In the world of wild dogs, every pack has a pecking order, on the top of which reigns the alpha. A strong alpha enables the pack to function in harmony. In return, the alpha gets special perks: first access to food and to mating opportunities. Who wouldn’t want to be the alpha?!
What happens when both spouses vie for the alpha role?
Fighting establishes who is on top. The more physically powerful alpha rules the roost. The loser slinks off. Fighting is risky though; even the winner may suffer wounds.
If the animal is a person and the troop is a family, the husband and wife may both aim to take the dominant alpha role. Both George and Julie, for instance, are alphas by temperament and capability. Both are effective leaders at work, both with upper management corporate positions. When these dual-alpha spouses interact at home, they have five options. Four are bad options:
- Fight: to win by domineering
- Fold: giving in and giving up like a slinking-off weaker dog
- Freeze: by ceasing to talk about their differences
- Flee: escaping the conflict physically or else via distractions: drugs or alcohol, watching TV sports, overeating, working 24/7, or continuously focussing on their computer.
Fighting about who is on top spells trouble in any family
Anger upsets everyone in earshot. Here’s how that picture would look in George and Julie’s family:
George wants to eat dinner at 6pm; his wife wants to eat at 7pm. George would grumble and growl about how dinner was not ready when he was. He might make nasty comments, complain and criticise his wife, or shout to bully Julie into doing what he wanted.
Julie would other forms of fighting to get her way. She did not want to bicker with George or shout louder or make nastier comments than he could. Rather, she would fight via passive-aggressive inaction. That is, she would get back at George by winning with a strategy of not doing, ignoring what George wanted. Alternatively, when George would shout, rather than argue each point, she would wait, quietly seething, until she could deftly slide in a snide comment that wounded him to the core.
The good news is that people, unlike animals, can talk
Folding invites depression
Feeling less powerful creates a loss of serotonin. This serotonin drop is experienced in both animals and people as depression. When the weaker partner caves in on the struggle to get what she or he wants, depression emerges.
Depression serves a purpose. Depression decreases motivation to fight. Staying clear of fights prevents the weaker party from engaging in fights that might produce emotional or physical injuries. They resign to thinking, “Better depression than to get wounded.”
Julie would ultimately triumph by wounding George with cutting contemptuous comments, George would then stomp out of the room, acting angry but experiencing an internal feeling of depressive collapse.
At other times, it was Julie who gave up on what she wanted. Suffering depression sometimes felt safer than attempting to stand up against George’s angry outbursts.
Anxiety emerges if decision-making freezes
Neither partner may want to risk getting injured, but immobilisation in the face of a conflict or dilemma is a recipe for on-going anxiety.
On major issues, for instance, whether to move to an in-town apartment that would enable George to have less commute time to work but feel less comfortable for Julie, neither spouse wanted to fight. To avoid arguments, they avoided the topic altogether. The price was a continual background feeling of tension.
Escape via distractions can offer a fourth alternative
George tried to drown out his anger by drinking alcohol. Drinking actually calmed him but also caused him to withdraw into himself, brooding. Julie then resented her husband’s lack of attention to her. When a man at work began to shower her with sunshine, smiling often at her and finding excuses for them to talk, Julie began to feel tempted to stray. Turning elsewhere to avoid problematic situations invites creation of even worse problems.
Pausing and doing something that would be distracting and calming refreshes the emotional system
So where’s the good news about duo-alpha spouses?
The good news is that people, unlike animals, can talk. With calm information sharing, win-win solutions can emerge. But first, both need to accept each other as alphas. There is no rule that states two alphas cannot be together. So Julie and George can work in the long run; only prerequisite is a will to be together.
Here are the steps that make a difference.
1. Zero talking or acting out in anger
Anger draws attention to a challenging situation. The adrenaline surge prepares you to fight. Having alerted you to a problem though, anger then needs to be given a few moments to dissipate. Pausing and doing something that would be distracting and calming refreshes the emotional system.
George experienced a sudden surge of anger when he returned home one day and saw a new car in their garage. He and his wife had always made big purchases together. How could Julie have bought a new car without talking to him?!
Tempted to rage at his wife, George took a few deep breaths, reminding himself that quiet talking was always more helpful than lashing out. When he entered the house, he took a few moments to wash his face and cool down, staying clear of ruminating about Julie and what she had done.
Living happily ever after is never easy for any couple, but cooperation matters
2. Discuss the issue calmly, starting by asking questions to gather information and then sharing your concerns
Information-gathering and solution-building only proceed effectively when the tone is calm, safe, and good-humoured.
“Is that your new car in front of our house?” George later asked Julie, trying to stay calm. “Where did you get it? Usually we make big financial decisions like a car purchase together.”
“Yes, George, I agree we always make big purchases together, and I like that. This car was no exception. I’ll explain. Remember my colleague Sarah, my best friend at work, who died suddenly in her sleep about a month ago? Sarah had no children. She left a very simple will, giving most of her money to a charity. But her new car, which I had admired, she left to me. Her lawyer brought it to me today. I’m so touched!”
“That was very kind of her,” George agreed, sighing with relief.
Successful dual alpha couples like George and Julie talk together collaboratively. Living happily ever after is never easy for any couple, but cooperation matters. By calming themselves, asking questions instead of interpreting or assuming, and listening to each other’s concerns when there is a decision to be made, two alphas can share their family’s leadership in a way that enables the entire family to thrive.