By Cristen Dalessandro and Amy C. Wilkins
Amber, a 26-year-old woman living and working in the Western U.S., recalls a romantic relationship she had with a man named Matt, which did not pan out the way that she hoped. Though the relationship has been long over, early on when things were going well Amber decided to tell Matt that she believed they had the potential for a “healthy” relationship, and she could see them making a long-term commitment. Amber’s words, however, did not go over well with Matt. She said, “…that was a lot of pressure for him. I shouldn’t have, you know, told him that was what my expectations were.”
From then on, their relationship was never quite what Amber had hoped for. Although they had moved across the country together, Amber said Matt grew increasingly emotionally distant and critical of her, and she suspected he was cheating. Despite Matt’s poor treatment of her, Amber blamed herself for almost everything that went wrong in the relationship: “I did make a big sacrifice to be with him, but I don’t want to resent him…It was my choice [and] I depended on him too much.” Even in retrospect, Amber thinks about what she could have done to make the relationship better and to take the “pressure” off Matt. Though Amber was hurt by Matt, she believes the relationship was worthwhile because it helped her realize that she “wanted to be treated right” and it was only through making past mistakes with partners that she could come to understand what she wanted for herself and her relationships.
In contrast to Amber, 28-year-old Roger does not dwell on specific incidences in past relationships, or mull over what might have been had he acted differently in certain situations. However, during my interview with him, Roger mused, “When I was younger I was immature, probably made immature decisions, said immature things… and now I have the conscience to know what I’m saying affects other people’s feelings.” Similar to Amber, Roger had learned things about himself and about what he wanted out of relationships as he got older. However, unlike Amber, Roger said his understanding of change came from within himself rather than from experiences with specific partners in relationships. As Roger put it, “If you want things to be different, you’ve gotta change yourself.”
In our article, “Blinded by Love: Women, Men, and Gendered age in Relationship Stories,” my co-author Amy C. Wilkins and I use 25 interviews with young adults between the ages of 22-32 to explore the links between gendered meanings, aged meanings, and enduring inequality in romantic and intimate relationships. We find that these young adults use relationship storytelling as an opportunity to make sense of their experiences as they transition to adulthood, and we argue that the stories they tell matter for the adult gendered identities they are forging. The stories themselves reveal gendered power dynamics in relationships, but they also reveal that women and men discuss their experiences in relationships differently. While men paint themselves as confident and in control in their relationship stories, women paint themselves as vulnerable, naïve, and often dependent on relationship experiences with men in order to find self-confidence and to understand themselves. Both the content of the stories and the act of telling them select and reinforce what it means to be an adult man or woman. These meanings can translate into the concrete inequalities documented again and again by researchers.
Though the women in our study often discuss having experienced poor treatment in relationships, they understand these experiences as part of the normal path to adult womanhood. It is through overcoming their negative experiences in relationships that women believe they can realize their power and potential as mature women. Men, on the other hand, acknowledge that they often treated women (or their partners) badly in the past. However, rather than letting this make them feel badly about themselves, they just dismiss it as a sign that they had been immature. Men believe that maturity comes when they decide that they are ready to change. By telling stories in these ways, both women and men understand that the gendered inequality they experience will be corrected simply by growing up. This understanding, of course, hides the persistence of gender inequalities in relationships across the life course.
Our paper brings to light the ways that stories about age—in our case, about becoming adult women and men—help contribute to persistent gendered inequality in relationships. Women imagine that the vulnerability of girlhood will give way to empowered womanhood, and men imagine that the sexual and emotional callousness of boyhood will give way to emotional and sexual responsibility in adult manhood. However, explaining experiences as simply a matter of “growing up” obscures the continued importance of gender in these young adults’ stories.
Cristen Dalessandro is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research broadly focuses on identities, emotions, gender, sexualities, and inequalities. Her dissertation explores the intimacy stories of a diverse group of young adults living in the Western United States. Amy C. Wilkins is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her current research focuses on identity transformations in the transition to college for first-generation, black, and LGBQ young adults. Her research on gender, sexuality, and racial inequalities and identities has been published in journals such as Sociology of Education, Gender & Society, Social Psychology Quarterly, and Signs and in a book, Wannabes, Goths, and Christians: The Boundaries of Sex, Style, and Status (Chicago, 2008). Their article, ” Blinded by Love:Women, Men, and Gendered Age in Relationship Stories” can be found in the 31 (1) February 2017
issue of Gender & Society here.