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Are you pulling your own strings? The Issue of Control in Close Relationships

Janine and Marty had what Janine thought was a storybook marriage.  And for the first year or so, it was pretty close. 

But then Janine noticed that Marty had become more and more critical of her decisions.  It felt as though she couldn’t do anything right.  Marty was always correcting her “mistakes.”

Eventually, he was choosing her clothes—for him to make sure they were not too “revealing”—managing all the finances—because he said she had “no head for money"—deciding what they would do for entertainment—because he said her choices were really boring—and on and on.

  Eventually, Janine felt like she could hardly breathe.  She couldn’t do anything without its being corrected, and without Marty wanting to take it over for her.

Power is always an issue in governmental functions.

But it is also an issue in intimate relationships.  One hopes, in a relationship, that the issue will never come up.

But sometimes, almost inevitably, it does come up.  Most couples resolve power issues rather smoothly. But some don’t.

What are the various ways in which power is distributed in relationships?  There are five main ways in which power can be distributed in relationships.

1. Equal power across domains.

One model for distribution of power is fully democratic. Your and your partner’s power is equal across all domains.

You feel like you share control of the relationship equally. The power issue never comes up because it is not an issue.

This power-sharing arrangement is usually advantageous.  No one feels that the other is “pulling the strings.”

Can it ever be disadvantageous?  Actually, yes. You may not both have equal expertise in every domain.

For example, one of you may know more about, say, finances, the other, about, say, care of the house.

You have to ask whether you want to have the same power over decisions in areas where you lack knowledge or even expertise as in areas where you know more.

So having equal power can actually lead to poorer decisions if the less knowledgeable person acts with equal authority in areas about which he or she knows little or nothing.

But on the whole, this is an arrangement that can work well.

2. Equal power, on average, with power distributed unequally across domains.

In this power-sharing arrangement, the power of each of you lies within the domains in which you have more expertise.

This is great, because you leverage your strengths and acknowledge and compensate for your weaknesses.

This arrangement assumes, of course, that you agree with each other about what your areas of strength and weakness are.

It also assumes that the person with more power does not exercise it unfairly or so as to exclude the other partner from decisions.

3. Equal power, on average, with power distributed unequally over time.

Power balances in relationships are often dynamic over time.  At one time, one person seems to dominate; at other times, the other person dominates.

Sometimes, the change is for unfortunate reasons, such as one person becomes sick or otherwise incapacitated.

But power changes can just come with the ebb and flow of life.  It may be that, at one time, one partner needs to take more management responsibility for getting the relationship in order, or it may be that one partner is so inundated with work that that partner just doesn’t have much time for anything else.

As long as the power balance varies over time in an equitable way, this arrangement can work.

4. Slight power imbalance that does not much affect the relationship or people’s feelings of autonomy and connection.

Really, few relationships have a perfect power balance. For one reason or another, one person usually has somewhat more power, on average.

They may make more money and use their income as leverage.  They may be more interested in running the household.  They may have more plain common sense.  Or the couple may be following some power structure set by their culture, religion, or ideology.

As long as both people are comfortable with the arrangement, this arrangement can work too.

However, it may not work indefinitely. The person with slightly less power may come to resent their position.

Or the one with more power may start trying to get still more power and then more yet.  Hence, such arrangements have to be monitored.

5. Radical power imbalance.

Radical power imbalance is the really tricky one.  If that is what the couple wants, sure.  But not so many couples want this.

Rather, radical power imbalance tends to happen when one partner is, in a word, controlling, and the other partner is sucked into the arrangement.

There are several reasons why a partner might try to arrogate all the power to him or herself.

First, they may do so as a matter of culture, religion, or ideology.

Or, second, they may have high power needs.  They have to feel in control.

Or, third, they may feel that a relationship is a zero-sum game, where their partner’s loss is their gain.  The more power they get, the more they imagine they “win” some contest they have invented in their head.

Or, fourth, they may just be, pardon the expression, “sick in the head.” They need to dominate and control their partner’s every movement.  They may feel they need to police the partner, to control the partner, utterly to dominate the partner.  They may work to try to render the partner feeling incompetent, powerless, or simply useless.

You can try therapy, but these kinds of situations are not easy to fix.  If you are in this type of relationship, my advice is simple.  Consider getting out!

If you want to do couple’s therapy, you may want to do it after you leave.  Why?  Because as long as you are in the relationship, you will be under a toxic influence.  You will have lost some of yourself. You may not even think clearly!

Again, if this is what you want, no one can tell you what you should have.  But if you are finding yourself being rendered powerless, if you are finding your partner trying to dominate and control more and more of your life, it may well be time to beat a retreat and get out of the relationship.

Don’t be Janine in the story above.  If you have a partner who needs to dominate, and you feel you can’t breathe, find a place where you can breathe again!

If we can help, please get in touch!

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