Back in the day, there were some husbands who thought that Ralph Kramden from “The Honeymooners” was pretty much the poster man for the alpha male in a marriage. He was big and loud. He took charge and trudged on obliviously down the path of stupidity. He was always right and unconvincingly issued warnings, such as “One of these days” and “To the moon.”
Ralph Kramden was clearly the driver of the bus, the captain of the ship, the king of the castle, the alpha of his marriage. And back then, that seemed to be the common understanding of what alpha meant: the leader, the dominant one, the first one at the table.
Many have looked to the animal kingdom for a better understanding of the alpha syndrome.
However, recently studies have shown that we need to make a bit of an adjustment in our perspective of the alpha persona from the typical threatening, snarling, red-eyed aggressor that we have always pictured in our minds.
Author and ecologist Carl Safina took a close look at one species of animals, the wolf, and, in particular, the packs of grey wolves living in Yellowstone National Park. What he discovered might have some of us husbands and fathers shaking in our royal alpha slippers.
It has been observed that the wolf pack structure and social dynamics are very similar to those of humans. Now, it’s not like we men wag our tails and howl at the moon, but we do enjoy comfortable dens and often leave our scent.
But back to the wolf alpha male. Evidently his stereotype is quite the opposite of wolf reality.
Rather than domination and aggressiveness, the alpha male leads by confidence and poise. He’s like Neil Armstrong in the cockpit of Apollo 11. He knows who he is and where he’s going. It’s this quiet self-assurance that, rather than intimidate the pack, gives it a feeling of security and a spirit of calmness.
And that brings us to some things we didn’t know about the leader of the pack. Although he spearheads the hunt for food, it’s not unusual for him to let the rest of the pack eat before he does. He mates for life, is rarely aggressive and often shows deep affection for his family. In fact, he is willing to sacrifice himself to protect them and joins in an emotional mourning upon the death of a member of the pack.
One alpha wolf was observed often play fighting with the pups of the pack. He’d let the little ones win and seemed to enjoy playing the role of the biggest loser. When a sickly pup was being ignored by the others, this male would seek him out and lay with him. Although he was clearly the strongest of the pack, this alpha male was also one of the kindest and compassionate.
Ironically, it seems that the alpha wolf in the wild has become the role model for the alpha man in his home. Rather than by fangs and snarls, alpha men lead by modest confidence, by affection and devotion, by respect and responsibility.
So, although the exploits of Ralph Kramden may be entertaining, his example is quite unworthy of imitation. In fact, the restraint and aplomb of the alpha female in his life, his wife, Alice, should cause any of us husbands to reconsider ever becoming an Alpha Ralph.
There are many lessons animals have taught us. Our aircraft mimic a bird’s anatomy. Our submarines imitate jellyfish propulsion. Our water turbines copy a whale’s flippers. And now there’s one more lesson, perhaps the most surprising of all: A wolf teaches us how to be a real man.
OK alpha males, time to wolf up.
• Michael Penkava taught a bunch of kids and wrote a bunch of stuff. He is happy to know that real men can leave their scent wherever they go. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.