A recent article on Slate.com, by sociologist Mark Regnerus at The University of Texas at Austin, discusses how males are becoming underrepresented on many college campuses and in the workplace, and are thus likely to call the shots in their (heterosexual) relationships when it comes to sex. The author’s basic argument, which draws from his book entitled Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying, is that good men are becoming hard to find. High-quality men are are in short supply, and, as a result, in high demand. Therefore, they are able to exert more power over women in their relationships. Female partners need to go along with guys' wishes because there are plenty of female fish in the sea for the guys, whereas the women have relatively fewer good alternatives. Although the main area of conflict described in the article is sex, it stands to reason that the logic could be applied to other decisions in relationships, such as what movie to see, which friends to hangout with, or how much Xbox should be played.
This idea is known to close relationships researchers as the “principle of least interest”1—that when there is an inequality in the desire to maintain the relationship between the partners, the person least into the relationship has the power to call the shots. For the Seinfeld fans out there, you might remember the episode The Pez Dispenser (1992) when George laments about his relationships by stating “I have no power. Do you understand? I need hand. I have no hand.” Kramer and Jerry advise George to threaten to break up with his girlfriend, which effectively turns the table in the relationship and subsequently gives George the "hand” he so desperately wanted.
This scenario is a classic example of the principle of least interest. The partner willing to walk away from a relationship has more power than the one really desiring that the relationship continue. There is solid evidence for the principle of least interest and its relationship to "hand." In heterosexual relationships, those partners who are less emotionally invested in their relationships do in fact have more power; not coincidentally, it tends to be male partners that have 'emotional hand', so to speak.2,3
Going back to the Slate article: “Good” (using that term very loosely) men, being in high demand, are less into their relationships because they have plenty of alternatives. Based on the principle of least interest, men have more power to call the shots in their relationships. They are exerting this power to get what they want, and women are putting up with their bad behavior so not to lose their mates.
1Waller W. (1937). The rating and dating complex. American Sociological Review, 2, 727-734.
2Sprecher, S. & Felmlee, D. (1997). The balance of power in romantic heterosexual couples over time from “his” and “her” perspectives. Sex Roles, 37, 361-379.
3Sprecher, S., Schmeeckle, M. & Felmlee, D. (2006). The principle of least interest: Inequality in emotional involvement in romantic relationships. Journal of Family Issues, 27, 1255-1280.
Dr. Benjamin Le - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le's research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.