This week’s post is by Dr. Carmen Knudson-Martin, one of top experts on gender in couple relationships. She discusses why power should be on the minds of partners and how it influences your relationship. Her post is based on a plenary she was asked to present at the American Family Therapy Academy.
Power is relational. It is reflected in how the needs, interests, and goals of partners influence the other. Those in power positions tend to be less aware, less tuned into the needs and interests of their subordinates. The balance of power is reflected in who notices the other? Who feels entitled to express their needs of have them fulfilled? Who accommodates and organizes around the other? In healthy relationships the flow of power is mutual. It goes back and forth as each person tunes into the other and is influenced by them.
Here’s where it gets tricky—people can hold this kind of power without even being aware of it. It tends to be built into social structures. For example, when power is part of normative gender patterns women tend to automatically organize around their partners. They may be more likely to check their partner’s schedule and plan around it; they may notice what he is feeling or needs and automatically adjust in response. When I see couples in therapy or teach about these issues in class, women usually nod in recognition of these patterns. Men are often confused or surprised at first, because most of the men I see don’t really want power over their partners. They are often surprised to learn how frequently their female partners are organizing around them.
One couple that I interviewed illustrates this point. Judy and Al (not their real names) were in their first year of marriage. I asked them how they decided how much time they spend together. Judy said, “If I know that Al is going to be home, I try to plan my schedule to be home too. I go out with my friends when he has other things going on.” Al was surprised by her answer. He did not know that she did this. In fact, he said “what would really bother me was if what I did was controlled by her.” This difference in who organized around the other—and did it “naturally”—already was beginning to create an imbalance in who was influencing whom!!
Sometimes people think the answer is for women to be just as independent as men. This can be an important step for women. BUT, it can result in neither partner attending to the relationship. This is why our study group on couples emphasizes mutual attending and being open to change in response to other as so critical to long term relational success. The key is often helping the more powerful person (i.e., the one less attentive and open to influence) learn to focus more on the relationship. Like any new habit, it may take time but is worth the relational investment.
When power is mutual, both partners feel valued—and loved. Use the brief checklist below to evaluate the balance of influence in your relationship.
|___I noticed and responded to my partner’s needs.||___My partner noticed and responded to my needs.|
|___I felt free to express my opinions||___My partner felt free to express opinions|
|___ I adjusted in response to my partner||___My partner adjusted in response to me|
|___I took initiate to maintain or repair the relationship||___My partner took initiative to maintain or repair the relationship.|