I wanted to take a moment to address an issue that often comes up in couples work when two people are in conflict and trying to assert their needs. When we want to influence another person, what we are in effect doing is attempting to exert some power over that individual. In this context, power doesn’t necessarily mean something ominous or threatening. There are many meanings and possible sources of power. For example, passion can be a source of power. The righteousness of a cause can be its power. Confidence is power. So when a couple is mired in conflict– when they are desperately trying to get their way or be right or prove the other person wrong– what it often comes down to is a power struggle. When two people are arguing about doing the dishes or taking out the garbage, what they are often trying to decide is “Who is more powerful in the relationship?”
Power is a basic component of any relationship. Think about the relationships in your own life. When you were a child, who had the power in the parent-child relationship? At your work when you interact with your boss, who has the power? If you are now a parent, who has the power in your relationship with your children? We’ve all been students at one time or another: As a student who had the power in your relationship with your teacher/professor? Love relationships do not escape this dynamic. Lovers can say that they are completely equal, but to do so requires a mindful awareness of the role of power.
For example, if one partner is denying sex to the other, is that an equal relationship? What role does power have in that dynamic? Who is exerting power in that situation? Is this perhaps the only form of power the individual has at his or her disposal? These are important questions to ask. If we are not mindful of the role of power in relationships, we miss an important opportunity to have an honest discussion about what is truly going on. It’s easy to say that everything is “fine and dandy” and “love conquers all” and any of the other superficial, romanticized cliches that we all hear about relationships. But the truth is if the partner who is denying sex in the situation above keeps pretending that he or she has a headache and ignoring the power struggle beneath the surface, the problem only snowballs to the point that the couple will find themselves so resentful that breaking up seems to be the only viable option.
If people truly want to be transparent and honest in their relationships (whichever kind of relationship it is), they need to be able to have a frank discussion about the role that power plays in that relationship. I once had a professor who started the first day of class by saying that he knew that as the professor he had a large amount of power that he wielded over us, and as a result he would be mindful of using it cautiously and wisely. At the moment I thought to myself that this was one of the most honest statements I had ever heard. And I instantly trusted this professor. A different approach is that the professor could have ignored the power differential, pretending it didn’t exist, and then just handed out lower grades to those students whose viewpoints he didn’t like. He could have justified to himself that these students with the Cs instead of As were just worse students, that they lacked the appropriate reasoning and critical thinking skills and he could have gone on through his life doing the same to future students, to university staff, to his wife, and to his kids. And he would never be called on it. And nothing would ever change. Unacknowledged power festers and destroys relationships.
Love relationships are not much different. What role does gender, age, socioeconomic situation, financial status, and social resources play in determining power? Does the older partner feel that he can control his younger lover because he has the more lucrative career? Does the partner who moved across the country to be with his lover feel trapped and powerless because he has no other social outlets? Does the wealthy financier feel he can do everything he wants with the woman he has “rescued” from sex work? And what role does sex play in these power dynamics? Is it used to deny? To capture and keep? To manipulate? Often, sex and power are indivisible. These are the kinds of power dynamics I see in my office every day.
Couples who come to me in crisis often have never had an honest and frank discussion about power. Everything is just one big reaction to the actions of the other. But only by really identifying the role of power and putting it on the table can couples do something about changing their behaviors and the overall dynamic of the relationship. Often this is very difficult because power is covert by design. In other words, at least one of the partners is vested in pretending that power doesn’t exist because he or she does not want to relinquish it. As a result, often both parties are not completely on board with unmasking power dynamics. It threatens the status quo. This makes the work of couples treatment that much more difficult.
But if couples can work together to shine a light on their power dynamics, they can start to build a collaborative approach of eliminating problem behaviors and redefining their relationship. When two people collaborate in this fashion, it rebuilds the bonds of intimacy. Covert power builds resentment, which is basically covert anger. By not having an honest discourse about the power dynamics within the relationship, couples sow the seeds of the resentment which will eventually undermine and destroy that relationship. For some couples, they may find that unveiling that curtain is just too threatening and continue to hold on to sinking Titanic. Others, who find that courage, often find that bringing power dynamics to the surface is the key to repairing their relationship and moving past resentment.