Some of the most basic dominance strategies used in romantic relationships are based either on one partner wanting something more than the other, or on one partner being made to feel more insecure than the other. We all know couples whose routine revolves around the running joke that the man is constantly desperate for sex, which allows the woman to set the terms he must meet in order to get some. His greater desire for sex gives her the leverage to control him in other domains. I’ll never forget being nineteen and hearing a friend a few years older say of her husband, “Why would I want to have sex with him when he can’t even remember to take out the garbage?” Traditionally, men held the family purse strings, so they—assuming they or their families had money—could hold out the promise of things women wanted more. Of course, some men still do this, giving their wives little reminders of how hard they work to provide financial stability, or dropping hints of their extravagant lifestyles to attract prospective dates.
You can also get the upper hand on someone by taking advantage of his or her insecurities. (If that fails, you can try producing some.) Women tend to be the most vulnerable to such tactics at the moment of choice, wanting their features and graces and wiles to make them more desirable than any other woman prospective partners are likely to see. The woman who gets passed up in favor of another goes home devastated, likely lamenting the crass superficiality of our culture.
Most of us probably know a man or two who, deliberately or not, manages to keep his girlfriend or wife in constant doubt when it comes to her ability to keep his attention. These are the guys who can’t control their wandering eyes, or who let slip offhand innuendos about incremental weight gain. Perversely, many women respond by expending greater effort to win his attention and his approval.
Men tend to be the most vulnerable just after sex, in the Was-it-good-for-you moments. If you found yourself seething at some remembrance of masculine insensitivity reading the last paragraph, I recommend a casual survey of your male friends in which you ask them how many of their past partners at some point compared them negatively to some other man, or men, they had been with prior to the relationship. The idea that the woman is settling for a man who fails to satisfy her as others have plays into the narrative that he wants sex more—and that he must strive to please her outside the bedroom.
If you can put your finger on your partner’s insecurities, you can control him or her by tossing out reassurances like food pellets to a trained animal. The alternative would be for a man to be openly bowled over by a woman’s looks, or for a woman to express in earnest her enthusiasm for a man’s sexual performances. These options, since they disarm, can be even more seductive; they can be tactics in their own right—but we’re talking next-level expertise here so it’s not something you’ll see very often.
I give the edge to women when it comes to subtly attaining the upper hand in relationships because I routinely see them using a third strategy they seem to have exclusive rights to. Being the less interested party, or the most secure and reassuring party, can work wonders, but for turning proud people into sycophants nothing seems to work quite as well as a good old-fashioned guilt-trip.
To understand how guilt-trips work, just consider the biggest example in history: Jesus died on the cross for your sins, and therefore you owe your life to Jesus. The illogic of this idea is manifold, but I don’t need to stress how many people it has seduced into a lifetime of obedience to the church. The basic dynamic is one of reciprocation: because one partner in a relationship has harmed the other, the harmer owes the harmed some commensurate sacrifice.
I’m probably not the only one who’s witnessed a woman catching on to her man’s infidelity and responding almost gleefully—now she has him. In the first instance of this I watched play out, the woman, in my opinion, bore some responsibility for her husband’s turning elsewhere for love. She was brutal to him. And she believed his guilt would only cement her ascendancy. Fortunately, they both realized about that time she must not really love him and they divorced.
But the guilt need not be tied to anything as substantive as cheating. Our puritanical Christian tradition has joined forces in America with radical feminism to birth a bastard lovechild we encounter in the form of a groundless conviction that sex is somehow inherently harmful—especially to females. Women are encouraged to carry with them stories of the traumas they’ve suffered at the hands of monstrous men. And, since men are of a tribe, a pseudo-logic similar to the Christian idea of collective guilt comes into play. Whenever a man courts a woman steeped in this tradition, he is put on early notice—you’re suspect; I’m a trauma survivor; you need to be extra nice, i.e. submissive.
It’s this idea of trauma, which can be attributed mostly to Freud, that can really make a relationship, and life, fraught and intolerably treacherous. Behaviors that would otherwise be thought inconsiderate or rude—a hurtful word, a wandering eye—are instead taken as malicious attempts to cause lasting harm. But the most troubling thing about psychological trauma is that belief in it is its own proof, even as it implicates a guilty party who therefore has no way to establish his innocence.
Over the course of several paragraphs, we’ve gone from amusing but nonetheless real struggles many couples get caught up in to some that are just downright scary. The good news is that there is a subset of people who don’t see relationships as zero-sum games. (Zero-sum is a game theory term for interactions in which every gain for one party is a loss for the other. Non zero-sum games are those in which cooperation can lead to mutual benefits.) The bad news is that they can be hard to find.
There are a couple of things you can do now though that will help you avoid chess match relationships—or minimize the machinations in your current romance. First, ask yourself what dominance tactics you tend to rely on. Be honest with yourself. Recognizing your bad habits is the first step toward breaking them. And remember, the question isn’t whether you use tactics to try to get the upper hand; it’s which ones you use how often?
The second thing you can do is cultivate the habit and the mutual attitude of what’s good for one is good for the other. Relationship researcher Arthur Aron says that celebrating your partner’s successes is one of the most important things you can do in a relationship. “That’s even more important,” he says, “than supporting him or her when things go bad.” Watch out for zero-sum responses, in yourself and in your partner. And beware of zero-summers in the realm of dating. Ladies, you know the guys who seem vaguely resentful of the power you have over them by dint of your good looks and social graces. And, guys, you know the women who make you feel vaguely guilty and set-upon every time you talk to them. The best thing to do is stay away.