A small new study has found a curious fact in the annals of modern progress: A recent survey of young heterosexual relationships found that while most people agreed that someone in their relationship “wears the pants,” i.e., has the upper hand, it was just as likely to be the man as it was the woman. But before we raise a toast to true equality, upon closer examination, the findings weren’t the harbinger of advancement it appears to be.
First, that pesky, antiquated phrase, which has been in usage since the 1500s, and indicates who exercises controlling authority in a household: If you never think about who wears the pants in your relationship, it’s probably because you’re not old enough to remember this old-timey joke about who is the actual boss in a relationship, as denoted, ostensibly, by the person who has their legs covered and possesses more pockets.
Either way, it’s a phrase whose origins are fairly obvious: Men have historically been both the sole wearers of pants and the sole owners of all the money, jobs, property and political power for most of human history. As such, they routinely exercised their privilege to make all the major decisions about not just their lives, but everyone else’s too. Any woman trying to step into that role was reason enough to mock the man she overshadowed.
Women didn’t slip into a pair of slacks in the early 20th century, and the phrase came to mean a kind of usurping of male power by women, in the only place men are willing to give it up: the domestic front. You earn the paycheck, but she may set the social calendar, choose all vacations, and if she’s really good at pants-wearing, nag you to death. (Conservatives see this loss of natural male power as incredibly upsetting, the result of a man who has failed to lead.)
Nowadays, it just means whoever has the upper hand in a relationship and may or may not be financial, but merely who has the most control, emotionally or otherwise. When Tom Brady suddenly skipped out on his team’s White House appearance after Gisele made it clear she wasn’t a fan of Trump, he got the age-old question pointed at him:
It’s a strange, enduring phrase in an era where it’s often believed that egalitarian relationships make people happier (if you can get them). (Though there’s also some evidence that they can also kill your sex drive.)
But back to the study: Laina Bay-Cheng, an associate professor of social work at the University of Buffalo, enlisted 114 adults aged 18 to 25 (59 women; 55 men) to create timelines of their relationship and sexual experiences, and then also interviewed them in person. In total, she got data on 395 relationships that included casual hookups and longer relationships, with information on how stable they were, as well as how intimate.
At first glance, gender didn’t seem to matter. Comparable proportions of women and men reported that they had been the dominant or subordinate partner in a relationship. We also found that if people felt like their partners had more power, they tended to think of their relationships as significantly less stable and intimate. On the other hand, if people thought they were in egalitarian relationships — or if they thought they were the ones calling the shots — they viewed their relationship as more stable and intimate.
This makes a lot of sense intuitively. Relationships seem best when both people seem to be on the same page about where it is, how it is, and where it’s going. Waiting on someone else to call the shots, text you back (or first) or initiate anything like a commitment can be among the more maddening experiences on earth. But is there a better security than knowing that you’re the person calling those shots?
Trouble is, this doesn’t go both ways. Cheng noticed when she looked closer at the data that, surprisingly, whether men had more or less power didn’t seem to affect their sense of security to the degree that it did for women. In other words, we may mock men for letting women have the upper hand, but men don’t seem to mind, reporting that their relationships felt as close and stable whether they had the upper hand or not. Women, on the other hand, felt less intimacy and more tumult when they didn’t have control.
The reason, it turns out, is that the women in the study who had less power were more likely to report being in coercive or abusive relationships. (Three who said they had more power also reported coercion and abuse.) Two men in the study said their girlfriends were controlling, but not in a way that involve sexual, emotional or physical abuse. “One wrote that a high school girlfriend didn’t let him see friends and made him feel ‘self-loathing,’ but summed up the relationship as ‘three miserable years filled with great sex.’ ”
Cheng has a few theories as to why it shakes out this way: Men still have lots of privilege in the world, if not in all domestic relationships, so it’s possible it doesn’t affect their sense of control over their lives to the same degree it would for a woman to hand the reins over to a man. Men are much less likely to be victims of abusive relationships, too. It’s three in 10 women compared with only one in 10 men. (Worth noting: Men are also far less likely to report abuse or to believe that their relationship is abusive, even when it’s the case.)
On a less bleak note: This is a very small study, and perception may not always match up with reality in terms of who feels they have more or less power. Plus, power dynamics are always shifting in relationships, and if nothing else, people should think more carefully about what the real cost may be of always having the upper hand, and try to shift accordingly. After all, one day you think you’re on top, calling every facet of a relationship like you’re Steven Spielberg. Next thing you know your partner has dumped you to hang out with someone who lets them, at long last, pick where to eat for dinner.