At a recent dinner party, I witnessed a group of friends teasingly ask each other who was in charge in their relationship. The question was meant to be playfully provocative, with most people laughing as everyone else at the table shouted, often in unison, who they perceived as being the boss: “Well, he decides when they go out, but she decides everything else!” Or, “She sounds like the bossy one, but he’s running the show behind the scenes!” Sometimes, the couple themselves would chime in, with one claiming, “I wear the pants in this relationship!” and the other rolling their eyes as if to say, "You wish!" While the whole conversation was meant in good fun, and the sheer lightheartedness of the friends’ tone made me doubt any of them would seriously condone any power dynamic operating in their relationships, they were actually hitting on some serious issues within most couples.
Culturally, it seems we’ve grown a little too relaxed about accepting that one person is "the boss," or in control of certain aspects of an adult romantic relationship. Equality is one of the most important elements of a successful relationship, and yet countless couples fall into dynamics and roles that are inherently unequal. One person tends to be more childish, the other more parental; one more submissive, the other more dominating.
Individuals are often drawn to these roles because on an unconscious level, they allow us to play out dynamics from our past that are familiar, and therefore, in some ways, make us more comfortable. For example, if we felt like we didn’t have a voice in our family growing up, we may choose a partner who speaks for us. We may even find ourselves being much quieter around our partner, encouraging them to represent us. If we grew up in a family that made us feel like we couldn’t do things for ourselves, we may have the tendency to act helpless with our partner. We may find ourselves struggling with simple tasks and depending on our partner to take care of us. Conversely, if we grew up feeling rejected or as if we had to take care of ourselves, we may find ourselves seeking control anywhere we can find it. We may not easily trust others, and may try to control our partner's movement to help us feel more at ease in the relationship.
Each of these scenarios can lead to a pattern of behavior in which one of us becomes like a parent and the other like a child. Without knowing it, we tend to play out the half of the dynamic that provokes our partner to play out the other half. While we may regret these ways of relating, we actually help create them. Again, it may not feel pleasant, but it often feels familiar. It may not even be a conscious process, but for many people, feeling like we have control—or that we have someone else to control us—relieves our anxiety or insecurity.
We’re initially attracted to these roles as a means to making us feel more comfortable or secure, but these power dynamics still generate a lot of tension and conflict. They may lead to arguments and actual contempt, or they may subtly subdue our feelings of love and attraction. When we start to overstep each other’s boundaries and stop treating each other like two separate people with two sovereign minds, we seriously diminish our feelings of respect and attraction. When one partner exercises control over the other, we tend to experience less loving interactions where we really see and feel seen by our partner. We start to replace substance with form, imposing expectations and routines on each other, rather than accepting the more natural give and take that characterizes an equal, adult relationship.
As these patterns develop, we may start to experience more negative emotions surrounding the relationship. If we feel like we’re in control, we’re likely to feel more critical or pressured. If we feel like our partner is in control, we may feel victimized or imposed upon. Unsurprisingly, studies show that having a partner exercise dominance leads to anger and resentment, while having a partner be submissive makes us feel guilty.
As explained in the book Interpersonal Relationships:
Equity theory predicts that a relationship in which a partner is over-benefited or under-benefited will not be a happy one. Because the imbalance generates psychological distress, which erodes the relationship, under-benefited individuals tend to feel angry, resentful and deprived. Those who are over-benefited may feel shame, guilt and discomfort.
Based on these destructive effects it’s worth considering and challenging the power structures that may be in place with our partner. It’s helpful to catch on to these patterns, many of which are characteristic of what my father Dr. Robert Firestone terms a “fantasy bond,” or an illusion of connection that replaces real relating and allows couples to overstep each other’s boundaries and function as a single unit. Genuine loving actions are replaced with the form and routine of being a couple. As we develop this type of bond and see the other person as an extension of ourselves, we’re more likely to act out controlling or submissive behaviors, and no longer respecting our separateness.
When we catch on to these patterns, we can break out of the power dynamics that lead to feelings of inequality in the relationship. For example, if we notice that one of us always decides where we go to dinner, we should let the other person choose. If one of us has stopped seeing friends or participating in activities we loved because we're submitting to our partner’s interests, we should make a point of resuming our interests again. We should both be supportive of the things that light each other up, whether sharing these activities or enjoying them independently. Relationships stay lively and exciting when we support rather than control each other.
As we challenge ourselves to be more equal in our relationships, we start to catch on to the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways we may send messages to our partner. It’s important to recognize that it isn’t always the louder or stronger personality who exerts power. The person who’s yelling doesn’t necessarily control the relationship. Many people engage in passive aggressive behaviors and manipulations in an often subconscious effort to control their partner. Rather than say what we want, we show what we want through elusive behaviors. Whether we yell at our partner or give the cold shoulder when we don't get our way, we send a message about how we want him or her to behave. Whether we punish our partner by storming out or by falling apart, we’re likely inciting guilt, which teaches the person what is and isn’t acceptable.
In every case, it’s better to be mature and direct in our communication. We should always aim to treat our partner with respect. We can create a spirit of equality by seeing each other as two whole people with our own unique points of view and desires. We can offer each other a balanced exchange of thoughts and affections, which leads to a natural give and take in the relationship.
It isn’t our duty or our right to be the boss in our relationship, even if we think we’re helping the other person by doing so. Instead, we can be a team, supporting each other in our strengths and being honest about our shortcomings. In doing so, we offer each other new possibilities, rather than limiting each other in our growth and experience. By maintaining equality, we can create a long-lasting romantic relationship, where both people feel fulfilled.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org
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