You may have heard of the term “wearing the pants” when someone is speaking about a relationship, and there’s a reason for it. Typically, one person, whether it’s the woman or the man, makes the decisions and is more dominant. This role may naturally fall to men, however women have been known to be good at “wearing the pants”, particularly when they have certain expectations.
Gender roles and in fact roles within relationships are not new. But as we get older, you may have noticed your role has switched with your partner, perhaps due to retirement arrangements or because there’s now a carer situation.
In traditional gender roles, the male was the provider and the female the homemaker. In 2016, it’s much more balanced and more men feel comfortable taking a backseat as a stay-at-home dad, something that was unheard of 40 or 50 years ago.
However for the baby boomer generation, these stereotypical roles were shown to us as young adults and we may have found ourselves falling into them, only to see a role reversal later in life.
Most married couples develop a shared understanding of who does what in their relationship, says Frederic Neuman in Psychology Today. It is a sometimes unspoken arrangement – one person is the provider and/or decision maker, and the other is an obedient, more easygoing, follower. Problems can arise when there’s a power struggle and these roles constantly reverse when they once appeared to be solid. A common scenario over-60 women encounter is being a homemaker all their lives, only to have their husband fall ill or retire and the roles switch. This can mean more responsibility not previously given before, and women can feel stressed and sad.
Dr Neuman made the following observations of marriage through his practice:
- Men take care of mechanical devices: cars, hi-fi systems, appliances and so on.
- Women tend to be in charge of decorating the house and making other purchases for the home.
- Where a couple lives is still more likely to depend on where the husband works, rather than where the woman works. The man is likely to be better paid.
- If someone tosses a ball around with the kids, it is likely to be their father.
- If the kids need to be driven to activities, it is usually the mother who does the driving. She is also likely to be the one buying clothes for them.
- Social arrangements, such as dinner with friends, are likely to be managed by the wife. Wives are more likely to initiate discussions about planned vacations.
If you’re about to enter a period of change in your life, whether it is retirement of yourself or your partner or both, or your last child is flying the nest, you or your partner is sick or you’re downsizing, there are ways to prepare and accept the fluid roles you may take on in a relationship.
Clinical Psychologist Avrene L. Brandt suggests looking at the change realistically and to manage expectations of the changes you’re entering into.
“Our jobs typically define much of our identity. Retirement from a job can create a gap and affect self-esteem. It is also not uncommon that seniors are faced with necessary changes in their living situation. Health and safety issues may necessitate a move from a place that was home for many years”, Dr Brandt says.
In addition to the role change that occurs with retirement from a job, there is a role change that occurs with seniors and their children, says Dr Brandt.
“Children of adult seniors may begin to take over responsibilities for finances, physical well being, getting places and so forth. Neither senior parents nor their adult children find this role reversal comfortable. For seniors, giving up decision-making and choice is an affront to their self-esteem.
“For adult children, it may be embarrassing and arouse anxiety to see their parent as dependant and vulnerable”.
She recommends handling with care and embracing the changes with “empowerment”: the feeling that one has the ability and opportunity to make choices and have input in one’s life.
And above all, you need kindness and understanding in a relationship to make it work, which you will definitely know. If your role has changed to “wearing the pants”, remember your partner’s need to feel empowered, and allow them to make conscious decisions as well, even if their ability is limited.