Games Primates Play

The evolution and economics of human relationships.

Are You Dominant or Subordinate in Your Romantic Relationship?

Clear-cut dominance in couples increases stability.

Dominance is so intrinsic to human social relationships that we don’t even notice it. However, I suspect that if I asked you to make a list of one hundred people you know, including family members, friends, and coworkers, and indicate whether you are dominant or subordinate in your relationship with each of these people, you could give a clear answer for at least ninety-five of them. Normally, we don’t think about how our daily interactions with the people we know are affected by our being dominant or subordinate. The truth is, however, that dominance permeates many aspects of our everyday social lives.

Dominance in romantic or married couples is an important but underappreciated phenomenon. The most stable romantic relationships and marriages seem to be those in which dominance is clear from the beginning. The dominant partner makes all the decisions, from what show to watch on TV in the evening to where to go on vacation in the summer, and the subordinate partner acquiesces and takes a supporting role. If what people expect from marriage is not necessarily everlasting passionate love but a stable partnership that will allow joint ventures such as buying a home and raising children together, or an opportunity to concentrate on one’s career without worrying about house chores, then an asymmetrical relationship with uncontested dominance probably guarantees the best outcome. The secret to a stable marriage is that one of the two spouses must be willing to pay a disproportionate share of the price for the stability.

One problem with such an unbalanced relationship is that once the children are out of the house, career goals have been accomplished, and the mortgage on the mansion has been paid off, the stable relationship may no longer have a reason to exist. The dominant spouse, or both, may lose interest and begin looking for another partner. Another potential problem is that the dominant spouse may become dictatorial and abusive. The subordinate partner can benefit enough from the stability and support obtained from the relationship (and the accomplishment of other goals that comes with it) to compensate for the lack of decisional power and all the losses associated with it, but only as long as the dominant partner adopts a tolerant and respectful dominance style. Abusive dominance makes the costs of subordination skyrocket to the point that the benefits of the relationship are no longer worth it and the subordinate must walk out.

“The course of true love never did run smooth,” says Lysander in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Individuals who fall in love with each other and are looking for more than a business partnership face formidable challenges, particularly if they both have strong personalities. If neither individual is willing to take a subordinate role, every time conflicting interests arise or decisions need to be made, the relationship is potentially threatened. In the absence of a clear-cut dominance relationship to settle all the contests, the costs of continuous fighting or negotiation inevitably take their toll. It is common knowledge that when couples fight and eventually break up, they do so over seemingly trivial issues. Clearly, it’s not disagreements over the dinner menu or the remote control that lead a couple to divorce. It’s the disagreements over who is in charge and who isn’t, and the stress and disruption that come along with these disagreements. Couples with unresolved dominance may last for a while, maybe even forever, but their relationship is inherently unstable.

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’ - a masterpiece of European literature for which its author, Elias Canetti, won the Nobel Prize in 1981 - 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. 

If you enjoyed this blog post and the previous ones, read my book Games Primates Play!

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Dario Maestripieri, Ph.D., is a professor of comparative human development, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology at the University of Chicago.

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