Monday, June 6, 2011

About power

So I was thinking about relationships the other day and how they boil down to a constant ebb and flow of power. I think of a functioning relationship as a continuing trade in power: each empowers the other in some way, or disempowers them if they feel they need to.

We understand this implicitly in the early days of relationships, of course. Who calls, who goes to whose house, who does what the other likes, these are all transactions that empower the other or ourselves. If you ring someone and invite them on a date, you are for sure empowering them. They can take you or leave you as they choose. Naturally, so long as you are reasonably active in dating, you do not have much invested, so the exercise of that power is not crushing. If, however, you are like some who I know, and obsess over one person at a time, that obsessing empowers the other to an extent that is not healthy.

I do not know which is worse, that they should know it or that they shouldn't. In the former case, they are as much burdened as empowered, because they do not necessarily want the power you have entrusted them with; in the latter, they can hurt you a great deal without consideration, where had they been able to consider, they might have spared you some. Let's say that a person is not sure whether they want to go out with you; you are on the borderline. Would you rather they knew you were desperate to go out with them, and that obliged them, creating a little sourness in any relationship you might have, which would never be sweetened but would always remain -- and a huge imbalance in power that you would never be able to recover from ("I only went out with you because you really wanted it" is incredibly disempowering) or would you rather they did not know and could crush you without a thought, which they would not wish to do, because they could have decided either way?

One of the major ways to empower yourself is to be more able to quit the other. Often, this is because you are more desirable than your partner, and can replace them more easily. Take ex-Mrs Zen. When we first married, she felt powerless. She thought I was much more desirable than she was, and could easily quit her if I wanted to. (Strangely, she didn't feel empowered by the reverse of that thought: that being chosen by someone you feel need not choose you empowers you.) Much of her conduct of our relationship was an effort to make me abandon that perceived power, to restrict my ability to flaunt it. Once we had kids, of course, it was restricted in the course of things. She realised my kids were an anchor, that they empowered her because I could not leave them, whatever I felt about her. Whoever says children bring you closer together clearly never had any.

Take Bella as another instance. Although she claimed to love me, to need me, to want to be with me, she had Jesus. She could use Jesus as a tool to leave me at any point. Her message, appended to all transactions with me, was "you don't have me; I can care more about Jesus if I choose".

Once you are stuck with an imbalance in power, what can you do? Sometimes you can compensate your partner in one way or another. You can give them satisfaction that isn't easy to get elsewhere: sometimes a partner will abase themselves, become a demi-slave to try to keep it together; you can ignore the exercise of power, so that for instance if your partner cheats on you, you can pretend it's okay. Mostly, you just suffer until it is done. Largely I think this is why we try to empower ourselves, because we do not want to be passively suffering as our relationships fall apart: we would rather be in the driver's seat than watch as someone else puts the thing in the ditch.

Isn't this one reason we cheat on our partners? Isn't it a way of saying "I don't need you" that is fundamentally untrue? Because we are only empowering ourselves because we want our relationship to continue. Perverse as it sounds, it seems to me that we do not cheat because we lack something that our partner could give us, but because we lack something in ourselves. Among other reasons, I suppose.

Can the tension in a relationship be resolved? In principle, I imagine it can, but it would require the ability to empower your partner equally as they empower you. There seem to me various ways you could do that but I have run out of energy and explaining what I think they are will have to wait on another day.


Blogger Bob said...

Writing a comment at Paula's blog, I said I was used to women who have a powerful temperament. My mother (deceased) and my sisters were/are bossy. Me? I'm apologetic. Once, as a young fellow, I bumped into a telephone pole and automatically said,"Sorry." Then I realized how stupid I was and walked on. It's been the habit of a life time.

Having Jesus up your sleeve to flick someone if necessary is curious, but then, humans are curious beings, imo. Guess we evolved weird strategies of mind when we descended from the trees.

June 7, 2011 at 9:40 AM  
Blogger Paula said...

But isn't it also true that our (western) societies are structured so that it's just impossible to be honest? Take this "Weingergate" thing. This guy, newly married, can't say, hey, I need to keep having sexual chats and photo exchanges with strange women to be satisfied; my wife's great but she doesn't do it all for me. NO! That's not possible! We do not tolerate this. So he has to lie and make up a bunch of shit, ruin his career, etc. And it's going to keep happening over and over again. We insist everyone pretend to live up to this impossible ideal that most people fail at. It's rather nuts. And maybe it goes to power as well; maybe he craves more, being (let's be honest) not that goodlooking, but able to grab a certain amount of female attention via his position, while his wife from the one pic I saw was pretty hot. Just rambling on here... :)

June 7, 2011 at 12:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that relationships where power is equal are the most happiest. It's also up to each partner to decide where their boundaries lie, what constitutes a breach. For some its infidelity, to others its some other forms of abuse.
It's also important to have a way of resolving conflict that involves negotiation, rather than the implication of "I'm more empowered". Nobody decides who does the washing up or takes the video back to shop by implying they are more desired than the other.
Guilt won't work either.
Why not just ask for what you want, and leave the other free to answer yes or no? Or expressing your feelings in words so there can be no misunderstandings?

June 7, 2011 at 3:51 PM  
Blogger Dr Zen said...

Whatever the desirability of what you describe, you are describing an ideal, whereas I was discussing what is.

June 7, 2011 at 3:54 PM  
Blogger AJ said...

I'm still digesting this. There is some power struggle in a relationship because needs/desires conflict and someone is going to win out, but I also think a lot of what goes on is based on assumption and ignorance...or perhaps lack of information is a better way to put it. And even when you have information, you're not in the other person's head, so what you think you know may not be the way it's known to the other person.

June 8, 2011 at 3:18 PM  
Blogger Dr Zen said...

What you describe are issues that apply to any transaction though.

June 8, 2011 at 3:19 PM  
Blogger Don said...

My recollection of good relationships are those in which we kept handing power over to each other. Maybe people cheat when they feel the need to take power that the other is denying them. Paula's right in that we are a confused species: Civilization has perverted us.

I don't think I grasp the power thing, frankly. I don't (consciously) work that way. Maybe that explains some things, I don't know. Don't care either.

June 11, 2011 at 12:52 AM  

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