Each one of us shows up in our relationships with a certain sphere of power & influence. It comes in many forms – sometimes financial resources, sometimes educational status, or professional success. We also have personal strengths, such as wisdom or talents or character. But what happens when your power & strength bumps up and threatens your partner’s? How do we handle it? Who’s the boss?
Many issues I deal with as a marriage therapist revolve around power struggles. Usually, it is not overt, but rather the struggle masks itself within the context of the functioning of the relationship. Who is responsible for what? Who makes certain decisions? And who has the final say?
While it may be just a matter of sorting things out to solve an immediate problem, if the power dynamic is not defined, the relationship will just find itself in hot water all over again when the next issue arises.
We tend to cling tightly to our relationship power, as we conflate our value, self-worth & respect with our authority. When our opinions and desires are respected, we feel honored and loved. And when they are not, we feel lessened and discarded.
We cannot have two captains on the same ship, one shouting “Starboard!” and the other shouting “Port!”
Yet at the same time, we cannot have two captains on the same ship, one shouting “Starboard!” and the other shouting “Port!” It doesn’t work that way. So what do we do? Who wins? And more importantly, who loses?
In one of the first chapters of the Bible, there is a story which may shed some light on this question. At one point, during a domestic squabble, Gd intervenes and cries out to Abraham from the heavens: “Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice.” Mind you, Abraham was the ultimate “alpha-male.” He was a warrior, scholar, father and leader. Yet, in spite of this, Gd admonishes Abraham to listen to the voice of Sarah.
How could this be? Mind you, Abraham was 100 years old at the time. He certainly made many, many decisions without Sarah’s input. Why, all of a sudden, is he instructed to listen to her voice?
The Dimensions of Power
It was once explained to me that in general, there exists two dimensions of power & influence – the external and the internal. The external dimension focuses more on the logistical and surrounding framework of life. Whereas the internal dimension focuses more on the personal impact and inner facets of life. For example, let’s say your son wants to go to college. One way of making a decision could focus on the externalities: how much does it cost? What degrees are offered? How far away from home is it?
And, at the same time, we can also consider the internal aspects of this decision: does he have friends going there? Will he feel comfortable with the environment on campus? Do the classes offer personal attention? Is the food nutritious?
It is easy to try and relegate these two areas as important/not-important or big-picture/small picture – after all, if the school is out of your budget, who cares if the food is nutritious? And while that is true, even if we reach agreement on big-picture issues, the “small issues” can easily derail our choice as well. If the school checks out for cost, degree & location, but Johnny has no friends, it’s over for that college. Thus we can understand that both the external and internal issues are important.
According the Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah), Masculine energy represents the external axis of power, whereas Feminine energy represents internal power.
This could explain why in this domestic disagreement, Gd comes along and exhorts Abraham to listen to the voice of Sarah. When it came to war, or religion, or location, Gd trusted Abraham to make the decisions. But when it came down to a domestic decision, Sarah’s in charge. And when I use the word “domestic”, I in no way mean insignificant. The opposite is often true, and certainly in this case. Abraham & Sarah were in disagreement about the entire lineage of the Jewish nation – something they had been working towards for 80 years. And Abraham was not used to deferring to Sarah, nor did he want to; hence Gd had to intervene and spell it out for him.
Fast forward 4000 years. Men and women are still fighting it out, or should I say, figuring it out – learning how to live with each other and balance out each other’s strengths. So often I run into men who conflate a woman sharing her wisdom with being “bossy.” Or the opposite – a man being called “controlling” when he shows up confident in what he believes is the right thing to do.
Instead of fighting with my spouse, I’ve learned to lean-into her insight in these areas – a wisdom I do not possess.
For me, I’ve learned to sensitize myself to these different realms of power – the external and internal. Instead of fighting with my spouse, I’ve learned to lean-into her insight in these areas – a wisdom I do not possess. Once I became aware of this distinction, of her special powers, I’ve become awestruck with her ability to literally see & perceive things about our children, family, and social situations that are totally dark to me. And instead of fighting it, I’ve learned to cultivate it, and seek out her advice in many areas.
And the opposite is also true. I now know where my strengths lay, and focus on becoming more confident and decisive in these areas that I’m gifted in.
Perhaps the most important take-away is that we are a team, men & women, and bring unique insight, perspectives, wisdom and strengths to our relationship. The happiest couples I know never perceive their partner’s strength as a threat to their own. Instead, they encourage it, learn from it, trust it, and use it to enhance their lives and relationships as a whole.