Chivalry is a concept that emerged out of medieval Europe, so how did it come to be so widespread in 21st-century America? It’s complicated. Interestingly enough, the word chivalry originally referred to a combination of qualities that were considered ideal for a knight, including courage, honor, justice, and courtesy. Today, it’s come to mean something related more to how men treat women, particularly in the dating world.
A popular quote that continues to stir up controversy is “chivalry is dead.” The point is debatable. But if it’s going to be put up for discussion, we should probably make sure we’re at least on the same page regarding another question: What is chivalry?
THE RIGHT KIND OF CHIVALRY
The best way to define what chivalry is is through examples. All women will have different preferences, and you should communicate these to your date and he should respect them. Thank him for his chivalry if you like it. More ideas for compliments for him here. However, the following chivalrous behavior is pretty universally appreciated.
- Opening doors: He shouldn’t go out of his way to race you to every door or anything like that, but opening doors for you signifies respect and care. More importantly, it indicates selflessness, since this requires going out of his way to ensure her comfort.
- Picking up the tab: Splitting the check is usually the fairest way to pay for dates. However, it’s also a nice and romantic gesture for either you or your date to pick up the tab every once in a while. It’s not so much about the money as it is about the feeling of being treated to something—even if it’s as simple as a bag of popcorn at the movie theater.
- Offering your jacket/umbrella/sunglasses, etc.: Once again, sacrificing his comfort for yours shows selflessness. And it helps to keep you feeling good around him, which is better for your relationship in the long run. As an added bonus: wearing your things gives the relationship a more exclusive feeling, which can be helpful if you’re in the dreaded “undefined dating” zone.
- Going the extra mile: …literally. As in, he should be willing to pick you up instead of asking you to meet him somewhere every time. He should show effort and attention in smaller ways, like walking you to the door at the end of the night, calling instead of always texting, and offering to run down to the coffee shop when you need an afternoon pick-me-up.
…AND THE WRONG KIND
The best way to understand what chivalry is is to determine what it isn’t. If a guy you’re seeing is trying to pass off the following behaviors as “chivalry,” it may be time to re-evaluate your knight in shining armor.
- Criticizing you for talking to other guys: Assuming no obvious boundaries have been overstepped, there’s no reason why your man should get upset with you for talking to or having friendships with people of both genders. He might even qualify his criticism with statements like “I just want you all to myself” or “I’m just trying to look out for you.” Although it might sound nice, especially at the start, this behavior is not chivalrous.
- Frequently calling to “check up” on you: This is another one of those situations where good intentions are at least plausible, but don’t compensate for controlling behavior. Calling or texting you after a night out to make sure you got home safe is a nice gesture, but not if he does it every time you leave the house. Frequency isn’t the only warning sign. If he’s interrogating you about where you were, who you were with, and what time you came back, he’s acting like more of a parent than a lover. He might also be jealous or clingy. And that’s unacceptable.
- Complaining about your contributions as “emasculating”: The primary motivation behind sacrificing something for your partner should simply be that you want to make them happy. If your man sees something like paying for dinner as an obligation, and feels emasculated when you pick up the tab yourself, he’s too concerned with superficial aspects of the relationship to build something truly intimate and meaningful.
- Being a pushover: On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, your date might also try to pass off his lack of a backbone/personality as “chivalry.” It’s unattractive for women, too. This is also concerning because it makes the whole relationship superficial and one-sided, with him sacrificing his needs and desires purely for what makes you happy. It’s a form of dodging healthy conflicts that every relationship needs to grow, and you’ll both end up unhappy in the long run.
IS CHIVALRY SEXIST?
Especially in the last few years – as feminism has become a centralized subject in the media – there is a heated debate over whether or not chivalry is a sexist concept. As the intensity of this debate suggests, there is no easy “yes” or “no” answer. The issue is complex, and varies widely based on personal preference.
Still, there are some ways to objectively determine whether or not chivalry is sexist. Traditionally, the term has applied exclusively to men, which is fundamentally sexist since it discriminates based entirely on gender. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to. If you conduct your relationship in such a way that “chivalry” (selflessness, special treatment etc.) was expected of both parties, then it could actually be a beneficial standard for the relationship. Keep this in mind as you move through the different relationship stages.
The most important thing is to maintain a balance, with both of you contributing to and taking from the relationship equally and according to your unique capacity, rather than gender. For example, a traditional understanding of what chivalry is dictates that the man should always pay for the date. But if the woman in the relationship earns more money, then it only seems logical that she pays for more of the dates. Meanwhile, the man can contribute according to his own capacity, such as taking care of household repairs and upkeep.
So, what is chivalry? It’s what you make it. It can be a guiding concept that encourages you to constantly work toward maintaining a dynamic relationship. Or it can be a limiting worldview that prevents you and your partner from being equally fulfilled. We’ve got plenty of dating advice and relationship advice to help with that.
The bottom line is that any belief or behavior should be justified substantively if you expect it to serve some sort of greater good. Though many people try to justify traditional chivalry with empty platitudes about the roles of men and women, the argument doesn’t quite hold up in practice. Respecting your partner enough to foster her autonomy and genuinely sacrifice your own comfort out of love is really what chivalry is.