Who's got more power in our relationship? (Yes, I think about that stuff.)

Last night I was talking with my wonderful Bible study women and the subject came up (as it does) about how we operate in different kinds of relationships.

"What do you do as a friend, Cecily?" came the question, and I thought for a moment.

"Well, I usually assess who's got more power in the relationship and adjust accordingly," I said.

There was a smallish silence while they looked at me. 

"What?" said one wonderful woman. "Do you even think about that? Power in relationships? I have never thought about that at all."

So yeah, admissions time. I think about power in relationships. I used to think about it consciously: now I assess and adjust unconsciously but it's definitely part of my repertoire. And not for bad reasons. I'm not trying to grab power and be more powerful than people or use them or do any of the other things we usually associate with power. It's simply that once you're aware of power dynamics in relationships (and they exist within every single relationship) you have to understand them, and use them well, for the benefit of both you and the other person.

Because I am still recovering from the flu (and yes, the virus has more power than me in this particular relationship at this particular time) I won't write something new on this topic, but I will repost this, that I wrote a few years ago.

 

****     ****      ****

I had a conversation the other day with a teenage girl in the middle years of high school. She was telling me that a new girl had started in her class that day.

"What's she like?" I asked. 

The girl thought for a second. "Well, she's pretty. But she acts prettier than she is. If you know what I mean."

If you know what I mean?

Actually, I had no idea what that meant. How do you 'act' pretty? Surely you either are pretty, or you aren't. I had no idea that acting pretty was a *thing*. 

The conversation stayed in my head for a week, and then suddenly it became clear. In high school, or at least in this particular social group in this particular high school, Pretty = Power.

The prettier you are, the more respect and deference you're given. The more you're allowed to act in certain confident ways. She's pretty, so she can do that.

We might laugh, roll our eyes and say, "Tsk, tsk... teenagers these days!" but it's pretty much a fact that every social group on earth ascribes power to certain characteristics. It might be age or youth, brains or brawn, beauty or massive child bearing hips. It might be the number of quilts you have in your village house, the number of goats you have in your fields or the number of dollars you have in your bank account.

Power is a thing. Its dynamics are everywhere, and it's worth knowing about in our friendships and relationships.

 

****     ****      ****

First up, to be clear, I am not talking about abusive relationships in this post. And on that topic, I have this to say: misusing your power to intimidate, belittle, abuse, threaten or bully someone else is vile and wrong, and you should not do it. If you are a person with no or little power in an intimate abusive relationship that is trapping you or making you crazy, or if you feel unsafe in any way, you should get out of it. Get some help. Find someone who'll believe you and assist you.

In this post, I'm talking about your everyday, normal relationships, and yes, they include a balance of power. Usually, one person has more of it than the other. Sometimes the power balance is obvious. Doctors have more power than their patients, teachers have more power than their students. The Prime Minister has more power than his staff (although if you watch the classic BBC drama Yes Minister you might be surprised...)

Some power relationships are less obvious, but still just as real. Who has the power when a new student relates to someone who has been at the school since kindergarten? What about a 16 year old talking to a 23 year old? What about a conversation between a boy and a girl of the same age? Or an older girl and a younger boy? A 'normal pretty' girl and a model?

A lot of time at the beginning of the relationship is spent consciously or unconsciously working out who has more power.

Does it matter? The short answer is yes.

Two people may be relating in the same 'space', whether that's intimate or social space, but depending on their power balance they will behave differently.

For example, the person with more power does most of the initiating of conversation and invites participation. The person with less power typically responds and reacts. If the more powerful person is not interested in the exchange continuing, the powerless one can do very little about it. The powerful one is able to create frustration and resentment incredibly easily.

 

LIVING WITH POWER

A power balance can shift as relationships develop, or depending on the subject or expertise of the people in the relationship.

For example, in our family, I get on well with my sister in law. We have an equal relationship on most levels. However, she defers to me when it comes to extended family matters because I have obviously lived in my extended family longer. In turn, I defer to her in all areas of health. She's a doctor.

I think the Bible is realistic when it talks about power relationships. It recognizes that these relationships exist and doesn't try to deny them. What it does do however, is give us a way to relate within power relationships which is earth-shatteringly different from the norm around us. The powerful are to use their power with love, self-sacrificingly for the good of others just like Jesus did. The powerless are to remember the way Christ gave himself up and did God's will, as they operate in the relationships.

If Christians are living according to the Bible, there will effectively be no such thing as a power play because our behaviour will make it redundant.

 

DON'T BE A PATRONISING PAIN IN THE NECK

One trap that powerful people often fall into is in assuming that they know what is best for the people around them. It's easy to tell someone what you think they should do. It's much harder to ask them what they need and then use your power to fulfil those needs. That's putting your power at someone else's disposal and giving up your control of it.

If you are a person with power, such as a youth group leader, a manager at work or simply an older person relating to those who are younger, be very sensitive to those around you. Ask them what they need. Don't patronize them and think you know what's best. Don't forget you simply have power -- which is not the same as all knowledge, wisdom or mind reading ability! Be open, ask questions and be willing to act in ways which are out of your comfort zone. Be keen to empower others with the power that you have too. There's plenty to go around.

If you're a powerful person, it's important to be very sensitive to social signals around you. I once worked for a man who was wonderful, but he had a tendency to talk and talk and talk without stopping. Everyone around him appeared to be interested but it was a forced interest because he was our boss. We couldn't give him the normal signals to be quiet because it would have appeared rude. Unfortunately he just saw an audience and assumed that because no one was yawning he could continue to talk.

Since then I've observed that people with power often do not know when to stop talking. The important thing is to know that if you have power, the people around you will be more polite and give you more space. You will be doing them a favour if you rein yourself in.

 

IF YOU HAVE NO, OR LITTLE POWER

If you are a person without power, it's wise to recognize this and act with appropriate humility. Don't be cowed or scared by power in a relationship. But don't be overconfident either. Have a realistic picture of yourself. Know who you are. Act accordingly. Don't break the social rules if you are new. Hang back, learn a little, and find out what's going on before you barge in and use power that no one is prepared to give you.

And remember that because of the grace of God, you can operate with dignity, self-control and love even if you seem to have none of the power in the relationship. 

 

 

Firewheel PressComment