Clearly advantages exist for women as well as for men in intimate relationships that are based on a belief in "benevolent sexism" — an implicit promise that a woman will be cherished and protected if she accepts a man's more general authority. In a recent study, researchers discovered that women who put their faith in benevolent sexism had more extreme dips in relationship satisfaction whenever conflict arose as compared to those women who did not put stock in such beliefs. “Expectations built from ideas in society about what men and women ‘ought’ to do will be hard for reality to match,” Matthew Hammond, a psychology researcher at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, told Scientific American.

Benefits and Costs of Intimacy

In their work published last year in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Hammond and Nikola Overall, professor of psychology, University of Auckland, hypothesized that women who endorse benevolent sexism may be particularly vulnerable to declines in relationship satisfaction whenever they experience relationship problems or hurtful behavior from their partner. To examine this theory, the team of researchers requested that 91 heterosexual couples evaluate their relationship on a daily basis over three weeks, while also composing reports of their relationship problems and relationship satisfaction. In a contrasting investigation, the research team collected from 86 women both relationship evaluations as well as information as to when a partner became hurtful over a period of just 10 days.

After compiling and analyzing the data, the researchers concluded that, among those women who faced greater relationship problems, those who supported benevolent sexism showed sharper declines in their relationship satisfaction. And, in longer relationships, these effects were magnified. “The results suggest that women who endorse benevolent sexism are vulnerable within their relationships because their satisfaction is contingent upon the fulfilment of the promises of benevolent sexism,” wrote the authors. This contrasts somewhat with findings from a previous study, in which Overall and another team of researchers recorded 91 couples while trying to produce a desired change in each other. Afterwards, the participants reviewed their discussions and rated how open they were to their partner's perspective. Objective coders also rated the extent to which each partner exhibited hostile communication.

What did the researchers discover? In relationships where the men expressed higher agreement with hostile sexism, both partners were less open and more hostile and their discussions intended to produce a desired change were less successful. In relationships with men who expressed higher agreement with benevolent sexism, the men were more open to their partners' influence and behaved with less hostility, and their discussions were more successful. “These relationship benefits illustrate why benevolent sexism is effective at disarming women's resistance to wider inequalities,” wrote the authors.

However, such benefits only occurred when men adopted the attitude of benevolent sexism. When women strongly supported such benevolent sexism, but their partner did not, women were less open, behaved with greater hostility, and felt that their discussions were less successful. In this case, then, the partners' alignment of beliefs provided the woman at least some measure of ease within her relationship.

Sources: Overall NC, Hammond MD. When relationships do not live up to benevolent ideals: Women's benevolent sexism and sensitivity to relationship problems. European Journal of Social Psychology. 2013.

Overall NC, Sibley CG, Tan R. The costs and benefits of sexism: resistance to influence during relationship conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2011.