In Brief

Men who display high hostility and strong conformity to masculine gender roles--what the literature calls "gender role conflict" (GRC)--may cause distress to others, particularly their wives, a recent study indicates.

Past research on men suggests such conformity limits their emotional lives and has linked high GRC with lower self-esteem, increased anxiety and depression, hostility toward women, fear of intimacy, homophobia and reluctance to seek help.

But while there's something of a research consensus that GRC can cause men inner harm, little research has examined its effects on their behavior and others in their lives, noted Matthew J. Breiding, PhD, of Washington University in St. Louis, at an APA 2004 Annual Convention session examining recent GRC research. To help fill the gap, Breiding sought to determine GRC effects on men's wives.

In his study, slated to be published in this month's Journal of Counseling Psychology, 60 Midwestern married couples completed measures of depressive symptoms, marital adjustment and husbands' GRC, as gauged by the Gender Role Conflict Scale. They also participated in 10-minute videotaped discussions of a target area of marital change. Trained raters logged how much husbands displayed hostility or dominance--frequently complaining, for example, or monopolizing the discussion.

The self-report measures indicated a relationship between higher GRC, higher depressive symptoms and lower marital adjustment in husbands. The same pattern held for wives: the higher they rated their husbands on GRC, the higher they scored on depressive symptoms and the lower they scored on marital satisfaction.

In addition, men displaying hostility in the videotaped discussions scored high in GRC in their own and their wives' ratings, and wives with the most marital dissatisfaction and depression rated their husbands highest on GRC measures of restrictive emotionality, power, success, competition and restrictive affectionate behavior between men.

Also, husbands and wives corroborated each other's GRC ratings, suggesting people can reliably assess GRC in others, Breiding noted. And while the study's findings aren't causal, they "do establish some initial evidence for the effect of GRC on others--in this case negative effects on wives," he concluded.

In his view, the findings warrant further investigation of GRC in research on men and on marriage. "It might have implications that by helping men, you'll also help those close to men," he said.

And he noted he believes it's important to also consider positive aspects of the findings. "That is, men low in GRC were less hostile during marital interactions and their wives were less depressed and more satisfied with the marriage, indicating that men who have the courage to resist traditional masculinity are likely benefiting themselves and their spouse," Breiding explained.

In that vein, he suggested future studies examine positive marital behaviors among men low in GRC.

--B. MURRAY LAW