What keeps winning in check?
The natural world is often venerated for its balancing acts, for its day/night, summer/winter, yin/yang, on/off, etc. and for good reason. Most natural systems have elegant regulatory mechanisms that curtail certain aspects or processes in service of overall health. This is true for body systems, whole beings, relationships, entire ecosystems, and much, much more. In my opinion, the relationship process of dominance is no different.
While natural capping mechanisms to dominance may not be as stark as night and day, or as obvious as parasympathetic to sympathetic, they do exist. Take rough-and-tumble animal play. Players only stay engaged when they successfully pin their opponents at least 30% of the time (according to Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven in The Archeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion). Otherwise they just give up, the game ends. Wrestling with oneself isn’t so much fun.
Or looking at a quick impact analysis of a dog training myth derived from the Cult of Alpha (what I call training methods that proselytize absolute human-to-dog domination). Here’s the myth: If you play tug-of-war with your dog, never let them win--if you do they’ll think they are the alpha and then they won’t listen to you.
From what I’ve seen, this approach is a fantastic way to teach any, or all, of the following:
Playing with my human is L.A.M.E.--I’m better off sniffing the ground and chasing squirrels.
Never, never, NE-VER let go of that toy--next time I grab it I will fight with everything I have!
Playing with my human is stressful--I’ll see if I can avoid it by scratching, yawning, or averting my eyes.
(Clearly dogs do not think in words--I have taken some artistic license here.)
But if your dog doesn’t want to dominate you, then why would they care about winning a game of tug? For the same reason we humans do--winning is fun. And for the competitive among us, besting others is especially fun. But for that opportunity to present itself, we need others to stay in the game.
So in a natural environment, or a natural relationship, the game is perpetuated through self-handicapping--the one that could win holds themselves back so that the other stands a chance.
But our cultural conventions don’t always allow access to the natural opt-out function. When that happens, the mutuality of the game ceases to exist, and what was once play becomes something else entirely.
Maybe the stakes got too high. Maybe there is an accumulated history of too high stakes. Maybe the one with the power decided to make sure that the other will damn well play whether they want to or not.
Sometimes it’s a setup established long before the immediate players stepped into the ring. Sometimes what starts out as fun turns ugly as it degenerates from option to obligation to overpowered. But what is the uniting theme here? How is the shift from choice to force allowed to occur? Or more importantly, how can it be prevented or reversed? How can we transition from overpowering and obligating to prioritizing choice?