Power is a huge source of conflict in the world. Intimate relationships have great potential to play a part in leveling playing fields.
Romantic love relationships between men and women reproduce sexism and gender inequality. Romantic love between black and white Americans reproduces racism and brings up the trauma of slavery. Romantic love between Jews and Christians of German descent or between American and Japanese people reproduce agonies from WW2. Because of the intimate context, these cross-cultural relationships provide fertile ground for the disruption of historical wounds.
If our relationships are to flourish, it is imperative that we address these tricky-to-navigate, sensitive topics with our partners. Otherwise socio-cultural wounding and conditioning can get acted out in unconscious ways, eroding love and destroying partnership. With awareness and effort, oppressive patterns can be reshaped.
Let me give you an example from a cishet* married couple in their late thirties whose story belongs to the world—and they’re happy to share. On this particular day, the atmosphere is heavy. Both feel hopeless, despairing and reluctant to continue. Both agree their needs are not being met. When I inquire about what they each need, he says something like this: I want to debate and wrestle with the big questions of life and death; I want to be sexually and emotionally intimate. And I want us to work towards creating a better world. It turns out she wants the same thing with one important difference: the method. She doesn’t want to debate and wrestle. She wants each of them to hold space and listen to each other’s feelings.
Their vastly different communication styles are wreaking havoc on their intimacy and trust. He is lonely; he thinks she isn’t interested in him and doesn’t want to engage. She feels he is argumentative which shuts her down and makes her reluctant to share. She feels alone.
She explains (and says it’s for the umpteenth friggin time) that the impact of sexism makes it nearly impossible for her to feel safe if he constantly combats her; it reminds her of painful experiences growing up in a patriarchal, sexist family and world where she was constantly doubted and shut down by males. She says men always interrupt. She has to either hold her opinions back or fight to have a voice. She’s been trained to take care of others and make them feel well. She is tired. She is absolutely certain she cannot be close, trusting or sexual if this dynamic persists.
After a few back and forths, he listens.
When she is finished (and he asks if she is), he says that he hates what he hears: that for her to be comfortable, he has to be careful and controlled about how he communicates. He longs to be free of the religious and self-imposed constraints he’s lived with his whole life. He wants to feel fully alive, be his big, natural exuberant self. He cannot bear accepting that dealing with sexism has to occupy a front and center space in their intimate relationship.
Of course this upsets her. Of course she is angry. What does she do?
She argues and combats: Now you know how I feel all the time, she says. I have never been free; for me the constraints are not self-imposed. If you aren’t willing to address sexism for the betterment of yourself and the world then I can’t do this….
This time it was my turn to interrupt. I spoke my thoughts out loud, directed to the air, to the spaces in between them: How to deal with this difficult moment? Is it ok for one to interrupt but not the other? Is interrupting ok when you are triggered or angry or have been oppressed but not if you’ve been privileged or it is your preferred communication style? Who decides? Is one person’s pain more valid than the other’s? Can we listen to our partner’s rage, even when it feels unfair or like a reversal of oppression? Can we hold space and be present for this moment…?
Tears form in the man’s eyes. He looks directly at his wife and speaks softly, from a place of deep feeling; he shares sadness about his lack of inner freedom and the grief he feels about living in an unfair world, one that robs so many people, including her, the ability to express themselves without fear of reprisal or death.
She inches closer and reaches for his hand. She tells him that being sensitive to her experience and to the ravages of sexism makes him bigger not smaller, fuller and more alive in her eyes. And that the sexiest thing he can possibly do is work to combat sexism. She says, and I quote. It makes me want to fuck you.
When someone from a mainstream or dominant group is able to stay open and listen to rage expressed by someone with less privilege without emotionally shutting down, shutting the other down or defining what is and is not an appropriate communication style, it goes a long way towards creating trust. And it models one effective way to share privilege.
The woman used her psychological gifts and emotional intelligence in a way that served the relationship—she was able to move fluidly between her expression of anger and her love for her partner.
I can’t tell you how many cis male clients I’ve worked with who become totally frozen in the face of their female partner’s emotional expression. Regardless of how much earning power and financial control they may have, regardless of how much freedom they have in the outside world, some men (particularly middle-aged and older) are lost when it comes to certain very basic relationship skills, such as identifying feelings and finding the language to express them. When they feel vulnerable and unable, some men attempt to regain power by defining reality with statements like, “The truth is…” or “Let me tell you what really happened…”which of course, makes their partner madder. In many cases, the woman does not jump in and use her psychological abilities or awareness to help him out; instead she rolls her eyes and looks at me for confirmation of her husband’s idiocy. This sad dynamic is an unfortunate effect of male socialization, a first cousin to sexism, and puts some cishet men at a disadvantage when it comes to the art of intimate relating. Thankfully, with a little bit of work, emotional skills can be learned.
We can’t eliminate power—that is neither possible nor desirable. We can make power useful and put it to work, for our self and for the other. Within the context of their relationship, this couple was able to recognize the power dynamic between them, identify their power positions relative to each other and the larger world and navigate that slippery slope. Each emerged with a deeper sense of connection.
I’m grateful to this couple for modeling that.
It took me years, no decades, to learn how to navigate power in my personal and romantic relationships. There’s only one way to start: by knowing yourself. This requires bold self-examination and openness to feedback from others. In Power: A User’s Guide, dear friend and leadership coach Julie Diamond (2016) offers a detailed exercise that guides readers to examine many aspects of their power, specifically with regards to improving their leadership capacity. It’s super helpful and can be applied to relationships as well. Go check it out!