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Each one of us can contribute to the partnership movement. We can change by example, education, and advocacy. We can shift our relations from domination to partnership -- starting with our day-to-day relations all the way to how we relate to our mother earth.

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While the terms domination relationships and partnership relationships may not be familiar to you, you’ve probably already noticed the difference between these two ways of relating – but lacked names for your insight. When we lack language for an insight, it’s hard to hold on to it much less use it. This is why we need these new categories!

In the domination system, somebody has to be on top and somebody has to be on the bottom. People learn, starting in early childhood, to obey orders without question. They 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. Difference -- beginning with the difference between male and female -- is equated with superiority or inferiority, dominating or being dominated, being served or serving, and this is applied to different races, religions, and ethnicities.

Watch this 2-minute video with Dr. Riane Eisler.

In contrast, the partnership system supports mutually respectful and caring relations. Because there is no need to maintain rigid rankings of control, there is also no built-in need for abuse and 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. There are hierarchies, since every society needs parents, teachers, managers, and leaders, but rather than hierarchies of domination based on power over, we find hierarchies of actualization, based on power to and power with, where power is used to empower rather than disempower others.

Here’s an example. Do you remember how the father treated his children in the movie The Sound of Music? When Baron von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) blows his police whistle and his children line up in front of him, stiff as boards, you see the domination model in action. When the new nanny (Julie Andrews) comes into the picture and she empowers the children to relax, enjoy themselves, and learn to trust themselves and each other, you see the partnership model in action. When von Trapp becomes much happier and closer to his children, you see what happens as we begin to shift from domination to partnership.

The Domination – Partnership Systems Continuum

No system is a pure partnership or domination system. It is always a matter of degree, of where it is situated on the domination-partnership continuum.
~ Riane Eisler, The Power of Partnership: Seven Relationships That Will Change Your Life (2002)

Societies adhering closely to the Domination system have the following core configuration:

  • top-down authoritarian control in both the family and state or tribe
  • the subordination of the female half of humanity to the male half
  • the devaluation of caring, nonviolence, and other stereotypically "soft" values
  • hierarchies of domination based on “power over”
  • a high degree of institutionalized or built-in fear, coercion, and violence

Societies adhering closely to the Partnership system have a different core configuration

  • a more democratic organization in both the family and state or tribe
  • the male and female halves of humanity are equally valued
  • values such as caring and nonviolence are highly regarded in both women and men
  • hierarchies of actualization based on “power to” and “power with”
  • a low degree of institutionalized or built-in fear, coercion, and violence, as they are not needed to impose and maintain rigid rankings -- man over man, man over woman, race over race, religion over religion, and so on.

Unlike conventional categories, the partnership and domination systems take into account the impact on beliefs and institutions of how a society constructs the most foundational human relations, without which none of us would be here: the relations between the female and male halves of humanity and between them and their daughters and sons.

To better understand the partnership-domination continuum, click on this chart:

ComponentDomination SystemPartnership System
StructureAuthoritarian and inequitable social and economic structure of rigid hierarchies of domination in both family and state.Democratic and economically equitable structure of linking and hierarchies of actualization in both family and state.
RelationsHigh degree of fear, abuse, and violence, ranging from child and wife beating to other forms of abuse by “superiors” in families, workplaces, and society. Children grow up in punitive, authoritarian, male-dominated families where they observe and experience inequality as the accepted norm.Mutual respect and trust with a low degree of fear, abuse, and violence because they are not required to maintain rigid rankings of domination. Children grow up in families where parenting is authoritative rather than authoritarian and adult relations are egalitarian.
GenderRanking of the male half of humanity over female half, as well as rigid gender stereotypes, with traits and activities viewed as masculine, such as "toughness" and conquest, ranked over those viewed as feminine, such as "softness" and caregiving.Equal valuing of the male and female halves of humanity, as well as fluid gender roles with a high valuing of empathy, caring,caregiving, and nonviolence in both women and men, as well as in social and economic policy.
BeliefsBeliefs and stories justify and idealize domination and violence, which are presented as inevitable, moral, and desirable.Beliefs and stories recognize give high value to empathic, mutually beneficial, and caring relations, which are considered moral and desirable.
view chart

Myths About Partnership

One overarching myth is that partnership is just another term for working together or collaboration. The reality is that:

  • a partnership system refers to much more than collaboration
  • collaboration is possible in both the partnership and domination systems, but is patterned differently

MythDomination SystemPartnership System
It will all be cooperationIn-group versus out-group cooperationTrust and reciprocity-based cooperation
There won't be any competitionFear and attack driven competitionAchievement driven competition
There won't be any conflictConflict callously used to win at all costsConflict creatively used to arrive at solutions
There is no leader or managerLeadership based on power over: man who gives orders to subordinates that must be unquestioningly obeyedLeadership based on power to (woman or man who nurtures and supports productivity and creativity) AND/OR power with (encourages and participates in teamwork)
There is no hierarchyHierarchies of domination: rigid pecking orders maintained by fear and disempowerment of othersHierarchies of actualization: fluid hierarchies that empower others for optimal functioning
The battle of the sexes is inevitable — if it isn't patriarchy, it's matriarchy, and the women will take over.There are only two options: dominate or be dominatedWomen and men are partners
Our guiding values and organizational structures have nothing to do with gender — that's just a “women's issue."The devaluation of women and the “feminine” (e.g., caring & nonviolence) distorts organizational structure and culture“Feminine” traits and activities are valued in women, men, and social policy

Introduction to Cultural Transformation

We often hear talk of “cultural transformation” as key to a better future. Many on-the-ground groups are working toward this. However, to more effectively more forward, we need a new framework and language. Building a new world requires new ways of thinking. As Einstein noted, the same thinking that created our problems can’t solve them. Our old categories -- such as right vs. left, religious vs. secular, East vs. West, technologically-developed vs. undeveloped, etc. -- do not give us a way forward. The new social categories of the domination system and the partnership system do.

History Through a New Lens

Much of modern history has consisted of organized challenges to traditions of domination, from the “divinely-ordained” right of despotic kings to rule their “subjects” to the “divinely-ordained” right of men to rule the women and children in the “castles” of their homes to the “divinely-ordained” right of one race or nation to rule over another. These are all parts of the movement to a partnership system.

But there has also been fierce resistance to changing this status quo and periodic regression to the domination system. If we closely look at these regressions, we see something ignored in conventional analysis.

Those pushing us back to more autocratic, fear-based, violent, and unjust times uniformly work to maintain or impose rigid rankings of domination in our primary human relations: the relations between the male and female halves of humanity and between them and their daughters and sons. There is a reason for this. These foundational intimate relations are where individuals first learn what is considered natural or unnatural, valuable or not valuable, possible or impossible, moral or immoral. This becomes the template for all human relations.

The cultural evolution of societies from prehistory to the present reflects the underlying tension between the partnership and domination systems as two basic alternatives for organizing how we think and live. These two systems structure our relations with one another and our natural environment and represent opposite ends of a spectrum of cultural possibilities.

We need to move along the spectrum in the partnership direction to heal all our relationships.

Domination SystemPartnership System
Humans are flawed and dangerousHumans have many possibilities
Difference is equated with superiority or inferiorityDifference is valued
Power is used to control and destroy through hierarchies of dominationPower is used to empower and nurture through hierarchies of actualization
Men are dominantWomen and men are equally valued
Masculinity is equated with control, conquest, and violenceMen and women can be nonviolent, empathetic, and caring
Competition means "dog eat dog"Competition means striving for excellence
People cooperate to dominate othersPeople cooperate for mutual benefit
Huge gaps between haves and have notsEconomic structures are equitable
Nature is depleted and pollutedNature is highly valued
Morality of insensitivity, control, and coercionMorality of sensitivity, caring, and respect

View Partnership vs Domination Chart

For more on Cultural Transformation Theory, please click here.

Transformation Now

We tend to think of our culture as “just the way things are.” But, as Eisler points out, cultures change. The issue is whether the change is surface change within the often unnamed assumptions of a domination system or transformative change that occurs at a systems level. Our time of massive dislocations is an opportunity for transformative change: change that will support a partnership system.


Providing resources for the cultural transformation from domination to partnership – to a way of living and making a living that is more equitable, peaceful, sustainable, and fulfilling – is Riane Eisler’s life's work. A list of her books and articles can be found in the Library and Bookstore.

We especially recommend these three books to go deeper on this exciting journey of exploring and using these new ideas.

The Chalice and The Blade

This book, hailed by Isabel Allende as “a magnificent book that can transform us,” by Ashley Montagu as “the most important book since Darwin’s Origin of Species,” and the LA Weekly as “the most significant work published in all our lifetimes,” first introduced Cultural Transformation Theory and changed the lives of millions of men and women worldwide.

Sacred Pleasure

This book, hailed by the New York Times as “fascinating,” and by Gloria Steinem as “stunning, far-reaching, and practical,” traces the transformation of both sexuality and spirituality with the shift from partnership to domination – and offers us paths to a more fulfilling way of living and loving.

The Real Wealth of Nations

This book, hailed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as “a template for the better world we have been so urgently seeking,” and by Publisher’s Weekly as “remarkably well referenced, well argued, insightful, and hopeful,” offers a roadmap to a new economics that combines the partnership elements of both capitalism and socialism, but goes further to a caring economics” that works for people and the planet.