In the previous article, I discussed the existence of power in relationships. In this article, I will describe how this power is often expressed. For the sake of simplicity, I will categorize power into two dimensions and four distinct groups. The two dimensions of power are aggression and control, both of which I would argue are key components of power. Think about it- someone who is in power has more control over a situation than someone who doesn’t, and so more authority to also use aggression.
Let’s take a look at the aggression dimension first. It consists of two groupings– direct and indirect. Direct refers to overt aggression, both physical and verbal, and clear action and intent. In other words, it is clearly visible. That doesn’t mean that power itself is overt, just the usage. Someone can verbally abuse someone, for example, without either party acknowledging that the aggression could only exist in a an environment of power disparity. Indirect power is less obvious and often invisible. It is usually covert by definition. A perfect example of this is what people refer to when they call someone passive-aggressive, which refers to the use of aggression by withholding or doing something behind someone’s awareness.
As mentioned, the second dimension of power is control. This dimension can also be broken into two separate groupings– internal and external. Internal control is what people think of when they refer to the term “dominance.” Although dominance is often confused with its counterpart, domineering–which I will explore next– to describe someone who is abusive, it actually has a quite different meaning. In this context, dominance refers to some form of internal mastery that turns that individual into a leader. Think of Michael Jordan, for example, who was a dominant basketball player. Dominant individuals are often viewed as leaders. They have internal qualities, such as good judgment, emotional self-control, and wisdom that make others want to follow. Good generals must be able to be dominant, for example.
Domineering, on the other hand, refers to someone whose power comes from the external control of others. As opposed to dominance, someone who is domineering does not have internal control, but often comes from a vantage point of fear and weakness. It is well documented, for example, that abuses are more likely to lash out when the partner is taking action to leave. This is because the internal fear of loss is driving the domineering, abusive behavior.
These are the four main ways that power plays out in relationships. Is it direct or more covert? Is power maintained through the kind of self-mastery that makes others follow? Or is it driven by internal fear to control others? We can take a look at individual examples of power dynamics in couples to see how this all plays out. The partner who refuses to provide sex due to resentment, is that direct or covert usage of power? Is it dominant or domineering behavior? The person who verbally abuses everyone at home after a bad day of work– is that direct or covert? Dominant or domineering? What about the supervisor at work who uses the threat of job security to keep everyone in line? Or the supervisor who doesn’t make threats, but simply gives poor performance reviews when he or she dislikes an employee? What about the supervisor who instead acts as a mentor to his or her subordinates?
These are all vignettes of people in power using power in its myriad assortment of ways. The important thing is make the power dynamic transparent by identifying what exactly is going on. Only by bringing transparency into these dynamics can we have a useful dialogue that allows us to examine and make changes to the underlying power dynamics at play.