Domination in Male-Female Relationships

Brandon K. Isariyawongse

          Communication.  For many years now it has been the catchphrase for therapists, sociologists, and couples alike in the realm of interpersonal relationships.  Whether it be a male-male, female-female, or male-female relationship, the communication between partners has become the center of speculation for those dyads experiencing problems.  Analytically, there are many sources from which problems can arise in a relationship, but a compelling yet not-so-apparent aspect of relationship communication lies in domination.

          When exactly is domination?  Domination has several definitions, but I will use it in the context of relationships where one of the two is a leader - a more assertive, forward partner.  There may or may not be this type of character in some situations; often it is the case, though, that when two people are involved in a relationship, one partner tends to control the actions and activities of the couple.

          Through introspection, I believe that the male partner tends to control relationships more frequently.  Traditionally, the male is expected to be in general more aggressive - the chaser as opposed to the chasee.  This might be connected to the fact that men are on average bigger than women, but, nonetheless, domination is expected much more from men.  In nearly all types of audio-visual media, the man nearly always has the power over a submissive woman.  For example, typically, the man is the strong “knight in shining armor”; the woman is the delicate, helpless “damsel in distress”.  Also, men are almost always portrayed as people in positions of power, whereas women are shown holding positions of lower power.  (However, it should be noted that the most recent years, the roles of women in movies and the such are becoming increasingly powerful.  This can most likely be attributed to the women’s liberation movement.)  Men are also expected to be much more sexually aggressive than women; this is also depicted in movies and television through overly aggressive and often abusive male figures.  The drive for sexual relations is typically associated with the male.

          All of this carries over into everyday relationships.  Societal expectations of the male tend to influence the vast majority to control relationships as much as possible.  Many times, a male will be termed “whipped” by his peers; this is a derogatory reference that means that the fellow is overly-controlled by his mate.  For fear of this label, men attempt to avoid being controlled.  Quite often, a man’s group of friends see it as a great asset to be extremely authoritative over his partner (i.e., “I’m the man of the family”, “Do what I say, woman”.)  But more and more, women are starting to take the initiative and they are beginning to gain their fair share of decision-making in the relationship.  And though men are for the most part thought to be the sexual aggressors, women now are being assertive in their needs and wants and are introducing sexual relations into their relationships, too.

          So, in this new millennium, who exactly does control the numerous different aspects of a relationship more often?  Taking all of this into consideration, I endeavored to find who that individual more often is:  the male partner or the female partner.


          To find out the opinions and experiences of various students on the various forms of domination in relationships today, a survey was conducted among a pool of students from various areas of Pennsylvania.  The questions referred to different types of domination - some subtle, some not so subtle.  A few of the questions inquired about decision-making and different types of initiation, while some other queries focused on conversational style and driving patterns.  From this data, it was expected that a general conclusion could be drawn about domination in relationships in general for the sampled age-group.


          A group of students ranging in age from sixteen to nineteen was the target group.  A total of 46 surveys was distributed:  17 to males and 29 to females.  Some were distributed through the internet, and some were distributed by hand.  The e-mailed survey requested a prompt response with numbered answers; the hand-distributed survey required that the participant return the completed survey to my room (if it couldn’t be completed at the immediate time.)  Each participant was also instructed to list his or her respective gender and ethnicity on the survey, so those variables could be taken into consideration at the conclusion of the study.  All involved were assured of the confidentiality of the survey, and so was asked to answer all questions honestly.  All in all, 40 surveys were returned for conjecture (15 males, 25 females).

          All of the questions for very straight-forward, with a few being linked to each other (e.g., who initiated the general relationship as opposed to who showed interest first).  Each question was designed to investigate how young men and women dealt with different situations - with the main point focusing on who was the dominant partner in those situations.  Two choices were given for each question:  male and female.  The assumption was made that each situation was waning in the direction of one partner; however, the option was given that, should the question be by far too close to call, the participant could leave the answer blank, and it would be taken into account at the end of the survey.  I will now list the results of the survey for interpretation.

(Note:  An actual copy of the survey can be found in Appendix A at the end of the paper.)


                                       MALE           FEMALE          Neither

1.  Who makes the majority of decisions/choices in your relationship?


          Males:                    53.3%                    46.7%                     -

          Females:                32%             56%             12%

          Total:                     40%             52.5%                    7.5%


2.  Who initiated the general relationship?


          Males:                    60%             33.3%                    6.7%

          Females:                80%             20%               -

          Total:                     72.5%                    25%             2.5%


3.  Who showed interest first for the relationship?


          Males:                    53.3%                    33.3%                    13.3%

          Females:                68%                  24%        8%

          Total:                     62.5%                    27.5%                    10%


4.  Who initiated physical relations in the relationship?


          Males:                    66.7%                    26.7%                    6.7%

          Females:                76%             20%             4%

          Total:                     72.5%                    22.5%                    5%


5.  Who tends to be the more aggressive partner in your relationship?


          Males:                    46.7%                    46.7%                    6.7%

          Females:                56%             40%             4%

          Total:                     52.5%                    42.5%                    5%


6.  Who initiates conflict more often?


          Males:                    13.3%           73.3%                    13.3%

          Females:                36%             64%               -

          Total:                     27.5%                    67.5%                    5%


7. Who, on average, drives on dates more? (if applicable)


          Males:                    66.7%                    6.7%            26.7% (N/A)

          Females:                64%             20%             16%

          Total:                     65%             15%              20%


8.  Who initiates conversational topics more often?


          Males:                    46.7%                    53.3%                     -

          Females:                20%             68%             12%

          Total:                     30%             62.5%                    7.5%


9.  Overall, who is the dominant partner in your relationship?


          Males:                    46.7%                    46.7%                    6.7%

          Females:                40%             44%             16%

          Total:                     42.5%                    45%             12.5%


          In a surprisingly high fraction of the questions - two-thirds - the percentages favored one sex over the other by a marginal value - at least greater than a 60-40 split.  Tradition seemed to persevere as both males and females agreed that males initiated the general relationship; nearly three-fourths of all respondents felt that this was the case.  Not quite as high a percentage, but a convincing number nonetheless, thought that the male also showed interest first for the relationship.  Again, the idea that the male is the physical aggressor seems to still hold true:  two-thirds of males and three-fourths of females acknowledged that the man had initiated physical relations.  Some perhaps surprising numbers come up in the question regarding conflict; nearly 70% of all respondents felt that women initiated conflict in the relationship.  64% of females said self-admittedly so.  Just about two-thirds of males and females came to a consensus that males drove on dates more often, though this can most likely be attributed to custom.  Finally, though the male numbers were almost even, the total numbers leaned slightly in favor of females for starting conversational topics.

          Three of the questions, however, seemed to be very evenly split.  And these three questions, oddly enough, were the inquiries that were most directly related to domination:  the first dealing with decision-making, the second with aggression, and the third with overall dominance. 

          8 of the men surveyed felt that they made the majority of decisions, as opposed to 7 who conceded to the female.  12% of the females felt that decisions were made equally between partners, and because of this, in the total tally, the numbers were again very close. 

          Regarding aggression, the males were split down the middle:  7 felt that the man was more aggressive, 7 felt that the woman was more aggressive, and 1 thought that each was equal in aggression.  The females seemed to indicate that they thought the male was more aggressive, though not decidedly so.  Again, overall, this category was too close to call.

          Finally, the most important question was incredibly direct:  who is the dominant partner?  This, of all the queries, is surely the most telling.  The males, as in the aggression question, were split 50/50 and one undecided.  The females were nearly even with dominant males and females also - 40% and 44%, respectively.  For the entire survey, this was the closest call:  17 respondents favoring males, 18 respondents favoring females, and 5 respondents seeing everything on an even keel.


          So what does this all mean?  I believe that the data is thought-provoking and can lead to some conclusions.

          First of all, a lot of tradition seems to be prevailing.  Men are still thought to be the ones leading “the chase.”  With males dominating the relationship-initiation category (as well as having satisfactory numbers in question #3), this is a reasonable conclusion to draw.  And, to add to this, males also initiated physical contact more often according to the survey, which again seems to fit with traditional gender roles.

          A few other questions also fit normal expectations.  On average, males drove more on dates; this can be considered a common practice, so the results are not especially breath-taking.  Also, women are considered more talkative and generally more dominant in conversation, and so reads the data:  females nearly two-thirds of the time initiated conversational topics.

          Possibly some of the most interesting results turned up in question #6 regarding conflict.  Males definitely favored women as the source of conflict, and females admitted to being the source of the strife.  Greater than two-thirds of the respondents felt this way.

          Finally, the three direct questions were split roughly down the middle.  I believe that this is a sign that, though young men and women are willing to choose between the two sexes for more specific queries, when it comes down to weighing out who exactly the dominant partner is, they cannot come to a confident consensus.  A large amount of respondents (12.5%) were unable to pick either sex as the dominant partner, and the others were still yet only one person in favor of females.  In this way, it seems as if no one positively knows who controls the power in a relationship.  This is in accordance with the equity theory, proposed by Hatfield, Walster, & Berscheid (1978).  Couples apparently often match in physical attractiveness and in intelligence, and the study presented by Browning, Kessler, Hatfield, and Choo* demonstrated that couples match on other “relationship assets” as well (i.e., controlling personalities).  Quite possibly, all of this attests to the notion that, whether anyone does want to admit to it or not, the modern relationship is, truly, an equal relationship.


          A common means of non-verbal communication of compassion between partners in a couple is the holding of hands.  Around just about every corner, proudly displaying affection for each other, two lovers can be observed walking hand-in-hand.

          However, a very fascinating aspect of the common practice is the arrangement of the couple’s hands.  It is common knowledge as well as common sense that if a person is leading another, the leader’s hand is in front.  This position puts the leader’s hand, arm, and entire body partially in front of the other, which allows him or her to assume a controlling position.  Therein lies the evidence that this position indicates a leader of the pair.  Because the “leader” of the two is guiding the couple to its destination, that partner is assuming a dominant position with respect to his or her mate.  In this way, the counterpart occupying the dominant hand position is showing a sign of being a leader - or, as it refers to my study, a dominant partner.

          So, I performed a study in which the dominant hand position was used as a litmus test as to who the dominant partner might be.  My hypothesis maintained that the male would be the partner occupying the dominant hand position in the majority of cases, so indicating that the male was more likely to be the dominant person in the couple.

          It should be noted that this is a mere hypothesis, and there are, I’m sure, other factors that influence the hand positions of couples every day.  Things such as height, mood, and the like are all variables that can affect results.  But, for the sake of the study, plus the fact that most couples seemed to exhibit the same behaviors, these factors will be disregarded.  In nearly all of the couples, the male was the taller partner, and from my observation, no couples seemed to be experiencing any moodiness out of the ordinary.


          To observe different couples, I ventured into the City of Brotherly Love, on to the University of Pennsylvania campus, and into rural Pennsylvania.  Using these locations, I attempted to examine a wide variety of couples, though the majority seemed to fit into the age-range of teens to early twenties.  In this way, its results are easily comparable to those of the Domination Survey, since it deals with the same age group.  From my vantage point, I merely observed whether the female or the male occupied the dominant hand position.  The results are listed below in the table.


Total couples observed:


Male in dominant position:


Female in dominant position:




          From the data, you can see that my hypothesis was well-supported.  In only a small fraction of the couples observed did a female show an indication of being the dominant partner.  Almost all of the couples posted the sign of a male dominated relationship.

          Again, there are definitely some variables that affect these results, but interpreting strictly from this information, it appears that males dominate the majority of relationships. 

          It is very possible, in my opinion, that when the female does occupy the dominant hand position, it is an indication of a female high in masculinity.  For example, more and more women are becoming high-profile athletes, and the wide world of sports is no longer limited to just the male of the species.  So, now that women are developing into refined, driven athletes, they are more likely to take the lead in all aspects of their lives - including relationships.  Whether it is tradition or not, young ladies are not afraid to step up and be a leader in their respective relationships.

          Now, I in no way want to suggest that, for a female to be dominant, she has to be an overly-masculine athlete.  This is surely not the case.  But I believe that there is a correlation between female masculinity and personality, and this correlation may very well affect dominance in relationships.  Mazurek* found an interdependence between masculinity and power in interpersonal relations.  She found that women high in masculinity tended to have more positive feelings towards condom use, which correlated to a more powerful, feminist view.


          Victor and Brandi are a late-teenage couple:  eighteen and nineteen, respectively.  The two are involved in a long-distance relationship across two continents and an ocean - Victor lives in the United States, and Brandi lives in Thailand.  They had been involved with each other for six months at the time of the study.

          When they first met, Victor was on vacation in Thailand and was the first to show interest in Brandi.  He asked her out first, and thus, Victor initiated the general relationship.  In this way, Victor showed typical male aggression - an indication of a certain amount of power.  (Because Victor could not drive in a foreign country, Brandi drove the two on the date.)  However, Victor then discovered that Brandi was not available at the time - she was involved with another male.  Victor went home disappointed, but the two kept in touch.

          Here is the first sign of domination from the female.  Victor was quite obviously interested in Brandi, and this was well-known to Brandi.  But Brandi had the power to choose what she wanted:  she had a relationship with one male and another one beginning to blossom on the side.  Victor had no control in the situation whatsoever, despite the fact that he did initiate it all in the first place.  It was Brandi’s decision to make about her relationships.  After some time, Brandi did make the choice to end her current relationship and to begin anew with Victor.  And so the long-distance relationship began and thrived.

          For months the feelings were mutual between the two; each was fairly serious about the other.  They communicated via e-mail, through the telephone, and through packages.  According to the two, Brandi initiated conversational topics more often and seemed to control conversation much more often - again, a sign of female domination.

          Approximately four months into the relationship, Brandi met another young fellow in whom she became interested.  This began to affect Brandi and Victor’s relationship, and once again a choice had to be made.  Victor once more had no power over the situation in the least bit; Brandi was the one that was in control of the circumstances.  In this case, Brandi chose to remain friends with this new fellow and continue her relationship with Victor.

          Once more, approximately five months into the relationship, the new fellow reappeared into Brandi’s life, which once more put Victor at a disadvantage.  The predicament rested on Brandi’s decision, and yet again, Victor was left helpless.  He could only watch and wait.  (It should be noted that the other young man was also helpless in the situation.)  For a few weeks, attempting to reach a conclusion, Brandi kept both young men on edge.  In the end, Brandi once more selected Victor as the better man, and so, once more, the relationship resumed. 

          Finally, once more, nearly six months into the relationship, the second young man came up again, and Brandi was left with the decision... again.  And this is where the relationship was left at the time of the study.


          Though I discussed some points inside the study, I would like to add to them and elaborate of some of the few that were mentioned.

          To start the relationship, Victor seemed to be the dominant partner.  He showed interest first; he made the all-important first phone call; he initiated the general relationship.  And despite the fact that he couldn’t drive on the first date, the power seemed to be resting in Victor’s hands.  However,  that was the point where his power-trip came to a screeching halt.

          Brandi first had the veto power[1] - one of the surest signs of power.  She had the opportunity to say if and when the relationship between the two proceeded.  She chose for it to proceed after her eventual break-up with her boyfriend.  Brandi went on to dominate conversation (by their own admission) by initiating topics more often and generally just being the more aggressive talker. 

          And then the other fellow comes into the picture.  Here, I would like to argue, is a situation that many males often encounter in which they have no control whatsoever.  It has been biologically proven that females’ hormones tend to fluctuate a great deal more than do hormones in males.  This may be attributed to the menstrual cycle, but it is also connected with other factors.  This hormone fluctuation causes many young ladies to be fickle to an extent.  On average, young men tend to know what they want more often; they are much more straightforward.  Young ladies tend to be more confused about their feelings.  The phrase “I don’t know what I want” often comes up in typical female conversation.  (This phrase was used many times by Brandi during the relationship.)  And so, many men are left at the mercy of women and their whimsical feelings and decisions, just as Victor was on three separate occasions.. 

          I believe that this is the way in which women control the majority of power in a relationship.  Based on this case, Victor came out of the starting blocks with power, but, as the race wore on, Brandi proved that she entirely controlled the tempo[2].


          So what can we conclude from this survey, this investigation, and this study?  Of course, nothing can be proven from this data, but for certain some useful information can be obtained. 

          A great deal of interesting data was produced in the survey, and I feel that the most important figures arise in the question of overall domination.  It is apparent that no one can come to a flawless conclusion in the matter, and this is a strong indicator that, as a whole, the current male-female relationship is a loving, equal relationship.  Ridgeway and Smith-Lovin* assert that gender roles, which heavily influence equality in relationships, are changing, especially among college students, and the evidence of this domination survey supports that assertion.  “Cultural norms dictate that there are two and only two sexes, each with inherent natures that justify male dominance.”  But, according to Ridgeway and Smith-Lovin, because these norms are changing for the new generation, the inherent natures are shifting to a more equal relationship.  Surely, nothing can be proven from the data, but the statistics indicate that the thought of equality certainly can be entertained.

          Though the hand-holding investigation demonstrated that men continue to be leaders in public, too many other factors influence this aspect for any direct conclusions to be drawn.  The tradition of holding hands surely has some affect on the results and, because of this, further study (e.g., the study of arm-locking, etc.) must be done to produce additional data supporting any type of convincing conclusion.

          The case of Victor and Brandi is a situation that I feel occurs often with a young man and woman.  In this instance, the young woman had a great deal of authority in the relationship which bolsters Trexler’s assertions that “it is predominantly the female who does the choosing” (i.e., who has the power.)  Frequently the female controls when the relationship moves to the proverbial “next level,” and in that way, the female controls the majority of power between her and her partner.

          And so, the figures that I have here gathered provide no conclusive evidence to argue a case for male- or female- domination in relationships.  The traditional view that men are the leaders, aggressors, and overall dominators in couples could quite possibly be changing in this new millennium, but keep in mind that certainly every couple is different, and all males and females command respect in their own manner.  All things being considered, the data seems to weigh out evenly; perhaps equality could be at the top of the relationship-vocabulary list for some time to come.  Keep it on your list:  it may just make you and your partner dominant... and make your relationship the best that it can be.

Works consulted

Trexler.  Sexual Choice. 


Ridgeway, Cecilia & Smith-Lovin, Lynn.  “The Gender System and Interaction.”  Annual Review of Sociology. (1999):  pg 191.


Browning, James & Kessler, Debra.  “Power, Gender, and Sexual Behavior.”  The Journal of Sex Research. 36 (1999):  pg 342.


Mazurek, Bozena Teresa.  “Rethinking power in interpersonal relationships: The development of the Power Scale and a test of the model (condoms, gender roles).”  Dissertation Abstracts International.  59 (1999):  pg 10-B.



[1]  veto power - “... whenever (her) partner is the initiator of an interaction which will proceed of not proceed depending on whether she says yes or no.” [Trexler, Sexual Choice]

[2]  Disclaimer:  This metaphor is in no way meant to convey the meaning that relationships are a competition between lovers.