Two Types of Power
Many years ago I read a little book called "The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How To Recognize It And How To Respond", by Patricia Evans. I still recommend this book (despite its unfortunate tendency toward anti-male bias) for its admirable job of highlighting the many types of verbal abuse. These include many subtle forms that may slip by unnoticed, such as discounting ("Oh, that's nothing"), blocking ("I don't want to talk about it"), diverting ("That's not the real issue, this is"),and trivializing ("Whatever"), all of which reinforce an unbalanced power dynamic.
It all comes down to the basic idea that there are essentially two forms of power.
The first is "Power Over", which boils down to one side exerting dominance over another. While this form of power easily becomes an oppressive control tactic, it does have a proper function in situations in which discipline is a more appropriate motivator than relationship (military hierarchies are a prime example).
What is generally more appropriate in intimate relationships is "Personal Power". This is a more autonomous form of power, meaning that it doesn't rely on domination or control. It places a value on inner strength, self-control, boundaries, the absence of shame, an abundance of respect, and the acceptance of feedback from others.
While "Power Over" doesn't require much ego strength (and in fact often feeds on its absence), Personal Power is a sign of a mature personality. Some people just naturally seem to have it but the rest of us have to work hard to develop and maintain our appropriate relationship to power. Many people grew up in environments where their parents or other adults wielded power in an inappropriate manner. And all of us live in a world beset by inequitable power differentials. No wonder so many relationships fall prey to clumsy or outright inept management of power. I have seen many relationships riddled with what I call "underground" forms of power such as secret affairs and addictions. These are forms of power that are not based on fair play, and they are inevitably destructive in one form or another.
One important aspect of relationship counseling, even if its not the initial reason a couple is seeking help, involves some discussion about the ways power is expressed and managed. I'm all about empowering people to be their best, and sometimes identifying when power is being mismanaged is crucial to this success.
Bill Herring, LCSW, CSAT is an Atlanta psychotherapist with a broad adult clientele. He is also a specialist in sex addiction treatment for individuals and couples.