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The Relationship Power Struggle: Is It Always Better to Have the Upper Hand?
For the first year my girlfriend and I were together, we kept our relationship open. This was largely my decision, and one might say I took advantage of the privileges of our open agreement more than she did. The couple times she suggested we be monogamous, I refused. Though we were both very in love, it’s clear to me now that I had the power—the relationship was mostly on my terms. This was true even down to the little things; she usually made time to hang out with my friends, and do the things I wanted to do, rather than vice versa.
Then, last December, after much deliberation, we decided to be monogamous. I was happy about it—I finally felt ready to devote myself to her fully and to make our relationship stronger. But soon afterward, I sensed a distance on her part. It was on Christmas day, while I was opening presents with my family, that she came clean via text: she was cheating on me.
Predictably, this precipitated an immediate panic attack. I collapsed into a stack of presents and began gasping for air as my dad frantically searched the house for my then recently deceased grandfather’s leftover Valium. (Though funny-ish now, it was less lolz at the time.) I was intensely hurt, and terrified we might break up, but beyond that, the shift of power left me completely disoriented. How could I have gone from CEO of this relationship to fired in an instant? But even in the midst of my confusion, one thing was very clear: I had been taking my girlfriend for granted.
All relationships have a power dynamic, and it’s usually clear who has the reins. When you have control, it’s difficult to imagine it ever being any other way. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, your ego inflates, and it seems almost instinctual to see how much you can get away with. Stupidly, you don’t expect your partner could ever turn the tables on you. In some relationships, the power dynamic is more subtle, a constant ebb and flow of leverage. In others, the scales are not so even.
One friend of mine actually chooses, over and over, not to have the upper hand, by always dating controlling women. Despite his constant complaining that his girlfriends boss him around, assign him chores, and drag him to boring social events, deep down, you can tell he loves it—he lives to be The Pet. He even loves complaining about it. Somewhat similarly, I know many people who like to “date up,” to bask in the reflective glory of someone more successful, wealthier, or of higher social status than themselves. In a way, being dominated is what enables them to respect their partner. Sort of like Yves Saint Laurent and his long-term partner, Pierre Bergé. I recently read an article that described how Bergé never walked in front of Saint Laurent, but always one step behind. This one little detail speaks volumes about the nature of their relationship, and the power dynamic that made them both happy and comfortable.
Meanwhile, a close girlfriend of mine insists, “It’s always better to be the 10 dating the 7.” Better that your partner worship you, in other words. As it happens, this was my mother’s point of view too. When I was growing up, she told me point blank, “It’s best to date ugly guys, because they love you more.”
Personally, however, I’ve always preferred my relationships to be more even-keeled. Like, I know I always say I want to date James Franco, but if it came down to it, would I really want to be the 7 to the 10? No way—I’m far too jealous, insecure, and attention-starved to handle that.
My friend Erika Allen, a 27-year-old editor at The New York Times, is all too familiar with uneven power balances. “Back when I was in college, this guy pursued me for months,” Erika told me, a tinge of resentment still in her voice. At the beginning, she explained, she could take it or leave it. He said “I love you” after only two months, which was earlier than she was willing to reciprocate. But eventually, things got serious. “And then I let my guard down,” she said. “Suddenly he was the least available person on the planet. It’s weird—you don’t care, you don’t care, and then all of a sudden you care so much. And usually your partner cares too, so it’s fine. But in this situation, as soon as I cared, he totally checked out.”
In other words, Erika had lost the higher ground, and her ego sunk along with it. “It was amazing how debilitating it was,” she remarked. “The suddenness of the flip made me so desperate that there was no possibility of pulling back or reassessing the situation. Instead, I just tried to force him to be the boyfriend I wanted him to be. Soon after, he broke up with me, and it took me longer to get over the relationship than we were actually together.” For her boyfriend, it was all about the chase—the hunt for power—and once he achieved it, the dynamic no longer felt exciting. It’s like that Barbara Kruger quote: “You want it, you buy it, you forget it.”
We all know the deal. Too often we want what we can’t have, and we find people who are too available unattractive. Human psychology is embarrassingly simple that way. And as we get older and enter into more relationships, these tendencies become increasingly transparent, and thus easier to manipulate. And as childish as it may sound, we all still play these games—well into adulthood. “It feels like game-playing, but it really works,” Erika marveled. “If you feel your partner is taking you for granted, you can just say, all right, I’m going to make myself less available this week. Predictably, this makes them want you more, and the turnaround is usually so fast, it’s almost a joke.”
But sometimes, even when you know how to play the game, you can’t help but act like a psycho anyway. And that’s what happened when I found out my girlfriend had cheated. In that moment, I should have walked away, let her regret what she’d done, and sweat it out. But I was frantic, so instead I called her 33 times, then showed up at her apartment, my face all red and puffy and slurring from the zillion Valium I took. When she told me that she “needed space to think,” I just laid face-down on the floor and refused to leave her bedroom. Unattractive?
Erika broke it down for me: “When you’re hurt, or when the tables are turned on you, sometimes the instinct is to try and assert power in another way—by being overly emotional, or saying, ‘You hurt me so badly.’ You’re just desperate to get back to your normal, loving relationship state. But that method rarely works. What you really should do is walk away and have lunch with someone else.”
Eventually, my girlfriend and I were able to work things out, and our relationship has since leveled off to a more healthy, even power balance. And although it was an awful experience, in the end, her turning the tables made me realize how important she is to me. It also led me to wonder: Is it possible to fully appreciate someone without the threat of losing them?
We all know when we’re being out of line. In the past, when partners of mine have put up with a barrage of my bitchiness, I’ve thought, “Are you really going to let me get away with this?” While it’s natural to seek the upper hand, it turns out that, if you have too much power over your partner, it can become surprisingly unattractive. Power is inextricably linked to respect, and to truly respect your partner, you have to believe that they would leave you. At the same time, the real challenge is learning to appreciate your partner before it gets to that point, and recognizing a good thing when it’s good.