Power and Control. Two things you don’t ever want to think about in a relationship, but at the same time they are things that affect EVERY relationship.
Relationships are full of decisions, big and small. Where you live, how you save/spend money, who takes care of what chores, what car you drive, how you parent, how you spend your leisure time, how often you visit family. Even something as simple as what shows you watch. The list is pretty much endless.
Some decisions are individual ones, as they only affect one person. But when you are in a relationship, a surprising number of decisions actually affect both people in some way shape of form. That’s the thing about relationships; you are no longer just a “me”. You are part of a “we” and you often have to take your partner into consideration with the choices you make.
Add to this the fact that people are different. Chances are good you have some similarities with your partner, often in values and common interests. But for every similarity there are a number of ways that you are probably very different.
These differences allow us to complement and enhance one another, but when it comes time for decision making they can be sources of conflict. Big or small, conflict can happen in all decisions.
The Balance of Power
It’s safe to say that all relationships have some sort of balance of power. If you don’t like the word “power”, replace it with influence – but it’s essentially the same thing. In a perfect world it is an equal split, where both parties in the relationship have equal say in all decisions, and they contribute equally to the relationship. Reality is not that simple though, and an equal split only happens in a mythical magical world where unicorns roam the land (and perhaps not even there).
“Equal” doesn’t actually exist. And with all the areas that people can influence a relationship how would you even measure it? Some decisions have more impact than others, and others involve more efforts. But “equal” shouldn’t actually matter. Some people are more dominant and others are more passive. Some naturally take on a leadership role, and other people are happy to follow. In most relationships people find a rhythm, or a balance that works for them. That balance may be 50/50, 55/45, 60/40 or even 80/20. I can’t see how the last one would work, but as long as both parties feel they are valued, being heard, and their needs are being met it shouldn’t matter.
As a side note, in most cases I believe people actually overvalue their own contributions to a relationship in relation to their partners. If you think about it, you know about all the things that you do. Chances are, there are a number of things you do that your partner doesn’t even notice. Well if you do things they don’t notice, there are probably things they do that you don’t notice. This dynamic creates a skewed view of who is actually contributing what to a relationship. Anyhow, back to the topic at hand…
If power is relatively balanced in a relationship, you probably don’t even think about it. But even in the most balanced relationships, there will be times that your needs and wants will conflict, and choices have to be made. How a couple handles these times can be very important to the relationships overall success.
Studies show that needing to be in control, or to have things “your way” is one of the fastest routes to unhappiness. No one gets things their way all the time, and it would be extremely unhealthy if they did. Relationships involve two people, and both need to feel valued. So sometimes decisions will go the way you want, and other times they won’t. The question becomes, how do you respond when things don’t go your way?
Do you accept it? Do you get angry? Do you sulk? Do you keep score, and figure your partner got their way this time, so next time it’s your turn?
Who is Right?
Maybe you think that things should be your way, because your way is usually right, or better. First off, that line of thinking is broken. In most circumstances there isn’t a “right way”. There are usually multiple approaches to accomplish the same thing and each persons ideas and contributions have at least some merit.
But just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that your ideas are consistently better than your partners. Does that mean things should be the way you want? I would argue no.
I’m reminded of my grandmother. Growing up, visiting grandma was always a highlight, and one of the things that we did was play cards. This was my introduction to gambling, as we played for money. Of course, grandma provided the money so there was never any risk to me. She would win some, and I would win some. But at the end of the day I always came home with a bit of change in my pocket.
As I got older I realized that as I was learning, grandma always held back. Cards are somewhat random, but she let me win, and let me build confidence in myself and my abilities. As my abilities grew, she played harder, until eventually we were on a fairly even level.
How well would I have learned if she didn’t hold back? If she repeatedly beat me, would I have ever learned the games? Would I have enjoyed them? Heck, would I have liked HER very much?
I’ll admit, cards are different from life. But a focus on things being “your way” immediately makes thing adversarial. It means someone else isn’t getting “their way”. As grandma taught me, even if I know I’m right, the relationship is more important than getting my way. Pick your battles. It’s important to stand up for what you believe is right, but often there is no right and wrong. Relationships aren’t just about one person. They require compromise, and letting someone else have their way is an important component of keeping the relationship happy.
Are you a parent? If so, how do you get your child to do the things you want? If you aren’t a parent, how did your parents get you to do what they wanted?
A common parenting tactic is praise/reward and punishment. Praise reinforces positive behavior (the behavior we want), and punishment is intended to be a deterrent for negative behavior. Punishment can be active (scolding, spanking, time outs etc) or passive (taking something away, not talking to them, etc).
Praise and punishment are needed with children, because children are inherently selfish. They are initially unable to see the world in any way other than how it impacts them. Empathy is learned.
When dealing with your partner however, using punishment to address relationship issues is a VERY bad idea.
Dealing with Anger
Anger is natural, as we all get angry sometimes. However anger is one of the most destructive forces in a relationship, and it requires a healthy outlet. Explosive anger can create an atmosphere of fear. Withholding anger can be even worse as it can result in passive aggressive behavior.
Passive aggression is when instead of dealing with anger through discussion or confrontation, it is dealt with in a more subversive fashion. Often anger is expressed through body language, withdrawal, silence, or withholding affection.
It is understandable to not want to be around the other person when angry. But when this happens for extended periods or becomes a pattern of behavior then this about punishment and control. Passive aggression is a form or retaliation, it is something that is done to hurt or get back at someone.
Interestingly, people who exhibit passive aggressive behavior often don’t fully realize that they are doing it. For them it is simply their method of coping, and is often a result of how they were taught to deal with anger as a child.
A few notes on passive aggressive behavior:
- It is one of the highest predictors of divorce
- It is often a symptom of poor communication
- It leads to low levels of intimacy in a marriage
- It is the most common form of emotional abuse
When it comes to anger, here are a few things to think of:
Say What you Mean
There are always elements of power in a relationship. But relationships should never be about getting what you want, and struggles over power and control have no place in a relationship.
A relationship should be a place of emotional safety. It is supposed to be an environment where you are there to support each other, and each others needs. Your partners needs should be as important as your own, and shouldn’t be conditional on whether or not they have met your needs first.
If your relationship is characterized by anger (overt or passive aggression), or struggles for control, then it is not a healthy environment. But it can change. In almost all cases, this is a result of poor communication and coping skills, which likely developed prior to the relationship.
It is important to learn to communicate in a healthy fashion. Doing so will not only increase the chances of success in your relationship, but it will also help reduce tension and build intimacy. Beyond the ways that it will improve your relationship, it’s important to your own health. Anger is natural, but it helps nothing.
Anger is an acid that does more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured – Mark Twain