5 Ways to Get More Control of Your Relationships

June 29, 2009

Jerry and George

“I have no power. Why should she have the upper hand? Once in my life I would like the upper hand. I have no hand. No hand at all. She has the hand. I have no hand.”


“We all want the hand. Hand is tough to get.”


Willard Waller was a sociologist who coined the phrase “The Principle of Least Interest.” It simply states that the person who has the least interest in continuing a relationship has the greatest power. Waller developed the theory after observing many dating couples at Penn State, where he noticed that romantic partners usually had unequal degrees of emotional involvement. He claimed that if the inequity became too large, one partner would be in a position to exploit the other emotionally. It’s a variation on supply and demand theory. In fact, although the concept was articulated specifically to relate to relationships, it has over time become an economic principle as well, applied frequently to negotiation and marketing strategy.

In her recent book Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, Kathleen Bogle cites Waller’s research and applies it to the hookup culture. She states that in the college hookup scene, men are the least interested in participating in exclusive relationships. They perceive that they have many women to choose from, and therefore have “no need to hold onto” one particular woman. In contrast, women in her study were focused on trying to turn hookups into boyfriends. Bogle sees this as an extension of the idea that women’s “clocks are ticking” while men “have all the time in the world.” For that reason, the imbalance continues past the college years. Women well into their 20s express frustration at guys’ general unwillingness to be in a committed relationship.

While there are exceptions, this means that most women enter new romantic encounters in a one-down position. I am consistently amazed at how even guys who are not sweet believe that they hold all the cards. They act like sex gods, assuming that women are trying to trap them into relationships. Perhaps they’re right. Overhearing a conversation on New Year’s Eve, I was struck by the general agreement among a group of girls that “boyfriends are ugly.” Again, there are exceptions, but there was definitely consensus that many girls “date down” in order to secure a commitment, even if temporary. To add insult to injury, many women tolerate boyfriends who treat them badly and are crap in the sack.

What are the options available to women who want to be in control of their personal relationships?

  • Hard to Get, i.e. The Rules

The most common approach is for women to play hard to get, casting themselves in the role of Least Interested Party to gain the upper hand. The theory goes that by seeming difficult to attain, men will put forth more effort.  The problem with this approach is that once the woman allows herself to be “caught,” she either becomes easy to hold onto (and is right back where she started), or must constantly play a game of one upsmanship to keep the guy interested.


Another popular strategy is for women to stop wasting time on the guys who don’t want something real. He’s Just Not That Into You, so don’t waste the pretty. This approach has several advantages. You don’t waste as much time. You become known as a girl who can’t be dicked around. You are not constantly getting crushed by jerks. On the other hand, this approach can lead straight to the dating desert. You don’t waste time with jerks, but where are the great guys who want to date? Guys know you won’t hook up randomly, so you find yourself ignored at a party. You may not be getting dumped, but life sure gets boring when there is no guy intrigue or boy drama.

  • Practice Self-Control

If you control your own behavior, you have more control overall. No one can exploit you without your cooperation.

  1. Make sure that your level of interest is no greater than his. You will have more power if you are truly less interested, not just pretending indifference. Keep your level of emotional investment “appropriate” to the circumstances. The kiss of death: being needy, eager, too serious early on. Don’t go there. Take it slow.
  2. Develop a “walk-away” position. You know what you are willing to do, and what you will not tolerate. You are prepared to respect your own limits. When the other person crosses that line, you walk. For this strategy to be effective, it is very important that you clearly articulate your expectations in advance. If he doesn’t know what your dealbreakers are, he will be unable to honor them. On the other hand, if he understands the limits and doesn’t observe them, he is telling you clearly that he is not prepared to give you what you want. Once you have made your dealbreakers clear, you MUST see it through. If you cave,  you will be in a weaker position than ever.
  3. Be independent. Act like a free agent when you are one. Don’t be exclusive with someone who has not agreed to be exclusive with you. Make a point of spending time with other guys, whether you want to or not. This is NOT about trying to make someone jealous. Do not flirt with his good friends. Go out and meet guys that he doesn’t know. Develop friendships and relationships with new people when you have the opportunity. Think of yourself as “single,” because that is what you are. You are entitled to hang out or hook up with anyone you want to, and owe no explanations.
  4. Keep your priorities straight. A hookup does not come before girlfriends, work, studying, family, Gossip Girl, etc. EVER. He is one person in your life, with a limited role to play, at least for now. Do not get caught up in analyzing every word he says, how often he is in touch, etc. Try not to discuss him constantly with your girlfriends–that just fuels the fire.
  5. Start strong and stay strong. You can express your interest and still be strong, because you are making it clear that your interest is conditional. You are not faking nonchalance. Think of it as making a decision not to get addicted to a potentially unhealthy substance. Too often women enter relationships in binge mode, and have purge mode thrust upon them. Keep your interest steady and your head on straight.

Don’t allow any guy to make you feel small or inadequate. Man up to get hand.

  • VJ

    “The Principle of Least Interest”, a not uncommon strategy in Game theory is quite a bit different than ‘supply & demand’. At least in economics, and probably elsewhere too. Be that as it may, it does produce some testable assumptions about observable behavior and possibly some suggestions about how to enter & compete in the ‘game’ better. That these proscriptions then too sound familiar to us, perhaps is also telling.

    Again all games have objects and ends. Here is this a LTR? A ‘committed relationship’ or marriage? All parties need to be engaged with the same broadly considered goals. This then is one of the cruxes of the problem, as ever. No one should enter into a game from the ‘one down’ position. Are there Males out there looking for a LTR? Yes there are. Unfortunately this psychological hallmark of maturity may not always come ‘married’ to a ‘lovely face’, a ‘kicking sculpted body’, or with a ‘well endowed’ gent (having a ‘footlong wonder snake’), or any of the other attributes women in their 20’s may be desiring. (In addition to the regular ‘tall dark & handsome’, well educated, good & safe career, decent prospects for advancement, etc).

    Suffice it to say that we want what we want in mates, but this can and does change with age, experience & maturity. Which is why your 2nd & 3rd husband (or those of your friends) often do not look or act alike.

    Given these issues, the ‘quickest’ & most parsimonious approach would be to find & quickly examine and reject all those who are ‘HJNTIY’ or indeed the ‘SJNIY’. To cycle though the ‘not availables, not recommendeds, unsuitables, already partnered, & ill advisables and come out the other end, hopefully whole. This is more or less where many are today. They eventually get there by fits & starts, but it still takes many most of their 20’s to work though most of their ‘stupid choices’. This is most unfortunate, but probably unavoidable.

    What might be highly useful is to try and shorten the amount of time spent in an ‘unproductive partnership’ and with that ‘jerk’ to whom you are referring to when you speak of ‘dating down’. If you think he/she is beneath you, they are probably not good prospects for a long term healthy relationship. Be that marriage or anything else. That’s a ‘lost opportunity’ cost, and people come to slowly recognize it at their peril, only when caught up in the ‘last chance saloon’ of fertility in their late 30’s & 40’s (M/F). Or perhaps only after having a few kids with the ‘unsuitable jerk’, which then makes it a bit harder to date for years afterwards.

    But as ever, people are not very good at reckoning either the economic or real life future consequences of their actions. They learn ever slowly, and only after great suffering & pain. Trying to alleviate some of that unnecessary wasted time is useful. But it’s Quixotic for sure! Cheers & Good Luck, ‘VJ’

  • VJ

    Hooking up & ‘booty calls’. So very…19th century. And earlier too…

    Via Rutgers:


    Cheers & Good Luck, ‘VJ’

    • susanawalsh

      VJ, that is an awesome site! Seriously, lots of laughs there. Personal ads from the 19th century – who knew? I especially love the euphemisms: “Man seeking mutual improvement.” Thanks for the great link.

  • The problem with love is, we loose control, and I somehow think that is one of the reasons that we are so drawn to it.

    Having the daunting task of holding up the masks we use to hide our insecurities and vulnerabilities, as well as striving to keep our lives under control and on track under the veil of our lost unfulfilled dreams, we long for, crave, and desire being able to let loose of those restraints with the person who we trust will accept us, and not abandon us, when we drop those masks, and just let it all hang out.

  • susanawalsh

    That’s an interesting point – I agree that “surrendering” to love, giving up control, does add to the excitement. Heady stuff. As you say, the key is to find the person who we can really trust to accept us unconditionally. That is indeed a daunting task.

  • mandy

    so informative i loved the article be cause I find that I always tend to give my power away and that I need to really stay in control.

  • NATiSF2

    principle of the least interest works.
    seems like my boyfriend appreciates me more when he knows
    he is about to loose me and i am on the edge of walking away.
    keep this in mind ladies!
    show some interest but don’t ever show too much; theyll take advantage

  • break free

    I think the controlling a relationship power must be in hand of that person who proposed first because that person having guts Willing power and higher energy level who drawn their looser partners ….:) so looser jst keep quite in a relationship fire support me guys if u think i m ryt

  • JT

    @ Susan (at post 3)

    Did you know that the parents of Pope Benedict met via an advert like this? His father was a bit elderly and put in an ad for a ‘young lady’. His mother was the only person to reply!

    So sweet…

  • mushaboom

    This is a late comment, so I don’t know if I’ll get any responses, but this post really struck a chord with me. This whole site, actually (which I’ve just been discovering/reading through the past few days), is both extremely informative and extremely depressing, hahah.

    I spent the majority of my undergraduate “career” in two back-to-back long-term relationships with great guys who didn’t play games. This past year and a bit, I’ve been single, and good God. The guy I’ve been off-and-on involved with since September… I wish I could go back and re-do everything. I’ve tried to stay true to myself and refuse to play into the game-playing shit, and just be honest and straightforward with the way I feel. (Not like, ever confessing that I like him soo much or want to be a serious girlfriend, because neither is true. But in describing my feelings towards his assholish/immature behaviour.) But guess what? THAT BACKFIRES. And you DO lose your power. Ugh.

    I think he’s pretty inexperienced in relationships — his last actual girlfriend was in like, 2008, and he took about five years off in between high school and beginning university last year so lacked that opportunity to date around. I hate the alpha/beta lingo, but he’s beta with girls, I think, if only for lack of experience because he’s pretty popular/well-liked otherwise. Unfortunately, he’s been picking up asshole dating traits quickly, despite being at heart a pretty decent guy, I feel like.

    Anyway, my current predicament, relevant to this post:
    After not really talking much at all for two entire months, he came to me over the weekend in the hopes of talking, catching up, kind of apologizing for being so uncommunicative, and smoothing things over. We’re on a sports team together, and things had been REAL awkward. I had been assuming over the past month that he was completely uninterested in me, and so was expecting the talk to be completely neutral. But he was stroking my waist (we were lying down in bed during this talk), was trying to get physically close to me, etc. (Bearing in mind that he’s not the player type that would naturally do this.)

    So… we ended up having sex. Yep. So. Dumb. This, after I had done soo much work in convincing myself that it was over and I should just get over it already. So I’m just confused. And pissed off. And wanting to be over him and have a straight-up conclusion, but at the same time wanting him to want me (obviously) and maaybe for things to work out, somehow.

    We’re (unless he bails) getting together to hang out (in a PUBLIC place..) later this week to talk. How do I get the effin’ power back!? Obviously step one is not hooking up with him, but beyond that…

    Anyway, I’m ranting, but kudos to the creator of this website.

  • John Q Pulbic

    Serves you women right. You reject 20 normal/real men while waiting for mr. Right to come along. Then you are surprised when you have no hand with him after you hook? Guess what. Brad Pitt or Decaprio are not gonna marry you.

    Seriously every female I know has a list a mile long of stuff her dream man must do and a longer list of stuff he must not do to win her over. It’s ridiculous. I used to try to be a quality man and care about the woman and not be a dick to her. That earned me zero respect from the girls.

    Now I have converted myself into more of arrogant asshole to females. And now I have more girls available to me than I have time for.

    The sad truth is, women do not want good men, they want asshole men so that they can complain to all of their GF’s about what an asshole he is.

  • kerri

    So true LoL.. I have made many mistakes but have played both roles at different times. At a young age I rejected the guys who truly liked me and went around screwing with dudes hearts before they could hurt mine. But then everytime I do make the decision (ladies its always our decision ;)) to be. A good girl and commit myself I end up bored or cheated on. Maybe it is self fullfilling prophecy or plain old KARMA..who knows. But I do know that guys dont really want a true faithful nice woman to love cuz they are out chasing the slutty ones who dont give a damn about them too. We are not that different from each other!! As the saying goes “thosr who care dont matter and those who matter dont care” Much Love to everyone in finding TRUE LOVE <3

  • Man

    Reader’s note: soooo bitchy.