You think your partner’s just too powerful for you. Now what?
“You’re WRONG!” he says, in that voice-of-God way of his. And you never know how to recover from that, beyond getting upset and looking foolish. So what do you do about a relationship where one person just seems to have more power than the other?
Well, the first thing you do is not assume that it’s true. Even if you’re the person in the relationship who feels way down on the power ladder. Just because you feel they have more power doesn’t mean they don’t feel you have more power! Really! It’s normal for both people in a relationship to feel the other is the most powerful by far.
Disempowered people work hard to equalize the power balance and they usually accomplish more than we think when it comes to re-empowerment. Which is a triumph for the individual and a tragedy for the relationship: if no one wants to be one down, then everyone’s trying to get one up, and life together is a constant struggle for more power on both sides. “You’re WRONG!” may be the guy’s attempt to play catch up.
Still, though, sometimes one person really does have more power than the other. And that can be a real problem. But it’s a problem that can be worked through.
There are three kinds of power advantages a person can have, and each involves its own solutions.
First, there’s structural power. This comes not from who the person is but from the person’s situation in life. If I’m president of the United States, then that gives me structural power with respect to my husband. I can always point to the requirements and burdens of office and say, “Gee, honey, I’m so sorry, but I have to cancel our date night because they’ve moved up the schedule for the G7 meeting and all the other heads of state will be there.” And there’s not much my husband can say about it.
It’s the same if, for example, you have eighty-seven billion dollars and your partner works as a barista. You can do anything, and your partner has to ask you for almost everything. A huge structural imbalance.
The solution is to work out a structural answer to the structural imbalance. Lots of times, of course, you can’t completely equalize things. But here’s the key: you will feel much less disempowered and much less helpless if your partner shows they really understand your situation and takes the most significant steps they can to balance out the imbalance.
If I’m the President, my husband can be in charge, among other things, of where we go on vacation, within the limits set by the Secret Service. The billionaire, whose money might be largely tied up in family trusts, can arrange for their partner to have enough money of their own so they don’t feel dependent.
What you can’t do—as a couple or as the more powerful person in this relationship—is ignore this imbalance. It can easily be toxic, and the toxins will fester.
Second, there’s bargaining power. Let’s face it. Sometimes one partner is quicker witted, more articulate, has more experience advocating for himself or herself, or is less easily manipulated. Or perhaps they just get more emotional in a way that has a strong effect on the other person.
This is the “you can talk me into anything” phenomenon. It can be really frustrating to be in a relationship with someone like that.
Well, we’ve actually dealt with this already.
Remember, anything that makes you feel disempowered is a power move. So suppose your super-smart partner, who’s, let’s say, a successful trial lawyer, puts on a PowerPoint demonstration for why he’s right and you’re wrong. You just feel flattened. How do you argue with an entire presentation?
But you can call foul on the PowerPoint presentation as a power move. “Hey, buddy, why not just talk like a person.”
And much more important, you can end the power-move game by using the 1, 2, 3 Method that we talk about in Why Couples Fight. Your partner’s bargaining power will evaporate. There’s no bargaining power in trying to gain mutual understanding, or in generating options, or taking those options for a trial run.
And then there’s crazy power. This is hard to define. If I get upset and you say I’m being crazy, what’s really going on?
Am I actually being crazy?
Or am I being “crazy” as a power move?
Or is your saying I’m being crazy a power move, and a pretty ugly one at that?
So you can get caught in a loop in which instead of struggling over how to manage your money, you struggle over which one of you is the real crazy one. Yuck!
I’ll tell you one thing. It’s never a winning move to say, “Honey, that’s just crazy.” Or, “Sweetie, you’re just being crazy.” In the entire history of the world, no one upon hearing this has ever smacked themselves on the forehead and said, “My goodness, you’re right! I’m gonna sane up immediately.”
So don’t do that.
But what do you do if your partner in any way seems to you like a nut as you two try to deal with conflicts? The answer is in the next blog. Stay tuned.