These days, it’s difficult to have an open conversation about privilege because it has become such a hot button political issue. But if we can take a step back from political agendas, we can see that there is quite a lot of research that shows the reality of privilege and its impact on marriages.
So here, there will be no accusatory fingers, no tearing down of the idea of being men. Taking a look at research-based observations on the reality of male privilege will help husbands empower both themselves and their wives in their marriages.
In general, privilege is an advantage that a person or a group has that others may not. Sometimes, this can be situational. For example, by being the most attractive person in the room, you may enjoy the privilege of being given the most attention. This situational privilege comes and goes depending on your specific context.
However, privilege also can be constant, or at least more long-term. By having a certain wealth, citizenship, race, and/or gender, you are afforded certain benefits wherever you go that others without those advantages do not.
There is nothing wrong with having privilege! Being born into a specific context does not make you a better or worse person. However, we do need to be aware of our privilege. We need to acknowledge its presence in our experience.
One way to look at it would be like how people look at biases and opinions. If someone says that they have an unbiased opinion, you know that this is impossible. Since everyone has certain biases, a more honest approach would be sharing an opinion while acknowledging the biases involved.
Similarly, you can have better relationships and conversations when you recognize that others do not have the same privilege as you do. By not recognizing those privileges, you might unwittingly leverage them to your personal gain or even exert dominance. You can better love your neighbor when you can see where you have advantages that they do not and use those advantages for their benefit.
Acknowledging privilege can often be difficult because it requires humility. It means realizing that some of your advantages may not be fully earned due to merit, which can be quite hard to admit. But in doing so, you can learn to esteem others better than yourself and reduce the risk of mishandling the privilege that you carry.
To bring this concept into the real world, let’s look at what it means for a husband and a wife to be preparing for church or simply going out. Typically, the husband doesn’t have to be worrying about a whole lot when he’s getting ready. However, the wife is much more likely to consciously worry about how she looks: both in terms of feeling that her beauty and her modesty may be evaluated at church.
A husband’s frustration with the amount of time required for his wife to get ready in this context is a reflection of the fact that there are different societal expectations based on gender. You tap your feet impatiently, wondering why your wife is spending so much time “unnecessarily”. Why does she need to bother with makeup or spending so much time on her hair? This is an example of male privilege: the husband has the benefit of lower expectations being placed on him.
One of the key goals of talking about privilege is to become aware of it. This will help you understand your wife better and extend empathy to her rather than getting frustrated with her for taking the time to deal with things you don’t need to think about.
Understanding Male Privilege Generally
You can’t help being born as a man or a woman. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the way you experience the world is shaped by your gender. This ranges from physical and biological differences (e.g. typically higher levels of testosterone and greater physical strength) to social differences in priorities, values, and concerns.
One researcher observed that the world has generally been shaped to cater to men’s interests since historically, women’s roles have been restricted to the home. This leads to several privileges in society:
- Men are more likely to be seen as having or being worthy of authority.
- Men are less likely to attract unwanted attention or criticism to their bodies.
- Men’s age tends to be less of an issue than it is with women.
And if these privileges aren’t things you have noticed before, that in itself is a type of privilege. Men are afforded the advantage of not being required to have a certain level of self-consciousness. Women, on the other hand, are forced to be more self-conscious and concerned about their position and place in the world. Again, this is a large factor for why women have to worry about how they appear in public.
Another place this exhibits itself is in visiting a mechanic for car repairs. Yes, as a man, you might be concerned that the mechanic might be trying to rip you off because he’s a crook. But in the exact same scenario, your wife will also have to worry about being ripped off for being a woman. What if the mechanic, seeing her as a woman, considers her to be an easier target? This is a privilege that men have that women do not.
Or what about when it comes to personal safety? Many men wouldn’t think twice about walking around by themselves at night. But women experience far more fear in these situations than men do. If you don’t have to worry, or if you have to worry less because you are a man, then that is a privilege you experience.
Because of its fit with dominant social norms, male privilege often appears invisible, even to itself. Thus male privilege can seem… fit with respect to health, adult with respect to age, traditionless with respect to ethnicity, colorless with respect to race … whereas women often feel acutely aware of their distinctive social position, men can often find it difficult to distinguish their own social features, because they see it as the norm.
Like with many things people take for granted, men typically do not see their own privilege. It’s only when specific factors are different (e.g. gender) that people are forced to be aware of their lack of privilege. Once again, it’s not wrong to have privilege, to be a male.
But it becomes wrong if you use that privilege selfishly or presumptuously, whether you are aware of that privilege or not.
The Privilege Checklist
If you’d like to start that conversation about male privilege with your wife, we’ve prepared a checklist for our supporters. It’ll help you become aware of areas of privilege and how you can take steps towards finding equity and fairness in your marriage. You can get access to this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Male Privilege in Marriage
Now that you have a better understanding of male privilege in general, it’s time to see how male privilege shows up in your relationship with your wife.
1. Power Balance
It might seem counterintuitive, but more men are starting to see themselves as the subordinate party in their relationship. While you might think that male privilege should lead to more power in relationships, that isn’t actually always the case.
Often, if women take more dominant roles in marriage, the effect on men is not as strong as you might imagine. Despite experiencing less dominance at home, men typically experience power and privilege elsewhere. However, for women, a loving marriage might be the only place available to them to restore self-esteem and empowerment by becoming more dominant.
This is especially true for women that are members of social groups that have historically received poor treatment. This overlap of privileges and/or disadvantages is commonly referred to as intersectionality. Essentially, the disadvantages of being a woman in society are compounded other disadvantages, such as those experienced by people with disabilities, immigrants, people of color, or low-income communities.
If you see your wife employing dominance at home to feel empowered in general, you should try to see this larger reality of her life. While you might feel personally affected by her overbearing attitude, realize that it may not even be about you. There might be other areas of her life where she feels powerless.
Use this opportunity to ask about areas in her life where she feels overlooked or not in control. Your goal here is to help her empower her generally in life, not to reestablish dominance as a man in your relationship (this too is privilege!). As a husband, you want your wife to feel respected and empowered not just at home, but in all aspects of her life.
Please note that this is not necessarily true in all situations, nor is it the whole picture of what is happening. But you do need to be aware that it is an influence, one that affects the balance of your marriage dynamics.
If you have privilege, you can bestow it on others. And you should. This is not an act of belittlement because you are better than her, but it’s realizing that you intrinsically receive things simply by being born as a male. And by sharing that privilege with your wife, you help bring equity and fairness into your marriage.
2. Perceptions of Vulnerability
Male privilege also comes to bear in what you fear in your marriage. Of course, both of you can experience great anxiety over the possibility of losing the other. However, in most marriages, the husband only has to be focused on the loss of their wife. Their wife, on the other hand, might have to be concerned about her future livelihood.
Because men typically inhabit the role of active provider, women in marriage often have to deal with the added fear of losing their security. These added layers of concern and vulnerability around issues of power and advantage mean that you do need to be careful how you talk about certain things.
For example, men can joke in certain ways about gender that their wife can’t make back. And not just that, but she has to consider other layers of effects that the husband might not in marriage. Like how society might perceive her as being nagging, or how her husband might feel his authority was being undercut, etc.
Thus even in casual banter, women are forced to deal with additional layers of vulnerability that their husbands do not. Therefore as a man, you need to be aware of these perceptions of vulnerability even when making a light-hearted comment.
While pay inequality has multiple contributing factors, one of these factors is the difference in training and expectations for men and women in the workplace. Men are expected to get power, respect, and good compensation for their efforts. And they are encouraged to ask for this compensation. However, while men are often rewarded for this, women often face negative impressions and consequences for asking for the same things.
As her husband, you need to find ways to use your privilege to help your wife find greater success. You want to help her become more comfortable and confident in her own sense of authority in certain situations.
For example, if she is looking for a promotion at work, you should help her tap into her sense of confidence and power. As a man, it might come naturally to you to adjust your body language, word choice, or eye contact. But these may have been things that you were taught by virtue of being male.
A word of caution. Sometimes even using the privilege that you have might not be enough. A lot of the strategies that you’ve learned may only work due to your male privilege. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. As your wife’s supporter and best friend, you need to do everything in your power to help her see the success that she deserves.
Lessons From Privilege
First, privilege happens whether we are aware of it or not. But by becoming aware of it, we are able to acknowledge the advantages we have been given and use them to help others, not to bring them down.
Second, privilege is not about being better than anyone. The privilege that you experience is not earned due to merit, so sharing the benefits of your privilege actually should come from a place of equality. Because your wife is your equal, you want to help level the playing field for her.
Lastly, privilege is systemic. It is a vast and complex interplay of cultural tradition and expectation that you will probably not be able to fully change. But along your journey, there are many little things you can do to empower, appreciate, and hear your wife at home and in the world around you.
And now that you are aware of your privilege, you can use it to benefit the one you love the most, sharing your skills, knowledge, and experience to help her just as she continues to help you.
Bay-Cheng, Laina. “Every Romantic Relationship Has a Power Imbalance, but the Stakes Are Higher for Women.” Quartz, April 28, 2017. https://qz.com/970281/every-romantic-relationship-has-a-power-imbalance-but-the-stakes-are-higher-for-women/.
Rosaldo, Renato. “Notes toward a Critique of Patriarchy from a Male Position.” Anthropological Quarterly 66, no. 2 (1993): 81–86. https://doi.org/doi:10.2307/3317107.