Power trips in relationships

Let’s talk about the threefold power rule

I once heard a preacher say people are never jealous of your success; what upsets them is your showing off. It was one of those statements that grab you like the glint of gold catching a miner’s eye, indicating a rich vein of treasure beneath.

In this case, it was a few more years before I came to see the underlying gold, which I’ve since come to think of as the threefold power rule of relationships:

  1. Each party in any relationship holds one of three broad power positions—equal, high or low.

  2. Power positions in any relationship are liable to change.

  3. When change happens, conflict is likely, unless it’s well managed.

And yes, I know it might seem obvious enough, but I think you’ll find the implications interesting, including how it’s at the root of jealousy.

My first introduction to power positions in relationships, although I didn’t know it then, was as a teenager just after secondary school. I scored high enough in university exams to be accepted into medical school and was excited to share the news with my friends—except, it turned out, one good friend hadn’t been as lucky. I’m no longer sure how—something in his face?—but it quickly became clear to me that over-sharing my success was not going to go down well. He tried to be happy for me, but being human, he could hardly help himself, and I recall realising he was angry. Angry not at me but at life—but I did happen to represent “life” in the moment.

We had been equals up until that moment, but my getting into uni had, to him, made me superior. And that became a problem. Note that I said, “to him”—because power position shifts are not about what you personally think. They’re about what the other person thinks, and if you don’t realise it, then you might have a problem.

Another time was at a job where one of my colleagues was always trying to get at me. She never missed a chance to criticise me, and it hurt because I had thought we were friends. Until one day, in a moment of honesty, she said something that made me realise what the trouble was: she confessed to feeling intimidated by my intellect. This was someone I looked up to, and not even because she was slightly senior to me, but because I admired her drive and ambition and forethought. Sure, I was a bit of a geek—always have—and that shapes how your mind works, but we can’t have it all, right? But here she was, being intimidated by me.

In this case, it was someone who I considered superior to me, but related with as an equal who however felt threatened by me. Again, note that it wasn’t about what I thought: it was about how she saw things. That’s the thing about power dynamics: being unaware of a shift doesn’t stop it affecting you.

But before we talk about how power shifts can affect you, it’s important to recognise how power even shifts.

For that we must turn to Willard Waller.

The power of “I couldn’t care less”

No he’s not a superhero—never mind in the alliterative name. Waller was a prominent American sociologist who wrote in 1938 about what he called the principle of least interest. Waller coined the term when he noticed, while observing dating couples in a university, that the emotional involvement of the two parties in any given pair was never quite equal—and if the disparity was too wide, one was in a position to emotionally exploit the other.

What is this principle of least interest, you ask?

The person or group with the least interest in continuing a relationship has the most power over it.

(If you think that sounds rather like supply and demand theory, that’s because it does: the principle has since proved useful, not only in sociology, but also in negotiation, marketing strategy, and economics.)

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Put differently, whoever is less invested in a relationship has, paradoxically, more power. By not needing you, people are in a position to control you. Waller put forward the principle of least interest as one useful way to determine who was in the superior position in any relationship: simply ask, who needed the other less? Whoever “the other” was, they were in the inferior position.What about when both are equal? Well, Waller came to conclude that rarely happened: power is almost never equally distributed in any relationship—for one reason or the other, one person would have more power.

And let’s be honest, this is often the case. I mean, sure, with your boss or parents, you’re probably in the inferior position. With your kids or subordinates at work, you’re superior. But with your friends, you’re more or less equal, right?

Not always. I mean, it happens, but maybe not as frequently as we might think. In many seemingly equal friendships (and romantic relationships), there’s still often the “superior” party: the ones who tend to take the lead, who typically decide where both or all of them go, whose suggestions tend to define things. We all have those friends.

I’ve certainly had my share. The friend with whom I (like everyone else close to him) always found myself speaking Nigerian Pidgin English even though we were both perfectly fluent in regular English. The friend who was significantly wealthier in our group of friends, and in whose house we tended to hang out. The funny one with the jokes, with whom I was the one who laughed—and sometimes got laughed at. In all those friendships, we were sort of equal, and yet the power imbalance was there, however slight.

But before we go on to how power imbalances can negatively affect you, it’s important to note 3 things.

  1. Power imbalance is not in itself a bad thing. No power position is inherently bad—even “inferior,” which I use purely descriptively. Sure, they can be abused, but so can anything in life. What creates issues is when we misread our position in relation to whoever the other party is. It’s a bit like a dance: it’s less about who leads than about you and your dancing partner being very clear who’s doing what, or else you’ll end up stepping on each other’s toes. Same here. Except a lot more than toes can get stepped on.
  2. Power imbalance is multi-axial. Because relationships exist on multiple axes. As with my colleague from earlier, although she was superior to me in that I was the newbie at work, she also seemed to perceive me as at least intellectually threatening. Superiority in one area doesn’t mean superiority across the board. In fact, in relationships with some degree of equality, it’s not so much that power balance is equal, but that multiple power imbalances cancel each other out—or at least come close.
  3. Power doesn’t necessarily tilt in the “obvious” direction. I mentioned earlier that you’re typically in an inferior power position to your boss or parents, and superior to your kids or subordinates. But you can sometimes be more or less equal to a boss or subordinate—a situation which, as anyone who has experienced it knows, can be stressful if not managed well. And we’ve all seen parents (maybe even ours) struggle with navigating from superior to equals as their children grow. And who hasn’t been in friendships like in my first example, where more-or-less equal power dynamics suddenly switch to superior-inferior?

Mind the imbalance!

There are two broad ways we trip over power imbalance—just like tripping over a wire, you either entirely missed seeing it, or you saw it and misjudged your step. So we need to get better at recognising power imbalances and at negotiating them, and especially the shifts (which tend to the most conflict-prone).

As we’ve already seen a good way to recognise power imbalance is to be aware of interest. There’s a reason why the question of who loves who more is common in relationships: I believe it’s because we understand intuitively that if we love someone more than they love us, we’re at their mercy. If we’re lucky they won’t take advantage of it—but not everyone is lucky.

On that subject, you might be interested to know the first major study—to test the principle of least interest, in 1972, found a large gap in male-female involvement: the lowest mean score among females was four points higher than the highest for males. In short males were significantly less interested in maintaining relationships, and so in a better position to exploit. (And now you know why, if you’re female, your mother might have told you to get you a man who loves you more than you love him.)

So in closing, let’s look briefly at two common imbalances and shifts.

Jealousy

You can only be jealous of someone who has something you think you ought to have yourself.—Margaret Atwood

Jealousy is an emotion of equals. You don’t get jealous of, say, a celebrity, some politician. You either see them as completely unrelated to you, or as superior to you on at least the axis of fame or success.

No, what sparks jealousy is when someone like you suddenly takes on a superior position of power. That’s the bit the preacher didn’t add: the only person who might get upset about your success is someone who thinks it makes you above them when you’re supposed to be their equal—and even worse, if they considered you their inferior.

Once this is clear, you can actually predict when jealousy can happen: if you get an advantage over someone who is your equal in an area they care about, jealousy is not far. (The exception being those with the confidence of real humility that sees everyone as equal.) And if you notice unexpected jealousy, well, there’s your clue that a shift just happened.

The worst part of success is trying to find someone who is happy for you.—Bette Midler

How to negotiate it. Well, just like the preacher said: don’t show off. If the relationship is important to you, downplay the thing that makes you unequal, until you’re sure the other person has adjusted to it enough to see you’re still on the same level. (Or don’t downplay it and hope for the best—that’s also a valid option so long as you’re aware of the worst.)

Frustration

We are properly ready for marriage when we are strong enough to embrace a life of frustration.—Alain de Botton

Frustration often results when people don’t take on the positions of power we expect from them, whether it’s someone playing superior or inferior when we expect them to be equal, or when someone we expect to act superior is wanting to play equal.

If you’re feeling frustrated in a relationship, it’s worth giving a thought to what your expectations are about the power positions in that relationship versus the reality. And a way to look at it is in terms of give and take: you’d expect to take more if you’re in the inferior position, give more if you’re in the superior one and a balanced give-and-take if you’re equals. Compare what’s happening to what you expect and you can figure out which the situation is.

How to negotiate it. This is a bit trickier, but you have, broadly, two options: you can accept things as they are, or insist on a change. Accepting isn’t as bad as it sounds: often it really means accepting that we misjudged the nature of the relationship, so it’s less settling for something less, and more recognising the relationship as it really is. Sometimes, though, it’s the other person misjudging (talking to good friends can help figure out when this is the case), and then it’s up to us to stand our ground and demand they live up to their potential in the relationship.

So there you have it: the threefold power rule of relationships as I understand them so far. Here it is again:

  1. Each party in any relationship holds one of three broad power positions—equal, high or low.
  2. Power positions in any relationship are liable to change.
  3. When change happens, conflict is likely except it’s well managed.

Have you been tripped up in the past by power the power rule? How did you manage it, and what did you learn? Hit me up on Twitter (@DocAyomide) and share your thoughts, or anything else in this essay that struck you!

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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1 Comment

  1. Amazing information as usual. We play around with power every single day, don’t we? Learning to recognise and negotiate successfully is the real skill. Thank you for this

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