What Does it Mean to “Give Away Your Power” in Relationship?

Posted on in On Our Radar by Elizabeth Wolfson


“Why did you give up your power?” I asked Mark, who had come to therapy to work on his marriage with Karen.

“What do you mean?’ he responded, looking up in surprise. Distraught and guilt-ridden in the aftermath of a recently ended affair, he had just listed the things he needed to change about himself. I was not surprised by Mark’s surprise—no one wants to acknowledge giving up their power in their most intimate relationship.

“Well,” I continued, “that is terrific that you are looking at what you need to do, but what would you want Karen to change?”

Mark shook his head, “I wouldn’t even know where to begin. She gets upset if I suggest she do anything different.”

It was clear that Mark had given up on getting his needs met in the relationship, including the right to ask for anything. No wonder he had gone outside the marriage to reclaim the parts of himself he had buried.

How is it that we relinquish our power in relationship, and why do we stay there? Generally, the path is paved with good intentions. We want our partner to be happy, and we want to be kind, compassionate, and loving. If, however, we are motivated by wanting to avoid our partner’s anger, judgment, or potential abandonment, we hold ourselves hostage to fear. Compromise and sacrifice are the essential components to love, but everyone has to reciprocate dynamically.

If only one person is compromising and sacrificing, that person’s needs go underground along with their vitality, as mutual respect and appreciation disintegrate, and the relationship descends into unhappiness.

How does this happen? We first feel so alive in love because we are seen and appreciated. We are mutually curious and hungry to know each other, asking questions, interested in the answers. We are pleased by our similarities and intrigued by our differences, excited by the “otherness” of the other. We are drawn to traits we admire and lack, and which we may now vicariously enjoy. Ironically, as time goes by, the very differences we once found charming become a source of frustration, annoyance, or disapproval. Now, we want our partner to be more like us. For example, a pragmatic person initially drawn to an adventurous partner later experiences them as reckless. The adventurer who once appreciated their partner’s stability now feels confined. And so it goes, into a spin of critique and judgment—a power struggle in which nobody wins.

Intimate relationship is a complex coming together of two individuals bringing their fears, values, cultural expectations, and relational tendencies. These traits and trends are compounded by our desire for control and fear of change. We are magnets to the familiar, unwittingly attracting partners who offer opportunities to repeat and repair unresolved patterns from previous relationships. For instance, we may unconsciously choose an emotionally distant partner to win attention we didn’t get from an unavailable parent, or a complaining partner in lieu of the unhappy parent we could never soothe. The patterns unfold as we go along, and we become mired in the dynamic before we see it, persisting until we get it right. Initially attracted to Karen’s decisive nature, Mark was now as intimidated by her as he had been by is overbearing and volatile father. His efforts to please Karen and avoid her anger came at great cost to the relationship. Unable to be open and authentic with his wife, he sought freedom to be himself in an extramarital affair.

Love does ask us to relinquish power but only if both partners participate. Surrendering to love should never be a response to threat, fear, or helplessness. A loving partner surrenders by giving space for the other to be more of themselves rather than requiring that they be more like us.

Some things are so essential to our well-being that a truly loving partner would never ask us to give them up. But how do we distinguish between the sacrifices and compromises that are reasonable from those that are unreasonable?

If we have a diminished sense of selfworth, we don’t deserve better—we give our partner the power to determine what is right or wrong, good or bad. Doubting ourselves, we concede to our partner’s version of reality as if it were fact. When we are driven by inadequacy, guilt, wrongdoing, and/or an overdetermined sense of responsibility, we operate through the lens of perpetual apology. From this perspective, giving up power is what we think we should do, and we overlook the imbalance.

As with most things, happiness is found in the balance. In the dance of love, each partner minds their own steps. If everyone participates, no one has to keep score. You are not in charge of changing or fixing your partner, nor in getting them to be more like you. But you can take charge of your own role and responsibility in perpetuating relationship stress. Part of this is checking in with your own happiness, recognizing that not only does it deserve equal weight, but that without it, the relationship cannot survive. Empowerment means asking yourself the hard questions even if it means making changes. Ask yourself, Am I doing all that I can in the dance of giving and getting, and is my partner doing the same?

Power is always with you, but you must be willing to use it. The life and health of your intimate relationship depends on it.

Elizabeth Wolfson, PhD, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Santa Barbara, and the chair of the Master’s in Clinical Psychology Program at Antioch University, Santa Barbara.

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