Can an "alpha" be happy with a "beta"?
April 14, 2016 7:26 AM   Subscribe

Despite an otherwise inspiring and fulfilling relationship, I recently made the very difficult decision to split with my ex-boyfriend of 5 years because I felt like I was always leading the charge on Big Life Things and carrying him along. I figured I needed an alpha partner who was quick enough to take care of me and of things before I could get to them myself. Now I am observing this very type of alpha person "in the wild", and wondering if I have made a mistake. "Alpha" ladies, what is your experience with "beta" partners?

But first, my rather extended explanation (sorry): I'm a 31 year old "alpha" lady with a good job job, a car and a dog. My now-ex-boyfriend is an incredible human being, creative, emotionally intelligent, deeply honest, empathetic, generous, funny, great in bed, and I have always been singularly and deeply drawn to him. He was however a total mess when we got together. Couldn't keep a job, drank a ton, had bad hygiene, was very broke and bad with money, etc. Though I regret it now, I spent a great deal of energy trying to get him to a place where I wouldn't have to experience the dissonance of being in love with someone so out of sorts, when I myself am so very very in sorts.

I realize this was deeply selfish, but I justified it by telling myself that who I needed him to be was also good for him. He found a job he loves, he kicked his drinking, started therapy, started to take care of himself and to thrive. But for someone already struggling with confidence issues, I'm certain that the pressure I laid on him has further eroded his confidence, despite the positive impact. His progress was made under duress. I don't wish to take credit for his change, it could be that it was effected despite the pressure...

Five years later, it wasn't hygiene or alcohol dependency I was concerned about anymore: I was ready to have a kid, to buy some kind of property, to get married (maybe?), in no particular order... I wanted to start figuring how to save money together so we could do those things. He said he wanted those things too, but he never brought them up. I gave him space to get his gears going. He never did. So I ultimately broke it off, because I felt like I was trapped by my own hope.

The thing is, alpha often sometimes drive me insane. I have found them (not all of them! but some!) to be patronizing, defensive, combative, competitive and stubborn (all things which I am sure I have been guilty of at one point or another). My beta man is not like that, which I find incredibly reassuring. I have so much respect and admiration for him. I have never been happier with a partner, though I was somehow still terrified about his future viability as a partner. And I find myself wondering if this issue is common with alpha humans, and whether or not -- given a healthy dose of work and humility and patience -- we can make it work with the men we most admire and who most tolerate our alpha bullshit.
posted by qzar to Human Relations (50 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Abandon the terms alpha and beta. They are stupid terms that divide people and it's going to ultimately make you unhappy if you keep trying to pigeonhole others (and yourself) into a particular type.

You are a capable, adult individual who is seeking a relationship with another capable, adult individual. An equal partner. Not someone who's going to boss you or for you to boss around. Another independent person who chooses to share his life with yours because you complement each other, not because he needs someone to fill a hole.

Work on re-framing your personal definition of a relationship so that a partnership of equals is the goal and you can stop running yourself in circles about this ridiculous alpha/beta nonsense.
posted by phunniemee at 7:37 AM on April 14, 2016 [229 favorites]

Oof, alpha and beta are pretty loaded terms that also don't really describe anyone very well. It sounds like you're using alpha to imply responsible, ambitious, mature, mentally healthy, and some other stuff besides. Well, most people have some of your "alpha" traits and some of your "beta" traits.

So instead of worrying about that artificial binary, why don't you figure out the traits that are actually worrying you about your partner? (I'm unclear whether you're talking about your ex, or a current, prospective or hypothetical partner)
posted by randomnity at 7:37 AM on April 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

My partner is 100% a beta, and I have somewhat unwillingly taken on the role of alpha. Some of it has to do with finances, and some of it is just personality. It takes a lot of adjusting on my part to not deal with someone who is pushing against my pulling, but for the most part, it works really well, because he's more happy with someone who makes the day-to-day decisions, and I know when he's passionate about something, because he's not afraid to stand up to me when he disagrees.

But your relationship is your relationship. You know when things are right and when they're not, so don't go looking for a perfect set of whatever in order to justify a relationship to yourself. If it's not fulfilling to you, then it's best for everybody for you to find something that is.
posted by xingcat at 7:39 AM on April 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

I understand the question you're asking, but I really think you're doing a disservice to yourself and your partners by reducing them to "alpha" and "beta" concepts, which are kind of harmful in their simplicity and sexist stereotypes.

I don't think you made a mistake leaving someone that was forcing you to force them to grow up. I totally understand that, and you probably did the right thing.

But when looking for your next partner - gosh, don't blop them into alpha/beta buckets - look for someone who isn't patronizing, defensive, combative, and stubborn, but who also has their shit together. They exist!
posted by Dressed to Kill at 7:39 AM on April 14, 2016 [54 favorites]

As everyone has already said, there are not only two kinds of people in the world, so drop your muddled alpha/beta thinking to start with.

The root of your question is can you be with someone who, for whatever reason, doesn't tick all of the boxes you want. The answer is, of course you can. But asking the internet is unlikely to yield a satisfactory answer, since we can't really tell which aspects are deal breakers for you and which aren't.

What exactly is it that worries you about his "future viability as a partner"? His health? His ability to work/contribute to shared finances? His empathy? How he acts at parties? Which of those are deal breakers to you and which are not? There lays your answer.
posted by modernnomad at 7:42 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

The first thing I'm going to caution you about is labels. Alpha,'s silly. And not helpful. You seem to think of "alpha" people as the winners in life and the beta people as the sluggish, messy losers. Let's step back and think about this.

You have qualities that make you successful by the typical measures of society. Career, money, forward trajectory. Okay, all good. There are people out there, wonderful, lovely people for whom those measures are just unimportant. They're not involved in anti-social, counter-productive or harmful behaviors (as your Ex was) but they have a different definition of success. Perhaps they're artists, or family-oriented or focused on the community. They aren't addicts, or bad with money or lazy, just different priorities.

So the idea is to figure out the qualities of the person you want in your life. Kind, thoughtful, intelligent, etc. Those qualities can come in any package, a driven, career person or a happy caregiving person.

I'm more of a traditional, career, money success person, Husbunny is more of a bloom where he's planted kind of guy. But he's fantastic. Smart, kind, thoughtful, and he's had a job in the same place for nearly a decade. He's very happy with his life, and I'm happy with him. We're very different in a lot of ways, but we're both grown people who handle responsibility well.

So start looking into character, not labels. That should improve your chances of finding someone who is right for you, not a beta to your alpha or a super-alpha to your alpha or...whatever it is you think that path leads down.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:43 AM on April 14, 2016 [15 favorites]

I think your problem is that you are defining this as a binary decision: you are either "alpha" or you are "beta" full stop, the end. I think it would be more useful to define for yourself what your deal-breakers are and look for compatibility in those areas. For example, I could never be with someone who did not have a career. It doesn't have to be the most high-powered career in the world, but he has to have something, and that's because I was so, so depressed when I didn't have a job and I don't want to to be with someone who in my view could be in that place. I think people are mentally healthier when they have something to do, and that is what it's about for me.

Now, my guy does have some habits which I don't always love. But he does not have THIS problem, which is my deal-breaker. So I can deal with that.

And, it can also be easier to have an alpha and beta sometimes. My husband is a super-picky eater and often agonizes about where to go when we eat out. I can find something in pretty much any restaurant and don't really care where we eat. If we were both "alpha" about this subject, it would be a battle of wills every time we went on a date night. So much easier to just let him pick.

Similarly, he does not care at all about the decor or contents of our home. In his mind, a couch and a bed is all you need. So, when I decide we need something, he is happy to go along with it, I can choose what I please, and nobody is stressed or unhappy. If we were both "alpha" about this, it would again lead to conflict and stress.
posted by JoannaC at 7:43 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

For the record, since this will probably keep coming up, I 100% agree with how the terms alpha and beta are problematic. A lazy wordchoice that certainly perpetuates stereotypes. I hope the rest makes sense still. I'm not seeking anyone out based off these labels, though.
posted by qzar at 7:43 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure I agree with your characterization of people into high-achieving Alphas and do-nothing Betas. I mean, "Couldn't keep a job, drank a ton, had bad hygiene, was very broke and bad with money" - with no desire to change any of those things - is a few steps below normal levels of human achievement. And while a lot of super-high-achievers are dismissive of others who don't meet their level of commitment (as you seem to be yourself) - unless they're surgeons or CEOs or otherwise power performers where they need that level of focus to succeed, it's certainly not okay or expected.

Most people fit in the middle - have a job, take showers, try to drink and use money responsibly (even if they sometimes falter). I suspect you need to focus less on finding someone successful, and more on finding someone who shares your values about what a life well lived looks like.

You're on the rebound and are not seeing things the way they really are. Your ex is not fantastic in retrospect, he's just better than whatever losers you're currently meeting who check a different set of boxes. I would maybe take a step back and not equate getting married and having a family with being high-achieving. You want someone mature and responsible. That's not an "alpha" thing. It's just harder to find lately. But they're definitely out there.
posted by Mchelly at 7:45 AM on April 14, 2016 [9 favorites]

It sounds like you'd benefit from:

a) Temporarily relieving yourself of expectations for long-term partnering. Kids, marriage, etc., are off the table for now.

b) Just dating. From an app, or let your friends know you're looking, whatever. Just meet a bunch of different people and date around for a bit.

c) Not partnering with assholes (the patronizing, combative "alpha" types you describe) or with people whose lifestyle doesn't fit with yours. It is absolutely 100% okay to break up for the reasons you describe with your ex, and it doesn't make you selfish. You sound like you know what kind of life you want, and it is absolutely possible to meet a good man who will be your equal there. It's worth holding out for that.
posted by witchen at 7:54 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Looking back, the only relationship I ever had with an alpha was rather abusive, and put me in the position of being the beta...We were kids then, and I've been the alpha in every relationship I've had since. (Chicken or the egg?) So I have no experience with healthy alpha/alpha relationships.

However, I'm married to a beta and we have a baby together. For the most part, we're very happy! We (or perhaps just I) have the same concerns you're talking about. Yes, it can be exhausting to be the primary planner, coordinator, and doer. Our current issue is that he doesn't do enough around the house, so I'm trying to figure out a division of duties that would be fair & that I wouldn't have to micromanage. I did propose to him, got my own ring, planned the wedding, decided when to have our kid, and of course I manage our finances... I just check in with him regularly and definitely before any major changes and purchases.

In my experience with my husband, giving him space to get his gears going as you said just leads to the gears not turning. It's not always easy to avoid steamrolling a beta partner, but all relationships have their challenges, don't they?
posted by Baethan at 7:55 AM on April 14, 2016

I hope the rest makes sense still.

It doesn't really, because it seems like you're asking whether a person with one collection of arbitrary traits can date another person with a different collection of arbitrary traits. That's impossible to answer because it all depends what is most important for you as an individual (and the next person you date is unlikely to have all the same bad traits as your ex anyway). E.g. maybe you want to date someone who actively pursues his own goals (not the same as agreeing to yours), or someone who's financially responsible. Great, so look for someone with those traits! Not some constellation of traits that you think cluster together.

If you're really asking whether you should try to get back together with your ex, based on the way you describe him, I would not recommend it. It doesn't seem like you have a lot of respect or admiration for the person he is overall, and it also sounds like you weren't very happy with him once you gave up the hope that he would change into someone you admire.

If neither of those are what you're asking, perhaps you could clarify what your actual question is?
posted by randomnity at 8:05 AM on April 14, 2016 [9 favorites]

I don't like this alpha/beta business as it's rather loaded, but:

I've been with someone like Baethan's partner and I found it exhausting - knowing that micromanaging is the only way you can get anything close to an equal division of labour made both of us feel really bad about each other. I felt like I was his mom, and he felt steamrolled and emasculated and eventually he grew to resent that I had, well, preferences, and hated me trying to check in with him. Sometimes people like this will justify their lack of preferences and initiative by acting as though it's a virtue. I like having the opportunity to be the primary decision maker, but I really resent dealing with someone who doesn't respect that there is a considerable cognitive load associated with having to make all the decisions for someone who's completely checked out.

Here's the important thing, though: most people wouldn't describe him as a beta. He checks the right sorts of "alpha" boxes in terms of being high-achieving and whatnot but who was actually allergic to initiative if it doesn't involve one of his interests. It's the kind of thing that isn't obvious to someone unless they live or work very closely with him. I can think of a whole bunch of guys our age who are like this, and as long as you go alpha-searching, you might end up with one of them too.

All of this is to say: if you want to break free from this alpha/beta nonsense, date people who want what you want and engage in actions that reinforce what they say they want.
posted by blerghamot at 8:14 AM on April 14, 2016 [11 favorites]

I personally worry a little bit about the alpha/beta thing because it maps oddly onto gender.

Alpha dude: rich! successful! doer! achieves out in the world! aggressive! Sort of the Wolf of Wall Street but for his profession!

Alpha woman (usually self-described, most mainstream discourse does not apply alpha/beta stuff to women): Has a good job! Makes sure partner goes to the doctor! Makes sure partner does chores! Makes sure kids do things! Makes sure finances are in order!

Basically, I sometimes feel like "alpha woman" just means "woman who does All The Things that her partner won't", with "beta" meaning "man who basically won't do chores or go to the doctor unless he is hand-held". I think this isn't an alpha/beta thing; it's an "irresponsible dude" thing, and doesn't have much to do with whether the guy can hold a job and take showers.

I would be more concerned with looking for someone who values equality, shares your life goals and has a stable life. I suspect that part of the problem with your past relationship wasn't that the guy wasn't a go-getter per se but that because he was a total schmoe when you started going out, your relationship was structured along the lines of "I parent/therapize him/he is parented/therapized". That's really hard to change.
posted by Frowner at 8:17 AM on April 14, 2016 [29 favorites]

Get out of the polar thinking. There's more than just two types of people in the world. There's a lot of different axes that people function on that add up in various ways to their personality. My husband I'd characterize as fairly passive (I blame this largely on him being a middle class white male for whom most things come pretty easy and he's just put completely wrong-footed whenever there's a roadblock, and his first instinct is to just lay down instead of trying to go over it--that's not always his final instinct, but it's definitely his initial reaction), but he's not lazy or slovenly or untrustworthy. Likewise I have encountered a lot of extremely slovenly, flaky geniuses who are very ambitious about their research pursuits.

There's a vast spectrum of people out there. Your ex may have been way over on one end on every single measure, but there's more out there than just that and people who are way over on the other end on every single measure. You discovered that you're not happy with people who are extremes at either end. Congratulations, and now go forth with this self-knowledge and locate the other 80% of humanity.
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:17 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ok, so if we drop the alpha/beta language, which incorrectly lumps a bunch of traits together as a package, I think what you're asking is "is it possible to find a man who has his shit together professionally/personally, and is also kind and fun to be around?" and the answer is yes, but you have to look specifically for those traits.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:18 AM on April 14, 2016 [12 favorites]

By the way, I'm not saying alpha-beta language is "problematic" because it's not PC or whatever. I'm saying it's incorrect. It is just not the case that professional/financial accomplishment correlates with aggressive personal manners, or that laziness correlates with good humor. (Edit - there are some professions where that aggro-ness does tend to correlate, now that I think of it. But if you avoid sales guys, say, and CFOs, and trial lawyers, and instead be open to dating on the quirky side of the spectrum, you'll find there's plenty of high achievers who aren't aggro.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:22 AM on April 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

Since you've agreed that the alpha/beta language fogs up this whole thing, I won't focus on it. I think that people with different personalities can definitely work together to make a great relationship and can complement and learn from each other. With good communication and mutual respect, you can overcome some pretty big personality divides. But, no matter how much you love each other and make each other happy, there may come a point in a relationship where the two partners have different goals and are at a crossroads. Sometimes that means it's time to go your separate ways. I think that's what happened here -- incompatible goals, not a personality clash.
posted by capricorn at 8:25 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I hate to say this but - true "alpha" (ugh) people are... very different. And they usually pair with other alphas because confidence. Other people just think they are alpha but deep down the confidence / self responsiblity angle is missing. Having your life together doesn't make you an alpha. Being arrogant and opinionated and stubborn doesn't either.

You won't be happy if you're dragging your partner kicking and screaming towards life. You won't be happy if your partner is an arrogant ass either. It's perfectly fine to partner with an easy-going guy if you are a driver yourself, in fact I know many couples, myself included, with partnerships like that. But there always has to be some measure of equality in the relationship – not a equality in terms of who is loud and who is quiet, but equality in terms of decision-making and respect for each other.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:33 AM on April 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

There is a wide spectrum between the partner who won't take a shower or pay his bills and the work-obsessed, laser-focused narcissist.

It sounds like you just want someone who will participate equally in a relationship and take responsibility for his stuff--ie., a regular grown up person. It also sounds like you've swung the pendulum too far in the other direction and you're actively seeking out hard-driving types and maybe finding out that that's not actually what you want.

Take the focus off "alpha" and "beta," and just look for a guy who is smart, funny, kind and good in bed and who also manages to function as an adult, pay his bills, and have some goals. I promise they are out there.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 8:34 AM on April 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think possibly part of the problem is that you view your partners overmuch in terms of how they reflect on you:

I spent a great deal of energy trying to get him to a place where I wouldn't have to experience the dissonance of being in love with someone so out of sorts, when I myself am so very very in sorts.

Maybe I'm wrong but I get a real "what would people think?!" vibe off of that. You can't make sound relationship decisions if you're worried about looking right to the imaginary Greek chorus of the world. They don't have to live in the relationship; you do.

The thing is, alpha often sometimes drive me insane. I have found them (not all of them! but some!) to be patronizing, defensive, combative, competitive and stubborn (all things which I am sure I have been guilty of at one point or another). My beta man is not like that

Yeahbut, like, my stepdad? Who was totally a "beta" by your standards? He was ALSO patronizing, defensive, combative, competitive, and stubborn. Those traits are everywhere and are not directly correlated with financial stability. Alpha/Beta false binary aside, maybe pay attention to that "all things which I am sure I have been guilty of" part for awhile. You don't have to be that way either, even though you have your shit together.

Overall it sounds like you were in an unhealthy dynamic and 1) it's gotten you into some unhelpfully rigid thought patterns and 2) it's provided cover for you to avoid dealing with some shit you oughta deal with. Therapy's the MeFi gold standard for that kind of stuff, but you might also benefit from just taking some time out on dating and figure out who you are outside the false binary.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:35 AM on April 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

Randomnity -- you're right, what I'm really asking is whether or not its possible for my ex and I to be together, given the nature of our conflict. I framed the question in a more general way to draw out the personal experience of people who can identify with my situation, like sorensen_lorensen or Baethan, in case they have any strategies I could learn from.

But I have an immense amount of respect for my ex, and have never felt an inkling of contempt for him. His passivity I almost consider to be separate from him. I "pathologized" those inconvenient parts of him rather than accepting him as a whole, and that was a terrible mistake. I don't care about career or money or perception, I just wanted him to be more proactive about seeking out the things he said he wanted, which were things I wanted too.

Right on about taking time off, though. The guy I dated before this last fellow was a total alpha prick, which would explain a lot.
posted by qzar at 8:42 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Wow, I'm surprised everyone is so anti the whole alpha/beta thing! The terms are loaded, but it's a valid (and potentially healthy, loving, and happy) type of relationship. It sounds like many people have, or would prefer, a relationship with a more equal division of leadership & decision-making. That's fine, but so is the sort of relationship I have. My husband isn't emasculated or resentful. I respect him a great deal, and make a point to demonstrate that in private and in public... not because he's the "beta" in our relationship and needs to be babied or something, but because I love him. I just happen to be the one who "wears the pants", and that is only one facet of our relationship.

I do think the advice to not worry too much about it when dating is good though. I'm a quiet, shy, super introverted, laid-back, tiny woman... maybe not a very "alpha" looking person. Our roles in our relationship didn't really settle & become clear until after we became serious and moved in together.

But yes, if you don't mind being the leader, it can totally work.
posted by Baethan at 8:43 AM on April 14, 2016

I might be reading this differently from everyone else on the thread, but it sounds to me like you regret breaking up with your ex, and would like to return to him, and perhaps return to him in a way where you appreciate his so-called "beta" qualities, rather than rue them.

It seems natural to me that in any partnership there will be a balance of strengths and weaknesses; surely he was good at things or brought things to the relationship which were less developed in you—maybe patience? Maybe other traits. It sounds like you got out of the relationship because you thought you could find a man like your partner, but better, or just like him, but without the traits you didn't like.

It also sounds like you broke up rather suddenly, without trying to come to terms with your feelings about him, with him. Maybe if he still loves you, there is a way to reconnect, perhaps speak about your fears for the future with him (in therapy, or not). Sometimes it's just true that one person will lead the other into the future because they have a more dominant personality, and it's no big deal. Because the other person contributes in other ways.

I don't think you want an "alpha" partner. I think you want the man you were with, and that you wish to be honest with him about your fears for the future, and perhaps feel content with your differences, and appreciate the ways they make your partnership stronger; to feel gratitude for the positive traits he developed out in you, that were likely underdeveloped when you two met; surely you grew in those five years, also? I could be wrong. But it sounds like he's a great guy who you still love.

Is hope really the enemy in this case? Or is a rigid attitude the enemy?
posted by Clotilde at 8:49 AM on April 14, 2016 [10 favorites]

Oof. I know what you mean, even if I'm not wild about the nomenclature. So much of what you said about your ex really resonated with me because I've been exactly there.

Life got more complicated as you got older, and instead of meeting the challenges with you and helping out, he saw that you were willing to dig in and do the dirty work, so he just unmoored and let himself drift and stagnate, to your mutual detriment. And now that you've rightfully left his ass, he finally gets his act together. Sound familiar?

So here's some things, data point of one:

1. I was SO MUCH HAPPIER single than I EVER was in the latter, crummier years of our relationship. So maybe take some time for yourself. When you know what you want from yourself and from life, it's easier to seek out someone who is capable of being a real partner to you.

2. After that breakup, I am firmly and forever of the opinion that if dating someone is not making my life actively better, it is not worth it. Period. You don't have to settle if you have concerns about a dynamic you're developing with someone.

3. It is TOTALLY possible to find someone who clicks with you and has a life of their own and takes care of their own stuff in their own way and is not a total a-hole. They exist, you just have to find someone whose personality doesn't BSOD around a capable woman which, frankly, is easier to do in your 30s anyway, from what I've observed.

So to answer your question, yes, I think a woman who is a high achiever can be happy with someone who lives life in the slower lane, as long as there is enough communication about mutual expectations and you are both willing to do your parts as they make sense to the two of you and you are both happy with the arrangement.
posted by helloimjennsco at 8:55 AM on April 14, 2016 [7 favorites]

Despite people jumping all over you here because of the labels, I understand what you're asking. The question you have to ask yourself is, do his other traits make up for the "beta-"ness? I knew a guy who would have been completely worthless in the "take care of me and things" department; he needed to be told every single little thing; put out the trash. No, don't put it out too early or we'll get fined. I remember once having to tell him, the store we're looking for is right in front of you! Look up! If a burglar came to our house, he'd freeze up and hide.

But he also made excellent money, and we were both passionate for the same hobbies and mindset. And if I asked him to bring me soup when I was sick, he would bring it to me. (Some guys wouldn't.) Does the rest of it make up for the shortfalls? If he truly won't lift a finger about anything then yeah, that sucks. But don't fall into all-or-nothing thinking; look for the positives and see how valuable they are.

On preview: and yes, definitely what Baethan and helloimjennsco said.
posted by sockerpup at 8:58 AM on April 14, 2016

You have to decide on your own what your dealbreakers are.

The passivity... I get why that's frustrating. It's caused some problems in my own relationship because I'm like you--I make decisions for what I want to do and be and have and I move forward with the steps to get there. My husband just sort of lets things happen to him, but fortunately, he's a very contented person so he's generally happy no matter what happens and is just one of those people who's genuinely happy to go along for whatever ride is presented. So I just kind of plow forward and he's happy to be my support team. Someone who was both passive and miserable would be a dealbreaker for me. I dated a couple of those sadsacks and nope. I can't move forward in my life while dragging a 180lb weight behind me.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:04 AM on April 14, 2016

You succeed by not hitching your wagon to a child. I am definitely the driven, ambitious, workaholic one in my marriage (although I feel the need to state for the record that I in no way consider my partner a "beta"), but my partner still carries his share of the load of the partnership, and I view our differing natures as balancing one another. I work in a very highly strung industry, and realized pretty quickly that while it is very common for people in my line of work to pair off, I would have been miserable with someone just like me. I like being married to someone who leaves work at work. I like being married to someone who reminds me to prioritize family and wellbeing sometimes. I like being married to someone who doesn't assume I will put my career on any sort of backburner when we have kids, and in fact would be more willing than me to make professional sacrifices for the sake of family. I like having someone who reminds me that sleeping in on the weekends and spending Sunday on the couch can be a really great, restorative thing sometimes. At the same time, I am not expected to be the boss of the family or the sole person responsible for making sure that life moves forward.

More importantly, I have never felt that he is a project or a fixer-upper or someone that I needed to "improve" in any way, and I think that's what's important. Would you be happy with your partner the way he is right now, with the assumption that he will never change in any significant way? Because most people don't, even/especially when you want them to. The only person whose personal progress you can control is you.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 9:06 AM on April 14, 2016 [13 favorites]

Yeah, the issue isn't your labels (which I agree are odious), it's that you have decided that basically one set of traits=loser and one set of traits=winnner. Further, your grouping of traits is completely arbitrary.

I think where all of this comes together is that you may be equating (without knowing it) good traits that are not explicitly in your loser list with being a loser. You may even be going further and be valorizing shitty interpersonal traits because they indicate to you that someone is a winner.

It's totally possible to find someone who is personally warm and loving and is also a "winner," but given your age, and views espoused in your question, I think you probably need to give some serious thought to your worldview before anything like that works out for you.
posted by OmieWise at 9:09 AM on April 14, 2016 [9 favorites]

what I'm really asking is whether or not its possible for my ex and I to be together, given the nature of our conflict.

The reason why general answers to your question may not be very helpful is that the question, "Is it at all possible for these two sorts of people to work together?" is really different from the question, "Is it possible for me, as the specific person I am and have been, to work with him, as the specific person he is and has been?" The difference is this: the presence of a pre-existing relationship, a history.

What you describe as your relationship with this guy in the past is mothering. You acted like a mother to him. You raised him up to understand how and when to shower, how to control his drinking, how to manage employment, etc. That's the sort of stuff a parent does for a child. And this is a trap that a lot of women do fall into when they have their act together but find themselves romantically entangled with a guy who doesn't have his life together: the relationship may start out as two equals, but it morphs into a relationship where one party has all the responsibility and coaches the other along. It's a draining and unsatisfying situation for the woman, who finds herself without a partner she can rely on, can lean on, can trust and respect. (It's also an unsatisfying and frustrating situation for a lot of men, too, but I'm focusing on you, here.)

So, when you're thinking of your past relationship with your ex, with the fact that you still really care about him and may want to be with him, you can't just consider whether someone like you could have a good relationship with someone like him. You have to consider, instead, whether you, as someone who fell previously into a mothering role for him, can have a good relationship with him, who let you mother him and only got his act together thanks to your prodding. Has the past, that history of a parenting dynamic between you and him, poisoned the possibility of a good future? Would it be possible for a relationship with him going into the future to break free from that previously established dynamic?

In other words, I think perhaps the reason why he doesn't seem like a good partner to you is because he hasn't been a good partner to you in the past. You do seem to think that he has changed, that perhaps he could be trusted to be more with-it and responsible in the future... But it doesn't just matter if, now, he is changed. What matters is whether the dynamic between you and him can change. Unless you and he both recognize how problematic the dynamic was in the past and actively work to change it in the future, it's very unlikely the dynamic will change. You will remain someone-who-is-like-mom to him, because that's the role you play in his life, and he will remain someone-who-is-like-a-child to you, because that's the role he plays in your life. The question, here, isn't "Who is he?" or "Who am I?" but instead "Who are we, together?"

Breaking up with him seems, to me, like a way of saying: "I really do not want a romantic partner for whom I also have to be a mother." It doesn't seem so much like a commentary about what sorts of general personality features you want in a partner, but instead about whether the particular history you have with him has poisoned the well for a future, healthy, happy relationship. You don't want to have to mother someone who is supposed to be present and able to be an equal partner. That's totally a good choice. That you're now re-considering your ex seems, to me, to be a way of saying, "...But maybe this guy and I can move forward without me having to be his mom anymore." And that's the question: can he? Can you? Or will you get stuck, again, in the pre-established patterns of the relationship as it developed throughout your history together?
posted by meese at 9:32 AM on April 14, 2016 [17 favorites]

I think you (and most people!) would like a partner who:

1. Has their shit together; takes care of their own health, home, and finances independently and without prompting
2. Treats you as an equal partner and teammate, and seeks to maintain harmony, balance, and growth in the relationship

You frame your ex's flaws and the typical "alpha" flaws as if they were parts of opposite personality types, but they're really two different varieties of selfishness. Avoiding personal responsibility in favor of short-term satisfaction is selfish. So are inflexibility, believing you're superior, and always demanding your way. You don't want to keep pulling at someone to keep up, nor do you want them to always pull you in the direction they want to go. You want someone who's going about the same speed, in the same direction, who will slow down with you and work things out when either of you does pull.

The name for the kind of person you want is "grown-up."
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:34 AM on April 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

The answer to your update is no. Your relationship with your Ex probably won't work. Not because he's a bad person, but because he can't take care of himself. He NEEDS you to keep moving forward. Without you, what happens?

Here's the thing, when you partner with, invest with, marry and have children with someone, it's everyone needs to be in it 100%. Especially with kids.

The big question to ask is, "if I got really sick, would partner step up and take care of business so that I could get well, or would partner fall apart and let everything around us go to shit because they can't pull it together."

I know that I need someone who is happy to let me drive, but if I need to nap for a while, they can take the wheel.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:54 AM on April 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

The reason why the labels "alpha" and "beta" are idiotic and caused many of us to wince when we read them is because they are used pretty much exclusively by 18 yr old dudes who have no actual understanding of biology but saw one chimpanzee wailing on another on TV and was like "YES THIS MAKES SENSE TO ME".

So at the very best you're using those terms incorrectly, and at worst, you think it's necessary to be a dickhead to keep a job, own a house, etc.

Basically, what it sounds like is you were dating someone who had different long term goals than you, and you tried to force him to adopt your goals. Besides not being fair, it's also has a low chance of success. Find someone who is already headed in the same direction as you. It's going to be a lot more fun than dragging someone with you.
posted by danny the boy at 10:05 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I broke up with a really great guy with some of these issues (although nowhere near to the extent to which you describe): I was the one who always had to plan the big things, had more ambition, different ideas about spending/saving, etc. It was sad, but he's now married to a woman much better suited to him and they have a great family.

This sort of thing is only a deal breaker if you make it one; I know plenty of happy couples who function quite happily with that sort of dynamic. I decided I couldn't be happy in that kind of relationship, which was the right decision for me. Everyone has to make that decision for themselves.
posted by smirkette at 10:17 AM on April 14, 2016

An alpha or beta who does emotional labour would be a fine partner. Your beta didn't. So if you want to accomplish a goal, all that work is up to you. You want kids? Up to you. You're sick? Guess who's handling that. He's sick? That's up to you to solve too. Etc.

Alphas can pull this shit too.
posted by sadmadglad at 10:35 AM on April 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think what's not clear is whether his lack of initiative created actual problems for you, or if he was simply not taking initiative on things you wanted him to take initiative on (like planning vacations, or shopping for real estate or whatever).

The first thing is a real problem because it results in a situation where you feel like your partner is your child.

The second type of thing falls more into the "nice to have" category, imo. Don't get me wrong, I've been in situations where i've been frustrated that my priorities are not my partner's priorities. It can make you feel like your partner doesn't really care about you (because he's not taking initiative on something you've said is important to you), and of course everyone thinks their own priorities are the important priorities and can be judgmental that other people don't have them.

However, the secret benefit to being a person who is maybe more practical, and more of a planner and driver, is that as long as the other person truly is happy to go along, you get to do what you want much more than you do in a relationship with a person who also has and acts on strong preferences.

I'll also note that often people who are planners are driven by an undercurrent of anxiety. Being with someone who isn't that way can prompt fears that if you weren't able to take care of everything the way you do, the other person won't step up. Which is where you have to really sit down and look at your fears and separate the ones that are fundamentally emotional from ones that are truly practical. I was with a guy for awhile who could not make an airline reservation to save his life. He was chronically late to everything. He existed almost entirely on microwave burritos. But if, for example, I ever got cancer and needed chemo, he absolutely would've been capable of getting me to and from appointments -- and more than that would have done a great job of being comforting and rubbing my back while I laid around feeling awful afterward.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 11:06 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

The name for the kind of person you want is "grown-up."

I would argue that it's actually "compatible grown-up," but otherwise yes. (Only because there are infinite ways to be a grown up, but probably only a handful of ways to be a compatible partner for the OP.)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:06 AM on April 14, 2016

I was ready to have a kid, to buy some kind of property, to get married (maybe?), in no particular order... I wanted to start figuring how to save money together so we could do those things. He said he wanted those things too, but he never brought them up. I gave him space to get his gears going. He never did. So I ultimately broke it off, because I felt like I was trapped by my own hope.

I suggest you keep a journal or get therapy. It sounds to me like you artificially made up a problem here and then dumped him.

Given the history, if you want to marry him and he knows that and seems agreeable, you don't have to wait for him to propose. You just go "Eh, I was thinking next month. We buy some cheap wedding bands and see a justice of the peace. Is that cool with you?"

You want a baby, you go "So, if it is okay with you, I was thinking I go off the pill and we see if a baby happens. If no baby happens, we talk about fertility treatments at some point. Call it 18 months from now."

You want a house, you start researching first time home buyer programs or whatever.

My ex was pretty low key. I am more aggressive. The above suggestions are some variation of things I did, interpreted for your different circumstances. If my ex didn't protest, I figured it was okay to move forward and just not impose overly much. He was okay with me getting what I wanted out of life, as long as it didn't involve too much effort or initiative on his part. He married me on my schedule, gave me babies, bought me a house. We bought the house I picked. This blew the real estate agent's mind because I was a homemaker, supporting his career.

The trick was to have his okay and then do a lot of the work myself. If he didn't want to, he would object. He mostly objected to me expecting him to put in effort. If I did most of the legwork, he tended to be kind of "Sure, honey. Whatever."

I mean, it wasn't always that smooth. We did fight at times. But, in a nutshell and all that.
posted by Michele in California at 11:07 AM on April 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

Personal experience here: I don't use your terms, but the situation is achingly familiar. Can a relationship like this work? Sure, as long as you accept that you're going to have to revisit and revisit the same issues, with different triggers and different solutions. I'm speaking from 36 years experience here. It will keep coming up. And his side of it is probably that he's never enough for you: sober, clean, good in bed, not in debtor's prison -- and it's still not enough for you. That too will keep coming up, even if he's not articulating it.

But you seem to be asking abstract questions about abstract situations; building narratives instead of living your immediate life. That is not actually the behavior of someone "very very in sorts." Perhaps the problem is more in your interior monologues than the behavior of someone you love? We all do it, say that the problem is someone else's behavior or lack of it -- and sometimes it is -- but usually the real problem lies in our own minds and hearts.
posted by kestralwing at 12:00 PM on April 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

Eh, I was married 22 years to this guy. Things got a lot easier when I accidentally discovered that going ahead and doing stuff would be accepted by him without a fit. If he had done that to me, I would have hit the roof. I was trying to be respectful. But It was trying to include him in the process and all that which inspired fights.

I am hearing "So, we talked it all out and both of us agreed to marry, and now I am waiting for him to buy an engagement ring and Pop The Question because I am the girl and I have internalized all these bizarre gendered cultural things while being all alpha in other areas of my life."

Gosh, just get over your weird internalized sexism, apologize to this guy and marry him. He already agreed, but he isn't buying you an engagement ring. BFD. Do you want a ring and a guy on bended knee or do you want to marry the man you love? To me, the ring and proposal are not important. The important thing is "I love him. He says he would like to marry me." And go make the arrangements. He said "yes" already. What are you waiting for?
posted by Michele in California at 12:44 PM on April 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't think that alpha/beta is a good way of looking at what you're looking for.

I think what you are actually looking for is one or several of these things:

1. Someone who shares your outlook on life and priorities. You won't have to constantly push this person on Big Life Things, because they will want the same Big Life Things that you want and be on the same page with you about them.

2. Someone who is willing to do emotional labor. I had a lot of relationships with dudes where I felt like I was doing most of the heavy lifting because they just weren't willing to do shit like show up to events that were important to me, remember anything about anything (birthdays, what weekend comic-con is, that my parents are coming to town next month), or take an interest in anything I like. There's no excuse for this crap.

3. Someone who is just really super into you and willing to do the stuff that is important to you simply because it's important to you, whether they share your priorities or not.

It is my experience that a guy who otherwise has his shit together but doesn't want to marry you or talk about kids or start figuring out how to buy a house probably either doesn't want those things in general, doesn't want them with you, or isn't crazy enough about you to shift his priorities if it means he gets to be with you.
posted by Sara C. at 12:58 PM on April 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

Work on re-framing your personal definition of a relationship so that a partnership of equals is the goal and you can stop running yourself in circles about this ridiculous alpha/beta nonsense.

Not that I disagree with the sentiments expressed here and in other comments here about alpha and beta being crude terms with baggage, but "partnership of equals" and similar expressions are still status-loaded and problematic (I can't look into the heart of the commenters here and see if they mean them that way, but I've definitely seen acquaintances use them as a reformulation of the same kind of judgments).

And on the other hand, how couples negotiate big decisions together is a big deal that has a lot to do with temperament, so while "alpha" and "beta" have problems as lenses, you have an underlying point. Though I think interpersonal skill matters more than temperament.

But let's start here: nobody is really "equal." In some ways the concept doesn't even make sense given the apples and oranges nature of comparisons between people. But even assuming it does make some sense, even when people are close matches... everybody has ups and downs, some of which can last years. If you want relationships that last years and even decades, accepting that sometime you'll be taking the lead and perhaps even carrying your partner (financially, emotionally, directionally) is part of the bargain. This is why a lot of wedding vows have phrases to that effect.

During my last LTR, when we met, I had the better job, the better car, no debt, savings, was considering buying a house. Was I "in sorts"? Well, a few years later I was having trouble finding/keeping a job and an address and the car was breaking down. Then later I got it together again and several times dumped thousands of dollars into helping my partner move from opportunity to opportunity when she couldn't have afforded it but needed to do it.

Now, if one of the things you really value in a relationship is to be confidently led by your partner much more often than you lead (and perhaps wanting someone who has no history of making choices that leave them/you vulnerable to risk), that's a legitimate personal preference, and you have every right to seek that out. It's certainly something I've heard from women often enough, so you would hardly be alone in that desire.

As you've discovered, though, this can be a double edged sword. There are certainly men out there who are, as you described your ex-BF, an "incredible human being, creative, emotionally intelligent, deeply honest, empathetic, generous, funny, great in bed" ... and also clear and proactive about their plans.

But maybe not as many who are ALL of those things. As you've discovered, some psychological traits tend to be tradeoffs.

And also, since people aren't checklists of characteristics, you could trip over two of these men who tick all the boxes tomorrow, and there's still no guarantee you would be deeply drawn to them, that you would love them. And vice versa.

If what really happened here is that you need that kind of clear lead (with all the awesome emotional stuff too), I hope you go looking for that despite any bumps in the road along the way, and only spend as much time looking back (as you are in this question) as it takes to learn what you need to learn in order to give yourself the best shot of finding it.

It sounds like you're not sure what happened, though. When someone says "I have never been happier with a partner," unless they have limited experience, that's meaningful. I think it might be worth considering that the central issue is how you negotiate big decisions together. So we're circling back to the fact that while "alpha" and "beta" are crude terms with a lot of baggage that you're getting justifiable pushback for, personality matters. If I were you, I'd work at considering this in a much more fine-grained manner: some people have long decision gathering cycles and change direction slowly, some people are uncomfortable with suspense but change direction quickly. Some people are deeply conflict averse, some people like to get everything out in the open quickly. Some people manage tension well, some people have to get it resolved as soon as possible. But these are not inherent goods, they're tradeoffs, and to some extent habits and adapting and negotiating the difference between the two is a relationship skill that I think can be learned. Maybe even more quickly with counseling.

(And you and beta dude sound like good candidates for that -- he's emotionally intelligent and already shown that he can adapt with support, you're clearly reflective enough to ask this question -- but I would not just pop back to him and suggest counseling, start with yourself first if you go that route, or do some reading and reflective writing on negotiating tension and decisions in relationships.)
posted by wildblueyonder at 1:33 PM on April 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

One thing i will bring up here, even though a lot of good stuff has already been said(especially about the baggage and grossness of "alpha" and "beta"). I myself am a very take-charge-do-stuff person. I'm also someone people in my family/friend group/partners look to regularly as The One Who Will Do Things.

I've seen otherwise independently successful get-shit-done people completely turn in to helpless/apathetic/"do nothing" lumps in relationships when faced with a partner who wants everything done in a certain way/time frame/etc and just takes control instead of talking about it. It's one thing to have a discussion about getting Foo or Bar done and follow up on it. It's another thing to basically give it no(or one, or two) chances to get done in your timeframe and methodology and then just grab the reigns.

I myself have ended up in situations with partners where if something wasn't done in 15 minutes, they'd just do it and assume i never would have. I've also been this person. In reality i was midway in to something else. This scales from leaving your socks next to the shoe rack inside the front door to bills.

Basically, if it bugs you that someone doesn't take charge look at both their method of taking charge and their time frame. Just generally what them taking charge or dealing with stuff looks like. Everyone has a different style and look for this. Pretty much, are they getting stuff done but not just exactly how you would? It's easy to lose sight of this past the nose of your own micromanaging internal thought process.

A huge ongoing annoyance that turned in to a painful splinter in my most recent relationship was that. There was no "queue". If something came up, it was to be dealt with Right Then regardless of what else was on the plate, even if it was relatively low priority.

I guess basically what i'm getting at is that everyone Takes Charge in different ways, and it's not as simple as having a checklist of "person who has their shit together" and "person who doesn't". There's a lot of people who have a house/car/good job/etc who are crappy, as you said condescending/dismissive/etc partners. There's a lot of people who kind of falter on that stuff but ultimately still get things done and are respectful great people who will treat you as an equal.

Don't get too lost in the metrics of Getting Stuff Done and checking boxes exactly how you see it, is i guess what i'm saying. I've seen more than one person, including people i really cared about totally death spiral relationships with that.
posted by emptythought at 2:07 PM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have recently been re-thinking what it means to be a "partner" (both in a coupled/romantic sense and more generally).

I actually really like the model of a business partnership. Business partners may be friends, they may like each other, they may have other reasons to want to spend time together, but that is not the nature of their partnership. There is some shared responsibility and/or common goals that form the basis of the partnership, which both partners then agree to uphold so long as they are partnered. Nobody is the "alpha" partner, nobody is pulling more weight than the other. There may be weaknesses in one partner that the other can compliment, and vice-versa, but it would not be becoming of a partner to act superior because of their strength in one area. What is good for one is good for the other. They act in mutual self-interest to help the other partner succeed.

It's a bit of a stretch to apply that to a romantic relationship, but I think it mostly makes sense. You have to have the same goals from the partnership. What do you want from your relationship? Is it companionship, sex, shared household or childcare responsibilities, some common financial goals? What's most important? If you and your partner have wildly different needs/wants, then it isn't going to work out because you can't work in each other's interest.

It sounds a lot like you're making your decisions about who to be in a relationship with based on personality or other ephemeral qualities. That's fine, but if you want something to last a long time, you need to dig a little deeper and find out if they share your values.
posted by deathpanels at 2:45 PM on April 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

This isn't so much alpha and beta as mother and child. A beta might not be as ambitious as you, but would still hold down a job and manage their half of the household fine. This guy needs you to manage him, and that's tiring and irritating after awhile.

Now, I am impressed that he sounds like he's taken care of a lot of his problems. But it sounds like he did because of you, one way or another. (I'm guessing that's what "his progress was made under duress" means, that he wouldn't have done it without you riding herd on him.) Would he have shaped up without you, or is it "you make me want to be a better man?" Never trust a dude doing the latter to maintain his changes without you being there, though. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that your ex backslides after the breakup, incidentally.

The price of admission/staying with this guy is that he needs to be managed into living an adult life, and thus probably isn't gonna be super awesome as a parent. If you want to be with you, you need to realize that this is what he's like: he needs someone to ride herd. Some people like to ride herd and be in control and take charge and are fine with him needing to be taken care of. If you're not, or you're just sick of doing it by now, you're better off without him, and he's better off either living in his own filth if that's what he'd want on his own or finding someone else to be his keeper that won't get tired of it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:33 PM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Men like your ex-boyfriend are fine when they're living for themselves, or for/with a "fun times girlfriend" who will maybe push them to grow up a little bit faster but otherwise just go along with them. The damage these men can do to others is limited in those circumstances.

However, they generally make terrible fathers. The damage they can do to a small, totally innocent, totally blank slate little human is unlimited. What if you die in childbirth? It still happens, very rarely. To use your terminology, a father must be an "alpha", while the child is a "beta". A man who can never be an "alpha" can't be an adequate father.

You made the right choice. Many men have to be pulled into adulthood these days to some extent, but he was too far behind, and much too far behind for your biological clock. He just started being a 25 year old at 30 (or whatever.) He won't be ready to be a 31 year old (in woman ready to have a baby years, that's pretty much "full grown up time") for another 5 years. Do you have another 5 years? Probably not.

Again- you made the right choice. Start dating seriously and it should only take you about a year to lock down a serious, marriage and children minded male. I've seen it before. Men with one prior "starter marriage" and divorce are generally mid-late 30s and a bit wiser than the average specimen, IME.
posted by quincunx at 6:15 PM on April 14, 2016

Can you and your ex get back together? Sure. Can you have a healthy relationship at this point?

Highly unlikely.

Sadly, you fell in love with someone's potential, instead of the human being in front of you. Then you tried to make him into what you saw (hoped) he could be. I have done this too, and have since learned some very hard lessons. Even though this is done out of love and caring, the end result is that you have very clearly communicated to your partner: 'You are not good enough. You need to change in these ways, to my satisfaction, and then maybe you will be good enough.' This, understandably creates resentment, hurt feelings, etc. in your partner. The likelihood that he will see himself as equal in your eyes, ever, is virtually none. That is, if he is prepared to get over the soul-stripping experience of having someone try to mold him into their ideal version of a partner, which he probably is not. (Would you?)

Did he change for the better? He probably did. Mine did. But you created an imbalance of power and respect in your relationship that is almost impossible to correct, and will only erode the relationship from the inside if you attempt to continue it, unless you are both incredibly passionate and driven about healing your bond and accepting each other.

I'm sorry. I'm also sure that there are plenty of other high-functioning adults who are not jerks that will help you chase down your dreams of babies and houses and so on. Good luck :)
posted by ananci at 12:18 AM on April 15, 2016 [5 favorites]

I want to sincerely thank everyone for weighing in. I know that internet strangers aren't best positioned to make important calls for me, but your varied perspectives have given me much, much much to mull over.
posted by qzar at 7:40 AM on April 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have it in mind to re-read Primate's Memoir, which has a lot to say about hierarchy and dominance in tribes of baboons. Maybe read it, and get a more rounded idea about alpha, beta, etc. I'm female, was married to someone who didn't make money or have actual ambition. I thought it was just equality, but he wanted someone to take care of him, provide the living so he could have an interesting job and lifestyle. Not fun and not workable. Instead of seeking alpha, try seeking independent (interdependent) - someone who will let you lean on them, while will lean on you, and sometimes you'll be side by side.
posted by theora55 at 8:25 AM on April 15, 2016

Viability in a partner above all else. You can't create it. You have a right to listen to your powerful drives, you just have to be selective and wait to get a chance.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:34 PM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

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