Who has the power in your relationship

Whoever worries less about power — their own or the other person’s.

“Arm Wrestle,” artist Kelly Puissegur

There are always subtle power dialogues in every relationship — ways in which decisions are made, who has final say and when, how a difference in libido is handled, etc.

But there are two types of people who actively think about and vie for “power” in their relationships more than most:

  1. Those preoccupied with having (or worrying about not having) it, and
  2. Those who are mistreated or manipulated as a result; sometimes scrambling to reassure the other of their position for fear of being fucked over or left.

To a large extent, “power” to these people means something more like: having the upper hand, having final say, never being made to feel “shamed” by the other, “wearing the pants,” etc. Very often, they throw around and demand big words like “respect.”

For them, power is finite, scarce, and transactional: having it requires taking it from someone else. And in order to win what they want, their partner has to lose.

“People don’t talk much about relationship power, but rarely do couples share it evenly.” — Theresa E DiDonato Ph.D, Psychology Today

But when it’s overly talked-about and most unevenly shared it’s usually bullshit, but rarely do couples realize it. The reality is that in these scenarios, neither person has power, because the person grabbing for it is actually incredibly vulnerable and weak.

Here’s who actually holds the power, especially in a couple where one person is preoccupied with it:


1. The person who doesn’t worry about power

Their own — or the other person’s.

Anxiety undermines power — worried people put on all kinds of facades indicating otherwise, but anxiety and power can’t actually exist together (for long.) If you don’t have control over yourself and your own emotions, you’ll never have control over anything else.

2. The person who doesn’t demand power

Because the minute you demand anything — respect, love and, yes, power — you’ve already lost. Outside of hard hierarchal social constructs, these are organic effects, not goals you can shortcut in and of themselves.

3. The person who doesn’t make petty power plays

And/or the person least effected by petty power plays.

Because a power play is still a demand, just unstated. And secure people don’t let their ego get tied up in manipulation from either side.

4. The person who’s more sure of what they want

Whoever has more clarity and confidence regarding what they want will win.

While the other person wavers, even if only mentally, a sure person will pick up the pieces and add it to an artillery of certainty.

5. The person who understands how to get their needs met

In a way that’s constructive.

The one who neither demands nor power plays — the one who does not resort to whining, maneuvering, manipulating, clinging, insisting. The person who demonstrates a clear thought process and maturity; the one able to negotiate effectively, using not what they want (or are willing to give up), but what the other person values.

6. The person who better understands what the other person actually wants

And understands the difference between projecting their own needs and internalizing others’… as well as what others say they want versus what they actually want.

7. The person more willing to walk away

The one thing that will give you the upper hand in every negotiation: be willing to walk away. This is especially important with regard to partners who manipulate — always take and give with strings.

8. The person who’s more composed

Because emotions will fuck you over. It’s fine to have feelings, but the minute you start leading with them or leaning into other people with them, you’re already over-leveraged.

9. The person who understands compromise

People who interact with other people expecting to always win without giving will not enjoy the privilege of close, loving relationships — and they lose.

“Some people walk into every negotiation trying to get everything they can out of a deal. They don’t care if it ruins the other side or makes them unhappy. They just want as much as they can get.”

Those people undermine their own long-term position.

10. The person who understands the difference between short and long term goals

And is willing to lose a battle in order to win the war, with “war” being “whatever both people want” (see 4, 5, 6), probably best defined as “building and maintaining a strong relationship.”

Where power comes from

Power is domain over yourself, without submitting to nor subjugating anyone else.

Power is not a transaction. Your agency in a relationship doesn’t come from your partner — it comes from you.

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