Does Briffault’s Law Apply to Humans?

Michelle Overman, LMFT
Updated on January 27, 2021

Briffault’s Law states: “The female, not the male, determines all the conditions of the animal family. Where the female can derive no benefit from association with the male, no such association takes place” (Briffault, The Mothers, Vol. I, p. 191). This idea essentially asserts that females determine whether or not a relationship takes place. The belief is that they search to understand if the benefits outweigh the costs. If the benefits exceed the costs, females agree to enter into a relationship.

female dominance in relationships

In the animal world, Briffault’s law is noticeably on display. Some male birds display their feathers or build nests to illustrate their worth as a potential mate. Other animals like kangaroos actually fight and illustrate their dominance and strength. It is then up to the females to take note of these exhibitions and decide if they want to engage the males. To understand the concept and how it could potentially apply to humans, Briffault’s law add includes several other aspects.

Although a female might benefit from a relationship at the start, she may not necessarily continue to engage in the relationship over time. In other words, she requires continued benefit in order to stay in the relationship. For example, a woman begins dating a man who fulfills her need for emotional intimacy. However, over time, the man becomes consumed with work and the couple spends less time together. The emotional intimacy then begins to fade. Even though the benefits she enjoyed from the relationship were once strong, the woman may decide to end things.

A woman may promise to continue a relationship with a man based on the idea that she will receive a benefit from him in the present. Once that benefit is provided, her promise is nullified. For example, a woman might promise to sleep with a man once she feels he has shown that he loves her. Even if the man reveals his love through certain desirable behaviors, a woman may decide to not follow through with her initial promise.

A man’s promise of a future benefit will not secure a woman for long. The wait for the benefit has to be short and it all depends on how much the woman trusts him. For example, if a man asks a woman for a loan, promising that he will double what she’s given him and in turn he will be able to care for her. In order for the woman to stay in the relationship, the woman has to have trust for the man and he must not keep her waiting for long.

Briffault’s law does make some sense in evolutionary terms. However, it can sound a bit superficial. On a relational level, Briffault’s law brings up the idea of weighing cost versus benefits. Especially in the dating phase, that idea is clearly relevant. Individuals learn about each other and decide whether or not they want to enter into a relationship based on what they perceive to be the benefits.

Briffault’s law also reveals another idea that can ring true; even after entering into a relationship, the continuation of the relationship is not a guarantee. The benefits must still outweigh the costs throughout the relationship. Essentially, if needs are not getting met, people often exit relationships.

Part of any relationship is experiencing levels of intimacy that meet each person’s needs. Briffault’s law specifically speaks of women having control in whether or not a relationship takes place. For some individuals, this might be the case. However, it seems the basic idea can apply to any relationship and be inclusive of other genders.

Michelle Overman, LMFT

Michelle is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families.

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