By Christine Kniffen, MSW, LCSW
Adjusting the Balance of Power: The Best Valentine’s Gift for Your Relationship
As a therapist who works with couples it is my job to assess the dynamics between the partners. There are some common themes that emerge as to why individuals just aren’t getting along. One of the first things I look at involves assessing the power balance in the relationship. It is perhaps most easily explained by describing what I observe in the dynamics when an unequal sense of power exists between the partners. I often see such things as a heightened defensiveness that comes on rapidly, an acquiescing by one partner towards the other to avoid perceived conflict and even a portrait of a partner who has almost shut down emotionally, as if they have just given up. It is my belief that each of these actions stems from a person feeling disempowered in their relationship. They feel as if they are going to be wrong no matter what and the anticipation of that is enough to send them over the edge if that happens.
There are many reasons this imbalance may come about in your relationship. For instance, one partner may simply have a stronger, more boisterous personality than the other person. They may feel that they are simply stating their position, yet to the disempowered person it may feel like control. Another common contributing factor relates to a person’s ability to tolerate conflict and sit with the knowledge that their partner is upset with them. This can be so uncomfortable to some that they simply try to avoid that at all costs. I used to be somewhat like that as well. I could hardly stand to have you mad at me. It was as if something was so unresolved that I just couldn’t take the tension. But, I later realized that I had to let you have your feelings. After all, when I get upset I certainly can’t turn it off that fast and I feel entitled to my feelings, not wanting you to take that from me just because you are uncomfortable. So, how fair was it for me to expect something from you that I could not do either?
The disempowered person naturally feels it is the other person’s fault, but adjusting the power balance is most effectively achieved by changes and effort on both party’s part. The disempowered person needs to stay with the conversation. There is no need to get defensive or to walk away in defeat, thankful for eluding the potential conflict. And, the other person needs to be cognizant of the fact that their tone, intensity and choice of words all work to help reinforce the power imbalance and does not help their partner’s quest to become more empowered.
So, if you think there is a power imbalance in your relationship what can you do about it. Let’s say for example that you go to tell your partner how something they did impacted you negatively and they have a defensive, almost angry reaction. The disempowered person may want to default to yelling back and matching the intensity or simply walking away, feeling hurt and holding a grudge that will eventually pile up and explode. On the other hand, the empowered person would instead stay calm and for example say, “You know, I calmly told you how I was feeling and now you seem angry with me. That doesn’t really seem fair and I don’t understand what was so wrong in talking to you”. Empowered people genuinely feel they have a right to their feelings, not that their feelings are right or wrong, just that they are valid in that they are legitimately felt. The goal to restore the balance of power is achieved when the couple works together to stop the cycle of reacting to each other, which is why it is off-kilter in the first place. The questions I pose to the individuals in the couple are these, “Who is going to start first? Who will be the first person to tell me that they caught themselves prior to reacting, managed to stay with the conversation and calmly, without heightened intensity, simply told their partner their true feelings?” This is not a skill that will come instantly; rather it will greatly improve with practice. Put this advice to the test to restore the power balance in your relationship and it will be a much smoother ride along the way.
Christine Kniffen, LCSW is a Relationship Coach and Therapist in private practice. For a free consultation call 314-374-8396.