June 01 2021
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Everything was going well. He was the perfect gentleman; he appeared to be emotionally intelligent, he took you on dates, he valued independence, and he didn’t place gendered expectations on you. But then, something changed. The dates still happened, but no longer in consideration of his partner. The dates were on his time and based on his work schedule. Suddenly, your once shared value in independence becomes threatening in the relationship and is used against you. Suddenly, your partner is gaslighting you and encouraging you to believe you have to quit your job to spend more time with him.
Is this man an alpha or a narcissist? In most severe cases, is this the beginning of what will become potential emotional control or even abuse?
Alkeme Health spoke with Therapist, Dr. Heather Lofton on what exactly suggests an Alpha Male vs. a narcissistic partner.
It’s not uncommon in the Black community to hear a man say, “I’m an Alpha male.” And yes, there are socialized gendered roles and scripts encouraging women to desire an element of control from their male partner ... But where’s the line?
I think it’s important to first casually (emphasis on casual) define what “Alpha male” means in the Black community and where it comes from. Historically rooted in biblical context, slave narrative and also elements of patriarchy, Black men have been socialized from birth to uphold a dominance in hierarchy and exude a “power over” disposition. Ideally, this archetype is physically strong, intelligent, mentally astute, authoritative but congenial, worldly, resourceful...powerful. With those characteristics I could be describing the world’s best dad or the worst boss you’ve ever had.
Well where does this start? How do men become this way?
Unfortunately, there is currently very little academic research focused on the racial and gender socialization of Black boys. However, the foundation of the “Alpha male” in the Black community can be observed as a framework for teaching your son how to survive in a world that will not protect him. The effects of unresolved attachment wounds, traumas, harmful socialized messages, coupled with oppression and injustice, on top of the Black community’s unique relationship with mental health; an “Alpha male” can unconsciously employ narcissistic characteristics as an ill-equipped method of self-protection. I say, “ill-equipped” purposefully to validate that self-protection strategies are necessary; however, with unresolved psychological wounds, there is a wounded sense of self - and therefore, a disrupted ego - resulting in poorly constructed strategies of protection.
What sets the stage for this? What are some examples of a true Alpha Male?
The formative lived experiences, verbal and non-verbal messages and lessons taught, influence Black male identity development and set the platform for the manifestations of the “Alpha male,” and the distinction between the archetype and narcissism. Manifestations of an “Alpha male” can look like Denzel Washington in “ The Preacher’s Wife,” “ Fences” and “Training Day.” An Alpha male can display a captivating, but humbled, sense of self or a very ego-centered sense of self.
What are some signs of narcissism?
A man displaying self-involved tendencies does not mean they should be clinically formally diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. However, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, NPD is most commonly observed and diagnosed among men. In relationships, signs of narcissism can look like your partner only being able to center thought around themselves, a frequent focus on self needs only, a consistent emotional unawareness or disregard for their partner’s feelings, an excessive inflation of self, and more
How does narcissism affect relationships?
Having a partner that displays narcissistic behaviors or has a formal NPD diagnosis can be challenging, especially if your partner is not engaging in any mental health care or structured treatment. Narcissism can have a negative effect on any relationship but certainly intimate partner relationships. And it’s important to understand that having a partner with narcissistic behaviors or NPD does not automatically suggest intimate partner physical or emotional violence. However, characteristics of narcissism such as emotional disregard can translate to emotional harm.
When should someone walk away? When should they stay?
Truthfully, the lines of distinction, acceptance and tolerance are drawn by the individual in the relationship with the “Alpha male.” Theoretically the “Alpha male” archetype encompasses both harmful and productive interpersonal qualities. Certainly, an “Alpha male” figure can be self-centered but the terms “ Alpha male” and “narcissism” are not synonymous. Personal boundaries will determine a person’s interest in remaining in a relationship with a man displaying “Alpha male” characteristics, especially if those characteristics are presented as harmful. I would encourage couples therapy with a discernment framework when deciding to leave or stay.
Take your time assessing your own needs and boundaries when dating or even if you are currently committed to self. What types of qualities do you want? What are your non-negotiables? If you can answer those questions you will be better prepared for recognizing the differences between an Alpha Male and a person navigating narcissistic tendencies.
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