Who Sets the Tone for Your Relationship?

BY: - 5 Aug '10 | Relationships

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by Delano Squires

Anyone who has ever taken salsa lessons should know that men are traditionally responsible for taking the lead on the dance floor. This is true regardless of whether the man happens to be a better or more experienced dancer than his female dance partner. This concept reminds me of a conversation I had recently at a friend’s birthday barbecue in which I stated that a man should set the tone for his relationship; I likened the dynamic between a man and woman to that of a thermostat and thermometer. For example, a man who is overly excited about the woman he’s dating might have the relationship temperature up a few degrees too high, and her response (e.g. avoiding phone calls) should be an indicator that he needs to cool things down a bit. Likewise, a woman who expresses her disappointment in the lack of interest or effort on the man’s part is a signal that the temperature might need to be turned up a few degrees. Unsurprisingly, everyone did not share my view on this subject. One person felt that women should set the tone by creating an environment that makes a man comfortable being himself. In her view, women should take the initiative to set the course for the relationship.

To be clear, the conversation wasn’t meant to be an argument about who holds a more important role in a relationship or an attempt to draw battle lines in a fruitless power struggle. I firmly believe that both parties in a relationship must put forth effort if it is to be successful; my point was simply that a man who takes initiative serves as an antidote to the well-worn perception of men being passive participants in relationships. Our culture has taught us that generally speaking, a woman’s natural inclination is to seek stability while men have a propensity to seek variety. Therefore, without initiative on a man’s part a woman might think that she is just his “flavor of the month”. To be clear, the initiative I’m referencing here is not the superficial gestures that some men use as a means to an end (i.e. sex). I am talking about men who take the initiative to do what’s necessary to build a strong relationship foundation. This includes spending quality time, articulating feelings about the woman and the relationship at the appropriate time, and ensuring that one’s words and deeds are in alignment. I believe these types of  actions  take the adversarial nature and senseless game playing  out of dating, courtship, and even marriage. All of these activities communicate to a woman that her mate is in the relationship because he wants to be there, not because of coercion, convenience, or comfort.

Relationships often suffer because of a lack of clarity so a man who clearly articulates his vision or desires for the relationship goes a long way to removing some of the doubt and insecurity that can erode the relationship’s foundation. This is not to say that men don’t need to feel secure in their relationships. I once had a girlfriend tell me she was taking a break from the relationship to figure out whether she wanted to be with me or one of her close male friends who had previously expressed a romantic interest. Needless to say, that experience left me feeling less secure about my place in the relationship. The insecurity I reference here is not in relation to body image issues, the residue of past hurts in prior relationships, or some of the other internal issues that must be resolved on an individual basis. The insecurities to which I am referring are the feelings that arise when there is uncertainty about the status and direction of the relationship itself. Ultimately, both men and women must contribute to the growth and development of a relationship but similarly to dancing, someone must take the lead. Hopefully we won’t step on each other’s toes too many times in the process.

BMWK, who do you think should set the tone for the relationship? Does a man who takes initiative create a greater sense of security in the relationship?

Delano Squires is currently a graduate student in Race, Ethnicity, and Public Policy at the George Washington University. His focus is contemporary African American culture, urban education, and child development. Follow him on Twitter @Mr_Squires.

About the author

Delano Squires wrote 25 articles on this blog.

Delano Squires is a blogger and public policy strategist in Washington, D.C. His primary interests are contemporary African American culture, fatherhood, and families. He is also a contributor to The Root.


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14 WordPress comments on “Who Sets the Tone for Your Relationship?

  1. Rose

    Hey D. Thanks for this post. I certainly believe that the perception on men serving as passive participants in relationships is well worn. In previous posts you have also rightly mentioned (and I am paraphrasing) that mediamakers do couples and singles a disservice when they imply that relationship building is the province of women. However, I think your antidote to this problem needs some tinkering. While you argue that a man's role should be tone-setting, your examples for this involve less of a man taking the lead in setting the tone and more of a cooperative dance that fledgling couples engage in to make sure their pacing is right. So if in fact, establishing a tone in a relationship actually involves both members taking active steps what differentiates the man's role from the woman's in tone-setting?

    I do think that on the question of clarity, the role of men can be developed. But as a woman, I also see that it is equally my responsibility to play an investigative role when I am dealing with a man who is unclear about his short or long term intentions. I believe that it is possible to mutually collaborate when setting tone or developing a relationship to the extent that having a “leader” is unnecessary. I think one of the major challenges facing black couples today is that some people can be so rigid about the roles they play in relationships. I have dated some men who feel that they should have no role in a relationship if they are not the head tone-setter or the head of the household. Yet these men struggle immensely when they are asked to explain how my role and their role is sooo different that one should be singled out as the leader. I think we have reached a point in history where we are beyond leadership roles in relationships. I mean, what do couples lose when they embrace a model of cooperation, collaboration and equality where are there are no leaders, just partners?

  2. Natalie Wright

    I couldn't agree more with Roses sentiment when she raises the question, “what do couples lose when they embrace a model of cooperation, collaboration and equality where there are no leaders, just partners?” In a perfect world, both parties could mutually collaborate and there would be nothing lost. However, with the growing pressures of singledom on most women (according to Nightline), the reality is that we are becoming impatient with letting a man take the lead or even being willing to share the responsibility because we fear they wont move at the same pace or have the same end goal as we do. Thanks to the feminist movement, women have gained control of every other aspect in their life, so they find it difficult (not impossible) to let go of the reins in this particular area…an area they feel is most important to get right.

    I've taken a few salsa classes over the past few years. I've picked up the basic step pretty well, which makes it easier to stay on track when fancy turns and spins are incorporated. So you can imagine my frustration when I was partnered with someone who didn't catch on as quickly and we began to stumble. It was funny at first, but over time, it seemed as if he wasnt taking the lesson seriously. Naturally, I began to talk him through it and count aloud, which was his job. As the instructor came by to observe, I was the one “reprimanded” for not letting my partner lead. At the next class, I danced with the instructor, someone who I was comfortable with letting lead because he knew what he was doing and was intent on coaching me along the way so that 1. I became a better dancer and 2. we moved in step, thus making us look good as a unit. Its nice to think that a couple can move at the same pace throughout a budding relationship, but at some point, one person is going to have to take the lead if they plan to grow. In my opinion, the man should be the one to initiate cranking up the heat. It will give the woman security in her decision to move forward with him…something shed most likely, by nature, be willing to do anyway.

  3. Tiya

    I think women generally set the tone in the relationship. There are some women, who believe that the man should lead (me being one of them) so I take a slight step back and allow my husband to be head of our household and I follow his lead. On the other hand there are women who want to lead and women who want to have equal footing with their men, so in those relationships, the women's belief and actions will ultimately set the tone. In talking to couples, I find that a lot of men would like to set the tone, but women determine what type of relationship they will have. Now this can be both positive and negative as there are some women who allow men to mistreat them and make choices that aren't healthy, but even in those situations, it is what the woman allows and it appears that most men will only give, take and even lead as much as they are allowed

    1. Anna

      I think in any realtionship either spouse can lead durning certain events(things). . One parent may be the one that does the disapline, a spouse may be the better cook, One may be better with balancing the household budget. Neither me nor my husband can dance and the one time we did (in public, which was our last time ever)we were both the leaders. LOL. Our dancing together may have not worked, but our working together in being in a marriage and running a household does. My husband may not know how much insurance coverage we need on our home or vehicles, but I do. I don't know how to work on cars, but he does. My point is, doing things that “ends/equals” the result that we are seeking, does it matter who the leader is? I know my husband has my back and me his. The Tone Of A Realtionship to me is “figuring which one in the marriage can tackle the task given and complete it. Not everyone is a stay at home wife/mom and caters to their husband and he does not have to lift a finger for anything but to say “Honey, I'am Home”. There are real “Superwomen out there”, who do love to take care of everything. That is not me. LOL. A husband is the “Head Of The Household”, I get that. If I have to work and contribute to the “Household”, together we lead. and concur.

  4. M. Roc

    Peace Mr. Squires. Great read.

    I think we should also ask why there isn't a tone at all in some relationships. I call any interaction two individuals have outside an exclusive relationship “The Game.” These interactions can be casual dating, sexual relationships, etc. What's interesting about the game is that there are no rules. Some folks are in the game to search for a partner, others are in the game just to kick it with someone on from time to time. The unfortunate part is that one person may not be honest in what they are seeking out in the dating experience with another person. This can cause the other person or both to feel like they do not know where their dating experience is headed. In fear of getting hurt or disappointed, they start to hide their cards as if playing Texas hold'em. Hiding emotions or expectations doesn't allow or make it easy for one to set the tone, increase the temperature, or cool things down. Sometimes, when the couple actually enters into an exclusive relationship, they still hold on to the Texas hold'em style play when they should be exposing their cards.

    You should not be playing a game of poker in your relationship, because the point is not to be an individual winner. Share your emotions and feelings in order to set the tone together (whether its collaborative or one person takes the lead in certain situations). Instead of poker, a couple should play spades. After all, a spades team that can read each other the best has a good chance of winning…together.

  5. aamisc

    Great going Mr Squires:
    What happens when the man just can't lead……… Has no initiative whatsoever, even thought he is highly intelligent or rather accomplished. I recently ended a relationship which frustrated me to the point where my personality was wharped because I so much wanted my partner (the man) to make some decisions. Whatever we did was what I wanted to do and whatever I wanted to do is what we did. Needless to say I soon lost all respect for this man because even thought I am liberated and make my own decisions, I felt like I was raising another son. How does one fix such a relationship and at the same time help this man to “be a man” in terms of developing leadership skills? Will every man ultimately be the leader in a relationship and how will it not destroy a man's sense of self if he is not a decision maker?

    1. Delano

      @aamisc I think you took the right approach to your situation, given the fact that you felt yourself changing to accommodate/compensate for your partner's inability to take any initiative. While I believe that leadership/initiative can be developed and cultivated, I also believe it is extremely difficult to change the essence of who a person shows themselves to be. There comes a point when we have to ask ourselves whether we can accept a person for who they are if a “deal-breaker” type of issue was to never change. If that can be answered in the affirmative, then one should move forward. If not, then one should give serious consideration to the wisdom of continuing in the relationship.

      To the question of how to help develop leadership skills in a man, I find that the direct approach is a time tested method. You can do things such as asking him to plan an outing, weekend, etc. I also believe that it is a good idea to recognize any areas where he does take initiative. For instance, he might be the type who tells you how he feels about you and the relationship without any prompting but defers to you with regard to dates and dining preferences. Finally, I believe positive feedback is important so expressing your appreciation and positively affirming his actions are good ways to encourage him continue.

  6. Harriet

    This is a great topic! I can't add much more than what's already been said. But I have to answer a resounding YES to your second question (does a man who takes initiative create more security in the relationship).

  7. Ms.T

    Great food for thought Delano!

    I will have to respectfully disagree with you when you say the man should set the tone. I believe that the tone should be set by both parties. I would adjust your example and say both the woman and the man serve as thermostats and the relationship is the thermometer.

    It should be a conversation had between both individuals in the relationship discussing what they feel they need in/from a relationship before they get too deep into a relationship with each other. This conversation sets the tone and thus allows the man and the woman to be more aware of when/if he/she needs to adjust their individual thermostat to create a temperature that is both comfortable and conducive to their relationship.

    There will be times where one is slightly warmer (or colder) than the other, and that's when the other person has to adjust their thermostat to bring the temperature up to the level of amenity, for the sake of the relationship. We all know there is nothing worse than a house (i.e. a relationship) that is too hot with lustful infatuation, or too cold with hollow emotion.

  8. GeeGee4

    I agree sooo much. Back in the day, this was not a discussion!! The man was the head and set the tone and vision for their families. But nowadays, their are few men teaching boys to be men and that has left us women feeling like we have to set the tone because the man doesn't want the responsibility of leadership.

  9. Feliciainniss

    What a great topic to explore, D. To answer your question, I feel more at ease when a man takes the lead in our relationship. Not that he is taking control and I am just a backseat passenger, but I think it is usually expected that a woman will have a vision. When a man also has a definitive direction in mind, it takes a lot of the guess work out the equation and would probably make the transition from casual dating, to courting, to marriage smoother.

  10. Hortonfam5

    I don't know if it is because I am old school, but I believe that a man as head of the household, should set the tone in a marriage/relationship. As women, and again, this is what I believe, I think we are there to tweak it and be the overseer so to speak. What I mean is, a mans logic isn't always perfect so as women, we have to be the ones to help them get to the point of leader. Confident and secure. My husbands personality is alpha dog, he would rather have a position of authority. Myself, I fall back, and I don't need to be in charge to be in charge, ya feel me, lol!! I don't have or feel the need to dominate every situation which I understand is a little different. But I believe you have to do what works for you. I don't like to see women in relationships dominating over men. It bugs the hell out of me.

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  12. Pingback: #TBT – Who Sets the Tone for Your Relationship? – Truth, No Chaser

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So You Want Love, Do You?

BY: - 6 Aug '10 | Relationships

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by Eric Payne

Adapted from the post “What Is Love?” originally posted at MakesMeWannaHoller.com

Dear Wanter of Love,

You want love so bad, you can taste it.

You want love because it is so necessary for your life.

You want love because you deserve it.

But do you even know what I am?

Can you comprehend the stuff I’m made of?

Do you know what love feels, tastes, smells and looks like?

Do you truly understand how patient and kind I am?

Can you fathom the burden of understanding that I must bear?

Do you know that I forgive and forget all things done against me?

Do you even have the space in your heart required by me to fill it?

Or is there other stuff there, like lust and want and selfish desires?

Do you know that I only seek the best for others, the best in others,

and pay little to no attention to myself?

Do you know my power?

I end wars, change hearts and give life.

I raise children, save lives at the expense of self

and make Good Samaritans into local heroes.

I teach children to grow up to be leaders.

I give religious leaders guidance and ask that they walk righteously and care for their flocks.

I give hope in the face of unimaginable tragedy and despair.

I heal wounds…in time…

I make the days go by beautifully.

I am the perfect director of regret-free living”...

How is it that you want me sooo bad…how do you receive something that you should be giving”...freely?

If you truly wanted me, you wouldn’t want for me at all.

Because you’ll be too busy pouring me out on all you encounter.

You’ll be ready and full of praise when I do arrive at your doorstep,

Fully ready to be nourished by me and ready to nourish in return.

You’ll recognize me immediately, because I will already be alive inside of you.



Author of the now infamous, My Wife Is NOT My Friend (on Facebook), Eric Payne (E.Payne) is the creator and author of MakesMeWannaHoller.com ““ Man, Dad, Husband, his blog on fatherhood and marriage. You can also follow him on Twitter, or join the Makes Me Wanna Holler Facebook Page. When he’s not dishing on fatherhood and family he’s dishing on restaurants and NYC tourism at NYMetropolista.com. He’s also a contributing relationship writer for J’Adore Magazine.

About the author

Lamar Tyler wrote 2229 articles on this blog.

Lamar Tyler is co-creator BlackandMarriedWithKids.com. He also is the co-producer of the films Happily Ever After: A Positive Image of Black Marriage, You Saved Me, Men Ain't Boys and Still Standing.


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