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What power imbalances might be costing you

I’m writing this on Memorial Day, so I’ll be brief. On the other hand, Memorial Day is all about the costs of our projections of power, so what I want to talk about here is perfectly in tune.

A new study just came out showing yet again that in our relationships social dominance—power!—causes pain and damage for our partners. In particular, if you’re already vulnerable, say, to depression or to mood swings, then feeling dominated by your partner even to a mild degree will have a very negative effect on you. The way walking will make a hairline crack in an ankle bone both painful and debilitating.

You might say that this is just one study, although a well-designed one. But no. As the author of the study said after reviewing the extensive research that already existed, “I was amazed by the rich number of studies suggesting how important social dominance is to many different forms of psychopathology—anxiety, depression, mania, psychopathy, among others.”

Two quick points:

First, the “social dominance” talked about here is just an accumulation of the power moves we talk about in Why Couples Fight. There is no “social dominance” in a relationship without power moves. I could be Emperor of the World—is that job open?—but without power moves, I’m not exerting “social dominance” in my marriage. But I could be the person who brings coffee to the assistant to a movie star’s assistant, and in my marriage, I could be completely dominant if I kept making power moves.

Second, the “psychopathology” the author talks about isn’t clinical. It’s universal. We all have some degree of psychopathology, some degree of anxiety, depression, mania, delusion, and so on. And so we are ALL vulnerable to the emotional effects of a partner’s power moves.

Of course, if both people make power moves and struggle for dominance in their relationship, guess what? Both people will find their mental health under assault.

And what is that “social dominance,” in the end? A habit growing out of fears that we won’t be able to get our needs met. Which leads us to what Why Couple Fight is all about. It’s about showing you a way to get your needs met—both of you—without power moves or social dominance and therefore without the exacerbation of psychopathology that comes with that. Your needs get met AND everyone is happy. The dream, actually, of all those whose deaths we mourn this Memorial Day.


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