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Who gets the scarce resources in your relationship?

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

Whenever one of us goes shopping and gets these cookies, they always make sure to buy two packages, not one. Why? It’s all about power. You’ll see...

Here’s how we’re used to thinking about power in relationships. A super-rich older a**hole digs up a soon-to-be aging model and proposes a prenup...I mean, a marriage to her. She figures this is her best shot at a good deal and grabs it. And everyone gabs about who’s got whom by the short hairs.

He owns her, many say. After all, there’s the famous iron-clad prenup. If she doesn’t dance to his tune, she’s back on the curb with just a handful of hundred-dollar bills to dab her eyes on.

Hah!, say others. She’s got tons of tricks up her sleeve because there are tons of things he wants from her. Which means there are tons of ways she can make his life miserable, and in the most embarrassing way possible.

Let the battles begin...

Of course, most of us see ourselves as far, far outside this kind of tawdry business. We work for a living. What power do we have?

But this is not how it works. So how does power come to play a starring role in the relationships of ordinary people?

Let’s start with the notion of scarcity. This is one of the key concepts in life. Economics is the science that tries to explain how goods (oil, wheat, diamonds, books, computers) and services (haircuts, surgery, firefighting, nursing, tightrope walking) are allocated in our world. Who gets how much of what? In advanced economies, we convert our goods and services into money and then trade the money for what we want. The more money you have, the more you can get of the things you want.

What about animals? They don’t have money. They don’t even have pockets!

Mostly they take what they find lying around. But when the stuff they need is scarce, they fight for it. Power becomes the currency with which they allocate the scarce resources in their lives. The power of tooth and claw.

So what about in relationships? Well, with the billionaire and the babe we talked about at the beginning, it’s still about money. She trades...whatever it is she has to trade for access to his money, which stays a sweet deal for her for as long as she can avoid screwing it up.

But in most of our relationships, you’re not going to hear dialogue like, “I’ll give you a hundred bucks to shut the fuck up,” and the other person saying, “Hey, good deal! I’ll take it.”

Still, in our real-life relationships—yours and mine—there are a lot of things in short supply. And they’re mostly things you can’t buy. Such as?

  • Patient listening. You’re tired and stressed out. But I still need you to listen to me vent and unload about my day at work. I need that, but how am I going to get that?

  • Respect. I’ve done something poorly, or at least not the way you’d have done it. I was sloppy and careless. Because, frankly, I didn’t care! Because I wasn’t thinking about YOU. I didn’t spend the mental and emotional energy to think about how my slap-dash attempt at cleaning up the kitchen would look to you—like complete disrespect.

  • Affection. Ah, to be young and in the first bloom of love. But over time we get overtired. Let’s face it, affection takes effort. And for lots of us, any ability to make an effort is in very short supply. And affection is tragically the most postponable thing in our lives.

  • Time. Money can buy you a million calendars but not one more day in the year or hour in the day. And so the time I have to give you can feel as precious to me as the water sloshing around in his canteen feels to a guy trekking across the desert. If you need my time to help you, or be with you, or make love to you, that can feel like you’re taking something from me I’ll never get back.

When we’re in a relationship, things like these are in short supply for both of us. We can’t just buy two packages of Dark Chocolate Affection at the supermarket and say we’re all set. Instead, we become—forgive me, but it’s quite true—like animals fighting for these needs. Okay, so maybe we don’t fight tooth and claw. Not most of the time, I hope. But when we feel thwarted, when we feel deprived and one-down when it comes to getting our emotional needs met, and when we don’t have skills for doing anything different, what else are we going to do besides use our power to try to make things better for ourselves?

It’s not that we want things to be like this. But we don’t know what else to do.

If you’ve been unhappy with the dynamics in your relationship, this is probably why.

So stop blaming each other or yourselves. You’ve been doing the best you can and you don’t know what else to do. But with Why Couples Fight you’ll see that you have a real alternative, and it’s much less taxing than what you’ve been doing.

Plus, remember to always buy two packages of your favorite snacks so there’ll be plenty for both of you. At least you won’t have to fight over who gets the last cookie!


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