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The Power Struggle of Relationships

Emotional power in a relationship can corrupt just like any other type of power

We were sitting round a crackling fire in a country cottage, a group of house guests and their hosts relaxing after a winter walk. Yet even as we relaxed into the chat of new acquaintances, over the course of the next hour the general conversation seemed gradually to die out, withering as we all noticed the particular interaction between two of the guests.

It was somehow as if the rest of us weren’t there, and she acted almost if she were alone in the room with the forlorn-looking man who, with downcast eyes, was already sinking another whisky.

If this had been a workplace, she wouldn’t have stood a chance – harassment, bullying, mental cruelty – any judge or tribunal would have nailed her. It was a ruthless public humiliation in front of strangers, a systematic dismantling of his qualities, personal, professional, looks, social, intellectual – and yes, even 30 years later I feel the excruciating embarrassment at the memory – oblique hints of sexual inadequacies too.

And this man was her husband.

‘Chris’ – not his real name – took it like a whipped dog. And the more he took it, the more strangely enlivened she looked: her eyes glittered, her voice rose and her viciousness deepened. She exuded triumph and something much worse – contempt.

Whatever the battle she was fighting, ‘Karen’ – not her real name – was clearly the winner of this contest: her whole bright-eyed demeanor was that of the victor, like a gladiator occasionally glancing around at us as if we were emperors expected to give the thumbs up or down to this poor loser’s mental life.

John Gottman is the world’s expert on relationships and marital breakup. His research has shown that the presence of contempt in the speech or demeanor of one marital partner is a sign that the relationship is doomed.[i] But where does it come from, this contempt – what fuels its malign energy?

In part it emerges from the power that ‘Karen’ had over ‘Chris’. Power is having control over the things that other people need and want … and also over what they fear. ‘Chris’ loved ‘Karen’, it seemed at least superficially to us, and she had control over the thing that he wanted most – her affection. She also had control over the thing he feared most – abandonment by her.

So she had this considerable emotional power over him – but why should that make her feel contempt for him? Research by Deborah Gruenfeld and colleagues at Stanford University suggest one possible reason: if we arouse power feelings in otherwise ordinary people, they begin to see others as objects.

They showed that when students were primed with power by reliving a situation from their past where they had power over someone, they also were inclined to see others in terms of how useful they were to them. They were, for instance, more likely to report that they contacted people when they needed something from them and they were less likely to report that they really liked a colleague independently of how useful that person was to them.[ii]

And once you start to see others as objects, whose actions are under your control, it is very easy to start to feel contempt for them. Objects, after all, don’t have free will and don’t make decisions. This sort of power snuffs out empathy – how can we have empathy for an object?

It was clear that ‘Karen’ had no empathy for ‘Chris’s’ humiliation and misery – if anything she seemed to be reveling in it. She was playing with him like a cat with a squirming mouse. But lack of empathy, even cruelty, doesn’t equate with contempt. Where did that come from?

Cognitive dissonance almost certainly played a part. Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance proposed that we are powerfully motivated to maintain consistency in our thoughts, feelings and actions and to minimize conflict among them. Recent research has identified a part of the frontal lobes of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex as a key mechanism in mediating this conflict-reducing adjustment of the human brain[iii].

So as ‘Karen’s’ emotional power over ‘Chris’ made her see him an object under her control, her behavior deteriorated. But Karen saw herself as a decent, liberal-minded person, and that led to dissonance between her self-image and her actions. And as we are strongly motivated to reduce dissonance, then her mind unconsciously did so by developing a contempt for ‘Chris’ which was more in accord with the humiliating way she was treating him.

‘Karen’ was not a psychologically disturbed person, prone to cruelty throughout her life. No, she and her husband had descended into a situation where she held all the cards in their relationship. ‘Karen’ had total emotional power and that power began to corrupt her into believing she was a winner in this strange emotional battle that we witnessed.

‘Chris’ of course, began to show the symptoms of extreme powerlessness – passivity, loss of initiative, depression, low self-esteem, fearfulness – which is not an attractive package for any partner, male or female – nobody loves a loser. The power that ‘Karen’ held made her reckless and unempathic in her behaviour towards ‘Chris’, and his whipped-dog retreat into defencelessness and drinking simply confirmed the dissonance-reducing rationalization of her extraordinary behaviour by seeing him as a really pathetic, disgusting person. And that is where the contempt came from.

It may seem strange to choose an example of female on male abuse when worldwide many more women are victims of unequal power than men are. Men are not systematically deprived of human rights of education, relationships and work by political and religious systems because of their gender in many countries, but women are. The resulting powerlessness of hundreds of millions of women fundamentally shapes their brains, reducing their capacity to change their situation.

I chose ‘Karen’ and ‘Chris’ because it made the story of their behavior easier to tell than if it had been a male on female abuse story. Had it been a tale of ‘Chris’ publically humiliating ‘Karen’, it may well have unconsciously primed in our minds images of males inevitably dominating women because of inherited biological drives over which they have reduced control.

The great English philosopher Bertram Russell argued that power is the fundamental ‘stuff’ of human relationships in the way that energy is to physics. Whether we like it or not, power is at the heart of all our relationships. It is impossible to have a meaningful relationship with someone without having some power over that person, and he or she must also have some power over you. The problem is, power corrupts, and so for relationships to survive, a balance must be found which will temper that potential corruption.

Winner Effect 2 minute video


[i] Gottman, John (2003). The Mathematics of Marriage. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[ii] Gruenfeld DH et al (2008) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95, 111-127.

[iii] Van Veen et al Nature Neuroscience 12, 1469 - 1474 (2009)

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