What does it really mean to “wear the pants”? According to Cambridge dictionary, it means:

(especially of a woman) to be the person in a relationship who is in control and who makes decisions for both people.

The English language has so many funny expressions and idioms and this is one of those. This expression is mostly used with women, what does that say?  It implies that normally the man wears the pants (and is in control) and the woman normally ‘wears dresses’ in a relationship.

And with me being the strong, independent woman I am and my partner being the sweet, caring, kind-hearted man he is (not to say I am any less sweet, caring, kind-hearted and my partner any less strong and independent), so many people have said to me that I wear the pants in our relationship.

My partner and I were talking about this and I jokingly asked him: “Are you fine with wearing dresses? Does it make you feel less like a man?”. And my selfless, honest partner said: “Yeah I am fine with that. I don’t care. No, it doesn’t make me feel less like a man.” And in fact, he really doesn’t care what others think, he doesn’t have a male ego and he never feels intimidated by strong women, and I love that about him.

Back to the question “Who wears the pants in a relationship?”, I did a bit of a research on this peculiar expression and its history. This idiom is deep-rooted as a consequence of a long history where only men wore pants and patriarchal societies were common; and even in modern societies, men are still dominant in every aspect of life.

Looking at this expression from a realistic point of view, it doesn’t make much sense because women also wear pants, and in fact, Scottish men wear their traditional dresses with pride. But, apparently, that is not the case a couple of centuries ago.

For example, women in Paris were forbidden to wear trousers for god-knows-how-long; not until 1892 and 1909 that the law allowed them to wear pants “if the woman is holding a bicycle handlebar or the reins of a horse.” (And yes it was written in the law.)

But hello, back to reality, it’s the 21st century and men and women can wear pants and dresses, whatever they want.

From the perspective of relationship, I think this expression is stereotyping genders and gender roles. Just like in the workplace, women who are assertive are seen as bossy (There is even a whole report on it produced by the Center for Creative Leadership).  In a relationship, if the woman is strong and appears to be more dominant, she “wears the pants”.

What I have learned is that when we start labeling things, we start to have expectations of what that label should entail. And this divides people, you are in this group, I am in that group, you’re this, I am that… It has never been that simple nor that complicated. Why can’t you just be you and I just be myself? We’re different but it’s diversity and we respect that.

I often think of a relationship as 2 people stretching a rubber band. If one pulls too hard, the rubber band will bust and both people will get hurt. But if one let go or loosens his hands,  again both will get hurt and lose their relationship.

I believe to make a relationship work, there needs to be a balance of energy, power, and efforts and two people both make decisions, both play a role in the relationship regardless of their genders. And they support each other in everyday life, challenge, inspire and motivate each other to grow and develop.

It doesn’t matter who wears the pants, what matters is that there is love, respect, and mutual understanding in their relationship.

Picture: My partner and I. And yes we both wear pants.

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Posted by:Hanh Lam

I am a young Vietnamese woman with a passion for development work and social change, a desire to explore the world and a love for storytelling.

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