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You may be more into power than you think you are

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

“What does Gov. Cuomo have to do with me?” you may ask


There are two huge problems with what we’re hearing about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

One is that, based on allegations, in his office he has created a toxic environment of harassment and intimidation against women. For many women, according to claims, he has used his power to make their lives a nightmare (as in accounts by Rebecca Traister, Erica Schwiegershausen, and Bridget Reid, among many others). This is a huge problem for the women who’ve lived with this, for the women who’ve come forward, and for whatever women have been afraid to come forward. And of course, it’s a huge political problem for Cuomo’s supporters.

But there is another huge problem that’s very different coming out of this, one that’s far more insidious. When we read about someone who massively and horribly uses their power to oppress and terrorize people, a chasm opens up between that person and us. Thank God, we think, I’m not like that. I’m a good person. I would never do something like that.

And so when Mira Kirshenbaum comes around and talks about the power moves that she claims people make in their relationship that go on to damage those relationships, it’s easy to think, “Moi??”

This is the way denial works for problem drinkers. They hear about some raging drunk who drives into a van killing five people, and they think, “Oh, I’m not like that! So I’m not an alcoholic.”

But here’s the thing. You don’t have to be convicted of drunk driving and vehicular homicide to be an alcoholic. You don’t need to be an out-of-control governor to be someone who is reduced to using power moves in his or her relationship.

And saying “Oh, that’s not me” is the surest way to allow the power dynamics to work their cancerous path towards harming your relationship.

How do I know that you and your partner abuse power when you’re trying to resolve conflict? In spite of the fact that you’re a good person with good intentions?

I guess the best answer is that I’ve never known it not to be the case.

Two examples. I had a patient a number of years ago who was a world-famous negotiator, a guru for bringing about peace around the world through negotiation. If ever there was a person dedicated to peace, this was it. But I saw him in his marriage. And no, this isn’t about hypocrisy. He tried to be as good there as he was elsewhere. It’s just that his wife was difficult, and he was difficult for his wife. They—welcome to the club!!—had trouble getting their needs met with each other.

He certainly had all the tools in the world. And she, an educated, cultured woman, had everything a person needs not to be a go-for-the-throat power-move person. But! Once they got going, after a minute or two of frustration, one with the other, the power moves would come out.

“Sarah, you’re talking like a crazy person!” he’d say. “You should be telling this to your therapist, not me. You’re not even close to being reasonable here.”

It’s the “you’re a nut” move. A power move if there ever was one. How do you come back from being called crazy? Maniacally scream, “I’M NOT CRAZY!”? Good luck with that. She was far too sane for that. No, instead she’d threaten to leave him, or to tell everyone about how awful he was, preventing her from doing this or that.

“It’s for your own good!,” he’d say. As if she needed a legal guardian.

“It’s for your own convenience!” she’d say.

The fact is, they couldn’t even begin to deal with each other without making power moves. And this guy was no Harvey Weinstein. He was universally loved and respected by everyone who worked with him, including those who worked most closely with him. It’s just that in our marriages we get to places of such terrible disempowerment, such painful feelings of not being loved and cared for, that we don’t know how else to cope than by falling back on power moves.

The other example is me. I know! I mean, come on! I wrote the book on the subject!! I should be the master of not using power moves. I should be able to avoid power moves the way Ginger Rogers could avoid dancing like a clumsy gorilla. You’d think!

But in fact, power moves are my instinctive go-to response. The way reaching for the bottle might be the instinctive response of a child of two alcoholics. If I feel attacked, I’ll attack back. If I feel threatened, I’ll escalate the threat. And I’m good at shit like that. So sure, I’m a nice, loving person. I have a hostage video of my husband saying so!! But seriously, we’ve been happily married since we were in college. And I can definitely say I’ve worked hard to become self-aware about my use of power moves and to dial my use of them way back. And if my husband points out a power move I’ve just made, I really do what Why Couples Fight says: I accept the feedback and do a do-over.

Still, I know what it’s like to grab for power.

So what’s the point here?

We can’t be thinking the world is divided between horrible power-mad monsters—governors, dictators, producers, CEOs, and stuff—on one side and on the other side the rest of us where butter wouldn’t melt in our mouths. We gotta be humbler and more self-aware than that. Normal, decent, well-intentioned people—under the pressure of disempowerment and frustration—are almost certain to default to power moves of some sort in their relationships. And these power moves will soon take on a life of their own.

The proud and blind are condemned to commit the same tragic mistakes over and over forever. Only the humble become self-aware and learn how to have better lives.

With respect to having a better relationship, do check out Why Couples Fight.


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