Where is the power in your relationship?
Power is what the world runs on. It is no surprise it turns up in our relationships! Power struggles often loom large between people in intimate relationship. Power struggles that leave us feeling like only one person can ‘win’ in a situation and the other must ‘lose’.
Can you relate to using phrases like this?
- You must/should
- You can’t
- If you loved me
- If you don’t, I…
- If you do this for me, only then will I…
- I must because you aren’t
This is because we’re brought up in a society with a singular model of power- that of Power Of or Power Over. Yet we have more than just this one model of power available to us. Here we explore five different types of power, finding the value and the negatives in each. You can see how they’re playing out in, or might be of value, in your own relationship.
‘Power Of’ and ‘Power Over’ are everywhere and are largely how the world at this point works. They leave couples stuck in and endless cycle of power struggle, point scoring and payback. The more unequal the power in this model the more corrupt it can become. Its corruption means the one in power has control, but misses true happiness. It also encourages the dominated person to remain the eternal child, or become a victim, rather than inviting them to become whole in themselves.
‘Power Of’ is where one person (group, community, society or country) has more of something than another, that the other
needs or wants. This can be knowledge, money, resources, will, skill etc. Even an electricity switch has the power over us, letting us see, keeping us warm, clean, fed and in communication with others. The positive use of this power is when the one with is able to share with the one who is without. Abuse of this power is where they withhold it, where one wins and the other loses. In relationship this dynamic commonly plays out around sex and love, leaving partner’s on the opposite side of the relationship fence.
The ‘Power Over’ model is where one person has power over the other person (or one group over another group, community, society or country). This power comes from a dominant controlling force coercing a lesser power to submit. ‘Power Over’ is maintained through dominance and persistence, certainty and control.
This power can be benevolent, for example, a parent making a child come home at a certain time for their own safety. It may be an impersonal force such as the Tax office requiring your annual tax return, or a government instigating an anti-discrimination policy for you to adhere to.
The one with the power sets the rules, the one under it feels the impact. For example, the person in the relationship with the higher earnings determines where the couple lives. Occasionally ‘Power Over’ can come from underneath, when a victim exhibits a learned helplessness in order to get their needs met. For example, the mother who has sat at home all day feigning tiredness so her husband will fix dinner and put the kids to bed.
At its best, ‘Power Over’ offers a sense of safety, guidance and caring for the one being controlled, such as the husband who organizes care for his ill wife making her feel safe, cared for and loved. It also offers a sense of leadership, direction and sovereignty for the one in power, such as the emotionally intelligent wife holding a nonjudgmental space for her husband to safely feel his emotions.
In the absence of any other model of power, if the oppressed person (group, community, society or country) happens to gain power at any time they often reverse the experience for their former oppressors and dominate them back. Perhaps enjoying their moment of revenge, but mostly not knowing any other way. We see this in the disempowered spouse who badmouths their controlling partner behind their back, enjoying the sympathy of their friends but not addressing the situation directly with their partner.
The negatives in this power model are that it can easily be self-serving and abused through overt anger, covert criticism and manipulation, repression, force, discrimination, corruption, and more, leaving the dominated person feeling powerless and oppressed. ‘Power Over’ by itself is not the healthiest model for relationship.
‘Power With’ is about being inclusive, finding common ground and building together through a collective strength. It sees each person (group, community, society or country) as a part of the same team, with their differences as creative opportunities. It seeks to build bridges and minimize conflict rather than create struggle. ‘Power With’ acts not from self-interest, but sees the views and desires of all as having equal value, recognizing and addressing them alike. Honesty, transparency and respect for each other are key parts to this model. Each person is invited to see their actions as part of a greater whole and out of each person’s valued expression comes the insight required to find new ways and solutions for the whole.
Unlike ‘Power Over’, where one person must continually reinforce it to sustain it, ‘Power With’ emerges organically from the process of creating it, and grows stronger the more it is put to use. ‘Power With’ is a form of co-creative collaboration with a common goal.
Rather than a husband saying ‘this is the way it’s going to be because I say’ and the wife ‘going along’ in order to create the minimum amount of conflict (or vice versa) ‘Power With’ offers a different path. The husband and wife get together to discuss their differing desires with the mutual underlying goal of creating a happy relationship through win/win outcomes. John visits his mate and Pauline takes her daughter shopping for baby clothes on Saturday so they can both go cycling together on Sunday. They negotiate their individual wishes for the good of the relationship because they know if the relationship is cared for so will they be.
The negatives in this power model are that it takes a degree of time, experience and skill to practice it. Some people are unable (at least initially) to identify and express their desires and work towards a mutually agreeable outcome. Unless this model is done authentically, with honest input, it can become a place of nobody going anywhere and nothing getting done.
‘Empowerment’ refers to the unique potential of every person (group, community, society or country) to shape his or her own life and world. It is the ability to take action and create our own outcomes. It is where we as the individual, have the hope and self-confidence to believe we can make a difference. As well as the self-assertiveness, decision making power and ability to learn whatever skills and find whatever resources we need to accomplish our desires. ‘I am empowered to the degree to which I can construct what I need all by myself and don’t have to get it from someone else’.
The negatives in this model are that there are many things in life we cannot do alone, that take more than one person and require a degree of relationship to do so. In fact, there are very few things we accomplish totally alone, even the chair you’re sitting on to read this book was made by another, several others by the time it moves from design, production, sale and transport to your home. Believing we do everything ourselves creates unnecessary arrogance and isolation. And there are many things we choose, even long, to share with others. Intimacy with another is about connecting, sharing and co creating together.
So whilst empowerment is important, we need a further model of power that includes more than just the self.
‘Power Within’ comes from an inner sense of self (group, community, society or country) from knowing we are separate to, yet part of the world around us, from having identified our own intrinsic value. ‘Power Within’ means we’re no longer reliant on external sources of power- money, looks, achievements, symbols of status or fame to feel happy or good about ourselves.
Having ‘Power Within’ means we can stay centred, grounded and open hearted no matter what life (or our partner) throws at us. When we become off balanced, as can happen when challenged in life and relationship, we know the place to find our centre, and our answers is within us. It is the power that results from doing deep inner emotional and spiritual work to heal the pain, fears and false beliefs acquired in childhood that create the limited Ego mask we present to the world. The Ego mask that fears loss of safety, security, of self, of those we love or need love from. Without this inner work we are forever stuck in the Ego’s fear based desire for control, for ‘Power Over’ others and outcomes.
To find ‘Power Within’ we connect with ourselves, drop focussing on everything around us, stop giving our power away by looking for it outside of ourselves, stop giving it away by blaming others and making them responsibility for our reality.
‘Power Within’ means we have awareness of others as well as self, with access to empathy and compassion. We can care, connect and share but not at the loss of ourselves. Our goal is growth rather than harmony, but may of course include it. From a place of clarity and mutual respect, we can honestly express our desires, manage our boundaries and explore a multitude of outcomes for any given situation rather than just one or two. Yet we have a strong inner bullshit detector which prevents us from getting caught in a quagmire for long, forming a co-creative power with others for an inspiring end result.
The negative of ‘Power Within’ is that it takes time, effort and skill to find it. However, once you see it you know nothing else is worth it. Once you have it (even moments of it) there are no downsides.
In relationship (as in life) we can access the full range of power models according to what is required in any given situation- Power Of, Power Over (benevolent), Power with, Empowerment in the self as well as Power Within.
Examine your relationship power model and see what is working and what more could be achieved through using a range of different power models, whilst being aware of their pluses and minuses. If you are in a relationship where the dominant power is ‘Power Over’ ie. Your partner having power over you in a negative way, your first step is to focus on gaining some ‘Empowerment’ in yourself before tackling any of the other models.