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Do You Feel Controlled in Your Relationship?

Power imbalances occur in abusive relations, but one can reclaim power.

George Hodan/Public Domain Pictures
Source: George Hodan/Public Domain Pictures

Power exists in all relationships. Having power means to have a sense of control, to have choices and the ability to influence our environment and others. It’s a natural and healthy instinct to exert our power to get our wants and needs met. When we feel empowered, we can manage our emotions, we believe that we matter and that we can affect outcomes. We have a sense of efficacy rather than being at the effect of others and circumstances. Instead of reacting, we can act because we have an internal locus-of-control.

Impaired Power

In contrast, many of us may feel powerless and victims of outside forces. We can feel like our destiny is out of our hands. Some of us voluntarily give up our power to others. We may feel uncomfortable with exercising our own power, and believe that we will alienate others. Instead, we might react to others, defer to their wants and need, and have trouble making decisions and initiating independent action. We might feel like we’re being mean or raising our voice when we merely state what we want or don’t like. This impaired sense of power is common and stems from:

1. A habitual external focus

2. Shame and low self-esteem–not feeling worthy

3. Dependence and lack of autonomy– excessive need for a relationship

4. Lack of assertiveness and deference to others’ decisions

5. Discomfort with power and a belief that it harms relationships

6. Fear of rejection and abandonment

7. Need for others’ love and approval to feel content and happy

8. Denial of needs, wants, and feelings

9. Having unreasonable expectations of others

10. Lack of self-responsibility (victim-blame mentality)

Power Imbalances in Relationships

Many relationships have power imbalances. If we’ve denied our power and don’t express ourselves for any of the above reasons, it’s natural for someone else to fill the vacuum. Often in such relationships, one partner – sometimes an addict, narcissist, or abuser – wields power over the other. Usually, the acquiescent partner attempts to exert influence in indirect or passive-aggressive ways, such as withholding. Over time, abusive relationships can breed a trauma bond and a sense of helplessness. Chronic lack of power can lead to depression and physical symptoms.

In somewhat healthier relationships, both partners vie for power in ongoing power struggles. These typically revolve around money, chores, childcare, and negotiating how and with whom time is spent. To avoid conflict, some couples segregate domains where they each exercise more control. Historically, mothers ruled the roost and fathers earned more and controlled finances. This continues in many families despite women’s improved earning power, especially when they have young children.

Traditional roles are changing and becoming more egalitarian. Men are participating more in childcare and parenting. By working or having power outside the home, women learn that they can function outside the marriage. This potentially gives them greater power within the relationship. Some partners become resentful when everything isn’t split 50-50, but more critical is the perception of unfairness and imbalanced power. This can happen when our feelings and needs are ignored. We don’t feel listened to or that our input matters and feel unimportant and resentful. When we have no influence, we feel disrespected and powerless.

Shared Power

Self-worth and autonomy are prerequisites to sharing power and feeling entitled to express our desires and needs, including needs for respect and reciprocity. In a healthy relationship, power is shared. Both partners take responsibility for themselves and for the relationship. Decisions are made jointly, and they feel safe and valued enough to be vulnerable. They’re able to say what they like and don’t like and what they won’t tolerate. Relationships and intimacy require boundaries. Otherwise, risking honest self-expression feels too threatening. Boundaries ensure mutual respect and the happiness of both partners.

Personal Power

Growing up in a dysfunctional family can result in an impaired relationship to power. Generally, this occurs if we grow up in families where power was exercised over others in a dominant-submissive pattern. Our needs and feelings were ignored or criticized.

When personal power and self-worth aren't encouraged we come to believe that power and love can’t coexist. Power gets a bad rep. We’re afraid of our own power or can only get our needs met by being indirect. We might learn to feel safe and be loved through accommodating others, by and people-pleasing. For girls, this can be reinforced in families where women and girls are viewed as second-class or not encouraged to be assertive, autonomous, educated, and self-supporting.

On the other hand, some children grow up to decide the best way to feel safe and get their needs met is to exercise power over others. This also presents problems, since it breeds fear and resentment and makes our partner withdraw or behave in passive-aggressive ways.

Many of us have never learned to be assertive or how to problem-solve. We may act willfully in decision-making or order to assert ourselves with other people. Having had a controlling parent, we may rebel or be stubborn, passive-aggressive, or authoritarian ourselves. All these behaviors are counter-productive in getting our needs met.

We may be unable to know and assert our wants and needs or make decisions, often even for ourselves. We relinquish control over ourselves and often defer to others or don’t act at all. Assertiveness is empowering but requires a foundation of autonomy and self-esteem, both difficult for codependents. However, assertiveness can be learned, and doing so builds self-esteem.

Control can be confused with power. People who lack a sense of power in their lives try to manipulate and control others. Instead of taking responsibility for their own happiness, which would be empowering, codependents’ focus is external. Rather than attend to their needs directly, they try to exercise power over others and control others to make themselves feel okay on the inside. They think, “I’ll change him (or her) to do what I want, and then I’ll be happy.” This behavior is based on the erroneous belief that we can change others. But when our expectations aren’t met, we feel more helpless and powerless.

How to Become Empowered

Love and power are not incongruous. In fact, love doesn’t mean giving up oneself, which eventually leads to resentment. Love actually requires the exercise of power. To claim our power means learning to live consciously, taking responsibility for ourselves and choices, building self-esteem, and asking directly for our needs and wants. As we learn to express ourselves honestly and set boundaries and say no, we create safety and mutual respect, allowing our partner to do the same.

Becoming more autonomous is also important, not only to build self-esteem but also because autonomy assures us that that we can survive on our own. That knowledge makes us less dependent on others’ approval. This allows couples to be less reactive. They’re able to share their feelings, hear each other’s needs, problem-solve, and negotiate without becoming defensive or blaming. Sharing our vulnerability – our feelings, wants, and needs – actually strengthens our true self in an environment of mutuality and trust. Thus, asserting our power permits safety and allows for intimacy and love to flourish. When we feel powerless or unsafe, love and the health of the relationship are threatened.

©Darlene Lancer 2014