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The Downside of Having a Dominant Relationship Partner

The issue: People have a need to feel autonomous (i.e., they need to feel like they are doing something because they want to and not because someone forced them to).1 When people are dominant, they try to take control of the situation, which may make others feel less autonomous.2 Feeling controlled can be disheartening and is linked to poor well-being.3 And people who have dominant partners tend to be unhappy in the relationship (i.e., have lower relationship satisfaction).4 In an article published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, researchers wanted to understand why having a dominant partner is linked to lower relationship satisfaction.2 (Click here for the full article)

How they did it: The researchers asked 92 cohabitating heterosexual couples to complete questionnaires every day for 20 days. Each member of the couple answered questions about interactions that they had with their romantic partner that day. They were asked how dominant they were in the interaction (example item: “I set goals for the other(s) or for us”), how autonomous they felt (i.e., “the extent to which your behavior reflected your own choices and values versus internal and external pressures”), and what emotions they experienced (e.g., how frustrated they were). At the end of the 20 days, each couple member also reported how happy they were in the relationship.

What they found: Having a partner act more dominant on a given day than they normally do made people feel more upset that day than they usually feel. Why? Because it made them feel less autonomous than usual. Furthermore, the more upset people were because of their partner’s dominance, the less happy they were in the relationship. The results were the same if men were being dominant or if women were being dominant.

Take away: Dominance is linked to lower relationship satisfaction because a partner’s dominance can make one feel unhappy and less autonomous. Try to share the power in your relationship. Perhaps this is one reason why people in egalitarian relationships tend to be happier in their relationships (and life).5 

1Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macro-theory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology, 49, 182-185.

2Sadikaj, G., Moskowitz, D. S., & Zuroff, D. C. (2017). Negative affective reaction to partner’s dominant behavior influences satisfaction with romantic relationship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 34, 1324-1346.  doi: 10.1177/0265407516677060

3Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2006). Self-regulation and the problem of human autonomy: Does psychology need choice, self-determination, and will? Journal of Personality, 74, 1557-1585.

4Cundiff, J. M., Smith, T. W., Butner, J., Critchfield, K. L., & Nealey-Moore, J. (2015). Affiliation and control in marital interaction: Interpersonal complementarity is present but is not associated with affect or relationship quality. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 35–51. doi:10.1177/0146167214557002

5Gray-Little, B. & Burks, N. (1983). Power and satisfaction in marriage: A review and critique. Psychological Bulletin, 93, 513-538.

Dr. Lisa Hoplock - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Lisa's research examines how personality traits like self-esteem and attachment influence interpersonal processes in ambiguous social situations -- situations affording both rewards and costs -- such as social support contexts, relationship initiation, and marriage proposals. 

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