My partner (girlfriend – she insists girlfriend is more appropriate) and I have been doing that thing that all couples do recently: arguing and making up. Which, for me, is great. It means we are doing the hard work of relationships to align and synchronize, to get on the same page and work through difficulties to understand one another. It means we are learning each other’s communication styles and beginning to see the real person underneath, not the image we try to project. It’s not easy, but it’s amazing.
One of the issues we circled around for a few days there was who would take the more dominant role in the relationship. Historically I have taken a more active role in my relationships, which is why I believe so strongly in equality in partnerships. There is certainly a pocket of untold stories in BDSM about the downside to dominance – having to be strong and dominant, but feeling exhausted and eventually the emotional toll of being left behind by a completely satisfied submissive. The same is true in relationships. The “active” partner handles their own business, that of their partner, and that of the relationship (three areas of activity) while the “passive” partner – loved and doted on, taken care of, and protected – lives in an insulated bubble. These dynamics fail. Regularly. But the dream of giving everything to your relationship persists and going along with them in the driver’s seat persists, creating expectations that are hard to live out in our increasingly individualized and self-empowered world. It’s nice to imagine we can rely on a partner, but the reality is people don’t always want to go along with the dynamic once it becomes difficult while many people, given power, begin to act foolish and destroy the trust and respect their more passive partner previously held for them. Dr. Lisa Hoplock, writing about this tendency, summarizes five studies to conclude that relationships with notable differentials do not fare well.
People have a need to feel autonomous (i.e., they need to feel like they are doing something because they want to and not because someone forced them to). When people are dominant, they try to take control of the situation, which may make others feel less autonomous. Feeling controlled can be disheartening and is linked to poor well-being. And people who have dominant partners tend to be unhappy in the relationship (i.e., have lower relationship satisfaction). Researchers wanted to understand why having a dominant partner is linked to lower relationship satisfaction.
She points to a recent study published by the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 92 cohabiting heterosexual couples completed questionnaires every day for almost a month.
Each member of the couple answered questions about interactions that they had with their romantic partner that day. They were asked how dominant they were in the interaction (example item: “I set goals for the other[s] or for us”), how autonomous they felt (i.e., “the extent to which your behavior reflected your own choices and values versus internal and external pressures”), and what emotions they experienced (e.g., how frustrated they were). At the end of the 20 days, each couple member also reported how happy they were in the relationship… Having a partner act more dominant on a given day than they normally do made people feel more upset that day than they usually feel because it made them feel less autonomous than usual. Furthermore, the more upset people were because of their partner’s dominance, the less happy they were in the relationship. The results were the same if men were being dominant or if women were being dominant.
Hoplock concludes that the study reaffirms previous ones, all of them together indicating that “Dominance is linked to lower relationship satisfaction because a partner’s dominance can make one feel unhappy and less autonomous. Try to share the power in your relationship. Perhaps this is one reason why people in egalitarian relationships tend to be happier in their relationships and life.”
Every study can be challenged, though. Generally, I would argue that every relationship naturally develops a pattern or “way of being.” Partners need predictability and a routine, even if that routine is unpredictability and volatility. We need to know what to expect from one another, and once we show who we really are, the partnership either migrates into the familiar or it disintegrates. When it comes to authority though, relationships rarely shift polarities. They are either balanced (I cannot say any relationship is ever “equal” in the truest sense) or one partner has more responsibility. Dario Maestripieri, Ph.D. of the University of Chicago highlights that the 1935 novel Auto-Da-Fe by Elias Canetti (which won the Nobel Prize in 1981) offers a great deal of insight to relational dynamics.
A reversal of dominance within a couple – in which the previously subordinate partner becomes dominant and the dominant becomes subordinate – is an exceedingly rare event. When this rare event does occur, however, it can have life-changing consequences. In the 1935 novel Auto-Da-Fe’… the main character is a reclusive scholar, Peter Kien, who spends all his time in his apartment, where he keeps a massive library with thousands of volumes. The only person he keeps around is his housekeeper, an illiterate older woman named Therese who rents a room in his apartment and cleans and cooks for him. For eight years, their relationship is straightforward. Kien is the employer and Therese is the employee, he owns the apartment and she is the guest, he is a scholar and she is illiterate. He is dominant and she is subordinate: he barely looks at her when they talk, and she treats him with great deference. However, when Kien misinterprets Therese’s conscientiousness in dusting his books for a love of knowledge similar to his own and decides to marry her, their relationship shifts dramatically: they are no longer employer and employee, but husband and wife. All hell breaks loose. Therese is no longer intimidated by Kien’s intellectual superiority and believes that her cravings for expensive new furniture and clothes should take precedence over his desire to acquire more books and knowledge. She becomes more and more confrontational with him until one day she loses it and beats him to a pulp. Now their dominance relationship is reversed. Kien is afraid of Therese and becomes passive for fear of another beating. Therese gains control of the apartment and buys all the furniture she wants with Kien’s money. When the money runs out, she kicks Kien out of the apartment and pawns his books. If you like novels with a happy ending, Auto-da-Fe’ may not be the book for you. Canetti is not optimistic about human beings’ ability to communicate with one another and resolve their disputes amicably; instead, he painstakingly describes how our lives crumble to pieces when we fall prey to the dark survival instincts of our own minds or those of the people around us. Although Canetti doesn’t mention the word dominance once in his book, he provides a vivid illustration of the powerful influence that a change in a dominance relationship can have on people’s lives.
Instead of focusing on dominance and submission or passivity in a relationship, it might be more accurate to examine instead what those titles mean and how they are lived out. For example, does dominance mean that there is also a high degree of communication or does the dominant partner – as the dominant – feel it unnecessary to express their desires? Along with objectives and activities, does the dominant partner share their inner terrain – the emotional and mental experiences they are participating in? And, ultimately, is there a sense of shared goals or are the goals expressly those of the more dominant partner?
As I’ve noted previously, my parents modeled a very dysfunctional relationship for me when I was a child. My father still hoards, as he did when I was little, while my mother remains relatively unattached to most of her possessions and investments. My father has very far-reaching goals, but has consistently failed to communicate what they are despite two failed marriages to both my mother and stepmother. My mother, for her part, is strong willed as a result of her marriage with my father. In his emotional and mental absence with her, and his failure to communicate relational goals, she felt “pushed away” and developed objectives of her own like finishing college and pursuing a masters. The key moment for me was in 2006 when my father came to visit for the holidays. They talked for several hours – even though divorced, they remained civil and found a new friendship developing – and as my father prepared to leave, he shook his head and told her, “I never knew you had dreams.” It wasn’t an apology so much as recognizing he never knew her at all. Despite his efforts to “control” the relationship, he failed miserably and never really grasped why. When my mother tried to take some control back and achieve personal goals in his emotional and physical absence, he felt betrayed. Perhaps he was. But, I would argue, the inability to think of others while acting on his need to control events has been instrumental in relational exhaustion.
In my own relational history, you might say I swing the other way. While I maintain that I have historically taken a more active, at times “dominant” role in my relationships, I have neglected myself at times and been unable to bring my whole authentic self to a relationship. So focused on “caring” and “thinking of others,” I have neglected my own emotional health. More, when I finally took off the mask of pleasantness and “appeared” fully formed in the relationship, on at least two occasions it played out like a warped version to what my mother must have felt that day – they never knew I had dreams or aspirations because I was so focused on theirs. Dominance in a relationship does not always mean sexual preferences, which is why I adjusted the term there. Sometimes, dominance in a relationship could mean you take a profoundly more active role in the coupling. You schedule events, strongly offer suggestions, tell your partner when and where to show up, and have a higher degree of emotional investment. But you’re not exactly “in control.” Gwendolyn Seidman of Albright College writes that there are a variety of ways to understand dominance and submission in a relationship.
Researchers consider social dominance to include traits like being authoritative, in control, and taking a leadership role. However, such traits are not normally associated with kind, caring people. Dominant people tend to be more self-centered and insensitive to others’ feelings, not traits most of us seek in a romantic partner. For dominant individuals to be seen as desirable mates, they need to combine that commanding personality with other traits that show a willingness to be generous and helpful. Women want a partner who is competitive with others, but treats them well.
Evolutionary psychologists claim that women prefer dominant partners because such men have superior genes. Evidence has shown that women prefer more dominant men when they themselves are at the most fertile point of their menstrual cycle, whereas most men do not similarly seek out dominant women. (For more on this, click here.)
New research by Gilda Giebel and colleagues goes beyond these evolutionary explanations, which focus solely on gender differences, and examines how our individual personality traits affect the preference for dominant partners. The researchers speculated that if a passive but nice partner is seen as “boring,” then people who are especially averse to boredom in their lives will be the most likely to seek out dominant partners. They predicted that people who are high in sensation-seeking – “the seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences and the willingness to take risks for the sake of such experiences” – would be especially likely to prefer dominant partners.
A 2014 study conducted by three universities in Czechoslovakia and published in the medical journal Neuroendocrinology Letters, telling titled “Why Do Some Women Prefer Submissive Men,” quizzed 340 young men and women about the sort of person they were attracted to. For example, they were asked whether they would prefer to be with someone who would ‘guide and protect’ them or ‘admire and serve’ them, and whether their mother and father had equal status in their relationship or whether one tended to be more submissive. The results showed there to be more families in which one parent was dominant than where both were equal. Women were in charge in 24.2 per cent of cases, and couples in which one partner was dominant had the most children, 15% more than their peers. Couples made up of two strong characters had the fewest children. The researchers, through lead partner Eva Jozifkova, said that regardless of gender, the absence of equality actually helps build a stronger relationship.
If the two individuals rank at a similar degree, even minor conflicts may escalate due to competition… Too often, we are told to view even mild dominance and submissiveness as a problem. Our results challenge the frequently held belief in equality within couples as a trademark of functional partnerships. It rather appears that existence of some disparity, with one partner dominant, and the other submissive, improves cohesion, results in better co-operation between partners and improves the couple’s ability to face challenges… In the light of these results, both excessive pressures towards equality in some modern societies, and pressures towards male dominance in some traditional societies, represent a form of oppression.
In an interview with The Telegraph, lead researcher Eva Jozifkova added that “Hierarchy disparity may reduce the frequency and intensity of conflicts. Smooth within-couple cooperation appears as more important than the gender of the higher-ranking individual.’’ She emphasized that noting this difference of power with words like “dominance” and “submission” does not imply violence. “Although hierarchical disparity is typical for domestic violence, a mild within-pair disparity does not imply nor incur violence per se.” Important to their research, she added, “From the point of view of reproductive success, answering the question why some women are aroused by submissive men is easy. Hierarchy disparity within couples allows the parents to invest more energy into their offspring, presumably by increased cooperation and/or conflict reduction, irrespective of which gender assumes the dominant role.’’
So, given that gender isn’t really a big deal in relationships with “hierarchical disparity,” what gives? Why do people still desire this, create Tumblrs and write books about it? Become nostalgic for “traditional” relationships and whatever other labels we use to express the idea? Why do we desire dominance and submission?
Honestly, I don’t know.
Not because there is an absence of research, but instead an overwhelming amount of unique and individualized information. Point blank: We like what we like.
In a 2015 survey of 172 German adults (60% female, 63% students) who completed personality questionnaires, then measured their own preference for a dominant partner, participants rated how much they agreed with statements such as, “A very nice man/woman is often boring”; “I like it when the man/woman takes on a leadership role in our relationship”; and, “I feel attracted to assertive men/women.” To assess sensation-seeking, participants completed a well-known measure of this trait, which includes four sub-scales:
- Thrill and adventure-seeking. The tendency to engage in “fearless” behavior, like skydiving and mountain-climbing.
- Disinhibition. Engaging in impulsive behaviors, like drug and alcohol use or unsafe sex.
- Experience seeking. Seeking out less risky, but exciting, new experiences, like travel or artistic experiences.
- Boredom susceptibility. The tendency to become bored easily and need constant stimulation from other people or activities.
The results revealed that sensation-seekers of both genders were “especially likely” to prefer a dominant partner. In particular, boredom susceptibility and disinhibition were correlated with a preference for dominant partners, while thrill-seeking was not. This suggests that those who are easily bored and engage in impulsive behaviors may choose more dominant romantic partners. Such partners may provide excitement that keeps them stimulated. The researchers also examined participants’ overall levels of anxiety. In particular, the researchers hypothesized that women who were highly anxious might prefer dominant partners because of the protection that they offer, rather than because they’re sexy or exciting.
The results did reveal that there were two types of women who preferred dominant partners – those who displayed boredom susceptibility and disinhibition, and anxiety. These traits are totally uncorrelated to each other, providing evidence that these two types of women may have different motivations for seeking dominant partners. Anxious women appear to prefer dominant partners because they offer protection and security, while disinhibited, easily bored women seem to prefer dominant partners because they’re exciting. Not all anxious women showed a preference for dominant partners, however. Anxious women were more likely to score highly on the experience-seeking aspect of sensation-seeking, the researchers found, and they concluded that anxious women have two different ways of coping with their anxiety: Some seek a dominant man for protection. But others, particularly those who seek out new and exciting experiences, may try to compensate for their anxiety by pursuing a more sophisticated, cosmopolitan and non-conformist lifestyle that involves new experiences, like travel and artistic pursuits. These women avoid a dominant partner who may try to control them and limit their ability to pursue those experiences, though they note of course that there may be other explanations for this surprising pattern of results.
While there may be some truth, then, to the stereotype that women seek dominant “bad boys,” the real picture is complicated—and men certainly may also seek “bad girls” if they themselves are disinhibited and easily bored, just as some women may seek dominant partners if they have that same easily bored personality type. Other women may seek dominant partners because they are anxious and want protection from their mate—although other anxious women prefer the opposite, wanting less-dominant partners who allow them to explore new experiences.
For my own relationship, this means I am reorienting to a new dynamic where I am not as in control as I have been previously. For my girlfriend, this means she is finding a new balance where dominance is not weaponized against her and used to control her or suppress her natural interests, curiosities, desires, and quirks. Or at least we hope so. It means we are navigating new roles and doing the hard work of admitting when the other person is more right, more knowledgeable, and more focused or on point and giving way to that.
In the end, whatever dynamic a couple discovers works best for them, it is important to regularly check in and make adjustments where necessary to ensure communication remains open and free, that both partners understand where the other is coming from, where they are at, and where they intend to go. Negligence, even failure, to attend to a relationship ensures instability and pressure that only builds with time.
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