You Can’t Live with ’em, You Can’t Live…
By Joshua Hart, Union College
“You can’t live with ‘em, and you can’t live without ‘em.” To modern ears, the old cliché about relationship ambivalence has a sexist ring to it—perhaps for good reason. New research by Joshua Hart and his colleagues Jacqueline Hung, Peter Glick, and Rachel Dinero (2012) suggests that men’s relationship insecurities and conflicted views of women as romantic partners and rivals may cause men to adopt sexist attitudes about women.
Interactions between the sexes are uniquely ambivalent because (among heterosexuals, at least) members of the opposite sex are potential lovers and spouses, on the one hand, and potential adversaries and outgroup members, on the other. In popular culture, as one bestselling book opined, men may sometimes seem to be from Mars and women from Venus—but somehow they must manage to get along in their living-rooms and bedrooms.
Previous research has suggested that men, in particular, see women as both a promise and a threat: they promise the possibility of romantic fulfillment, but they also threaten men with competitive defeat in contexts, such as the workplace, where men and women vie for similar resources (and where men are used to being in more-powerful roles). This ambivalence leads (some) men to view (some) women in conflicted ways. According to Peter Glick and Susan Fiske’s (1996) ambivalent sexism theory, men’s attitudes toward women can therefore be characterized by two distinct, but related, forms of sexism—hostile, and benevolent. Hostile sexism depicts women as mean-spirited foes who aim to dominate men; whereas benevolent sexism regards them as objects of adoration and affection, special and pure, but also fragile and requiring men’s chivalrous treatment.
Although mundane benevolently sexist behaviors may be benign courtesies (for example, men opening doors or lifting heavy boxes for women), research shows that benevolent sexism can subtly undermine women, such as when a man prevents a woman from performing a job she wants to do because it’s “too dangerous for a woman” (Moya, Glick, Exposito, de Lemus, & Hart, 2007). In fact, ambivalent sexism research shows that hostile and benevolent sexism are two sides of a sexist coin that work together to restrict women. Women who stay “in their place” will be rewarded with the carrot of benevolent sexism, but women who seek equality to men are punished with the stick of hostility.
Of course, not all men are sexists, either hostile or benevolent, but it is not clear why some hold sexist attitudes and some don’t. That’s where Hart and colleagues’ research comes in. They examined whether a personality variable known as attachment style (Hazan & Shaver, 1987) might hold a clue to men’s sexism. Attachment style refers to the extent to which people are “anxious” and “avoidant” in their orientations toward romantic partners. Anxiously attached people tend to be clingy and concerned about rejection, whereas avoidantly attached people are uncomfortable with intimacy and try to maintain a safe distance in their relationships. By contrast, people who are neither anxious nor avoidant are termed secure—and indeed, according to Hart, anxiety and avoidance reflect “the extent of an individual’s overall psychological security which in turn shapes their views of themselves, their close relationship partners, and the world at large.” Therefore, attachment style is expected to influence attitudes in domains that involve potential threats— such as gender relations.
In Hart and colleagues’ research, men answered questions designed to assess their attachment style, hostile and benevolent sexism, and various ideologies about romance and group interactions. The results showed that anxiously attached men tended to be ambivalent sexists—both hostile and benevolent—whereas avoidantly attached men tended to endorse hostile sexism, but to reject benevolent sexism. In other words, anxious men are likely to alternate between chivalry and hostility toward female partners, acting like a knight in shining armor when she fulfills his goals and ideals about women, but like an ogre when she doesn’t. Avoidant men are likely to show only hostility without any princely protectiveness.
The results also revealed that these associations were explained in part by social ideologies. Specifically, anxiously attached men tended to be romantics at heart (they view romance through rose-colored glasses), which led them to adopt benevolently sexist beliefs, whereas avoidant men rejected romanticism, leading to low benevolent sexism. Meanwhile, avoidantly attached men tended to be oriented toward social dominance—manifesting belief in a status hierarchy among different social groups, such as men and women—which in turn led them to embrace hostile sexism.
These findings highlight how some men’s underlying personality traits predispose them to be (different kinds) of sexists. Such information is potentially useful in the public square, but has especially strong implications for heterosexual romantic relations (e.g., to aid in couples therapy), where attachment and sexism all too often intersect in undesirable ways to influence couples’ relationship functioning (Overall, Sibley, & Tan, 2011).
Joshua Hart is an Assistant Professor of psychology at Union College. His research explores the psychological processes involved in managing (or mismanaging) psychological security, with a special focus on close relationships (e.g., romantic relationships), self-esteem, and worldviews (i.e., belief systems, such as religion and political ideology).
Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996). The ambivalent sexism inventory: differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 491-512.
Hart, J., Hung, J. A., Glick, P., & Dinero, R. E. (2012). He loves her, he loves her not: Attachment style as a personality antecedent to men’s ambivalent sexism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1495-1504.
Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. R. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.
Moya, M., Glick, P., Exposito, F., de Lemus, S., & Hart, J. (2007). It’s for your own good: Benevolent sexism and women’s reactions to protectively justified restrictions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 1421-1434.
Overall, N. C., Sibley, C. G., & Tan, R. (2011). The costs and benefits of sexism: Resistance to influence during relationship conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 271-290.
Credit: Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.