The central question for the human race, from the beginning, has been whether two people or a whole community of people can live together in harmony without anyone being disempowered. Tragically, most of the time the effort has gone into achieving harmony, at least on the surface, through dis-empowerment.
For as long as I can remember, empowering people who’ve been dis-empowered has been just about the most important thing in the world to me.
It goes way back to when I was a little refugee girl in a displaced person’s camp near Munich, a child of Holocaust survivors, not knowing what the future of my family would be. Outside the gates of our camp were the very Germans who’d tried to destroy us—who’d killed every one of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins…pretty much my whole family—now in their own homes, their own lives already almost back to normal. How unfair!
Nazi Germany was a prime example of power run mad, leaving so many without any power at all.
My awareness of how little power I had was driven into me over and over. In those very early years, my brother, four years older, got more food than I did. Why?, I wondered. I was told: because he’s a boy. I was to understand that girls are expendable. I guess in a mass of hungry people, I was. When I finally arrived in America, a distant male relative saw me standing there and burst into tears; I was so skinny.
Despite our being so poor, my family valued education, and I was always allowed to read whatever I could get my hands on. Books gave me power and, boy, did I know it. In the sixth grade, I was so far ahead of everyone else they took me out of class and gave me a job going through files looking for people’s Social Security numbers. For the entire year. At the end of the year one person was selected to get into the special classes for advanced students the coming year. I was supposed to be that kid. But a boy, Martin, got chosen even though his grades and test scores were below mine. Why?, I wondered. But I heard the answer as I listened to two teachers talking. I was a girl. All I’d ever do was work as a file clerk anyway. Again, something about who I was as a human being utterly disempowered me.
Skipping ahead, when I was about to graduate from college, there were three of us in my major. I was the one with the best grades. We all wanted to go to Yale for grad study. The two guys were recommended for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. I wasn’t. Why?, I wondered. I needn’t have wondered; I was told outright. “You’re just going to get married anyway. Why worry about grad school? You’re pretty. Why not be a model?”
So let me ask you. Do you think that after being clobbered with dis-empowerment like that, just because I was a woman I would ever have any interest in disempowering any woman anywhere?
I also had my own #MeToo moment, to say the least! While I was still in high school, I came home late one day from all my school and work activities. It was probably about eight o’clock. As I got into the elevator of my building, a man in his early twenties slipped in after me. Why?, I wondered. He told me. He was going to rape me. We were going to stop on a higher floor and he was going to rape me in a stairwell. He had a huge knife at my throat.
What’s more disempowering than such a very credible threat of violent rape? But I would not let him take my power away from me. I told him, hey, if we’re going to have sex, why do it in a stairwell when we could do it up in my apartment. My mother wasn’t home, I said.
Luckily he wasn’t all that bright. He bought it! Up we went to the tenth floor where, as I knew she’d be, my mother was waiting for me at the open door to our apartment. I started hollering, my mother started running towards us, and the guy fled.
Speaking of my mother. She was one tough woman. She’d brought two babies through the horrors of the Holocaust and of Stalinist Russia, then through terrible poverty in the slums of the Lower East Side in Manhattan, all on her own.
In her marriage to my stepfather, whom she married after we got to America, I saw a completely different side of the power issue. I saw her going toe to toe with him through the most vicious fights you could possibly imagine. She took no shit. Neither did he. And neither of them accomplished anything but scorching the earth of their marriage, leaving not a scrap of warmth or caring.
The power that meant everything to me was sheer poison in that marriage. I was later to learn that that power dynamics had the power to poison my own marriage and all the relationships of all the people who came to me for help over the whole forty-five years of my professional life.
And so here I am believing at the very heart of my being in two seemingly contradictory things:
On the one hand: We need all the powerful women we can get. Our society, every society needs women’s potential. So I champion, as I always have, our right to elbow our way to the table of power and to break through all the glass ceilings that are in our way. To take no shit from anyone. And I want the same feeling of enablement for men.
And I believe in women having our full voice in our relationship, in our not giving our power away to our partner, in our being able to get our needs met, and in our being in a relationship that allows full room for all of who we are.
But on the other hand: In the intimacy of a committed relationship, where it’s so important to keep love alive, it’s essential for both people to work together to resolve their conflicts without resorting to power and at-tempts at gaining control. And the reason is that these result NOT in people getting their needs met but in escalating power dynamics taking over, damaging and ultimately destroying the relationship.
A contradiction? A dilemma?
Not at all. Women, and men, can and should have full empowerment, full and strong voices in the world and in their relationships. And women and men can, and should, have total ability to get their needs met in their relationships along with the ability to keep those relationships alive and thriving in the process.
I want you to know how much I honor you. As a woman or a man or however you identify yourself in terms of gender, I know you have already struggled to empower yourself in the face of forces that have attempted to disempower you. I know—and that’s why you’re listening to me now—that you’ve struggled as I have with the incredibly difficult balancing act between fighting for your own needs in your relationship and working for peace and love and harmony between the two of you at the same time.
And I know that balancing act has seemed impossible. But it isn’t. That’s why I’ve written all my books, including this latest, Why Couples Fight.