“We were both too alpha for this to ever really work, anyway,” my ex tells me mid-breakup. Given that our relationship was fraught with roughly, oh, 12,800 issues, my first reaction to this alpha/beta pain point was of the ??? variety. But after we parted ways, I wondered whether there was any truth to the notion that two alphas are too many, and that a healthy relationship requires the oppositional pull of both an alpha and a beta.
As a reminder, alphas are basically the leaders of the pack—the Oprahs, AOCs, and Emily Gilmores of the world, if you will. “They’re competitive, outgoing, aggressive, and domineering,” says psychotherapist Aimee Barr, LCSW. Betas, then, are more of a laid-back support system. “They’re relationship-focused, play a supporting role, make good friends, are nurturing, and are usually more insecure and nervous-minded than alphas.”
At its most simplified, the alpha-beta dynamic is when one person calls the shots while the other follows along and submits. While this describes a complementary relationship of sorts (à la opposites attract), experts say it can create the exact opposite of a healthy partnership.
“These personality types exist on a continuum. They’re not stagnant. We might exhibit more beta characteristics in X area and more alpha characteristics in Y area.” —therapist Kathryn Smerling, PhD
According to the pros, a relationship doesn’t require one alpha and one beta, but rather healthy communication and mutual respect. “The most important elements in a relationship are how you treat each other and how well you communicate about and respond to each other’s needs and wants,” says Barr. And there’s no reason having a similar personality type to your S.O. needs to preclude you from that.
In fact, New York City-based therapist Kathryn Smerling, PhD, says the alpha-beta hierarchy isn’t a useful indicator of relationship health or viability because it calls upon oversimplified stereotypes. “These personality types exist on a continuum. They’re not stagnant. We might exhibit more beta characteristics in X area and more alpha characteristics in Y area.” Basically, she says it’s an outdated model.
And while some folks may argue that having a partner who balances you is important, a complementary partnership and an alpha-beta partnership aren’t the same thing. “There are other ways to find balance in your partnership,” says matchmaker Kara Laricks of Three Day Rule. Sharing the load of mutual responsibilities is a great start. For instance, Smerling says that while your partner might take the lead in planning weekend getaways and handling the taxes, you might orchestrate throwing a dinner party and doing the grocery shopping. Here, it couldn’t matter less if you skew more alpha or beta.
As for what really spurred the demise for me and my ex? We both certainly exude top-dog energy, but our similar communication skill level—akin to a chihuahua yapping at its reflection in the mirror—was almost certainly the main culprit.
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