In lithospheric-scale strike-slip fault zones, upper crustal strength is well constrained from borehole observations and fault rock deformation experiments, but mantle strength is less well known. Using peridotite xenoliths, we show that the upper mantle below the San Andreas fault system (California, USA) is dry and its maximum resolved shear stress (5–9 MPa) is similar to the shear strength of the upper, seismogenic portion of the fault. These results do not fit with any existing lithospheric strength profile. We propose the “lithospheric feedback” model in which the upper crust and lithospheric mantle act together as an integrated system. Mantle flow controls displacement and loads the upper crust. In contrast, the upper crust controls the stress magnitude in the integrated system. Crustal rupture transiently increases strain rate in the upper mantle below the strike-slip fault, leading to viscous strain localization. The lithospheric feedback model suggests that lithospheric strength is a dynamic property—varying in space and time—in actively deforming regions.