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Power and Control in Relationships – Part 2

Louis H. Primavera, Ph.D., dean of Touro College School of Health Sciences, and Rob Pascale, Ph.D.

August 30, 2016

We may feel like we have no control over our relationship, and sometimes over our own lives, and that can lead to over-dependency and feelings of helplessness. We’re also likely to lose interest in our relationship because our own needs are secondary to our partner’s. That means they’re usually unmet, but we might feel powerless to improve the situation. Furthermore, as no one likes feeling like a second class citizen, very often we’ll feel angry and resentful toward our partner. While we might suppress these emotions because we’re afraid of our partner’s reaction, still we’re not likely to feel intimate or emotionally connected.

The truth is even the dominant partner is not really happy in a dominant-submissive relationship. As we’ve mentioned throughout, interactions between partners are reciprocal. So if one partner is unhappy because they feel manipulated, the other will be made to feel just as unhappy. Furthermore, domination often leads to discomfort. Most people who have more power than they should usually have a hunch they’re taking advantage. They might get there out of a sense of righteousness, but more likely they’ll get there by seeing how their partner behaves toward them. When we dominate our partner, we can cause our partner to be resentful, or worse, we can shut them down. They might be unwilling to voice opinions or present new ideas, and we don’t get to know their true thoughts and feelings. In other words, interactions with a partner in such a relationship can be uninteresting, even frustrating, because we get limited feedback from them. Unfortunately, a dominating partner may not realize that what they lose in the quality of their relationship is not made up for by the benefits they get from being the boss.

Nevertheless, there are some relationships that work even though they’re out of balance. Some partners seem to be perfectly happy having a partner who occupies the dominant role. 

Why the Imbalance?

As we said, a relationship can also be imbalanced because of a partner’s personality traits and emotional issues, and these relationships can be abusive. Individuals who strive to control their partners tend to rely on negative communication styles to achieve their goal, and these can be hard to tolerate. When dealing with issues with their partners, would-be dominators tend to be condescending, take on superior airs, and are often self-absorbed. When they interact with others, they will often use verbally abusive language and other aggressive tactics to get others to submit to them. They’re not only interested in making their partners behave a certain way, but also want to control what they think, believe, and feel.

As with other problems, dealing with power issues in a relationships is not easy. Part of the problem has to do with changing some behaviors and attitudes. However, as the bigger issue, couples might not even be aware that a power problem exists. Partners who are having trouble getting along might believe they’re just not suited for each other when in reality they’re actually caught up in a power struggle. As an example of what we mean, couples who fight about money might think they’re arguing about how it’s spent, but in fact they’re fighting about the right of each partner to spend it. In other words, they think they’re arguing about one thing when they’re really arguing about something else.

Steps Toward Positive Change

Nevertheless, if we can acknowledge the problem exists and we want to fix it, the first step for many couples will be to adjust their thought patterns. Men who believe in traditional male roles have to accept the fact that the old ways of defining men and women may be obsolete. Others might have to come to the realization that people cannot really be controlled unless they want to be. We might believe we can control our partners and manage their lives for them, and we’re doing it because that’s what is best for them. However, the person who is being controlled is not likely to see it that way. The one being controlled will find their relationship aggravating and their feelings toward their partner less than loving. Forcing someone to behave or think in a particular way is actually a very good way to alienate our partners. Besides, the odds are good we will be continually disappointed because people fight against being manipulated, and they might do that by purposely not doing what we would like them to.