Power in relationships lies with whoever can inflict the most pain on the other person.
Power comes from the ability to inflict pain or suffering. Parents have power over children because they can ground them, feed them beets, and take away phones and cars. Governments have power because they can draft, detain, and tax people. Bosses have power because they control paychecks. In relationships, power is held by the person with the most ability to hurt the other. Ideally, this power is shared equally and not abused.
Men are in objectively powerful positions more often than women. The majority of business owners and CEOs are men. Same goes for government officials. These public positions of power have led power to become a trait associated with masculinity as a whole.
But the connection between men and power often falls flat at home and in intimate relationships. Here, too, power is relative to the ability to inflict suffering. Men have historically held the most power in a family. This power has come from two places: the ability to inflict physical pain through violence and the ability to inflict financial suffering on a spouse that doesn’t work.
Now that women make up half of the workforce, men’s ability to inflict economic suffering on women has waned. And while the disparity in physical power still looms over relationships between men and women, education about domestic violence, discussions about intimate violence on popular TV shows, and more access to help for victims has brought the issue out of the shadows, decreasing its power.
Women’s power is often linked to sexuality. Women hold the key to reproduction and sexual pleasure, so the argument goes. Neither of these “powers” allow women to inflict pain on men. It is true that only women can give birth, but there are more reproductive options available now than ever, for both men and women. Single-parent adoption and surrogacy give people the option to have a child without a partner.
The other problem with the sexuality argument comes from the assumption that only men actively seek sexual pleasure—and that women thus hold this power the same way a boss holds the power to dole out bonuses. Withholding sex can certainly lead to suffering, but it is not gender exclusive, and leads mostly to emotional suffering. If the problem were purely physical, sex can be bought, as problematic as that may be.
Money can buy sex, but it cannot buy love. This is where real power comes from in relationships. When men lack the ability to wield financial power and women’s sexual powers are exaggerated, the source of power is shared by the sexes. It is the power to inflict emotional pain. This power knows no gender, and can be transferred back and forth over the course of a relationship.
In college, I was on a drive with my boyfriend when I told him I couldn’t be his friend if we broke up. He said, “I said that same thing to you two years ago, and you were livid. But you had the power then, and you don’t now.” As angry as I was at him for that comment, he was right. Something had changed in our relationship, and it was all about pain. Two years earlier he would have suffered more in a breakup, but that night in my car, I would have been the one hurting had he chosen to leave me.
My understanding of pain and power in love goes back to my childhood. In high school, I had a night of screaming and tears after discovering my boyfriend had cheated. We were at a friend’s house, and I remember grabbing my boyfriend’s arm and digging my fingernails into him. Looking back, I am incredibly ashamed of this incident and how I resorted to violence in my anger. I felt so helpless in that moment, wanting desperately to hurt him, but knowing that no words could make him feel the pain I wanted him to feel. I said to him, “I want to inflict the same amount physical pain on you that you just emotionally inflicted on me.”
Power disappears the instant the mechanism to inflict pain is removed. Once it no longer would hurt my college boyfriend to be without me, I had no power in our relationship. Once a worker quits a job, his boss ceases to have any authority over him.
In the public sphere, power continues to be held by men. In personal relationships, power is shared, fluid, and emotional. By entering a romantic relationship, you agree to give a person power over you, and can only hope that they don’t abuse it.
Photo credit: Flickr / Josep Ma. Rosell