Gender Roles and Your Comfort Zone


mirrorA recent article in The Atlantic Monthly explored the possibility that same-sex marriages are “happier” than traditional marriages between a man and a woman. It raised a fascinating question about the impact of gender on staying in or stepping out of one’s comfort zone.  

The rationale was that a same-sex couple cannot fall back on traditional gender roles for managing day-to-day activities such paying the bills, taking care of the kids, or doing the laundry. They have no choice but to negotiate each and every role within the relationship.

That notion stands in marked contrast to the many stories I’ve heard about talented and capable people, but particularly women, who felt they had disappeared or become invisible after a decade of marriage. I was one of them. Lindsey, the protagonist in my novel, A Fitting Place, is another. 

As I noted last week, most of us, flawed human beings that we are, choose partners who replicate emotional behavior patterns–the comfort zone–familiar from childhood. For the relationship to be successful, both partners need to break the habitual behaviors of youth and adopt more intentional behaviors relevant to the current circumstances.  

One of the key themes in A Fitting Place is the extent to which social norms about gender roles in marriage make this adjustment particularly difficult. Even in this post-feminist world, gender stereotypes persist. Men are logical, woman are emotional. Men are strong, women are weak. Men are the leaders and decision-makers, women are the facilitators. 

These stereotypes can have a powerful but all-too-often invisible impact on the day-to-day choices both men and women make in a marriage. In same-sex relationships, that invisible straightjacket is missing. It is easier—not easy, but easier—to distinguish between what you want to do and what you do because it is expected of you. 

This issue is at the heart of Lindsey’s dilemma. Having all-but-disappeared inside a traditional marriage, she is shocked to discover that she is disappearing once again inside a powerful and compelling love affair … even though it is with a woman. No longer able to blame gender roles and societal expectations, she is forced to look in the mirror.


This is the third in my series of blogs on themes in my novel.  I hope to provide a forum where my readers can offer comments and insights based on their own experiences.  Let me know if you’d like to do a guest blog on one or more of the issues relevant to A Fitting Place.  



  1. A very interesting subject though I’m not entirely sure it’s that simple. Several of my friends who work in Queer Theory consider the utopianising of same sex relationships to be one of the great myths that needs exploding, arguing that the same power dynamics often come into play as in any relationship, leading to the swallowing of one partner’s subjectivity.

    I certainly agree a lot of work needs to be done to get away from the notion of a “default” role for either partner in a relationship, but I think in a world that is decreasingly gender-binary, all relationships may increasingly become matters of negotiation – but I think it would be a naive account of human nature to assume that negotiation will not, in most cases, break down into attempts to assert one’s identity at the expense of rather than through relationship with the other – although this battle for assertion has manifested itself, and will continue to manifest itself, in gendered ways, it is a far more fundamental flaw in human nature

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Dan … I don’t think it’s “that simple” either, and I do agree that most relationships devolve into some sort of struggle for power and identity. In any relationship (a topic for a later blog), I think it is very difficult to establish (even in one’s own mind) the boundary between the compromise needed to make a relationship work, and the compromise that leads to a loss of identity. My only point here is that the often-unspoken assumptions about gender roles make that boundary even harder to define.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments!

  2. Mary;
    This is an excellent subject for writers to consider. It can give us reason to break out of our own comfort zone when describing or writing interactions between characters, but I wonder if it can be a thin edge when it comes to our readers? Sometimes there is a very wide chasm between pleasing ourselves and pleasing our readers. I agree that it is never as simple as society-reinforced gender roles, because each of us also brings our emotional and historic baggage to any relationship or marriage. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Richard … If I understand your point, we are of like minds. There is no “discussion” in A FITTING PLACE of the role of gender in making relationships work … nor is there any “discussion” of the concept of comfort zone or “stepping outside” them.

      Perhaps it’s the distinction between showing and telling … hopefully I am showing it, without actually saying it!

  3. Mary,

    I love what you are doing with these thought-provoking themes and how they relate to your forthcoming novel. It’s a brilliant idea and really brings your readers on board . . .

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks so much, Susan. A part of this is, of course, PR, but I am also hoping to get some interesting discussions going on some complex difficult subjects.

  4. As said above, thought-provoking post. Recently I collaborated on a book about the bisexual identity. That doesn’t make me an expert, but I did gain insights as to same-sex relationships. It seems to me that gender roles in any relationship, be it same or the opposite sex, share similar/same patterns. The problem is more with labeling and assumptions that have created stereotypes. Intriguing that your character is disappearing inside a compelling love affair, which can happen in relationships with either gender. The issue here that she is out of her comfort zone and doesn’t have the invisible straightjacket – love that description – to prop her up could be true of some opposite sex relationships as well.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Pennie …. yes, absolutely, relationship issues apply to same-sex and other-sex relationships. But it seems to me that when you manifest the same behavior pattern in both same-sex and other-sex relationships, you can no longer fall back on the excuse that “guys are like that” or “women always do …..” You are forced to look a little closer to home to find an explanation.

  5. Mary, this series is intriguing, informative and a great marketing scheme! I’m really enjoying reading each one. I was going to speak to what you mentioned in your reply to Pennie but you beat me to it. I like your “you are forced to look a little closer to home to find an explanation.” 🙂

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Hi Sherrey. My comment about looking “closer to home” comes from my own experience in my first marriage. It was so easy to blame my ex-husband. He had his faults, but I bore a lot of the responsibility for what went wrong.

  6. I think is great that same-sex marriages are becoming more welcoming in society. however I dont think it helps to say that they are healthier because of gender roles because it only further stereotypes relationships based on gender. Now ofcourse this might be true but I also do believe is possible to stear away from these gender roles once the individual takes a much more active role in just being human rather than follow along what is expected of him or her in society. I think once the individual does this, he or she will find the right partner wether it is the same sex or a different sex. we just simply have to be happy with ourselves first.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Zullay … I agree that it is important to get away from gender roles! The point I think the article was making … and a key element of my novel … is that same sex relationships make it much harder to simply fall back into the gender roles we learned almost unconsciously … or to blame your partner’s behavior on gender roles. When things aren’t working, you’re a bit more likely to look in the mirror for the problem.

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