“Ballbuster.” “Bitch.” “Bossy.” Negativity swirls around assertive women. I know that the word Alpha, paired with “woman,” comes with a lot of baggage. At first I was advised to find a less controversial term than Alpha woman. But I decided to stick with it precisely because it has negative connotations. I do not think we should dumb down women’s power and status by avoiding the Alpha in her. I think we should call it like it is. We’re not doing a service, either to women or men, if we search for terms that don’t ruffle feathers. The fact is, there is a new gender-role reality, and it is retro to parse terms or, God forbid, threaten men’s egos. I will never advise women to bend over backward to boost men’s image by playing down their strengths. Those days are over.
Some fascinating research points to an urgent need for social norms to keep up with changing times. One study, from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, found that when a woman earns the same or more than her mate, marital troubles often ensue. The wife may decide to work less or even go for a lower-paying job in order to protect the traditional belief that a man must be the family breadwinner. Even more amazing, the wife will often take on more of the household chores as a way to compensate for her greater earning power, with the aim of being non-threatening to her husband. The academic term for this is “gender deviation neutralization”; translation into English: If you dare to deviate from the norm (husband equals breadwinner), then you must somehow, some way, compensate for your abnormal behavior. This is a no-win situation; women should never tailor their behavior to meet social stereotypes.
Over the last several decades, we’ve seen the emergence of better birth control options, economic opportunities for women, and strong female role models in politics, the media, business, and academia. More women than men graduate from college and graduate school. Women contribute forty-seven percent of family wages, and in twenty-five percent of couples, women make more money than their husbands. As you can see, neither the myth of the male breadwinner nor of the traditional female stand up to reality. We see the proof all around us: If women are successful in the business world and men are successful at home, both of which are clearly true, then the old stereotypes are just empty shells.
As a therapist, I see my clients’ lives as microcosms of changes taking place in the larger society. Social and economic equality allows the expression of a wide range of gender-neutral personality and behavior for both men and women. Being competitive and dominant are not exclusively “male” any more than being nurturing and caring are exclusively “female.” Most striking is that as women have shaken off the constraints of old gender roles and become freer to pursue their sexuality, careers, and personal fulfillment, new sets of problems have arisen. Everywhere I go—from the office to dinner parties—women of all ages relate to the Alpha identity and want relationship advice.
THE NEW “CATCH”
Today’s Beta guy is transformed and more complicated than the sensitive guy from the 80s and 90s. “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” was the name of a bestselling book in the 80s, which satirized the sensitive man who was trying very, very hard to be acceptable to feminists. We’ve come further by now! The Beta man is no longer the guy assumed to be gay if he likes yoga, dresses well, or is a vegan. His ego doesn’t depend on scoring macho points. He is dependable, responsible, and supportive.
Many Alpha women have a sexual Achilles heel: they still expect the man to take the lead in bed, which gets in the way of their falling for the tender lover, the Beta male. I call it the Shades of Grey syndrome, based on the series that found such a willing audience among Alpha dynamos who feel some sneaky retro shame about their sexual appetites. An Alpha who is secretly embarrassed by her intense sexual fantasies may feign passivity in order for the man to take the lead, so she can be “taken.” Her shame, which is not obvious to her, is paradoxical, contradicting everything about this alluring, sexy, vibrant woman.
Beta males are—or can be—the best lovers because they want you to enjoy sex, too. With men, we tend to “split”—Alpha men are sexy, Beta men are “weak.” Forget that! If we can avoid compartmentalizing, we have a better chance at finding the more complex man we’re really looking for.
The old hierarchy of Alpha and Beta, in which the highest-ranking Alpha males run the show, isn’t operative any more. I see plenty of men who are neither egotistical Alpha players nor the pathetic Omega loser desultorily plucking his guitar in his mother’s basement. Alpha players are alive and well—and enabled by technology (their best friend!)—and so are hopeless wimps and slackers. But most of the men I see—hailing from Wall Street, Williamsburg, and everywhere in between—do seek equal, balanced relationships: a 2010 Pew poll found that 72 percent of both men and women believe that the best marriage depends upon a true partnership—in other words, that ever-desirable, ever-elusive state of nirvana we call equality. Of course, making that a reality is still a huge challenge in spite of all the changes.
A good Alpha woman/Beta man partnership can benefit both partners if they respect each other. If the Beta guy knows how and when to push back, the power balance can skew in the direction of the Alpha woman without harm being done to the relationship. When I see successful marriages like a rabbi wife wedded to a stay-at-home dad who happily watches the couple’s four children, an attorney wife whose bike-mad husband runs a suburban bicycle shop, or the male elementary-school teacher married to the female physician, I’m heartened. These couples have found their bliss.
Excerpted from “The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match: How Today’s Strong Women Can Find Love and Happiness Without Settling,” by Sonya Rhodes, PhD, with Susan Schneider. Copyright © 2014 by Sonya Rhodes, PhD, and Susan Schneider. Reprinted by arrangement with William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.