looked like the Western traditional marriage of the 1950s.

In fact, marriage has assumed many different forms throughout history, continually being shaped and reshaped by the unique cultural and social conditions in which it occurs. But even though marriage has differed in form across time and culture, the purposes of marriage have remained largely unchanged: Marriage expands family networks, builds community, merges resources, supports offspring, and legitimizes inheritances. In other words, marriage helps people meet core needs by connecting us to one another.

In this chapter, we start with the assumption that humans are a social species, hardwired to form connections with each other. These connections take many forms, including large, extended networks of acquaintances, small friend groups, domestic partnerships, parent—child attachments, and extended family relationships. Regardless of pressures to conform to dominant cultural and historical traditions, people have always demonstrated flexibility and creativity in how they structure their relationships, networks, and families. Here, we will cover a diverse range of relationship types and family structures. With each type of relationship, we will consider how sex and gender shape the kinds of connections we seek, the ways we bond with others, and the outcomes of relationships for health and well-being.


People have a powerful need to feel connected to others. According to social psychologists, meeting our need to belong aids survival and well-being in the same way that meeting our needs for air, food, and water does. Having frequent, emotionally positive interactions with a small number of other people can help satisfy the need to belong. When people do not meet their need to belong, a host of maladies ensues, including disease vulnerability, depression and mental illness, criminality, and even premature death (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). In fact, a meta-analysis of over 300,000 participants indicated that those with stronger social relationships had a 50% increase in their chances of survival (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010). People often meet the need to belong by developing social networks and friendships. While the study of social networks yields insight into the quantity of social connections that people have, the study of friendships allows insight into the quality of people’s connections.

Need to belong The fundamental need for a small number of close relationships that offer frequent, positive interactions.

Social Networks and Friendships

Social networks are the extended circles of people with whom we interact regularly, whether or not we know them well or feel close to them. Larger social networks can indicate better social integration, which predicts positive psychological and physical health outcomes (Cable, Bartley, Chandola, & Sacker, 2013). For example, in one classic study of randomly sampled households in California, Berkman and Syme (1979) tracked people over time and found that those with smaller social networks died earlier, from all causes of death, than those with more social connections, even controlling for things like initial health status, smoking, and exercise. This pattern emerged at all age groups, from ages 30 through 70. This likely occurs for two reasons: First, people with larger social networks get more assistance and social support from others, and second, spending time with others in pleasurable activities has positive effects on the immune system (Dunbar, 2018). Thus, in a very real sense, our survival and well-being depend on our connections to others.

Social network The extended circle of people with whom individuals regularly interact.

What role does gender play in social networks? The average social network contains about 150 people, and this does not differ by sex. However, there are some sex differences in the structure of social networks. To understand this, think of a social network as a set of concentric circles embedded within each other. In the center circle is the individual person; in the next circle is a small number (e.g., 5) of the person’s closest friends; in the next circle is a larger number (e.g., 15) of somewhat less close friends; in the next circle is an even larger number (e.g., 50) of even less close friends; and so on. While women and men tend to have the same average number of people in their entire social networks (i.e., across all of the concentric circles), women tend to have more people in the center circles of their networks than men do. Put another way, women tend to have more members of their social networks that they consider close friends (Dunbar, 2018). Further, women tend to spend more time with their networks, view their networks as more emotionally available, and get more emotional support from their networks than men do (Pines & Zaidman, 2003). Women also tend to offer more responsive and attentive support to network members than men do (Monin & Clark, 2011), a finding that may remind you of our discussion of sex differences in supportive communication from Chapter 8 (“Language, Communication, and Emotion”). Thus, people of all sexes benefit from having more women in their social networks.

Another sex difference lies in the importance of having a spouse or romantic partner in one’s social network. Living with a partner or spouse predicts mental health better for men than for women. For example, whereas unpartnered men in their 40s have lower well-being in their 50s compared with partnered men, women’s romantic partnership status in their 40s does not predict their well-being in their 50s (Cable et al., 2013). This pattern means that intimate partnerships tend to have more bearing on the health of men than women, a finding we will revisit in later sections.

Finally, social network composition often differs by race and ethnicity. For instance, in the United States, extended family tends to play a larger role in the social networks of Latinx, Black, and Native American people than it does in the networks of White people (Pernice-Duca, 2010). There are also racial and ethnic differences in the extent to which social networks provide support versus add stress. Due to structural racism in the United States, African American individuals are more likely to experience the deaths of friends and family members in their social networks—and at younger ages—than are White individuals (Umberson, 2017). They are also more likely than their White counterparts to have members of their social networks lose their jobs, suffer illness and injury, and be incarcerated. This greater exposure to adversity and trauma within social networks can take its toll, especially on African American women, who experience pressure to be strong and provide support for the members of their social networks (Woods-Giscombé, Lobel, Zimmer, Cené, & Corbie-Smith, 2015).

What about friendships? While friends are certainly part of our social networks, friendships tend to be defined more by the closeness and quality of the connection that people share. Regardless of their sex, most people report wanting trustworthy and dependable friends who are similar to them and with whom they can share activities (J. A. Hall, 2011). Similarly, women and men both report desiring closeness and intimacy in their same-sex friendships (Sanderson, Rahm, & Beigbeder, 2005). And yet, despite wanting these same things, women and men seem to do friendship somewhat differently. Women’s same-sex friendships involve higher levels of shared emotions, personal disclosure, talking through problems, and social support (Rose, Smith, Glick, & Schwartz-Mette, 2016). In contrast, men’s same-sex friendships tend to involve higher levels of shared activities and conversations about relatively nonpersonal topics, such as sports or work. This sex difference is puzzling. If women and men both desire friendships that involve intimacy and closeness, why might these sex differences emerge?

Friendship Intimacy

One hypothesis is that the male gender role discourages certain forms of same-sex closeness. For example, early in life, many boys learn to restrict expressions of vulnerable emotions that might make them appear weak or needy. Moreover, the male gender role discourages intimate bonds with other men because these may raise suspicions about same-sex sexuality. These two factors—emotional restraint and homophobia—explain some of the sex differences in friendship intimacy (Bank & Hansford, 2000). For instance, men with greater concerns about being perceived as gay also disclose less personal information with their same-sex friends, and this partially explains their lower levels of friendship closeness and satisfaction (Morman, Schrodt, & Tornes, 2012). Thus, although men recognize that emotional self-disclosure can lead to intimacy in friendships, some men may avoid it because it violates male gender role norms.

Women’s friendships tend to involve more shared emotions and self-disclosure, while men’s tend to involve more shared activities.

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Another hypothesis, however, is that men’s and women’s same-sex friendships do not differ in intimacy. By equating intimacy with self-disclosure and treating shared activities and self-disclosure as mutually exclusive, researchers might incorrectly attribute more intimacy to female friendships than to male friendships. Women, in fact, do tend to self-disclose somewhat more than men (Dindia & Allen, 1992), and they report having more same-sex friends with whom they can discuss personal topics such as their sex lives (Gillespie, Lever, Frederick, & Royce, 2015), although these sex differences are small (d = −0.18 and −0.10). Moreover, the use of self-disclosure to attain closeness in friendships is equally important for young women and men (Radmacher & Azmitia, 2006). By young adulthood, there are no sex differences in people’s reliance on self-disclosure and shared emotions as routes to friendship intimacy. There are also no sex differences in the amount of personal information that young adults self-disclose on Facebook (Farber & Nitzburg, 2016). Finally, for young men (but not young women), sharing more activities predicts stronger feelings of emotional closeness, especially with their best male friend (Radmacher & Azmitia, 2006). Thus, perhaps men and women do have similarly close friendships, but they achieve closeness in somewhat different ways.

Homosocial perspective An approach proposing that men achieve friendship intimacy in the context of cohesive, hierarchical units that share goals and joint activities and contain opposing emotions (e.g., competition and affection).

The homosocial perspective seeks to understand the unique ways in which men achieve intimacy with one another. This perspective notes that men often organize their relational life by forming cohesive social units characterized by shared goals, joint activities and teamwork, and adherence to group norms. For example, think of leagues that men form to play sports like basketball or soccer. Within these social units, power and status are structured hierarchically, and interactions often contain seemingly opposite emotional experiences, such as competition and affection, aggression and humor, and homophobia and male—male intimacy. Through this interplay of opposing emotions, men form intense emotional bonds with one another that meet their needs for closeness (D. Kaplan & Rosenmann, 2014).

The homosocial perspective thus proposes that women’s and men’s friendships both allow for intimacy but via different social dynamics. While men’s intimacy tends to stem from larger, hierarchically organized groups and interactions containing opposing emotions, women tend to achieve intimacy in the context of dyadic relationships, with a few close friends. The profile pictures that people post to social networking sites reveal this sex difference in friendship preferences. As you may recall from Chapter 4 (“Gender Development”), an analysis of over 112,000 Facebook profile pictures from all major world regions found that men more often appeared in photos of large all-male groups, while women more often appeared in photos of two women (David-Barrett et al., 2015). What does the cross-cultural consistency of these patterns suggest to you? Regardless of whether people of different sexes achieve friendship intimacy via slightly different routes, friendships play a very important role in people’s lives: For both women and men, satisfaction with friendships is a strong predictor of overall life satisfaction (Gillespie et al., 2015).

Cross-Sex Friendships

Cross-sex friendships between women and men—while relatively rarer in early and middle childhood—become quite common by the time people reach college age, at least in Western cultures. One study found that U.S. college women and men both reported an average of about four close cross-sex friends (Bleske & Buss, 2000). To a large degree, people desire and appreciate the same things in cross-sex friends as they do in same-sex friends, including kindness, honesty, humor, companionship, and openness. One difference, however, is that cross-sex friends can offer unique insight into the romantic preferences of the other sex. Young heterosexual adults seek more advice from cross-sex than same-sex friends about the mating desires of the other sex (Bleske & Buss, 2000), and they feel less competition in cross-sex than in same-sex friendships (Rawlins, 2009).

Audience problem The tendency for observers to assume that platonic friends are romantically involved; especially likely to occur in cross-sex friendships.

One issue that may complicate cross-sex friendships is the audience problem, which occurs when others assume that two friends are romantically involved. Cross-sex friends more frequently encounter the audience problem than same-sex friends do, likely due to the pervasiveness of heterocentrism (the tendency to assume heterosexuality as the norm). For example, gossip websites such as TMZ and E! News feature “New Couple Alert” posts that contain pictures of platonic cross-sex friends accompanied by speculation about the romantic nature of their friendship (McDonnell & Mehta, 2016). These types of media images reinforce the notions that women and men cannot be platonic friends, that cross-sex friends are more likely than same-sex friends to be lovers, and that the ulterior (romantic or sexual) motives of cross-sex friends should be scrutinized. Not surprisingly, the romantic partners of people with cross-sex best friends sometimes feel lukewarm about these friendships. In fact, engaged (as compared to single, dating, and married) heterosexual people tend to hold the most negative attitudes about cross-sex best friendships (Gilchrist-Petty & Bennett, 2019). This may be because the stress of preparing for a major life change can heighten the jealousy that some people feel about a partner’s cross-sex friendships.


In your view, who has more intimate friendships: women or men? Why? Is it reasonable to define intimacy solely in terms of self-disclosure? How might intimacy develop through shared activities? Are self-disclosure and shared activities mutually exclusive in friendships? What do you think is the best way to define intimacy?

In some cases, audiences who assume a romantic connection between cross-sex friends may be responding to genuine cues of attraction. That is, people who actually do feel more romantic and sexual desire for a cross-sex friend and who have sex with their cross-sex friend experience the audience problem more often (Schoonover & McEwan, 2014). In strictly platonic cross-sex friendships, in which neither partner desires a romantic or sexual connection, audiences less frequently assume that the relationship is romantic.

Cross-sex friendships between straight women and gay men also reduce the likelihood of the audience problem. Both members of these pairs view these friendships as especially useful because they allow for an exchange of valuable mating advice without concerns about sexual interest, competition, or ulterior motives. In fact, straight women rate dating advice from a gay man as more trustworthy than advice from either a straight woman or a straight man, and gay men rate dating advice from a straight woman as more trustworthy than dating advice from a lesbian or a gay man (E. M. Russell, DelPriore, Butterfield, & Hill, 2013).

Friendship patterns vary across cultures, particularly in terms of cross-sex friendships. In general, adolescents in Western—relative to Eastern—cultures more frequently have cross-sex friends and engage in casual dating with other-sex partners (Z. H. Li, Connolly, Jiang, Pepler, & Craig, 2010). However, this may be changing due to the spreading reach of Western ideas and media. One study measured the cross-sex friendships of South Asian Indian college students in three settings that differed in their exposure to Western culture: single-sex Indian schools with minimal Western exposure (traditional), coeducational Indian schools with some Western influences (transitioning), and Canadian schools with full immersion in Western culture (diaspora). The proportions of students who spent time with mixed-sex peers and casually dated an other-sex partner were highest among students in the diaspora group and lowest among those in the traditional group. Similarly, students in the diaspora group reported more cross-sex friendships than those in the transitional and traditional groups (Dhariwal & Connolly, 2013).

Hookups Uncommitted sexual encounters.

Friends with benefits Arrangements in which two friends have occasional, casual sexual interactions without the expectation of a romantic relationship.

Hookups and Friends With Benefits

In the latter half of the 20th century, attitudes about the permissibility of premarital sex changed substantially in the United States. From the early 1970s through 2012, the percentages of adults who called premarital sex “not at all wrong” climbed from 29% to 58% (Twenge, Sherman, & Wells, 2015). In fact, many young adults today report engaging in casual, uncommitted sexual encounters, or hookups (Garcia, Reiber, Massey, & Merriwether, 2012). Friends with benefits arrangements (FWBs) are a specific type of hookup in which two friends have occasional, casual sexual interactions without the expectation of a romantic relationship. While it is difficult to estimate the prevalence of FWBs precisely, one study found that 54% of men and 43% of college women reported at least one FWB arrangement in the past year (Owen & Fincham, 2011). Rates of both hookups and FWBs may differ, however, by race and other factors. Among college students, White and male students report more experience with hookups than Latinx and female students (Eaton, Rose, Interligi, Fernandez, & McHugh, 2016), and FWBs tend to be higher among students who are White, younger, and less religious (Kalish & Kimmel, 2011).

Chosen families The friend circles of LGBTQ+ individuals that stand in for biological families and consist largely of individuals who understand the unique challenges of being LGBTQ+.

Research identifies several different types of FWBs that vary in the degree to which the sexual contact is truly “expectation free.” In one study, about one-third of FWBs contained at least one partner who desired to shift their friendship to a romantic relationship (Mongeau, Knight, Williams, Eden, & Shaw, 2013). Just as with cross-sex friendships, FWBs can bring a unique set of complications, especially when partners do not explicitly define the nature of their friendship. Nonetheless, in one study of college students, about two-thirds of students who reported FWBs said that sex improved the quality of their friendship (Afifi & Faulkner, 2000). Further, young adults who enjoy making sacrifices for their FWB partner, out of a sense of being “a team” together, tend to have happier and more trusting friendships with these partners (Owen, Fincham, & Polser, 2017).

LGBTQ+ Friendships

Historically, sexual and gender identity minority (LGBTQ+) individuals have had less supportive families than heterosexual individuals. While this may be changing as awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people increases, troubled family relationships remain a theme for members of the LGBTQ+ community. For this reason, sexual and gender identity minority individuals often place special importance on social networks and friendships to meet their belonging needs, and they often befriend each other. For example, same-sex-attracted high school students tend to seek out other same-sex-attracted students, forming reciprocal friendships that may shield them from some of the negative consequences of stigmatization (Martin-Storey, Cheadle, Skalamera, & Crosnoe, 2015). In adulthood, LGBTQ+ individuals often gravitate toward intentional communities of LGBTQ+ friends. Such friend communities may serve as chosen families, or friend circles that stand in for biological families and consist largely of individuals who understand the unique challenges of being LGBTQ+ (Hammack, Frost, & Hughes, 2019). Chosen families are often an important source of social support for LGBTQ+ individuals, and especially so for sexual minority men—in fact, gay and bisexual men depend more on their chosen families for support than lesbian and bisexual women do (Frost, Meyer, & Schwartz, 2016). One qualitative interview study of queer Latino men at primarily White undergraduate institutions found that these men were adept at seeking out chosen familia on campus consisting of faculty, staff, and older students who stood in for biological family members (Duran & Pérez, 2019). They then relied heavily on their chosen familia to help them navigate the college experience, access opportunities, and thrive. Interestingly, some research indicates that transgender adults tend to have larger and more diverse friend networks than do LGB individuals (Erosheva, Kim, Emlet, & Fredriksen-Goldsen, 2016). This may reflect the fact that transgender friendship communities often develop online, allowing large groups of people to connect across geographical distances (Beemyn & Rankin, 2011).

The FX television show Pose follows the lives of a group of Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ dancers and performers who live, work, and socialize within the context of close-knit, chosen families. Here, the cast of Pose is photographed on June 5, 2019.

Source: lev radin / Alamy Stock Photo

Sexual minority women in passionate friendships tend to share a lot of physical touch.

Source: ©

When it comes to close friendships, sexual minority women are especially likely to form intense friendships with other women that sometimes skirt the boundaries between friendship and romance. Lisa Diamond (2002) studies what she calls passionate friendships between sexual minority women. As you may recall from Chapter 9 (“Sexual Orientation and Sexuality”), passionate friendships tend to contain elements usually associated with romantic relationships, such as intense longing for proximity, high levels of affection and emotionality, and large amounts of physical touch (e.g., cuddling and hand-holding). For some sexual minority women, these friendships become sexual and may serve as their first same-sex sexual experiences.

Passionate friendships Friendships characterized by intense longing for proximity, high levels of affection, and large amounts of physical touch (e.g., cuddling and hand-holding).


What roles do sex and gender play in attraction, dating, romance, and love? In this section, we will address these questions, identifying both similarities and differences in how people of different sexes experience attraction and love.

Mate Preferences: Similarities and Differences

When it comes to mate preferences—the qualities that people claim to desire in mates—most people want essentially similar things. Most adolescents and young adults desire partners who love them, who have favorable traits (dependability, emotional stability, intelligence, and sociability), and who are similar to them and want the same things that they want (Boxer, Noonan, & Whelan, 2015). These mate preferences do not differ much by sex or sexual orientation (Lippa, 2007), although not everyone is interested in having romantic relationship partners. As you may recall from the previous chapter, some people identify as aromantic and lack romantic interest in others.

Mate preferences Qualities that people claim to desire in a potential sexual or romantic mate.

Figure 10.1 shows U.S. college undergraduates’ ratings of the importance of 18 different qualities, arranged according to their average importance ratings (Boxer et al., 2015). What do you find interesting about Figure 10.1? Note that although women tend to rate most of the qualities as more important than men do, the sex differences are generally small. Furthermore, the three most important qualities desired by both women and men are those that reveal a dependable, stable, and loving partner. That said, the sex differences that emerge on some partner qualities attract a great deal of research attention, so let’s consider these.


Figure 10.1 U.S. Undergraduates’ Mate Preferences by Sex

Source: Adapted from Boxer, Noonan, and Whelan (2015).

Notes: Ratings were made on scales of 0 (unimportant/irrelevant in a mate) to 3 (essential in a mate).

Women and men tend to differ in the importance that they place on a partner’s physical attractiveness, domestic (homemaking and childcare) competence, and earning potential (e.g., social status, resources, and ambition). As you can see in Figure 10.1, men tend to rate “good looks” and “good cook, housekeeper” as more important in a mate than women do, and women tend to rate “good financial prospects” and “ambition, industriousness” as more important than men do. Although these average sex differences have diminished somewhat over time (Bech-Sørensen & Pollet, 2016), they appear in self-reports of mate preferences, and they replicate across cultures that otherwise differ a great deal, including the United States, Singapore, Japan, Bulgaria, Sweden, India, Nigeria, and Zambia (N. P. Li, Valentine, & Patel, 2011; Shackelford, Schmitt, & Buss, 2005). Moreover, gay and straight men alike both tend to prioritize the looks of potential mates more than lesbian and straight women do (Lawson, James, Jannson, Koyama, & Hill, 2014; Lippa, 2007). However, lesbians tend to prioritize earning potential less than straight women do, instead emphasizing personality traits such as honesty (C. A. Smith, Konik, & Tuve, 2011).

This pattern of sex differences in mating preferences depends on the type of relationship that people consider when indicating their preferences. The pattern just described, with men generally prioritizing looks over earning potential and women generally prioritizing earning potential over looks, tends to emerge when people consider long-term mates with whom they might raise a family. In contrast, when considering short-term (“one-night stand”) partners, both women and men tend to prioritize physical attractiveness over other qualities (N. P. Li & Kenrick, 2006).

Sex differences in mate preferences also differ by race. One relatively dated study found that Black women were more likely than White women to say that they would marry someone without a steady job, and White women were more likely than Black women to say that they would marry someone who was not attractive (Sprecher, Sullivan, & Hatfield, 1994). In more recent research, young Black women list physical attractiveness and potential for success (drive, ambition) as top characteristics desired in ideal partners (Longmire-Avital & Reavis, 2017), and both Black women and Black men report desiring financial stability and high earning potential in their ideal marriage partners (King & Allen, 2009). Despite this, longstanding racism in the United States (which contributes to Black men’s higher rates of unemployment, incarceration, and early death) generally limits the availability of high-earning Black men as dating and marriage partners for heterosexual Black women (Bayer & Charles, 2018; Longmire-Avital & Reavis, 2017). These nuanced findings illustrate the importance of taking an intersectional approach when studying mate preferences.

Two theoretical approaches are typically offered to explain sex differences in mate preferences. According to parental investment theory (which you encountered in Chapter 5, “The Contents and Origins of Gender Stereotypes”), female members of many species are especially picky when choosing mates because they invest more than males do in each offspring (Trivers, 1972). Because mating with a low-quality partner carries more risk for women than it does for men, women should display a stronger preference for partners who can offer resources and protection. In contrast, men should show a stronger preference for partners who are attractive because physical attractiveness indicates reproductive and genetic health. Men should also desire female partners who display good childcare skills, as this enhances the survival of offspring. In short, the evolutionary perspective argues that women’s tendency to emphasize resource provision and men’s tendency to emphasize attractiveness and childcare abilities enhanced our ancestors’ reproductive success. Moreover, these preferences should not differ across sexual orientations, because they are assumed to have evolved as sex-linked traits (Kenrick, Keefe, Bryan, Barr, & Brown, 1995). As noted, evidence of these sex differences emerges in dozens of cultures across six continents, which some view as support for parental investment theory (Shackelford et al., 2005).

In contrast, the sociocultural perspective views sex differences in mate preferences as a product of social roles and labor divisions rather than genes. When women primarily perform unpaid domestic labor and have access to fewer economic resources than men, they benefit from selecting partners who can offer financial support. When men primarily occupy wage-earning roles outside the home, they benefit from selecting female partners who are physically attractive and demonstrate good childcare potential, as these qualities indicate a mate who can successfully reproduce and care for children. In support of this perspective, the tendency to prioritize earning potential over attractiveness in mates reverses among financially independent women (Moore, Cassidy, Law Smith, & Perrett, 2006). Sex differences in mate preferences are also consistently weaker—and sometimes reversed—among men and women who reject traditional gender role ideologies (Eastwick et al., 2006) and in nations with higher gender equality scores (Zentner & Eagly, 2015). In Finland and Germany, two countries with very high gender equality indices, women rate a partner’s good housekeeping skills as more important than men do. Female Belgian college students with high career aspirations likewise rate family-oriented, communal men as most attractive (Meeussen, Van Laar, & Verbruggen, 2019). Finally, sex differences in mate preferences have declined over time, as the domestic and employment roles of women and men have grown increasingly similar (Bech-Sørensen & Pollet, 2016). These patterns suggest that sex differences in mate preferences partly reflect sex differences in social roles and women’s access to economic resources.

Mate Selection: Whom Do We Choose?

Surveys about the qualities that people desire in a partner are an efficient way to gather data, but they may not be realistic. Do the qualities we think are important predict our romantic evaluations of real people? If so, then we should see that ratings of partners’ physical attractiveness predict romantic interest and liking more strongly among men than among women, while ratings of partners’ financial prospects predict romantic interest and liking more strongly among women than among men. But this does not appear to be the case. In fact, a meta-analysis revealed that physical attractiveness predicted romantic evaluations of partners moderately strongly (r = .40 to .43) for both women and men, and financial prospects predicted romantic evaluations of partners weakly (r = .09 to .12) for both women and men (Eastwick, Luchies, Finkel, & Hunt, 2014). This suggests that the sex differences often observed in studies of mate preferences may not strongly guide reactions to real, in-the-flesh, potential mates.

Partner homogamy The tendency for people to bond and mate with others who are similar to them on demographic, personality, background, and physical attributes.

So, what guides people’s choice of mates? There are several factors that predict interpersonal attraction, and these are summarized in Table 10.1. One especially influential factor, however, is similarity. Partner homogamy refers to the universal tendency for people to bond and mate with others who are similar to them on a wide range of variables, including personality, attitudes, intelligence, body type, background, education, and even disease risk (Robinson et al., 2017; Youyou, Stillwell, Schwartz, & Kosinski, 2017). Homogamous partners are familiar, they validate people’s worldviews, and they reduce the likelihood of interpersonal conflicts. Members of same-sex couples, however, tend to show less partner homogamy than members of heterosexual couples (Verbakel & Kalmijn, 2014). Why do you think this occurs? Some suggest that the smaller total pool of potential partners for gay men and lesbians reduces their likelihood of meeting highly similar partners. Same-sex-attracted individuals are also less likely than heterosexual people to meet their partners in settings characterized by high levels of homogamy, such as schools and workplaces (Kalmijn & Flap, 2001). Instead, sexual minority individuals more often meet potential partners in urban settings where they tend to encounter large numbers of people from diverse backgrounds.

Table 10.1

Research on liking and attraction identifies all of these as factors that predict attraction to others and choice of specific others as mates

Source: Summarized from Riela, Rodriguez, Aron, Xu, and Acevedo (2010).

The principle of partner homogamy refers to the powerful tendency for people to bond with others who are similar in background, personality, and attitudes.

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Dating Relationships

By the time they reach the age of 18, most U.S. adolescents (about 70%) have experienced at least one dating relationship (Furman & Hand, 2006). As you may recall from Chapter 4 (“Gender Development”), these rates do not differ much by race or ethnicity, with the exception that dating rates are somewhat lower among Asian adolescents than among White, Black, Latinx, and Native American adolescents (Carver et al., 2003). Dating rates also do not differ much between heterosexual and same-sex-oriented adolescents in the United States (Diamond & Lucas, 2004; Kaestle, 2019). While relatively little is known about the dating experiences of transgender adolescents, one study of Dutch teenagers found somewhat lower rates of dating among transgender than cisgender adolescents (66% versus 76%; Bungener, Steensma, Cohen-Kettenis, & de Vries, 2017). However, regardless of people’s sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity, the bottom line is that most people in Western cultures start to experience dating and romantic relationships at some point during adolescence. In this section, we will discuss one dating domain in which gender seems to play a pretty powerful role (gendered expectations regarding power and chivalry) and another in which gender makes little difference (experiences of love and romance).

Dating Scripts and Paternalistic Chivalry

Dating scripts are stereotyped, cognitive representations of the sequences of events and behaviors that occur during dates. Social norms about heterosexual dating dictate that men should play the more powerful and active role, while women should passively await male attention. In fact, a review of studies published from 1980 through 2010 found that young women’s and men’s dating scripts for first dates did not differ much over a 20-year period (A. A. Eaton & Rose, 2011). More recent research demonstrates that these scripts emerge in early adolescence (between the ages of 10 and 14), across a diverse range of cultures, and consistently emphasize boys’ greater initiative and status in romantic relationships (Moreau et al., 2019). In adulthood, heterosexual women and men expect men to plan first dates, select the venue and activities, pick their date up, and pay for the date. If sexual contact occurs, men are expected to initiate it. Dating scripts for same-sex couples parallel those for heterosexual couples in terms of the expected events and activities (Peplau & Fingerhut, 2007), although they obviously lack the same expectation of sex differences in who controls the date.

Dating scripts Stereotyped, cognitive representations of the sequences of events that take place during dates.

Paternalistic chivalry, another heterosexual dating norm that has not changed much over the past several decades, refers to the expectation that men should be both protective and polite toward women in romantic contexts, treating dates like “ladies” and offering to pay for them (A. A. Eaton & Rose, 2011). As you may recall from Chapter 6 (“Power, Sexism, and Discrimination”), paternalistic chivalry reflects benevolent sexism, or the belief that women are more virtuous than men and ought to be cherished and protected. Women and men both view paternalistic chivalry favorably in dating contexts (McCarty & Kelly, 2015), although those who score higher in benevolent sexism endorse this dating norm more strongly (Paynter & Leaper, 2016).

Paternalistic chivalry The norm that dictates that men should be protective of women and treat them as if they are special and virtuous.


Consider some common heterosexual dating norms. Should men hold open doors for women? Is it okay for women to ask men out for a first date? Who should pay on a first date? Should a woman propose marriage to a man? If a couple marries, should the woman adopt her male partner’s last name? When Paynter and Leaper (2016) asked college students these questions, they found evidence of some relationship double standards. Both men and women were more comfortable with men paying for first dates and proposing marriage, and they were more comfortable with women adopting their partner’s last name. Women and men also expected men to ask women out on a first date rather than the reverse, although men held this expectation less strongly than women did. Men also expected men to hold doors open for women rather than the reverse, while women felt that both men and women should hold doors for each other.

What about hookups and FWBs? As noted earlier, it is becoming increasingly common for North American young adults to pursue casual sexual encounters and relationships (Garcia et al., 2012), although research shows greater hookup frequency among White students compared to Latinx students (Eaton et al., 2016). Does this form of dating still follow traditional norms and scripts? To some degree, it does. As A. A. Eaton and Rose (2011) noted, hookup scripts afford men more power than women over the initiation of physical contact. Men also perceive themselves as gaining status from hookups, while women more frequently feel that they lose status. Finally, women report more guilt and regret about hookups than men do. These patterns reflect traditional gender role norms that afford men more sexual freedom than women. For this reason, it may not be surprising that more college men than women expect to participate in hookups (Olmstead, Conrad, & Anders, 2019).

Love and Romance

Who do you think is more romantic about love and falls in love more easily: women or men? The findings regarding sex differences in love and romance are mixed. Despite stereotypes of women as the more romantic sex, some research reveals that women and men generally think of and experience love in similar ways, as an affectionate feeling of deep attachment to another (Fehr, 2006). Moreover, several studies find no sex differences in how frequently or easily people fall in love (Galperin & Haselton, 2010; Riela, Rodriguez, Aron, Xu, & Acevedo, 2010), and rates of falling in love appear similar between transgender and cisgender people (Bungener et al., 2017). Regardless of sex and gender identity, college-age individuals want their romantic partners to demonstrate love in similar ways, by verbalizing affection, sharing sexual intimacy, and performing caring actions. For example, among transgender and nonbinary individuals, a romantic partner’s expression of support and validation of their gender identity is seen as a powerful love act (Galupo, Pulice-Farrow, Clements, & Morris, 2019). One study of sex differences in desired love behaviors found only one significant effect: Women, on average, report a stronger desire than men for partners to show love with acts such as being a good listener, spending time talking, and creating a feeling of security (Perrin et al., 2011). In short, the sexes may be more similar than different when it comes to how they experience love and romance.


Over the past half century, women have pushed for equal treatment to men in domains of work, academics, athletics, and legal rights, among others. Given this, why do you think women still accept—and even appreciate—inequitable treatment when it comes to dating and romance? Why are traditional gendered dating scripts so persistent? How might people benefit from following traditional scripts in the domains of dating and romance?


Marriage—the practice of formalizing a domestic bond between individuals—has long been a central part of human societies. However, marriages and marriage-like relationships have changed a great deal over time. In this section, we briefly summarize the social history of marriage to offer a context for understanding contemporary marital and family arrangements.

A Brief Social History of Marriage

Throughout human history, marriage has rarely been about the romantic desires of the individual marriage partners (Coontz, 2006). Instead, marriage has served the primary purposes of expanding family networks, sharing resources, and increasing the family labor source. In line with these practical goals of marriage, decisions about who should marry whom have rarely been based on romance or love. Most marriages throughout history have been arranged, often negotiated by parents and other kin, neighbors, or religious leaders.

Marriage rights and protections have not been extended evenly to all people across time. For example, although African women and men who were enslaved in America in the 17th through 19th centuries regularly entered into marital arrangements with each other, these unions were not legally sanctioned and protected until the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865 (Goring, 2006). Furthermore, marriages have historically afforded men more authority, power, and freedom than women. Throughout history, women have had relatively little say in their choice of partners, and once married, they have often been considered property of their husbands. For example, in the Middle Ages—and continuing through 18th-century British colonial America—a woman legally became a feme covert when she married, transferring her identity, belongings, and rights to her husband (Gundersen & Gampel, 1982). Some effects of these legal practices have persisted into the modern era; for instance, men have been legally allowed to beat their wives, demand sex from them, and divorce them if no children are produced (Coontz, 2006). In this way, marriage has largely been a patriarchal arrangement that institutionalized men’s power over women.

Feme covert The legal status of married women in British common law and American colonial law, whereby women transferred their identities and rights to their husband upon marriage.

These customs have changed gradually over time, particularly in Western cultures. The practice of marrying for love originated in Western Europe sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries (Coontz, 2006), and by the end of the 1700s, love-based marriage was the cultural ideal in Western Europe and North America (although arranged marriages remain the norm in many other cultures, as you will read later). At the same time, women’s status improved within marriages over time, largely as a result of feminist efforts. For example, women began earning voting rights in Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand in the late 19th century, and they earned full suffrage in the United States in 1920. In 1960, the birth control pill became commercially available, giving women more control over reproduction. In the 1970s, a cascade of groundbreaking legal decisions in the United States curtailed gender discrimination in educational and financial contexts, criminalized domestic violence, and guaranteed women the right to abortion. Over the past several decades, the work and family roles of women and men have become increasingly similar in the United States, Europe, Canada, and Australia (Bailey & DiPrete, 2016; Bianchi, Robinson, & Milkie, 2006). How have these shifts changed the face of marriage?

Contemporary Marriage-Like Relationships

As noted in the chapter opening, the traditional marriage configuration of the 1950s and 1960s was short-lived. Since the 1960s, social and economic changes in the United States led to several major changes in American families (summarized in Figure 10.2). For example, by ruling the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—which federally defined marriage as between one man and one woman—unconstitutional in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across the country. Let’s examine these changes further.


Figure 10.2 Race and Ethnicity Differences in American Family Variables

Source: Pew Research Center (2015) and W. Wang and Parker (2014).

The Changing American Family

Americans today are marrying at lower rates than ever before. Whereas only 9% of American adults ages 25 or older had never been married in 1960, the percentage was 20% in 2012 (W. Wang & Parker, 2014). These rates differ by race, with larger percentages of Latinx and Black adults, relative to Asian and White adults, reporting “never married” status. By 2017, about 10% of American LGB individuals were married to a same-sex partner (Masci, Brown, & Kiley, 2019). While most adults marry, they marry later today than they did in the 1960s (see Figure 10.3), and more couples are cohabiting and remarrying than ever before (Geiger & Livingston, 2019). The American family has been declining in size, too. Women are having fewer children, and they are having their first child at older ages (Pew Research Center, 2015).

More women are also having children outside of marriage. Whereas only 5% of births occurred outside of marriage in 1960, this percentage rose to 40% by 2014. Nonmarital birth patterns show both similarities and differences by race and ethnicity. In terms of similarities, nonmarital birth rates increased from 1990 to 2016 for Black, Latina, and White women at all education levels, and women with less education (regardless of race) have more nonmarital births than women with more education. In terms of differences, the number of nonmarital births increased more for White and Latina women from 1990 to 2016 compared to Black women (Wildsmith, Manlove, & Cook, 2018). Despite this, as shown in Figure 10.2, Black women have the highest rates of nonmarital births (71%), followed by Latina women (53%) and then by White women (29%), regardless of education levels. Socioeconomic status and racism likely play a role in producing these differences. Latina and Black women, especially those with fewer economic resources and less education, may delay marriage in order to establish economic security, thus increasing their likelihood of having children outside of marriage. Furthermore, the structural racism that contributes to higher rates of unemployment, incarceration, and early death among Black men limits the eligible relationship partners of heterosexual Black women, making them more likely to remain single and raise children outside of marriage (Longmire-Avital & Reavis, 2017; Wildsmith et al., 2018).


Figure 10.3 Americans Are Marrying Later

Source: U.S. Census Bureau (2015).

In 1960, 73% of children under the age of 18 in the United States lived in a family with two married parents in their first marriage. Today, due to increases in divorce, single parenthood, nonmarried cohabitation, and remarriage, 46% of children live in this type of family (Pew Research Center, 2015). In fact, fewer children than ever before (62%) live in households with two married parents today. In 1960, only 9% of children lived with a single parent; today, 26% do. These statistics differ by race, with more than half of Black children and relatively fewer Asian, White, and Latinx children living in single-parent households (see Figure 10.2). In contrast to other racial and ethnic groups, children in Black families are more likely to have grandparents—and especially maternal grandmothers—who contribute substantially to child-rearing (Hirsch, Mickus, & Boerger, 2002). Black children and adolescents also often have a larger number of strong ties to nonparental adults, such as uncles and older brothers, compared with White children and adolescents.

Married women in the United States today have more education than their husbands, and most mothers—regardless of race or ethnicity—are in the labor force. Today, mothers are the primary or sole breadwinners in 40% of families with children living at home, up from 11% in 1960. Among Black mothers, 74% are either the primary or sole family earner (Pew Research Center, 2015).

Arranged Versus Autonomous Marriages

Most marriages throughout human history have been arranged, meaning that third parties, such as parents or relatives of the couple, select pairings based on an assessment of similarity, compatibility, and mutual benefit. Counter to some misconceptions, arranged marriages are typically voluntary, with both partners having the right to refuse the pairing. In contrast, human rights organizations generally oppose forced marriages, or arranged marriages in which the partners have no say. In autonomous marriages (sometimes called love marriages), individuals select their own partners based on attraction, love, or other personal factors, without formal permission or approval from parents or guardians.

Arranged marriage Marriage in which third parties, such as parents or relatives, select potential marriage partners, with both partners having the right to refuse.

Autonomous (love) marriage Marriage in which individuals select their own partners.

Today, just over 53% of all marriages worldwide are arranged (Statistic Brain, 2012). While autonomous marriages predominate in Europe and North America, arranged marriages are common in collectivistic cultures in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, as well as among some religious groups in Europe and North America, such as Orthodox Jewish and Hindu communities (Monger, 2013; Rockman, 1994). Autonomous marriages end in divorce far more often than arranged marriages (50% versus 6%), but does this necessarily mean that arranged marriages are happier than autonomous marriages? The research findings are complex. Some studies find no differences in marital satisfaction between couples in arranged marriages and couples in autonomous marriages (Myers, Madathil, & Tingle, 2005; Regan, Lakhanpal, & Anguiano, 2012). Additional research shows that while Turkish couples in arranged and autonomous marriages do not differ in the amount of perceived conflict in their relationships, those in autonomous marriages report more love and emotional attachment than those in arranged marriages (Imamog˘lu, Ads, & Weisfeld, 2019). In a related vein, some evidence suggests that love in arranged marriages tends to grow over time, whereas love in autonomous marriages tends to weaken (Epstein, Pandit, & Thakar, 2013).


Why do you think autonomous/love marriages end in divorce much more often than arranged marriages? Is it better to arrange marriages or to allow people to choose their relationship partners? What are some of the pros and cons of both types of marital arrangements? How much of your response to this question do you think is guided by your cultural upbringing?

Polygyny Marriage between one husband and multiple wives.

Polyandry Marriage between one wife and multiple husbands.

Consensual nonmonogamy (CNM) A general category of relationship arrangements in which all partners agree that it is acceptable to pursue sexual and/or romantic relationships with others.

Polyamory A type of consensual nonmonogamy in which adults form emotional and romantic connections with more than one other adult partner, with the knowledge and consent of all parties.

Polygyny and Polyandry

In polygamous marriages, one individual is married to more than one other spouse at a time. Polygyny refers to marriage between a husband and multiple wives, while polyandry refers to marriage between a wife and multiple husbands. Throughout history, polygyny has been a common marital arrangement, whereas polyandry is much rarer. For example, while 82% of human societies have permitted polygyny, 1% have permitted polyandry, and the remainder (17%) permit only monogamous marriage (Marlowe, 2000). Many Muslim-majority countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia practice polygyny today, although only a minority of men in polygynous societies marry more than one woman. Polygynous cultures frequently have strict hierarchical political structures, unequal distributions of wealth, higher ratios of women to men, and high levels of infectious diseases (Barber, 2008). These conditions allow small numbers of high-status, physically healthy men to control disproportionate levels of resources, which enables them to support multiple wives and many offspring. While women in such societies may benefit from the protection afforded by joining large, resource-rich households, some research finds that women have poorer mental health and relationship satisfaction in polygynous than in monogamous marriages (Shepard, 2012).

Consensual Nonmonogamy and Polyamory

Consensual nonmonogamy (CNM) refers broadly to any relationship arrangements in which all partners agree that it is acceptable to pursue sexual and/or romantic relationships with more than one other partner (Conley, Moors, Matsick, & Ziegler, 2013). CNMs can be structured in many different ways, reflecting the specific needs and desires of the individuals involved. For instance, partners may designate specific times when it is okay for them to have sex with others, or they may agree that all of them must be present during nonmonogamous encounters (e.g., threesomes or group sex). Polyamory, a specific type of CNM, refers to relationships in which adults form emotional and romantic connections with more than one other adult partner, with the knowledge and consent of all parties. Polyamorists (sometimes referred to as polys) typically view polyamory as a responsible and ethical form of nonmonogamy that differs from casual sex or infidelity (Klesse, 2006).

Some estimates place the number of people involved in CNMs in the United States at about 4% (Conley et al., 2013) and the number of polyamorous individuals in the United States between 1.2 and 9.8 million (Sheff, 2013). However, because many people in Western cultures view monogamy as the ideal relationship form, CNMs tend to be stigmatized, and people in CNMs may remain closeted about their status. This makes accurate prevalence rates of CNMs difficult to determine. Moreover, relatively little research examines CNMs and polyamory, as compared with monogamous relationships. The existing research is largely based on studies of gay men because gay male couples more frequently participate in CNMs than lesbian and heterosexual couples (LaSala, 2005). This research generally finds no noticeable differences in well-being, relationship satisfaction, or relationship longevity between people in monogamous versus CNM relationships (Rubel & Bogaert, 2015). However, stress in CNMs can result when partners stray from their unique relationship agreements or when time management poses challenges. For example, members of polyamorous relationships may struggle to create a schedule that allows everyone the time they desire in specific pairings, groups, or as a whole family (Emens, 2004).

Writer and activist Dan Savage (right) uses the term “monogamish” to describe the type of consensually nonmonogamous relationship he has with his husband, Terry Miller (left).

Source: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo


Polyamory, or the practice of forming emotional and romantic connections with more than one other adult, can take many different forms. Some examples include these: A woman is in love with and has sex with two men; the two men are best friends but do not share a sexual relationship. A four-person family consists of a married male—female couple and two other men who are lovers of the husband and of each other; all four of them have outside sexual relationships that they disclose to each other. A woman has a primary female lover and an occasional female lover; she and her primary lover sometimes have group sex with others, but the primary lover often feels jealousy and anger when the woman spends time alone with her occasional lover. To deal with this, the woman and her primary lover talk regularly and openly about their feelings. Despite their differences, these arrangements all share an emphasis on the core principles of polyamory: honesty, self-knowledge, consent, self-possession, and the prioritizing of love over negative emotions such as jealousy (Emens, 2004).


As we have seen, marriages and committed relationships can assume many forms. However, one thing seems clear: A happy marriage is good for your health. On average, married people—especially those in higher-quality marriages—have better physical health and lower rates of mortality than unmarried people and people in lower-quality marriages (R. M. Kaplan & Kronick, 2006; Robles, Slatcher, Trombello, & McGinn, 2014), and this applies to both heterosexual and same-sex marriages (Du Bois, Legate, & Kendall, 2019). As noted earlier, however, men generally experience more positive health benefits from marriage than do women. In contrast, the costs of unhappy marriage tend to be worse for women than for men. While men in unhappy marriages still tend to have better outcomes than unmarried men, women in unhappy marriages experience higher risk of depression and alcoholism, poorer immune functioning, and increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease than do happily married and never-married women (Balog et al., 2003). So, what makes a committed relationship happy or unhappy? How do people show and maintain love, deal with conflict, and adapt to separation and divorce? In the upcoming sections, we will consider how gender relates to these aspects of committed relationships.

Happy Relationships: Equity and Love

Making Decisions

Members of Western cultures tend to value egalitarian relationships in which partners share power and contribute to decisions equally. This is especially true among same-sex (and particularly lesbian) couples, who rate equality as more essential for their relationships than heterosexual couples do (Peplau & Fingerhut, 2007). When couples share equally in decisions that affect their relationship, they report higher levels of relationship satisfaction (Worley & Samp, 2016). In contrast, unequal decision-making in relationships predicts lower satisfaction for both partners, and in extreme cases, female partners who lack decision-making power face greater risk of domestic violence and higher mortality rates (Hibbard & Pope, 1993; Kaura & Allen, 2004).

That said, almost half of couples studied report at least some power imbalance in their relationships (J. A. Simpson, Farrell, Orina, & Rothman, 2015). When imbalances occur within heterosexual relationships, partners usually agree that the man has more control over decisions. This does not apply in all cases, however. In a study of unmarried Black professionals who were dating, women reported having more power over relationship decisions than men did (L. E. Davis, Williams, Emerson, & Hourd-Bryant, 2000). Davis and his collaborators attributed this pattern to the fact that Black women in the United States have historically worked outside the home, often as primary breadwinners, to a greater degree than White women have. Other research supports this idea, finding that Black married fathers are more likely to contribute to childcare and housework than White married fathers, potentially because Black women have greater relationship power (Munday, Mims, Zaman, & Howard, 2017).

Dividing Labor and Childcare

Most marriages today in the United States consist of dual-earner couples, a pattern shown in other economically developed countries around the world (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2017). It is thus no wonder that fairness of household and childcare labor divisions plays a large role in marital satisfaction in these countries. Couples who share domestic labor more equally report the highest relationship satisfaction, and this holds for both heterosexual and same-sex couples (Kurdek, 2006; Saginak & Saginak, 2005).

Perceived fairness of domestic labor divisions may be more important, however, than actual equality. As you will read in more detail in Chapter 11 (“Work and Home”), members of many heterosexual couples divide labor according to traditional gendered patterns, with wives logging more hours on housework and childcare than husbands. This pattern holds even when women work full-time outside the home (Grunow, Schulz, & Blossfeld, 2012). Nonetheless, if traditional gender beliefs shape people’s views of labor divisions, then couples may still perceive these arrangements as fair. One study of dual-earner heterosexual couples in the United States found that both wives and husbands perceived their labor division as fairer to the extent that they spent a larger proportion of their total work hours on gender-typical tasks (i.e., domestic labor for wives and paid labor for husbands). In turn, perceived fairness of labor divisions predicted relationship satisfaction for both couple members (J. R. Wilkie, Ferree, & Ratcliff, 1998). More recently, a longitudinal study of married women in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland found that perceived fairness of labor divisions predicted marital satisfaction 3 years later (Bodi, Mikula, & Riederer, 2010).

Note, however, that perceived fairness of labor divisions may differ as a function of national gender equality levels. In nations with less gender equality (e.g., Mexico, Chile, Japan), even when women do well more than half of the domestic labor, they do not view this division as particularly unfair. In contrast, in nations with more gender equality (e.g., Norway, Sweden, Denmark), women view even small discrepancies in labor division as very unfair (Greenstein, 2009). Why might this occur? One possibility is that women in nations with lower gender equality view it as normative that they should do more of the household and childcare labor.

If perceptions of labor division fairness are rooted in traditional gender roles, then do nontraditional couples divide labor more equally? Perhaps so. As shown in Figure 10.4, lesbian couples report the most egalitarian divisions of labor, followed by gay and heterosexual cohabiting couples, childless married heterosexual couples, and, finally, married heterosexual parents (Kurdek, 2006). Other factors that may contribute to equal divisions of labor include socioeconomic status and job flexibility. Some research shows that compared with their higher-income counterparts, working-class couples tend to have more gender-traditional divisions of labor in the home (Miller & Sassler, 2012) and less access to flexible work arrangements (Kim, 2018). Even so, longitudinal research documents that gender divisions of labor in low-income and working-class couples are becoming more egalitarian over time (Carlson, Miller, & Sassler, 2018), a trend that will likely continue with greater commitment to structural changes in society that afford lower-income couples increased wages and more flexible work arrangements.


Figure 10.4 Household Labor Divisions by Couple Type

Source: Adapted from Kurdek (2006).

Note: Scores range from 1 (one partner does this all the time) to 5 (we do this equally).

Showing Love

When asked to describe the typical ways that people of their own sex show love, heterosexual men are more likely than women to mention acts that involve displaying resources, such as buying expensive gifts or dinner. In contrast, heterosexual women are more likely than men to list acts that assure commitment and sexual exclusivity, such as displaying affection and engaging in sexual activity (T. J. Wade, Auer, & Roth, 2009). So, do these stereotypes map onto real sex differences in how people show love? Not exactly. When Elizabeth Schoenfeld and her colleagues tracked couples over 13 years of marriage, they found that both wives’ and husbands’ feelings of love for their spouses were positively correlated with affectionate behaviors (e.g., saying “I love you,” showing approval, hugging, holding hands; Schoenfeld, Bredow, & Huston, 2012). However, for wives only, those who reported greater love for their partners showed less negativity (e.g., less criticizing and less complaining). For husbands only, those who reported greater love for partners initiated sex more frequently, engaged in more couple-centered leisure activities, and did a larger percentage of daily housework with their spouses. These sex differences in “love acts” may remind you of the sex differences we noted earlier regarding friendships. Women may be especially likely to show affection by regulating the emotional tone of close relationships, while men may be more likely to show affection by engaging in joint activities.

In heterosexual marriages, husbands who report more love for their spouses also tend to do more joint household tasks.

Source: imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

Relationship Struggles: Jealousy and Conflict


In small doses, jealousy can be adaptive because it motivates actions that fend off rivals, which can help to protect the bond between romantic partners. However, in larger amounts, jealousy can be corrosive. Jealousy correlates strongly with anger, and it is one of the most often cited motives for intimate partner violence committed by both women and men, in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships (Goldenberg, Stephenson, Freeland, Finneran, & Hadley, 2016; Langhinrichsen-Rohling, McCullars, & Misra, 2012; Mason, Lewis, Gargurevich, & Kelley, 2016). Jealousy can undermine trust, erode satisfaction, and increase stress and conflict.

While women and men do not differ in the frequency or intensity of their jealousy, some researchers argue that there are sex differences in the types of partner behaviors that activate jealousy. On average, men tend to react with more jealousy to a partner’s sexual infidelity (having sex with someone else) than they do to a partner’s emotional infidelity (falling in love with someone else). In contrast, women tend to experience more jealousy in response to emotional than sexual infidelity. This sex difference has been replicated several times and across dozens of different cultures (Kaighobadi, Shackelford, & Goetz, 2009). Evolutionary psychologists explain these sex differences as resulting from the unique adaptive problems that women and men faced early in humans’ history. As we first discussed in Chapter 3 (“The Nature and Nurture of Sex and Gender”), ancestral men faced the problem of paternity uncertainty. This means that because fertilization occurs internally to women, men could not know with 100% certainty that any given offspring carried their genes. A man who jealously guarded his female mate to prevent her from having sex with other men would therefore have reduced his own risk of supporting offspring who did not carry his genes, a situation referred to as cuckoldry. Thus, men may have evolved a tendency to feel stronger jealousy at the prospect of female partners’ sexual infidelity (Kaighobadi et al., 2009).

The adaptive problem faced by ancestral women, in contrast, involved securing a mate who would remain committed to the family unit. Because of female humans’ greater parental investment (the amount of time and energy necessary to produce offspring physically), ancestral women would have benefited from seeking mates who offered dependable assistance and resources (Trivers, 1972). Thus, women should have evolved a tendency to react with stronger jealousy to cues that a male partner was in love with someone else because this meant he might abandon the family unit and take his resources elsewhere. This perspective is not without criticism, with some scholars arguing that evolutionary psychologists exaggerate the size and reliability of these sex differences (Harris, 2003). For more on this, refer to the debate titled “Did Women and Men Evolve Different Jealousy Reactions?”

Dealing With Conflict

What do couples fight about? Across cultures, common sources of conflict include sex and physical intimacy, money, divisions of labor, and parenting (L. M. Dillon et al., 2015). These important issues require decision-making and negotiation, making them ripe for disagreements. But now let’s consider another answer to this question. When asked, “What do couples fight about?” during an interview with Anderson Cooper, psychologist Dr. John Gottman replied, “Absolutely nothing. Couples fight about nothing” (April 18, 2002). In other words, fights often arise due to temporary annoyances, knee-jerk reactions, or misunderstandings that spiral out of control. If this is the case, then it may be more important to understand how couples fight than what they fight about.


While many scholars agree that women and men evolved different jealousy reactions to a mate’s infidelity, others question the assumptions behind this position. Here, we consider both sides of this debate.


Over a dozen studies find that men experience more sexual than emotional jealousy, whereas women experience more emotional than sexual jealousy. This sex difference emerges both in people’s self-reports and on physiological measures, with men showing more central nervous system arousal when imagining a partner’s sexual versus emotional infidelity, and women showing more arousal when imagining emotional versus sexual infidelity (Buss, 2018). Men also react with stronger jealousy to hypothetical cues indicating a partner’s sexual infidelity (“She suddenly refuses to have sex with you”) than to cues indicating emotional infidelity (“She does not say ’I love you’ anymore”; Schützwohl, 2005). These sex differences appear in archival records and across dozens of cultures. For instance, one investigation of 160 societies found that divorce more frequently follows a wife’s than a husband’s sexual infidelity (Betzig, 1989). In other words, across cultures, heterosexual men tend to be less accepting than women of a partner’s sexual infidelity. When a tendency appears universally like this, it can suggest that the tendency is evolved.

Evolutionary psychologists propose that these sex differences emerged due to the different mating problems that ancestral women and men faced. For men (but not women), genetic paternity was not assured; in addition, cuckoldry imposes substantial reproductive costs for men. Men who unwittingly raise another man’s offspring invest time, energy, and resources in children who do not carry their genes; furthermore, they lose out on other mating opportunities. Many other animal species exhibit anticuckoldry mechanisms, and it makes sense that humans would have evolved such a mechanism as well (Buss, 2018). If so, sexual jealousy is a likely candidate.


Just because a sex difference exists, it is not necessarily a product of evolution. In fact, sex differences in jealousy can just as easily be explained as stemming from sociocultural factors, such as men’s desire to control and suppress women’s sexuality. From this perspective, a female partner’s sexual infidelity is threatening because it indicates a level of sexual autonomy that challenges male dominance over women (Travis & White, 2000). Thus, men may experience more sexual than emotional jealousy because of a desire to control women’s bodies, not because of paternity uncertainty. Conversely, a male partner’s emotional infidelity—and the prospect of abandonment that it foretells—may be especially distressing to women because patriarchal gender inequities, such as the gender wage gap, ensure that many women are economically dependent on men (Hyde & Oliver, 2000).

Sex differences in jealousy are also not as reliable and consistent as some scholars claim. Christine Harris (2003) notes that much of the research on sex differences in jealousy uses forced-choice, hypothetical scenarios in which people imagine their reactions to infidelity. These studies often use college student samples in which large subsets of people lack personal experience with serious, committed relationships. Such studies cannot necessarily reveal how people actually react when faced with an unfaithful partner and may reflect people’s gender stereotypes rather than evolved tendencies. Harris also notes that using a forced-choice method (in which participants must choose which would bother them more: emotional or sexual infidelity) produces the previously described sex differences. However, when people rate how much each type of infidelity bothers them on a seven-point rating scale, for example, both sexes report being equally bothered by both kinds of infidelity. Thus, men may only report more sexual than emotional jealousy when forced to choose.

Finally, Harris’s (2003) review indicates that there is a great deal of within-sex variance, and many men rate emotional infidelity as more troubling than sexual infidelity. In fact, gay and bisexual men—similar to heterosexual, lesbian, and bisexual women—report being more distressed by emotional than sexual infidelity (de Visser et al., 2019). This reversal of the expected sex difference among subsets of men raises questions about whether sexual jealousy is an evolved, sex-linked tendency.

What do you think? Do men display a clear tendency toward increased sexual jealousy as an evolved mechanism? Or is the evidence for evolved sex differences in jealousy too unclear to allow for firm conclusions? Which evidence do you find most convincing, and why?

Imagine that you recently got married and you and your spouse agree to participate in a study of “newlywed interactions” at Dr. Gottman’s research laboratory. Upon arriving at the laboratory, the two of you generate a list of problems that create disagreements in your relationship. You then select two or three of your most problematic issues and discuss these issues for 15 minutes while being videotaped. Seems pretty simple, right? What you likely do not realize (and might not want to know) is that Gottman and his collaborators can predict, with impressive accuracy, the likelihood of your marriage ending in divorce based on this procedure. Moreover, they can predict the likelihood of you getting divorced within a 6-year period based on the first 3 minutes of your videotaped discussion (Carrère & Gottman, 1999), and they can predict whether you will divorce earlier or later in your marriage, over a 14-year period, with a 93% accuracy rate (Gottman & Levenson, 2000).

What is Gottman’s secret? It all has to do with the emotions and interaction patterns that couple members express during conflicts. Most heterosexual couples show a decrease in nonverbal expressions of positive emotions (e.g., joy, humor, and affection) and an increase in expressions of negative emotions (e.g., defensiveness and anger) during discussions of tense topics, and this is true for both wives and husbands. However, husbands’ changes in emotional expressions over time hold an important key to predicting heterosexual couples’ longevity: In unstable marriages (e.g., those that end in divorce), husbands show a more rapid escalation of negative emotion and a more rapid decline of positive emotion during the first few minutes of conflict discussions. In contrast, although husbands in stable marriages show a small increase in negative emotions during conflict discussions, they also maintain a moderately high level of positive emotions throughout such discussions. In other words, when newlywed husbands maintain moderate levels of nonverbal joy, affection, and humor during tense conflict discussions, the couple is more likely to stay together (Carrère & Gottman, 1999).

Another gendered interaction pattern that predicts divorce is termed the demand—withdraw pattern. In this pattern, one couple member makes a demanding or critical remark, and the other partner responds by withdrawing from the interaction, either emotionally or physically. This withdrawal reaction shuts down further communication and can leave the first partner feeling as though they are talking to a “stone wall” (hence the term stonewalling to refer to this withdrawal behavior). Gottman and his collaborators find that the demand—withdraw pattern predicts divorce but primarily when the wife demands and the husband withdraws (Gottman & Levenson, 2000). This may be because women generally initiate discussions about conflict topics more often than men do. Moreover, women tend to display more hostility during conflicts (d = −0.16), and men tend to stonewall more during conflicts (d = 0.16; Woodin, 2011). Note that these effect sizes are small, however.

Demand—withdraw pattern An interpersonal relationship pattern in which one couple member criticizes or demands, and the other partner responds by withdrawing emotionally or physically.

What about same-sex couples? In one study, same-sex couples expressed more positive and fewer negative emotions than heterosexual couples when first initiating conflict discussions (Gottman et al., 2003). Moreover, same-sex couples—and lesbians, in particular—continued to display positive emotions throughout the duration of conflict discussions. Gottman and his collaborators speculated that the positive interactions maintained by same-sex couples during conflict discussions may reflect the emphasis that these couples place on relationship equality.

For both heterosexual and same-sex pairings, couples who show higher levels of hostility (anger, demanding, and dominating) during conflict discussions are lower in satisfaction, and those who show more intimacy (humor and self-disclosure) and problem solving (offering solutions and requesting clarification) during conflict discussions are more satisfied. Distress and withdrawal during conflict discussions also predict lower relationship satisfaction, although these associations are relatively weaker (Woodin, 2011). In sum, it appears that how couples fight is very important when it comes to relationship functioning.

Separation and Divorce

The vast majority of people end up marrying, and research consistently finds that married people tend to report greater happiness and life satisfaction than unmarried people (Wadsworth, 2016). Yet one seeming paradox of romantic relationships is that about 40% of first-time marriages in Western countries end in divorce (Aughinbaugh, Robles, & Sun, 2013). And divorce is not simply a modern, Western phenomenon. Divorce rates are 37% over the first 5 years of marriage among the !Kung, a hunter-gatherer society of the Kalahari Desert (Howell, 1979), and 39% among the Hadza, an indigenous group from Tanzania (Blurton Jones, Marlowe, Hawkes, & O’Connell, 2000). What about the success of same-sex relationships? Because same-sex marriage was only recently legalized in the United States (and remains illegal in much of the world), official marriage and divorce rates are lacking. Research in the United States and Canada suggests that same-sex couples have higher rates of breakups than other-sex couples (Allen & Price, 2020). However, as mentioned, staying together does not necessarily mean that a couple is happy. Some of the barriers to divorce that keep unhappy couples together, such as children or financial dependence, are less common in same-sex than other-sex relationships (Kurdek, 2004).

Why do people end relationships? Are there sex differences in the reasons that people end relationships? Across cultures, women report relationship problems more often (L. M. Dillon et al., 2015) and initiate divorce more often (Guven, Senik, & Stichnoth, 2012) than men (although unmarried women and men are about equally likely to initiate breakups; Rosenfeld, 2018). Moreover, gender plays a role in several of the reasons that people give for ending relationships. First, as discussed previously, inequities in housework and childcare contribute to relationship tension. Second, infidelity commonly leads to relationship dissolution, and men tend to report being unfaithful more often than women do. In the United States, about 25% of men and 15% of women admit to marital infidelity, and these rates do not differ by race or ethnicity (Blow & Hartnett, 2005). Finally, women are more likely than men to report domestic violence as a reason for marital breakups (Gravningen et al., 2017).

Most couples find relationship dissolution painful, but some sex differences in negative reactions emerge based on the metric used. Financially, women tend to suffer more than men from divorce (Tach & Eads, 2015). Psychologically, however, men may fare worse. Men show a larger dip in happiness following divorce than women (Lucas, 2005), and mortality rates are higher for men than women following divorce (Shor, Roelfs, Bugyi, & Schwartz, 2012). This ties back to the idea we raised earlier: that romantic relationships tend to impact men’s health more than women’s health.


Throughout this chapter, we have discussed evidence suggesting that men, compared with women, suffer more in terms of mental and physical health when they lack or lose a close, marriage-like partnership. Why do you think this is the case? How might the evolutionary and sociocultural perspectives explain this finding?


At some point in their lives, most people become parents. In the United States, by the age of 40, 85% of women and 76% of men have had at least one child (Martinez, Daniels, & Chandra, 2012). Parenting often, although not always, involves at least two important relationships: one between coparents (if there are two parents) and the other between parent and child. In this section, we will consider how gender shapes both of these relationships.

Parent to Parent: Gender and Parental Relationships

Although parents often anticipate the birth of a new child with joy and excitement, parenthood is typically associated with declines in relationship satisfaction. Parents, on average, report lower relationship satisfaction levels than nonparents (Twenge, Campbell, & Foster, 2003). New children introduce several factors that can strain relationship quality, including financial burdens, restrictions of freedom and leisure time, disrupted sleep, reduced sexual activity, and role conflicts (e.g., having to juggle competing demands of job and parenting).

In heterosexual relationships, new mothers generally suffer a larger decline in happiness than new fathers, especially when children are infants. One meta-analysis found that the effect size for the difference in relationship satisfaction between parents and nonparents is larger for mothers of infants than it is for mothers of older children or for fathers of any-age children (Twenge et al., 2003). While much of the research summarized in this meta-analysis drew from Western samples, similar sex differences emerge in Eastern samples as well (Lu, 2005), and mothers in lower-income countries tend to fare worse than those in wealthier countries (Michon´, 2014). Furthermore, rates of postpartum depression tend to be higher in mothers than in fathers. One study found that 9.3% of mothers versus 3.4% of fathers received new diagnoses of depression within 3 months of their infant’s birth (Escribà-Agüir & Artazcoz, 2011).

Postpartum depression Depression following (or associated with) childbirth.

These sex differences in relationship satisfaction and depression may occur, in part, because mothers usually shoulder more of the parenting responsibilities than fathers do in heterosexual relationships. Still, even in couples that split parenting chores more evenly, parenthood predicts reductions in relationship satisfaction. For example, same-sex couples report more equitable divisions of childcare than heterosexual couples do (Farr & Patterson, 2013), and lesbian mothers feel more satisfied than heterosexual mothers do with their partner’s contributions to parenting (Bos, van Balen, & van den Boom, 2004). Nonetheless, members of lesbian and gay couples report declines in relationship happiness and increases in conflict after becoming parents (Goldberg, Smith, & Kashy, 2010).

You might think of postpartum depression as something that only affects women, but men can develop it too.

Source: ©

The reality is that parenting—and especially new parenting—is a stressful process that poses unique challenges for relationships. Many parenting stressors (e.g., financial burdens and reductions in leisure time) hit both parents equally hard. Others are gendered, however, such as norms that place more childcare responsibility on women than men, or some fathers’ tendency to feel “left out” and disconnected from the family unit as mothers bond with a new infant (Nyostrom & Ohrling, 2004). Moreover, the negative impact of parenthood on relationship satisfaction appears to be increasing over time (Twenge et al., 2003), likely due to growing expectations that parents will spend more time with children and less “child-free” time with their partners (see Chapter 11, “Work and Home,” for more details about these trends).

Child-free by choice The status of an individual or couple who decides not to have children.


In the past several decades, the number of people in Western cultures who are child-free by choice has grown steadily (Agrillo & Nelini, 2008). Some of the reasons that people give for this decision include lack of interest in parenting, a desire for personal career and financial advancement, health concerns (e.g., hereditary diseases), and concerns for humanity and the earth (e.g., overpopulation, the environment). On average, more same-sex than heterosexual couples are child-free (Tate, Patterson, & Levy, 2019). While both members of heterosexual couples who remain child-free elicit negative moral judgments from others (Ashburn-Nardo, 2017), the bulk of the responsibility for being child-free often falls to women: When a heterosexual couple is child-free by choice, people assume that the decision lies more with the woman than with the man (Koropeckyj-Cox, Romano, & Moras, 2007).

In the face of all these negative impacts, is there any good news about parenting? Absolutely! First, although many parents experience declines in relationship satisfaction, this is not universal—relationship satisfaction remains stable or even increases after the transition to parenthood among a sizeable minority of couples (A. F. Shapiro, Gottman, & Carrère, 2000). Second, even when declines in satisfaction occur, satisfaction often rebounds over time as couples adjust to the changes in their lives (Cox, Paley, Burchinal, & Payne, 1999). Third, although relationship satisfaction often decreases after the birth of a child, individual happiness often increases: Compared with nonparents, parents report higher levels of personal happiness and meaning in life, though the benefits of parenting may be larger for fathers than mothers (S. K. Nelson, Kushlev, English, Dunn, & Lyubomirsky, 2013; Nelson-Coffey, Killingsworth, Layous, Cole, & Lyubomirsky, 2019). Fourth, active father involvement and coparenting correlates with greater relationship satisfaction, particularly for mothers (McLain & Brown, 2017). And finally, the most obvious “good news” about parenting is that most people genuinely love their children and feel happy to have them around, even if it means that their marital happiness takes a (hopefully temporary) hit.

Parent to Child: Gender and Caring for Children

Have you ever encountered the term maternal instinct? How about the claim that “a mother’s intuition is always right”? These ideas reflect common folk wisdom about the natural caregiving talents that presumably come with being a woman. As the story goes, being a woman means possessing a biological drive to bear and care for children (the maternal instinct), as well as an inborn, almost supernatural ability to intuit an offspring’s needs without the help of language (a mother’s intuition). In psychological terms, both of these concepts reflect essentialist beliefs about parenting. Recall from past chapters that essentialist beliefs are assumptions that observed sex differences reflect inherent, biological differences between women and men. According to these beliefs, the biological capacities of pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation imbue women with a natural instinct to nurture offspring and an intuitive, “gut-level” understanding of children’s needs (B. Park, Banchefsky, & Reynolds, 2015).

Essentialist beliefs Assumptions that observed sex differences reflect inherent, natural, biological differences between women and men.

The flip side of these assumptions is that men lack a strong parenting instinct. Compared with women, men are stereotyped as relatively uninterested in becoming fathers, disinclined to take responsibility for their children, and low in natural caregiving talent. And yet, those who adopt essentialist beliefs about parenting also view fathers as playing a unique and critical role in children’s development. From an essentialist perspective, sons need a strong father figure to develop a normal, “healthy” masculine gender identity (Silverstein & Auerbach, 1999). Table 10.2 summarizes these essentialist beliefs about mothers and fathers.

Table 10.2

Essentialist beliefs link sex differences to underlying biological causes. Endorsing essentialist beliefs about parents is associated with valuing some types of family arrangements (e.g., heterosexual, two-parent) over others and with negative beliefs about working mothers.

Source: Liss, Schiffrin, Mackintosh, Miles-McLean, and Erchull (2013) and Silverstein and Auerbach (1999).

Essentialist beliefs about parenting are firmly entrenched. In one study of Black and White U.S. adults, respondents were much more likely to attribute sex differences in nurturance—compared with sex differences in violence or math ability—to genetic factors (Cole, Jayaratne, Cecchi, Feldbaum, & Petty, 2007). However, essentialist beliefs should be evaluated critically because they can shape people’s attitudes about “appropriate” family structures and practices. For example, people who endorse essentialist parenting beliefs are more inclined to view heterosexual, two-parent families as superior to other types of family structures. Furthermore, people who more strongly endorse essentialist beliefs about mothering also tend to assume that mothers of young children cannot excel in the workplace (B. Park et al., 2015), a belief that might subtly shape employers’ work evaluations of their female employees. Similarly, essentialist beliefs about parenting may help to explain why mothers who make parenting mistakes are judged more harshly than fathers for the same mistakes (Villicana, Garcia, & Biernat, 2017).

Attachment theory A theory that describes the processes by which adults and infants become attached and develop strong emotional bonds.

So, what do the data say about these essentialist assumptions? When psychologists first began examining the caretaking behaviors of new mothers and fathers, they were surprised to discover no sex differences in parenting quality. In fact, mothers and fathers, on average, show similar levels of competence (or incompetence) in meeting the needs of new infants. As Lamb (1987) noted, “Parenting skills are usually acquired ’on the job’ by both mothers and fathers” (p. 11). However, because the primary caretaker in heterosexual couples is usually the mother, women often receive more “on-the-job” parenting training than fathers. By spending more time with infants, mothers may develop greater sensitivity to infants’ needs and a better ability to interpret infants’ nonverbal communications. This may explain why mothers sometimes seem to have intuitive parenting skills. However, when men are the primary caregivers of infants, they parent just as well as women do (Lamb, 1997). These views of mothers and fathers as equally good parents are not just held by psychologists: Separated and divorced heterosexual people tend to report no sex differences in their ex-partners’ parenting abilities (Bonach, Sales, & Koeske, 2005).

Children can thrive with parents of any sex or gender, as long as parents provide warmth, sensitivity, and consistency.

Source: ©

Regardless of the sex of the parent, the predictors of good parent—child relationships and good outcomes for children are the same: Children fare best when parents demonstrate warmth, sensitivity, and consistency (Lamb, 1997). While warmth is probably self-explanatory, sensitivity and consistency can use some explaining. In the context of parenting, sensitivity means being able to evaluate or interpret a child’s needs and respond appropriately, while consistency means responding in a predictable, reliable manner so that infants come to expect that their needs will be met. According to attachment theory, caregivers who consistently and reliably offer warm, sensitive responses to their infants will develop strong attachment relationships with children, and vice versa (Bowlby, 1980). Moreover, children who receive this type of parenting tend to have the best outcomes in terms of social and emotional competence, cognitive functioning, and physical and mental health (Ranson & Urichuk, 2008).

From this perspective, the sex or gender identity of a parent makes little difference for children’s outcomes. In other words, children do not need both a mother and a father to thrive. In fact, studies that compare same-sex versus heterosexual parents find no differences across couple type in the quality of relationship that parents have with children, children’s attachment to parents, children’s behavioral problems at school, or children’s relationships with peers (Erich, Kanenberg, Case, Allen, & Bogdanos, 2009; Farr & Patterson, 2013). Moreover, children can thrive with a single parent, provided that the parent offers warm, sensitive, and consistent caretaking (Silverstein & Auerbach, 1999). Of course, given the difficulty of parenting, successful caregiving may be more likely to occur if two adults share the task. Even so, high-quality parenting is possible for single parents to achieve.


Why do you think essentialist beliefs about parenting, such as the notions of a mother’s instinct and a mother’s intuition, are so appealing? Are you surprised to learn that there are no real sex differences in “natural talent” at parenting? Why or why not? What are some possible negative consequences of essentialist beliefs about parenting?


· 10.1 Analyze the roles of sex, gender, and LGBTQ+ status in social networks, friendships, and friendship intimacy.

People have a fundamental need to belong, which they can meet through social networks and close friendships. Social networks are an important source of social support, and people benefit from having richer, larger networks. Perhaps because women tend to give more and higher-quality emotional support than men do, men derive unique benefits from having a female romantic partner in their social network. LGBTQ+ people, in particular, rely on networks of friends for support and companionship with similar others who understand their experiences.

Women and men both want emotional intimacy in their close friendships, but women’s friendships often appear more intimate than men’s, perhaps due to gender role socialization or differences in how researchers conceptualize intimacy. On average, women tend to pursue dyadic friendships centered on shared emotions, and men tend to pursue group friendships centered on shared activities, leading them to achieve friendship intimacy through different paths. Cross-sex friendships, which become more common in young adulthood, can offer unique benefits while also inviting unique complications. Many adolescents and young adults in the United States today pursue casual sexual relationships with their friends (e.g., friends with benefits). Among lesbian friend pairs, intense romantic attractions (passionate friendships) may develop into first loves or first same-sex sexual experiences.

· 10.2 Evaluate major theoretical perspectives on sex similarities and differences in mate preferences and mate choices.

Women and men desire many of the same traits in their ideal mates. Where differences exist, they tend to be small. However, theorists have long debated the interpretation of sex differences in a small set of mate preferences: Women tend to rate a partner’s ambition and earning potential as more important than men do, and men tend to rate a partner’s attractiveness and homemaking skill as more important than women do. These differences emerge across cultures, but there are exceptions. Lesbians and Black women place less emphasis on earning potential than do heterosexual and White women, respectively. While evolutionary psychologists explain this difference using parental investment theory—that is, women should prioritize a mate’s resources because women invest more in reproduction—sociocultural psychologists propose that women’s restricted access to economic resources forces them to seek mates who offer financial support. In face-to-face encounters, both women’s and men’s attraction to short-term dating partners is equally predicted by the partners’ attractiveness and perceived earning potential. One of the best predictors of actual mate selection is partner homogamy, or overall similarity. However, same-sex couples tend to display less homogamy than other-sex couples.

· 10.3 Explain the roles of gender and gender norms in dating relationships and romance.

Dating scripts have not changed much over time and still seem to dictate that men should play a more active role than women in the events of the date. Many also expect men to display paternalistic chivalry by treating their date like a “lady,” paying for the date, and being protective and polite. Some of these norms persist even in the context of more casual, hookup-type relationships. Despite the persistence of behavioral gender norms, women and men—regardless of whether they are transgender or cisgender—show no consistent sex differences in how they define, experience, or show love to their dating partners.

· 10.4 Describe diverse marital arrangements across sociohistorical contexts, races and ethnicities, cultures, and sexual orientations.

Historically, most marriages were arranged and afforded men more power than women. Today, autonomous marriages are more common in Europe and North America, although arranged marriages predominate in many collectivistic cultures. In the United States, people today marry later, delay childbirth, and have fewer children than ever before. Relative to past decades, more children in the United States today live in single-parent households or in households with a stepparent or two same-sex parents. These trends differ by race, with Black women being more likely than White, Asian, and Hispanic women to be single parents. While marriage usually involves only two individuals, this is not always the case. Many Muslim-majority cultures practice polygyny, in which one man marries multiple wives. Consensual nonmonogamous arrangements (CNMs) assume many forms and are somewhat more common among gay men than among lesbians and heterosexual partners. Polyamorous arrangements are a form of CNM in which adults have more than one other adult intimate relationship partner, with the knowledge and consent of all parties.

· 10.5 Analyze sex differences and similarities in the factors that contribute to relationship satisfaction, conflict, and separation.

People benefit from being married in terms of both mental and physical health. However, men seem to benefit more from marriage than women do, while women suffer more than men do from unhappy marriages. Two predictors of marital happiness are perceived equity of decision-making and perceived equity of labor divisions. When inequities in decision-making occur, they tend to favor men, although this may differ by race. In heterosexual couples, women tend to do more housework and childcare than men, and perceived inequities in domestic labor predict dissatisfaction more strongly in nations that are higher in gender equality, where women expect men to contribute more. Same-sex couples, especially lesbian couples, value egalitarian labor divisions more than heterosexual couples do. Women and men show love to their partners in similar ways, by being affectionate, showing approval, spending time together, and sharing sexual intimacy. However, women (more than men) show love by refraining from expressing negativity, while men (more than women) show love through joint activities.

Jealousy in relationships predicts conflict, abuse, and dissatisfaction. Some propose that men evolved to feel more jealousy over a partner’s sexual infidelity, while women evolved to feel more jealousy over a partner’s emotional infidelity. However, the size and reliability of this sex difference is widely disputed. Across cultures, couples tend to experience conflict about similar topics, but the way that couples fight may be more important than what they fight about. Couples who maintain higher levels of positive emotions during conflict discussions and who keep negative emotions from escalating too abruptly are less likely to divorce. Divorce is common worldwide, with inequitable labor divisions and infidelity as two common causes of separation. Same-sex couples generally exhibit higher breakup rates than other-sex couples. Following divorce, women tend to suffer financially more than men, but men tend to suffer psychologically more than women.

· 10.6 Describe the roles of sex and gender in parenting and family relationships.

Parenthood correlates with declines in relationship satisfaction, for both heterosexual and same-sex couples. In heterosexual couples, women tend to suffer sharper declines in satisfaction and greater risk of postpartum depression than men, likely because women often shoulder the bulk of childcare. For couples that become less satisfied after parenthood, satisfaction often rebounds after time.

Essentialist beliefs about parenthood cast women as “naturally” and “instinctively” maternal and fathers as lacking natural parenting skills. The evidence does not support the validity of these beliefs, showing instead that both mothers and fathers learn how to parent from experience, and neither sex has greater natural parenting skills. Children do not need both a mother and a father and can thrive with one parent or with two parents of the same sex. The best predictors of strong parent—child relationships and of adaptive outcomes for children are parental warmth, sensitivity, and consistency. Research shows no differences in the well-being of children raised by heterosexual versus same-sex parents.

Test Your Knowledge: True or False?

· 10.1. College students in “friends-with-benefits” sexual relationships report that the quality of their friendship declines after they start to have sex. (False: The majority of students in “friends-with-benefits” arrangements report that the friendship improves after it becomes sexual.) [p. 355]

· 10.2. In surveys of romantic partner preferences, men tend to rate “physical attractiveness” as more important in a mate than women do, and women tend to rate “good financial prospects” as more important in a mate than men do. (True: This pattern emerges across cultures.) [p. 359]

· 10.3. Just over half of all marriages worldwide are arranged marriages in which a relative or family friend selects the marriage partners. (True: About 53% of marriages worldwide are arranged.) [p. 368]

· 10.4. In heterosexual romantic relationships, men tend to experience more jealousy than women do regarding the possibility of their partner falling in love with someone else. (False: Depending on the methods used, men either report similar emotional jealousy or less emotional jealousy than women.) [p. 374]

· 10.5. In general, relationship satisfaction decreases after couples have children. (True: This pattern emerges for most couples, regardless of sexual orientation.) [p. 380]

Descriptions of Images and Figures

Back to Figure

The graph is described as follows:

The vertical axis shows different mate qualities preferred by men and women.

The horizontal axis shows “How Important Is This Trait?” from 0.00 to 3.00 in increments on 0.50.

The approximate scores of preference are:

1. Mutual attraction, love:

1. Men: 2.90

2. Women: 3.00

2. Dependable character:

1. Men: 2.70

2. Women: 2.80

3. Emotional stability, maturity:

1. Men: 2.60

2. Women: 2.75

4. Desire for home and children:

1. Men: 2.30

2. Women: 2.60

5. Education, intelligence:

1. Men: 2.40

2. Women: 2.60

6. Sociability:

1. Men: 2.30

2. Women: 2.45

7. Pleasing disposition:

1. Men: 2.45

2. Women: 2.46

8. Ambition, industriousness:

1. Men: 1.95

2. Women: 2.35

9. Good health:

1. Men: 2.25

2. Women: 2.27

10. Good financial prospects:

1. Men: 1.50

2. Women: 2.00

11. Similar educational background:

1. Men: 1.49

2. Women: 1.75

12. Good looks:

1. Men: 2.10

2. Women: 1.75

13. Refinement, neatness:

1. Men: 1.75

2. Women: 1.65

14. Similar religious background:

1. Men: 1.35

2. Women: 1.45

15. Good cook, housekeeper:

1. Men: 1.49

2. Women: 1.40

16. Favorable social status:

1. Men: 1.20

2. Women: 1.40

17. Similar political background:

1. Men: 0.80

2. Women: 1.10

18. Chastity:

1. Men: 0.75

2. Women: 0.60

Back to Figure

The graph is described as follows:

The vertical axis shows different American family arrangements in Black, Latinx, Asian, White, and Total population. The horizontal axis shows the percentage of total population from 0 to 100 in increments of 20. The given scores of the percentage are:

1. Above 25 and never married:

1. Black: 36%

2. Latinx: 26%

3. Asian: 19%

4. White: 16%

5. Total: 20%

2. Has a child outside of marriage:

1. Black: 71%

2. Latinx: 53%

3. Asian: 0%

4. White: 29%

5. Total: 40%

3. Children under 18 living with two married parents in their first marriage:

1. Black: 22%

2. Latinx: 40%

3. Asian: 71%

4. White: 52%

5. Total: 46%

4. Children under 18 living with two parents (married or not):

1. Black: 38%

2. Latinx: 66%

3. Asian: 84%

4. White: 78%

5. Total: 69%

5. Children under 18 living with a single parent:

1. Black: 54%

2. Latinx: 29%

3. Asian: 13%

4. White: 19%

5. Total: 26%

6. Children under 18 living in household with a working mother:

1. Black: 75%

2. Latinx: 62%

3. Asian: 64%

4. White: 70%

5. Total: 70%

7. Children under 18 living in household with a mother who is sole or primary earner:

1. Black: 74%

2. Latinx: 44%

3. Asian: 31%

4. White: 38%

5. Total: 40%

Back to Figure

The graph is described as follows:

The horizontal axis shows the timeline from 1890 to 2014 in staggered intervals of 20.

The vertical axis shows the age of first marriage from 18 to 30 in increments of 2.

The approximate age of first marriage for men is:

1. 1890: 26

2. 1910: 25

3. 1930: 24

4. 1950: 23

5. 1970: 24

6. 1990: 26

7. 2014: 29

The approximate age of first marriage for women is:

1. 1890: 22

2. 1910: 22

3. 1930: 21

4. 1950: 20

5. 1970: 22

6. 1990: 24

7. 2014: 27

Back to Figure

The graph is described as follows:

The horizontal axis shows different types of couples.

The vertical axis shows the Equal Distribution of Labor from 1 to 5 in increments of 0.5.

The approximate distribution is:

1. Gay Couple: 3.15

2. Lesbian couple: 3.45

3. Heterosexual Cohabiting couple: 3.30

4. Heterosexual, Married, no Children: 2.95

5. Heterosexual, Married, with Children: 2.35