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Malcolm Hollick

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Dominator v partnership societies and relationships
by Malcolm Hollick   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Monday, December 03, 2007
Posted: Monday, December 03, 2007

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In my last article, I explored why it is so hard to change the world. At the end, I outlined a theory that our human predicament can be explained by combining Riane Eisler’s partnership and dominator models of culture and relationships with theories of trauma and peak states of consciousness. Today I step back a bit and summarize Riane Eisler’s theories as a prelude to further articles on this theme.

Eisler claims that there are two fundamentally different ways that society and relationships can be organised that form opposite poles of a spectrum. One extreme is a hierarchy of power in which those on top dominate those below through systems of belief (it’s human nature or God’s will), up-bringing, and force. Such societies are male dominated, not only because men are stronger and naturally more inclined to be aggressive, but also because they are not constrained by menstruation, pregnancy and nursing babies. The other extreme social form is one of trust, cooperation and partnership; of empowerment of the individual and community rather than power over them; a system that values individual differences rather than uniform equality.

In her study of human prehistory, "The Chalice and the Blade" (published in1987), Riane Eisler argues cogently that people lived in peaceful ‘partnership’ societies for many thousands of years until they were overwhelmed by ‘dominator’ cultures of warlike nomadic tribes. Ever since then, the pendulum has swung back and forth, but has always been biased towards hierarchical, authoritarian structures, and violent relationships. In the last 20 years, Eisler has researched and written extensively about these two models, and ways to encourage a transition back to a partnership culture. You can find more about her ideas on her website and in more recent books, including The Power of Partnership (2002) and The Real Wealth of Nations (2007).


In Eisler’s words (The Power of Partnership, p.xv):

"In the domination model, somebody has to be on top and somebody has to be on the bottom. Those on top control those below them. People learn to carry a harsh voice in their heads telling them they’re no good, they don’t deserve love, they need to be punished. Families and societies are based on control that is explicitly or implicitly backed up by guilt, fear, and force. The world is divided into in-groups and out-groups, with those who are different seen as enemies to be conquered or destroyed."

Sound familiar? Eisler goes on (p.5):

"One core element of this dominator blueprint is authoritarianism – a strong-man rule in both the family and the state or tribe. A second is rigid male dominance – the ranking of one half of humanity over the other half. A third is socially accepted violence, from child and wife beating to chronic warfare. A fourth core element is a set of teachings and beliefs that dominator relations are inevitable, even moral – that it’s honorable and moral to kill and enslave neighboring nations or tribes, stone women to death, stand by while ‘inferior’ races are put in ovens and gassed, or beat children to impose one’s will."

In summary, the characteristics of the dominator model include:

• An authoritarian social structure of rigid rankings and hierarchies based on fear of pain and/or force.
• Ranking the male half of humanity over the female half, and highly valuing so-called ‘masculine’ traits and activities such as control and conquest of people and nature.
• A high degree of fear and socially accepted violence and abuse – from wife and child beating, rape, and warfare, to emotional abuse by ‘superiors’ in families, workplaces, and society at large.
• Relations of control and domination presented as normal, desirable and moral.
• Reflection of these characteristics in our relationship with ourselves: the ‘inner critic’ that is always judging and finding fault with what we do and telling us we’re not good enough; anxiety about getting things right, or about things that may go wrong; repression of anger, fear and associated guilt.

Extreme examples of dominator societies in modern times include Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Islamic fundamentalist states. However, many of its features are easily identifiable in democratic western countries. Despite its longevity, the dominator model is becoming increasingly dangerous due to the power of modern technology to create weapons of mass destruction, and cause climate change.


As far as the partnership model is concerned, Eisler writes (p.xv):

"In contrast, the partnership model supports mutually respectful and caring relations. Because there is no built-in need to maintain rigid rankings of control, there is also no built-in need for abuse or violence. Partnership relations free our innate capacity to feel joy, to play. They enable us to grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This is true for individuals, families, and whole societies. Conflict is an opportunity to learn and to be creative, and power is exercised in ways that empower rather than disempower others."

Again, there is an air of familiarity here for those of us who are involved with personal development, healing, conscious relationships, or some of the more enlightened work-place practices. Eisler continues (p.5):

"In the partnership model, you find a democratic and egalitarian social structure, equal partnership between women and men, and less socially accepted violence in all relations – from intimate to international – because violence is not needed to maintain rigid rankings of domination. You also find beliefs about human nature that support empathic and mutually respectful relations. And you see that qualities denigrated as ‘feminine’ in the domination model, such as caring and non-violence, are valued in men and women, and guide social policy."

Again, in summary, the partnership model is based on:

• Egalitarian social structures of linking, and ‘hierarchies of actualization’ where leadership and management are empowering, and the goal is higher levels of functioning.
• Equal ranking of the female and male halves of humanity, and a high valuation of traits and activities such as empathy, non-violence, and caring in women, men and social policy.
• Mutual trust, respect and a low degree of fear and social violence.
• Presentation of partnership relationships as normal, desirable and moral.
• Relationships with ourselves that are loving, compassionate, and accepting; awareness of our emotions and ability to express them openly; attunement to our bodies and their needs; self-confidence and self-esteem.

Many features of the partnership model are evident and growing in the modern western world, but it is difficult to find fully-fledged examples. The Scandinavian countries are often held up as leading in this direction, but we have to look to traditional societies such as the Inuit and bushmen for more complete examples.


The partnership and dominator models represent extreme polarities, and all cultures are a mixture in practice. In each case, the characteristics listed in the dot points above form interactive, self-reinforcing loops. Hence, once in place, each system is likely to be stable and resistant to change. This certainly appears to be the case historically. Whilst concrete proof is lacking, Eisler argues strongly that humans lived in partnership societies from 20-30,000 years ago until about 6-8,000 years ago when dominator cultures took over. Since then, there have been oscillations, but domination has remained the commonest cultural form, and shifts towards partnership have been fiercely resisted as they are to this day.

Despite this resistance, the western world has moved a long way in the last few centuries towards the partnership model. We are no longer at the mercy of despotic kings, infallible religious authorities or the Inquisition. We no longer risk execution or burning at the stake for daring to speak out or for writing articles such as this. Slavery, torture and rape are increasingly repugnant to us. We no longer exclude women from political participation and education, and reject domestic violence as wrong. We take for granted the vote, freedom of speech, safe working conditions, free education, desegregation, gay rights and other gains. And our relationship with nature is becoming less abusive.

Unfortunately, these moves towards a partnership model are not universal, and there is a strong backlash even in the west. In many countries, girls are sold into sex-slavery or forced marriages and may suffer genital mutilation; women are confined to the home and shapeless cover-all robes, wife-beating is still regarded as a husband’s right, and a woman may be stoned to death for adultery. Child labour and gross exploitation of poor workers continue against a backdrop of pollution and environmental destruction. And imprisonment, torture and even death are common for those brave enough to speak out.

Closer to home for most of us, the wars against terror, drugs and crime are weakening the freedoms we have learned to take for granted. Imprisonment without trial, solitary confinement and even torture have become acceptable in the USA. Globalization is being used as a weapon to cut wages and working conditions whilst managers and the rich grab ever more for themselves. Democratic politics, the media and regulatory controls are increasingly corrupted by the power of corporate finance and the drive for profit at any cost. The religious right is urging a return to ‘traditional family values’ that include the unquestioned authority of males, beating of wayward children, denying women the right to control their fertility, and forcing them back into the home and out of the workplace. And the gains in self-esteem made by the personal development movement are counterbalanced by the emphasis on sin by fundamentalists.

The battle for hearts and minds, and a more humane world continues. And each of us must play our part if we want a different future. As Eisler writes, in "The Power of Partnership" (p.91):

"If popular culture continues to glorify physical and emotional violence, if hate and scapegoating continue to be justified as moral and right, if the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen, if the protection of our natural environment continues to be weakened, if our government continues to arm repressive regimes and would-be regimes – in short, if regression to the domination model continues – no matter how hard you work and save, much that you hold dear will remain threatened."

And in our ever-shrinking global village, it is not enough to promote partnership at home. The shift must be worldwide.

Eisler has developed an impressive agenda for practical action at the personal, family, community, workplace, national and international levels. (See "The Partnership Way", "The Real Wealth of Nations" and other sources). But she leaves some questions unanswered that indicate there may be deeper causes at work:

If early, pre-historic human societies were based on partnership and this system is inherently stable, why did the dominator model arise, and why has it dominated human history? And if the partnership model is an attractive and powerful alternative, why is resistance so strong, and why has partnership never replaced dominator relationships in the last 6,000 years?

I believe the answer to all these questions may be trauma – both individual and collective. But to justify this conclusion will take a few more articles. I need to explain what I mean by trauma, and then explore its possible role in human history. To help with this, I will seek insights from recent research on the relationship between climate and civilisation, including the history of the Sahel region of Africa over the last century. Then, I need to look at how well this and other possible models explain the human condition. And finally, I need to discuss recent work on healing trauma and peak states of human consciousness.

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