Wednesday 27 June 2012

Dominance Struggles

I’ve been reading a book by Dario Maestripieri: Games Primates Play, An undercover investigation of the evolution and economics of human relationships.  The man has some interesting theories worth thinking about (although I think a lot of them will be wrong).  One theory that I’m having some trouble swallowing is that marriages work better when one partner is consistently dominant.

I’m betting a lot of people have a problem with that statement.  It practically demands a red-alert siren howling in the background.

Dr. Maestripieri is a primatologist who works with rhesus monkeys.  He noticed that all the monkeys in the group had a great deal of stress when there was competition between several would-be alphas, meaning that alpha status was traded back and forth between two or more individuals.  The group stress would also be high if the alpha was negotiating with lower-ranked monkeys for support, allowing them more privileges than they’d usually have.  Stress levels dropped when there was an accepted dominance hierarchy with predictable behaviours.

So far, this isn’t anything terribly new.  Everyone knows that uncertainty is far more stressful than predictability.  Even people who have been through horrible systematic abuse can end up feeling much more stressed after they’re rescued because they no longer understand the rules of the universe.  And it doesn’t take much empathy to realize that being in an unstable dominance battlefield would suck.  Ask any kid whose parents are divorcing after years of bitter, public fights.

Here’s where the conclusions get a little more slippery.  Having observed that switching alpha roles back and forth is stressful and constant negotiation is stressful, Maestripieri suggests that relationships work better when one partner is accepted as the dominant.  He cautions that dominance must be benevolent or else the submissive partner will become resentful.  He’s also very clear that cases of abuse cannot be tolerated.

My problem is that I don’t think it’s possible to consistently give someone else their way without feeling resentful.  And if a couple goes into every negotiation like Donald Trump, then resentment would build even faster.  Couples have to accept that most decisions (where to eat, what entertainment to visit, etc) aren’t that important in the long run.  As long as both sides have respect, then it’s no big deal.  We eat at the restaurant I like and go see the movie you want.  Next time, it’ll be your restaurant and my art gallery.

I think every couple has one partner who tends to be more decisive than the other.  If you make decisions faster, you’re more likely to make the decisions.  I see that as something different than dominance.  Maybe it’s hair-splitting, but just because one person makes more of the day to day decisions doesn’t make them dominant in the relationship.

In the movie Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Michael Douglas spouts off this sad little philosophy: Whoever cares the least has the power in the relationship.  Hard to argue with since someone who doesn’t care about the other person’s feelings is going to be more relentless about pursuing their individual desires.  But power isn’t everything.  It certainly isn’t a model for a good relationship.

Maybe that’s where everything breaks down.  One-way dominance might be effective but it isn’t good.  If you want emotional satisfaction, then it has to be give and take.  You have to be vulnerable and also be willing to be the shelter.  The two of you become one, protecting each other’s backs and being the soft place for your partner to fall.

Not quite as efficient but of the two, I know which one I’d prefer.

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