Is Heteropessimism Sabotaging Your Relationship?
While heteropessimism is a fairly new term, the idea of unhappiness within an opposite-sex relationship may feel familiar. The term describes a gamut of negative feelings within a heterosexual relationship, especially ones of disappointment, embarrassment, regret or dissatisfaction.
Inequality and the heteronormative relationship
Heteropessimism was first coined by writer Asa Seresin in a 2019 article in the New Inquiry.
According to a paper published in 2021 in the Journal of Family Psychology, women in heterosexual relationships become more depressed and feel less satisfied than their male partners as their relationships progress.
This was echoed in a 2020 study that indicated same-gender couples have better interactions than those in heterosexual relationships. Researcher Megan Robbins said of her team's findings, when couples communicate "they may do so from a culturally imposed frame wherein men and women are considered 'opposites,' which creates more potential for tension in interactions."
"Pessimism works against the idea of acceptance," said Tiffany Jones, L.P.C., regional clinic director and sex and relationship therapist at Thriveworks, based in Fredericksburg, Virginia. "It encourages pressure on hot topics such as gender roles, moral values, political stances and economic stresses."
She said cultural shifts such as the #MeToo movement have shone a light on gendered power imbalances.
Rebecca Minor, a licensed, independent clinical social worker and gender specialist based in Boston, said inequality may be the culprit behind this phenomenon.
"Traditional gender roles and the enforcement of the binary [are] at the heart of heteropessimism," she said.
In recent history, heterosexual relationships have been positioned as the norm, hence, the term heteronormative. Minor explained that "heteronormativity is the assumption and expectation of heterosexuality as the only legitimate form of sexuality."
She pointed out that this concept ties in with patriarchal ideas about compulsory heterosexuality, or comphet for short. Feminist writer Adrienne Rich popularized the term in her essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," published in 1980. Rich calls out "the failure to examine heterosexuality as an institution" as one that "is maintained by a variety of forces, including both physical violence and false consciousness."
Minor explained that heteronormativity can mean women are expected to view interactions and connections with men as romantic or sexual.
Moving toward hetero-optimism
Several factors may signify heteropessimism in your relationship. Jones advised looking out for:
- Participating in opposite gender "bashing," whether online or in person
- Feeling increasingly resentful about gender roles
- Frequently making negative comments about your relationship with friends and family
She explained that heteropessimism is difficult to spot because it can be masked as other feelings, such as insecurity and hostility, or even confused with political beliefs or agendas.
Both experts agreed the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened negative feelings in some relationships due to the pressure of being together in the home for prolonged periods.
Minor stressed that heteropessimism does not just affect women, because men may feel pressured by society as well. This feeling of being trapped can lead to cynicism and contempt, which makes it harder for people to improve, she added.
Jones believes that while heteropessimism is "socially conceptual, it is also a personal feeling."
This is good news for couples, because it means pessimism can be eased "via cognitive and behavioral changes that will positively impact their relationship," Jones said.
In order to feel more satisfied in your relationship, Jones recommended these steps to cultivate what she called "hetero-optimism":
- Begin with an honest conversation about creating positivity in your relationship
- Focus on each partner's needs
- Find time for self-reflection
- Utilize healthy boundaries
- Work on communication skills
- Cultivate common goals
- Develop equal roles within the relationship
- Work toward acceptance and understanding of alternative lifestyles and ways of living
Minor also stressed that there are many ways to innovate and cultivate a new vision of heterosexuality with your partner.
"The more you can emphasize and cultivate consent, freedom, creativity, joy and respect, the better," she said.
Mental and emotional abuse, physical abuse and safety concerns are much more serious than heteropessimism. If you have any concerns that you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has advice. You can also call a toll-free line for crisis intervention and referrals at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)