Sunday, February 02, 2014

Love and Power

I shlepped the February issue of Psychology Today to Miami in January (we can discuss that trip another time), which is why the pics here are so crumpled.
The Love and Power article will get you CEU's, that's how relevant it is.
There's always something interesting inside, a summation of research, and this time it is about power. Feminists have known all along that having too much can dilute intimacy. Shared power is the ticket to happy and satisfying intimate relationships, and heterosexual couples tend to err on the side of poor distribution.

Control, not power, has been the focus in the archives on intimacy, but power is really a better word. Control implies that the power distribution is intentionally lop-sided. When it comes to power, the latest studies confirm, women yield control far too easily and their partners don't even want them to, necessarily. Then, powerless, no surprise, not having it makes us feel badly, affects the intimacy of our relationship,and not in a good way. Not to blame women, notice. This is a psychological system.

Caveat: this is not the case when a relationship is consciously, mutually, sado-masochistic,and one of the two consistently, voluntarily assumes a subdom role, although it might be in certain contexts. Let's just say that if a partner accommodates and doesn't feel good about it, this is a barrier to intimacy. It is why we say that when you win, you lose. So nice to be validated by the research.
photo by Yasu+Junko

photo by Yasu+Junko

Hara Estroff Marano summarizes the research nicely and interviews the relationship experts while taking us back to the historical roots of intimacy, if not so far back. But we get it that intimacy between marrieds in the past didn't have to surpass the intimacy of other relationships, closeness between girlfriends, cousins, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, the proverbial bf best friend forever. What we have now is the ascent of couple intimacy to the detriment of other relationships,which isn't necessarily a good thing, not if the power in the relationship is what matters, not the sharing.

To ground us here, family therapists have always considered intimacy between partners to be primary, one objective of a couple's therapy. The couple is even labeled the primary dyad. If one partner is more intimate with her mother, or with an office colleague, the other is likely to feel left out. We call it triangled out. Thus we might take issue, those of us trained in this way, even say that good couples have both: primacy and emotionally intimate relationships outside their commitment to one another.

Marano wisely cites social historian Stephanie Coontz that having upped our expectations for the couple in the twentieth century, all of the feelings and expectations of other relationships become piled on top of that dyad, a poor distribution of feelings and expectations. Yes, absolutely, and a shame, explains the popularity of television shows about with girlfriends talking We instantly clamor for more of these, miss it. Let's not do that, a therapist would say, make our partners solely responsible for our intimacy needs.

The real gripe about power is that values and priorities are compromised when one partner gives in too often under relationship pressures. A person loses self, and at some point it feels like there's nothing left, as if identity has merged, someone has lost one. It isn't a good feeling. Thus shared power has to be the new paradigm. It isn't that power is lop-sided, necessarily through manipulation and coercion, but for many there is an unconscious agreement that one has more influence than the other. That agreement has to change; the two need to influence one another. Each must assert, hear and respond, not take automatically take the advantage, not automatically capitulate.

I take away from this that if a couple is codependent, and one of the two usually makes the decisions, then the one who ruled heretofore has to wake up and give it over. Therapists find it isn't all that hard, giving up control, and it feels good for everyone. The group hug.

Lucky for us, the full article, the definitive study about power is online, see Family Process, (Vol 52, Issue 1: Why Power Matters: Creating a Foundation of Mutual Support in Couple Relationships, by Carmen Knudsen-Martin. The author provides examples, too, which is why we don't need them here. Her research group at Loma Linda University is on fire.

We learn that power differentials are maintained because:

(1) once people can get their own way, they don't consciously want to relinquish control,
(2) many of us are attracted to confident people and let them lead, latching onto their confidence. We seek someone to make decisions, gladly accommodate, go with the ideas and proposals of the other, at least initially. The one with the power may not even know this is even happening;
(3) gender-assumed power is unconscious,and even those of us who disagree with that paradigm still fall into interactions that maintain it.

. . . women and men say that they do not use gender to determine roles and responsibilities, but women end up listening to and accommodating their partners much more than the men. A smaller number of couples, which we labeled “postgender,” made conscious efforts to resist stereotypic gender patterns and demonstrated relatively equal accommodation, attending, and status in their relationships.

How to change things?

Direct communication, asking for what we want, the first step (assertiveness). Forget the hints. They don't work.

Validate one another as valuable, this confirms a separate identity, puts the less powerful partner on the map, a beginning). In couple work (see John Gottman, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work), that simple, seemingly obvious step,can be a month's worth of homework.

Influence, influence, influence, it has to be shared. The ability to influence a partner to respond to our needs is what builds trust and relationship resilience. Interestingly, Gottman found that when women expressed anger they could influence their partners, and this predicted happiness in the future. Perhaps it is the only way they are heard in these cases.

Mutual attunement, a word we've not all heard before, but will be hearing again. Consistently working toward an emotional connection, feeling understood, valuable, respected, and heard. When we have that, there is shared responsibility for a balanced, equal relationship. Equality, really is the new paradigm.

In more technical terms, the ideal relational model looks like this:

(1) shared relational responsibility, being accountable to the effects of our actions on our partners (getting out of denial).
(2) mutual vulnerability (sharing emotions is not just for women any more)
(3) mutual attunement: responding, communicating, understanding the other
(4) mutual influence: letting the other influence us, not always easy, but can feel very, very good, especially if it is new.

It's going up on my white board today.



Mound Builder said...

I know that you've written this post in terms of committed, intimate relationships but to me, much of this also applies in work relationships, too, and probably in other settings as well. Though I do understand that in a work setting there is someone who is ultimately accountable and may have a final say (the boss), there are ways that I think even in a work setting a person should be sharing power. I think an individual who is working should have some capacity for self-determination and should, therefore, be able to share power. In theory. You wrote the following, "Interestingly, Gottman found that when women expressed anger they could influence their partners, and this predicted happiness in the future. Perhaps it is the only way they are heard in these cases." and what strikes me about this is that I know when I make clear statements about what I need, without anger or drama, mostly what I say tends to get ignored. I don't really understand this, because to me it seems that most people would prefer not to have a lot of drama and would prefer to hear clearly what a person's wants/needs are. Yet an awful lot of people don't seem to want to take it seriously or ignore or otherwise refuse to hear what's said. A long time ago, I remember warning, repeatedly, a boyfriend I was in a bad relationship with, that if certain behaviors didn't change (his drug use and his tendency to use me as his verbal punching bag) then I would leave. And when I did as I said, it seemed to be a complete surprise to him. I've had that experience in other situations, too. I'm not sure why people will only hear when a person gets angry, visibly, and maybe even loudly, angry. That makes no sense to me. If I say that I have a need or that something hurts or that I can't tolerate a situation, and I do it without a lot of drama, I still mean it. I haven't made those remarks idly. I really don't understand people.

therapydoc said...

What an amazing comment, deserves a good answer. I'm posting on it.

Anna said...

There's a great episode of The Office when Jim and Pam are seeking counseling. You see, Jim started a business in another city with some friends, without EVER mentioning it to Pam. This goes on for a while, he knows that she's going to be upset. He finally tells her, and now travels back and forth often.
But she is balancing a full time job and TWO kids, one an infant. She's very resentful.
Anyway. That's all backstory. This particular episode shows their attempts to validate each other- I appreciate that you appreciated that I brought you some tea. It's ridiculous, but a good way to examine those issues of power and validation.

My husband briefly visited a therapist that was sure our dyad was out of sync. That he was suppressing me, demanding too much. Possibly. But my husband also relinquishes a great deal of power, and together we balance the things that are difficult for each other. However- the other comment about saying things in a firm, calm manner? Yeah, we have that problem, too.

therapydoc said...

Oh, I'll have to watch that one! Thanks for your great comments, Anna.

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