If you’re a woman with a strong, directive personality, you know how this feels: You’re out on a date with someone new or starting work on a project with a male colleague. Suddenly, you wonder: “Am I threatening to this guy? Am I ‘too much’? Should I dial it down down a little, just in case?”
Let’s be real Alpha women and confront the question head on: Do strong women threaten men? And if so, why, and what to do about it?
The truth is, some men are threatened by Alpha women. Sometimes that’s due to insecurity, but even the guy with a perfectly healthy ego may have a knee-jerk reaction to an assertive woman. Frankly, most men are a little sensitive about feeling controlled by a woman. This is usually not a big problem if you both have a sense of humor and don’t get into giant power struggles. But there are plenty of men out there who are hugely insecure: it’s painfully obvious when I read the ugly, negative comments from men in response to some of my blogposts about Alpha women.
Other men are enamored of strong women. A friend of mine, with an Alpha wife, put it like this: “You have to have a strong ego to be married to an Alpha woman.” I do agree that a guy needs self-confidence and a sense of humor to be happily married to a woman who likes to take the lead—but aren’t those always the qualities that make a great partner?
The Alpha woman’s special burden is that we’re called all the B words: ballsy, bossy, bitchy, and ballbusting. Let’s take on this laundry list of negatives; after all, some stereotypes contain a grain of truth, even if it’s distorted. My client, Hillary, a 37-year-old investment broker, and an example of what I call an Extreme Alpha, put it bluntly: “I make the money in the family, so I call the shots.” It is the rare Alpha woman who so blatantly equates power with income, but it does happen. I’ll be just as blunt as she was: Whoever asserts power in this way—wife or husband—is laying the groundwork for an unhealthy relationship.
While I do support asserting one’s Alpha qualities, I am not supporting that kind of domineering behavior by either partner. Nor am I advocating other kinds of “my-way-or-the-highway” attitudes. An Alpha woman or man may boss their partner around in front of other people, which is both rude and embarrassing to everyone. One Alpha client was quick to pick a fight when her partner, a great Beta guy, chose to stay at home finishing a work project instead of spontaneously meeting her after work for a drink. This sort of hostile interaction demeans both partners and undermines the relationship.
All that said, I would never suggest squashing your alpha qualities to meet outdated notions of femininity. Instead, let your “observing ego” come into play; stand back, watch yourself and evaluate your own behavior. When you become more self-observant, you can choose a different tone and communication style. By doing so, you aren’t being untrue to yourself. But if you’ve ever noticed a man—or a woman—bristle when you’re speaking to him or seen the scuff marks on the floor as he digs in his heels, you need to develop an ear for your tone of voice and the words you choose. You’ll need to tune your radar in to his reactions: just as we don’t like it when men are controlling, and men get defensive when women are pushing too hard.
What I also find useful is to put some Beta skills into play: Ask questions instead of issuing orders. One Alpha woman and her Beta boyfriend were discussing a situation that had upset him at work. When his boss criticized his approach with a client, he had been humiliated and had hotly defended himself. In a superior tone his partner chided him that he became defensive whenever he was criticized. Even though that may have been a valid insight, it was a badly timed observation. Instead, land squarely in his corner by listening carefully instead of telling him what he did wrong. If you criticize him as this woman did, you are missing the point. The interaction should be positive—he’s confiding in you, which is a sure sign of intimacy and trust. Put yourself in his shoes, and recognize that it isn’t easy for him to share an incident like this without feeling vulnerable. First, be sympathetic. Then you might ask: Was there any merit in the criticism at all? You might add that you know how hard it is to take criticism; most people—including you!—find it difficult. By being empathic you’re creating an environment in which uncomfortable feelings may be shared. This is the cornerstone of intimacy.
If a man seems particularly sensitive to directives, you need to understand why. Again, make use of your “observing ego”: stand back and objectively watch yourself. When one woman’s husband complained that she was “in the driver’s seat” in their relationship, she was bewildered because she’d never seen herself as directive. In a case like this, calmly ask for specific examples and do a reality check with friends who know you well. You may be “bossier” than you think, and/or he may be extra-sensitive. (In this case, the woman did underestimate her habit of taking charge of some situations. The husband, whose mother had been very domineering, was extra-sensitive to being undermined by strong women.) The best way to deal with this kind of problem is for both partners to recognize their default positions and the negative cycle of interaction as it unfolds. If this is the power dynamic in your relationship, try to be more self-aware and cut each other some slack. Take a step back and a deep breath—this will give you the space to observe your behavior.
For generations, women have been toning themselves down, disowning the very traits that would allow them to fulfill their personal and professional lives. That never ends well. But being self-observant and self-aware are qualities that reflect maturity and focus. Do not confuse this with censoring yourself to please other people. It’s time for all Alphas and Betas to permit themselves an exuberant expression of their personalities without conforming to constricting social norms of “feminine” behavior.