In western thought, we are constantly told that we need to love ourselves before we can love someone else in a marital relationship. In fact, in spending time with one another, showing affection, or performing acts of kindness, many encouragements direct us to exercise selfishness and not show the cards in our hands, keep our feelings at check and conceal how we feel about our partners, “don’t show how much you love”. An expression and attitude of “I don’t need you”. In a way it seems we are modeling narcissism in our marital relationship. This dynamic also applies in other interpersonal relationships; In groups, men and women who show the least feelings among their peers, or in other words are the most self-centered and egotistical, are often times the most celebrated and followed.
As a culture, we are apparently not the only people duped by narcissism in a marital relationship. While narcissists may look like good spouses, partners or even lovers, according to a new study by University of Amsterdam, they’re actually really bad at a marital relationships. But, despite people’s positive perceptions of narcissists, when it comes to performance, narcissists actually inhibit information exchange and thereby negatively affect the outcomes of their marital relationship.
In this article, considering the state of our high rates of divorce, we want to explore why it is that perfectly good relationships turn sour after marriage? Are falsehoods such as staying in control and holding the reigns of power to be blamed? How the power dynamics in marriage or a relationship power dynamics can lead to resentment and toxicity?
Who holds power in a marital relationship?
The study of the power dynamics in relationships have resulted in many different opinions. Multiple theories of power in a marital relationship states that money is power and for a woman to stay powerful in a marital relationship, she needs to remain in control of finances, sex, children, the household, food, entertainment, her body, etc. Others believe that the power struggles in marriage needs to be surrendered to the man, as he is naturally the leader of the family. The man needs to be the narcissistic, brainiac, and the wife the soft, quiet, subservient follower.
This concept states that in relationships similar to leadership, power is more important than love has also been associated with being a male. “It is much safer to be feared than loved,” writes Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince, his classic 16th-century treatise exemplifying manipulation and occasional cruelty as the best means to power.
In the same spirit we have had many traditional relationship gurus, philosophers and believer alike within a 500-year span, which believe that in order for a relationship between a man and a woman to be successful, the woman has to surrender her power to the man and allow the man to be the center of attention. In fact it has been said in the bible that a wife needs to be led by her husband and obey him at all times. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be embittered against them. —Colossians 3:18-19
Furthermore, historically well respected women such as Gina Greco and Christine Rose in their book The Good Wife’s Guide, Le Menagier de Paris state that a good woman and a good wife needs to be selfless and overlook all of her husband’s misdeeds and never give off his secrets. If he has committed misdeeds, she should not directly correct him, but rather conceal her thoughts and intentions that she wishes he would act differently but to rather patiently accept the misdeeds.
Robert Greene’s national bestseller, The 48 Laws of Power, make Machiavelli’s’ ideas seem like child’s play. Greene’s book, is pure Machiavelli. Here are a few of his 48 laws:
Law 3, Conceal Your Intentions.
Law 6, Court Attention at All Costs.
Guided by centuries of Machiavellian advice like the above, many have come to believe that attainment of power requires force, deception, manipulation, and coercion. In fact, women were expected to give in to the needs of their egotistical husband to ensure a lasting bond. Similarly, a larger percentage of our society assumes that positions of power demand this kind of conduct; that to be a successful couple we need to use power abusively or accept our partner to use it abusively.
Power is effective when used responsibly
Well, a new science of power would reveal that this is not further from the truth. In fact, the use of power is most effective, when it’s used responsibly. Individual(s) whom are accustomed to being connected and engaged with the needs and interests of others, are most trusted and hence most influential. The many years of research studying power and leadership suggests that empathy and Emotional Intelligence are vastly more important then the attainment of force, deception, terror or power plays in relationships.
So going back to the question of what makes perfectly good relationship fall apart after marriage, we believe the answer lies in the concept of power plays in the relationship after marriage. There is something about the position of power that becomes all about winning and not necessarily about achieving the greater good. Once couples are married, often times, they feel entitled, comfortable and secure in that the other person is there to stay and hence an entire myriad of controls begin to get formulated and roles begin to get installed in the relationship. Who gets to stay out late, who does chores, who makes money, who tucks the kids into bed and stays home when they are sick, who dictates when it’s time for sex, who decides on spending or what’s worth spending money on etc. etc.
How power imbalance can ruin a marital relationship
Studies show that once people assume positions of power, they’re likely to act more selfishly, impulsively, and aggressively, and they have a harder time seeing the world from other people’s points of view. For instance, studies have found that people given power in experiments are more likely to rely on stereotypes when judging others, and they pay less attention to the characteristics that define those other people as individuals. They also found to judge others’ attitudes, interests, and needs less accurately. One survey found that high-power professors made less accurate judgments about the attitudes of low-power professors than those low-power professors made about the attitudes of their more powerful colleagues.
Hence, it seems, the skills most important to obtaining power (becoming a husband or a wife) and leading a family effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power. Power imbalance in relationships in time deteriorates the relationship itself.
We suggest the following Eight Do’s and Don’t’s to Avoid Power struggles or Worst yet Powerlessness in Relationships:
- Just because you are in a marital relationship, it doesn’t mean you own their time, energy or livelihood. Let them choose to do things, rather than being coerced by you to do them. A healthy and continuous exchange of power in relationship can help a couple gauge their needs better.
- Always incorporate both thoughts and feelings in what constitutes the best decision and give your two cents no matter how small.
- Treat the your marital relationship as you did during courtship, when you didn’t know when the next time you saw them would be (the marital relationship can end if things gets worse with time, so you don’t take it for granted.
- Don’t expect that what you do or give in the marital relationship versus what the partner does or gives need to be equal. Men and women think differently and even if they didn’t they feel loved differently, so contributions are in the eyes of the beholder not the giver. Instead ask for what you would like rather than assume and lead by example.
- Don’t accept that you are not good in something, so the other person in your marital relationship has to automatically take charge. If you refrain, do it consciously knowing and accepting that you are choosing to do so.
- Don’t withhold love, money, sex or information as a form of control in your marital relationship. Reciprocity cannot be forced. You may not receive if you give, but if you don’t give, you also deprive yourself of the positive feelings associated with giving. Similarly, power imbalance in marriage or money imbalance in relationships can be detrimental to a marriage.
- Express the feeling that you both need one another rather than acting omnipotent and ask for help and love.
- The best power is the unsaid but felt kind. (If you have a pet, or a child you know how much power they have over you, so you know what we are talking about)
Want to have a happier, healthier marriage?
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
More by Farnaz Namin Hedayati