February 20, 2019

Balance of Power vs. Control – How to Share Power in a Relationship

blackandwhitebalance“I’m not the one who’s a control freak,” squawked my friend Allison. She was calling for a debriefing about a month into a new relationship. She wouldn’t let any of her friends wear white after Labor Day, but she said that compared to Patrick, she’s the definition of mellow. Apparently Patrick used a powerfully shriveling “look” whenever he “caught” Allison putting the mugs on the wrong shelf or making the bed “incorrectly.”

Patrick clearly had a profound need to control his space. I asked Allison why she thought that was. As we talked, it came out that Patrick was the tenth of eleven children, and that when he was 5 his mom died, and he was sent for three years to live with relatives he barely knew. While there, he had no space of his own, not even a bed. He slept either on the couch, or on a roll-up mat on the floor.

Does his story explain a lot? Yes. Does it make it okay to silently condemn Allison so she walks on eggshells? No. He needs to understand and confront his control issues.

We all need to understand the ways we control, because we all do it. Yes, all of us. In most cases it is simply SOP—standard operating procedure. Everyone tries to control outcomes. We don’t just walk randomly around the neighborhood hoping to find a grocery store. No, we plan our route, and control the situation as best we can, catching sales, making sure the fish is fresh, avoiding crowds. I won’t grocery shop on a Friday afternoon or Saturday because I want to control for long lines and shortages.

Here are some things it is healthy, or at least normal, to control:

√ Our thoughts. Thoughts, beliefs, and feelings are all connected and how we operate in the world results naturally from them. We try not to dwell or obsess on worries or negative thoughts, while allowing ourselves to process them. 

√ Communication. What we say, how we say it, to whom, when…. We typically do not let our mouths run unchecked, nor do we call our best friend at 4 a.m. when we are lying awake. We are careful about sharing confidences, speaking “out of school,” and communicating painful news.

√ Our actions. As much as we would like to control time too, we can’t. It forges ahead without our permission. But the actions we take within the constraints of time are up to us. At work we try to be efficient, and at home we do projects according to our own “controlled” schedule. If we are smart, we ensure leisure time for us and our families too.

√ Our bodies. Well, we control our bodies…to an extent. Anyone who used to be 20 and isn’t any more knows that control goes only so far. However, we are in charge of what we do with and to our bodies—exercise, yoga, meditation, what we eat and drink, when we sleep, how we take care of ourselves. Addictions take control away from us.

√ Money. Americans are especially captured by the idea of controlling money and resources. We all know people who seem to have no control over money. They don’t save it, they spend it, they run out of it. How we earn, spend, and marshal our resources is all about control, or lack thereof.

When we feel that we have a modicum of control over those things mentioned above, we feel empowered, safe, and happy. When we lose control or abdicate control, we feel not so good. But controlling our own words, money, actions etc. is one thing. Controlling things that we have no right, nor any authentic ability, to control—like other people—is where things get complicated.

Understand that there is power in all relationships. Loving someone, in a sense, gives a certain amount of power to that loved person. Have you heard someone say, “I would do anything for her/him?” Is that a free choice… or is it in fact a shift in the balance of power, especially if the sentiment is not mutual?

Power can be wielded like a weapon, surrendered, or shared. Here are the three basic power paradigms:

♦ Abusing power. Fear-based beliefs often lead to a situation of power abuse. When we need to wield power over another it is to get what we want or need. In attempting to regain what is perceived as lost, or to gain what is perceived as deserved or justified, a power-abuser uses other people as objects. This abuse of power can range from Allison’s control freak boyfriend who has a certain way of doing things, to emotional and physical abuse. Bottom line: When we attempt to control others it is impossible to have a meaningful connection or relationship.

♦ Giving power away. Feelings of powerlessness that come from a victim-mentality often result in a wholesale abdication of power to another. When someone feels that life’s circumstances are like a stacked deck, it may actually feel easier for them to just let someone else hold the reins. This whole scenario leads to un-fulfillment, low self-esteem, loss of initiative, depression, physical symptoms, and fear of abandonment or rejection. Bottom line: When we give our power away, we lose ourselves. Without a sense of self there can be no genuine relationship with another.

♦ Sharing power. When two basically whole people take responsibility for themselves and the relationship, power is shared. In this scenario, each partner is able to set clear boundaries to ensure mutual respect. In this partnership, decisions are made jointly, each partner values the other as an equal, and everyone (including children of the partnership) feels safe. Bottom line: When power is shared, two people can engage in a meaningful relationship in which both partners feel trusting, trusted and accepted.

TIPS to achieve balance and enjoy shared power:

◊ How do you feel? Be uber-aware of how you feel about your relationship. Do you feel safe, able to express and be yourself, respected, and cherished? Or do you feel threatened, held back, overly criticized, or that you are losing your identity or dignity? Follow up on these feelings.

◊ Take responsibility for your behavior. Are you wielding power or control over your partner, consciously or unconsciously? Are you enabling a controlling partner? Recognize the power balance within your relationship and own it, then set your intention to create better balance if needed.

◊ Communicate with your partner. Once you have examined your feelings and recognized how your behavior fits into one of the three power paradigms, talk to your partner about those feelings and observations. Silence will result in stasis. For things to change, you need to speak up… and listen.

◊ Create boundaries. If you realize your power paradigm is off-kilter, even a little bit, work hard to set clear boundaries and do this together with your partner. Then, agree to open, non-judgmental communication, and, if necessary, other consequences, if boundaries are crossed. Protect yourself and your partner from an imbalance of power.

◊ Seek outside guidance. From a professional, that is. What are the benefits of working closely with a relationship coach/specialist, or a therapist or counselor? They are manifold. From having an objective third party to help each of you really hear and see one another, to the structure of working through power balance issues with a clearly outlined plan and within a time frame—it’s good practice. Feel free to call me for more info about this, or for recommendations.

Of course, if you are in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship, it’s time to end it. If you are not abusing or being abused, you can achieve a balance if you and your partner are committed to doing so.

Power struggles (which I wrote about last week, Reaching Accord: How the Power Struggle Stage Can Create Relationship Growth) and power imbalance, are issues my clients bring up with me time and again. They can be worked through. Realize that we are all capable of controlling behavior from time to time and we all have our little quirks. Often, if we just respect and honor our partner’s quirks, a power struggle need not arise. If he likes coats and shoes put away, or she likes the porch light left on, maybe it’s okay to agree to these… little things? Then your partner won’t feel ignored and you won’t feel controlled. Here is to relationship equilibrium for you and your loved one!


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