According to relationship expert Hara Marano of “Psychology Today”, equally shared power is the passport to lasting relationship satisfaction and true intimacy
In the February 2014 edition of “Psychology Today”, relationship expert Hara Marano tackles the provocative issue of power and how power dynamics play out in our most important and intimate relationships. As Dr. Marano points out “Power is not limited to leaders or organizations: it doesn’t require outright acts of domination. It’s a basic force in every social interaction. Power defines the way we relate to each other. It dictates weather you get listened to. It determines weather your needs take priority or get any attention at all”
Dr. Marano’s definition of social power dynamics really spoke to me. I thought about my own feelings of “powerlessness” in certain relationships over my lifetime. I thought about the times I have felt discounted, not listened to, or simply “bulldozed” by the needs and priorities of others. Sometimes the feeling is really subtle…so subtle in fact that it doesn’t hit me for days. Often in the more subtle cases I am mostly aware of a feeling of resentment toward the other party, and it takes me awhile to work out where the feeling comes from. My initial feeling can best be described as one of defeat.
So…What About Romantic Relationships And Power?
Dr. Marano’s central point in this article is that true intimacy is impossible when either party feels dominated or controlled in some way by the other. The fine art of relationship is, after all, the ability to be fully you while also being fully present to the other. In any given interaction…the person who is wielding more power at the moment is not really listening…not being fully “attuned” and “present” to the other… Viewed from another perspective, the party who feels controlled or dominated is not really “speaking up” and “expressing him/herself fully…so this person is also not being fully present. To be fully present and available to another while also speaking up for yourself is a tricky balancing act when you think about it. Each partner has to risk the vulnerability of presenting his/her true self-warts and all…knowing that exposing the “whole package” may invite rejection. If you don’t expose yourself though, you are ultimately giving up too much “self”. You are denying ownership of all that you are. Bottom Line… You have to take the risk.
The Paradox Of Risking Relationship Loss
Paradoxically, points out Dr. Hara, “You have to know you can survive without a relationship if need be, to really be empowered within it”. You have to “go for broke”, in a sense, and let the chips fall where they may. Harriet Lerner, another well known relationship expert, puts it this way: “The only way for intimacy to grow is when both people have the capacity to both listen and speak up…and when both people have the courage to bring more and more of their true selves to the relationship each day.
In the stereotypical abused spouse situation, the Abuser is thought to be the more powerful member of the couple…. the one who dominates, often physically and emotionally…and forces his partner to submit. In reality the power struggles I have seen in most couples are much more subtle than this. Often, each partner feels dominated and controlled by the other at different times and in different ways. The power can in fact “seesaw” back and forth…with one partner using for example, the threat of cutting the other off financially…while the other partner uses more subtle “passive aggressive” or other emotional “power grab” manipulations. These are often “no win” competitive situations that entrench into well-worn and destructive patterns.
There is a new paradigm, where shared Power Is the Only Power
Amongst many modern couples therapists, a new paradigm for power has emerged. Fueled by the reality that women are increasingly more empowered in the workplace, (and now make their own money), women are also more empowered generally in intimate relationships. In the shared power paradigm, power is seen as “the capacity of an individual to influence the emotional state of the other, as well as the necessity that each partner is just as committed to advancing the goals of his partner as he/she is to advancing his/her own goals. This means “goals” in all senses of the word…career goals…. life goals…emotional/relational goals. The paradigm is one of collaboration, rather than force, and it presupposes that each partner takes equal responsibility for the “relationship” as a whole. No longer can relationship maintenance be the purview of women. The distinction between influence and force is an important one. In the shared power paradigm, no bullying is allowed, and anyone can be called out on emotional manipulation at any time. Each partner has to feel a sense of “fairness”…and this doesn’t really mean just equal distribution of family tasks…it’s a much more subtle and “felt” sense of fairness I’m talking about. Hara Manara states that “interlocking influence processes are at the heart of balance of power.” When another has influenced someone positively, this is a good thing. You are not the same person as you were when you met your beloved…they have changed you…and you have changed them. This is what I see as intimacy. You see me. You love me. You have allowed me in to your most vulnerable places and I have allowed you into mine. We are both forever changed by this experience.
By Leslie Kays MFT