Alpha Woman, Beta Woman
by Sonya Rhodes, PhD and Susan Schneider
Posted Apr 14, 2014
Excerpted from The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match: How Today's Strong Women Can Find Love and Happiness Without Settling, by Sonya Rhodes, PhD and Susan Schneider, on sale: April 15, 2014, from HarperCollins Publishers.
Today's Alpha Woman is everywhere. In dress and style, the Alpha is the familiar, highly visible prototype—she wouldn’t be caught dead in a 1980s power suit with padded shoulders that imitated male business attire. She is unabashedly sexy as well as career oriented. Her towering four-inch stilettos march off to the office, the store, the judge’s chambers, and her lacquered-red soles send a “follow me” signal, straight to the bedroom.
She’s the MD who manages a clinic like a well-oiled machine, or the self-confident Web editor who envisions herself running the company with her combination of tech skills and business savvy. She’s the chic, assertive saleswoman who convinces you to buy an outfit you aren’t sure you actually need. If she’s young and feeling her way as an Alpha female, she may proudly sign her texts “HBIC” (head bitch in charge—an acronym I heard recently from a 17-year-old client of mine headed to the Ivy League who could be the poster child for the new generation).
As I’ve studied and worked with women, I’ve discovered that our Beta sisters sometimes feel diminished or threatened by the Alpha prototype—but there is really no cause for this. I am not talking about “good,” “bad,” or “better” people; I am saying that all Alphas and Betas—in other words, all of us—are on a personality continuum, and most of us are a mix, with greater or lesser degrees of both.
Betas have less of a need for control, and they may have less interest in a leadership position than an Alpha would. In a group of women, the Alpha is the one who exerts power and influence through her ability to take charge of the conversation, while the Beta will tend to listen and support. In the extremes of both, an Alpha may be too confrontational; a Beta may be too passive. Fortunately, people are malleable, as you will see, and you can modify some of your behavior for a better balance.
Can you be an Alpha if you’re not a big earner or powerful out in the working world? Of course! Lily, a physician and a mother of two, works between fifteen and twenty hours a week to her husband’s seventy-hours-plus. She puts it this way: “I’m an Alpha in disguise. I don’t wear my Alpha on my sleeve.”
Like Lily, many strong Betas carve out a niche for themselves within a relationship; they may control the finances or decisions about the children, for example. “I’m a little afraid of direct confrontation,” Lily says. “I will tend to avoid it. I look like I’m easygoing and amenable and I don’t always show my forceful side, but I do like to get my way.” Alpha? Beta? It isn’t always either/or, and Alpha is not better than Beta. Far more important is the degree of each that you have in your personality. You may be a Beta, with anywhere from a handful to a big helping of Alpha, or an Alpha with strong to middling Beta tendencies, or an extreme Alpha, with practically no Beta at all. You may be pretty much a hybrid, with equal amounts of both. I’m betting that you’ve got some Alpha no matter who you are.
Funny, strong, independent, and comfortable in her own skin, the Alpha believes in herself—but has some blind spots. She assumes that as an Alpha female she should be partnered with an Alpha male. The problem is, two Alphas will tend to compete for power and dominance. I believe that Alpha women can learn to envision themselves as the Alpha in a relationship with a Beta man, who just might make the best fit.
THE NEW “CATCH”
The Beta man is out there in the culture, in the media, and in the sociologists’ studies and statistics—and he’s a great catch. We’ve all seen Dads pushing strollers down the street as often as we see Moms. A father may be the Pied Piper of the playground set and know the politics of the kids’ PTA far better than the working wife does. A New Yorker magazine cartoon features two Old West-style gunslinger hombres with their infants in BabyBjorns standing in a bar negotiating for a play date. A new ad campaign for shaving cream suggests men “man up,” a playful poke both at traditional notions of manhood and at today’s “softer” guy.
Today’s Beta guy is transformed and more complicated than the sensitive guy from the 80s and 90s. “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” was the name of a bestselling book in the 80s, which satirized the sensitive man who was trying very, very hard to be acceptable to feminists. We’ve come further by now! The Beta man is no longer the guy assumed to be gay if he likes yoga, dresses well, or is a vegan. His ego doesn’t depend on scoring macho points. He is dependable, responsible, and supportive.
Many Alpha women have a sexual Achilles heel: openly sexual as they are, they still expect the man to take the lead in bed, which gets in the way of their falling for the tender lover, the Beta male. I call it the Shades of Grey syndrome, based on the series that found such a willing audience among Alpha dynamos who feel some sneaky retro shame about their sexual appetites. An Alpha who is secretly embarrassed by her intense sexual fantasies may feign passivity in order for the man to take the lead, so she can be “taken.” Her shame, which is not obvious to her, is paradoxical, contradicting everything about this alluring, sexy, spunky woman.
Beta males are—or can be—the best lovers because they want you to get off too. With men, we tend to “split”—Alpha men are sexy, Beta men are “weak.” Forget that! You can stop compartmentalizing and find the more complex man you’re really looking for.
But what do women and men really feel about the non-macho male? After I’d begun thinking about Alpha female/Beta male partnerships, I mentioned to an Alpha friend of mine that her husband was a great Beta guy. Although I meant it as a compliment—her husband is a nurturing family man and a super-creative graphic designer who works on a vintage letterpress machine in his studio—I could tell from her body language that she was a little insulted. It made me realize just how loaded these terms are.
The old hierarchy of Alpha and Beta, in which the highest-ranking Alpha males run the show, isn’t operative any more. Not every man is an egotistical Alpha player or an Omega loser desultorily plucking his guitar on an old futon in his mom’s basement. Alpha players are alive and well—and enabled by technology (their best friend!)—and so are hopeless wimps and slackers. But most of the men I see in my therapy practice—hailing from Wall Street to the suburbs—do seek equal, balanced relationships: a 2010 Pew poll found that 62 percent of both men and women believe that the best marriage depends upon a true partnership—in other words, that ever-desirable, ever-elusive state of nirvana we call equality. Of course, making that a reality is still a huge challenge in spite of all the changes.
Alpha women like to lead, and Beta guys do not mind following. But am I advocating inequality? A good Alpha woman-Beta man partnership can benefit both partners if they respect each other. If the Beta guy knows how and when to push back, the power balance can skew in the direction of the Alpha woman without harm being done to the relationship. When I see successful marriages like a rabbi wife wedded to a stay-at-home dad who happily watches the couple’s four children, an attorney wife whose bike-mad husband runs a suburban bicycle shop, or the male elementary-school teacher married to the female physician, I’m heartened. These couples have found their bliss.
These are confusing times. The Alpha woman-Beta man partnership goes against cultural traditions that we’ve all been taught. But it’s a relationship dynamic that holds huge promise for relationships of the twenty-first century.