Personal Power in Relationships
As an outpatient psychologist of over twenty years, I work
with couples in trouble, probably two or three times every day.
I have written extensively in articles and ebooks about why
relationships fail, but one thing that needs to be addressed is
personal power in relationships.
Personal power is about being assertive and effective in
communication. What is assertiveness? I define it in three
stages--beginning, intermediate and advanced. Beginning
assertiveness is simply sharing with our partner how we think
and feel. Think of it as playing a hand of cards and we lay
our cards on the table, face up for our opponent, in this case
partner, to see. Our partner now knows our hand. We haven't
requested to see our partner's cards. We are just sharing what
Intermediate assertiveness is asking for something we want.
Once having shared our experience (thoughts and feelings,
metaphorically speaking) it is only natural to request something
based upon sharing this information. For example, we are hungry.
Once having shared that fact, it is only natural to ask for food.
Advanced assertiveness is for professionals, and is not
something most of us will ever have to practice. An example is
when the police negotiate with criminals in banks who hold hostages
for money. An example is when a psychologist talks with a patient
on the phone when they are poised at the top of a building,
considering whether or not to jump. Less extreme examples are
very complicated business deals that involve millions of dollars.
These are scenarios better left to competent, well-trained
In relationships there first has to be a sense of healthy
entitlement. This is different from the narcissistic kind, which
is based upon infantile and unrealistic needs. Healthy entitlement
works off of a developed self-esteem that recognizes that most needs
are normal and to express those need in the context of a dynamic and
interactive relationship is appropriate, even necessary to maintain
continued psychological health.
Usually this comes spontaneously, especially if self-esteem is
well developed. Sometimes, this dynamic evolves as couples get used
to each other and develop psychological routines (who speaks first
about what, which topics are OK, which are not, etc.) Regardless,
there has to be a sense of appropriateness to the communication,
and it has to be underlying, understood and more or less automatic.
Otherwise, trouble will brew.
The power aspect emerges when there is a mismatch, hence
"problem" in one or more of several dynamic areas. One area is when
either partner has a significantly greater need for something than the
other. This could be good or bad, which usually sets up conflict or compatibility. An example is when one partner has a need to reduce
anxiety and compensates in ways that cause problems (addiction to food, spending). This creates a counter need to control the negative
compensations, which now functions as a fulcrum of conflict. The two
partners battle each other, wielding personal power in ways to meet the
need and then to control the damage of the compensation.
One is when either partner has greater skills in communicating.
One then dominates the other, who presumably is less comfortable speaking
up. In this case, the speaker, forcing the non-speaker to find other
ways to neutralize the power differential, wields overt power. Again,
the compensation might be adaptive or not, depending upon a host of
In general, power is synonymous with control. When control is
mutual, so is the overall spread of personal power, allowing for minor differences due to personality and other intrapersonal factors.
When power is not evenly divided, look out. This is the "stuff" of
marital therapy. Usually these dynamics hail from family-of-origin
dynamics, which is one of the central themes in my ebook,
Why Relationships Fail.