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There is an element of power in every relationship. Realizing this is an essential step in learning how to develop healthy human relationships. When power is properly distributed among the various parties in a relationship, things can go very well. When power is being mismanaged, we end up hurting each other.
THE LURE OF POWER
In human relationships we measure our power by our ability to get what we want. What makes a king so different than a regular citizen? When the king says he wants something, he gets what he wants. When the regular citizen says he wants something, he often gets ignored. Greater power results in our preferences being respected and obeyed. And because we’re all selfish beings who want our own way 24/7, we crave power and we find it very tempting to abuse.
There are many ways to gain power in a relationship. Human beings are not clones of each other, and we can exploit our differences to gain more power. For example, Joe has food. Sam doesn’t. Joe takes advantage of the situation by saying he’ll give Sam food if Sam agrees to serve him. Joe is exploiting a difference in resources to get his own way more of the time.
Then there are physical differences. Jeff is stronger than his wife, so when he wants his wife to do something, he threatens to beat her unless she complies. Jeff is using his superior physical strength to get his preferences met.
Susan knows her daughter Marsha is desperate for her approval. So Susan dangles the bait of affirmation to get Marsha to serve her hand and foot. Susan is taking advantage of the difference in emotional needs between herself and her daughter.
Kim knows her boyfriend Steve wants sex, but he is too submissive in nature to ever try and force her even though he is physically stronger than her. Once she sees an opportunity to take advantage of Steve’s psychological state, Kim uses the hope of getting sex to make Steve do what she wants.
We also use the laws of our society to gain power. Military laws say that lower ranking officers must obey higher ranking ones. General Tom uses this to his advantage as he makes subordinates do things his way. Or, a man gets elected as president of his country, and suddenly he finds himself with an entire military that is acting as his subordinate. The military officers will do whatever he says. This new situation drastically increases the power that the man now has. Before he was president, he didn’t have the power to go seize territory from another nation. Now that his power has drastically increased, he can use it to get what he wants.
THE FRAGILITY OF HUMAN POWER
As easy as it can be to acquire power by exploiting natural differences between us and other humans, such power is also very fragile in nature. When Marsha starts seeing a counselor, she gets over her need for her mother’s approval and suddenly Susan no longer has a lackey. Sam finds a different boss to work for who is nicer than mean Joe. General Tom gets kicked out of the military.
Human power doesn’t last. No matter how much we have, we can lose it in an instant and suddenly find ourselves at the bottom of the heap. Abusive Jeff gets hit by a car and now he depends on the wife he once abused to take care of him. Movie stars and sports stars go from the pinnacle of fame to being forgotten nobodies in shockingly short periods of time. Children grow up and become impossible for their parents to physically restrain. The founders of companies get booted out by company boards. Ship captains worry about mutiny. National leaders worry about revolution. Companies worry about competitors. Established stars worry about the new talent that is constantly pouring into the system. Human power is so tenuous—so impossible to keep a grip on. For this reason, we often go crazy when we suddenly get a lot more than we’re used to. The bride who suddenly finds herself in the spotlight starts steamrolling over her friends and making unreasonable demands prior to the wedding ceremony. The pregnant woman who is suddenly getting fussed over makes a big deal out of her condition and feels free to treat her husband’s needs as irrelevant. The boy who was always smacked around finally gets a turn to be in charge and he dishes out the pain with gusto. Whether we’re desperate for attention, on a revenge trip, or just drunk on the high of everyone bowing down to us, we humans don’t handle large amounts of power well. There is truth to that old adage, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But why is it that we are so consistently wrecked by too much power? The answer is found in understanding some fundamental truths about our nature.
CREATED TO SERVE
Human beings were created to serve. We must serve to thrive. When we stop feeling subordinate to someone who is greater than ourselves, it has a very detrimental effect on us. This is why fully submitting to God is so essential to our basic happiness in life. Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit designed us in a way that makes it impossible for us to ever experience soul peace and satisfaction until we are consciously choosing to live in submission to Them.
It’s very interesting to note how critical the element of conscious choice is in this equation. The fact that we are totally dependent on our Makers for all things is a reality which we cannot change. Yet if we choose to ignore this reality or pretend that it isn’t true, we languish. Submission to God must be something we voluntarily choose if we are to gain any benefit from it. We must consciously decide to accept and embrace our absolute dependency on our Makers—a dependency which exists whether we acknowledge it or not—if we are to thrive.
Choice is a profoundly important concept for humans. It’s far more than an option that our Gods have generously given us—it’s a need which is woven into the very fiber of our beings. It is only through exercising our option to choose and choosing the things which our Gods tell us to choose that we end up experiencing satisfaction, completion, and deep joy.
BEINGS WITH ABSOLUTE POWER
Humans never come close to having absolute power. We were designed to be utterly dependent on our Creators to sustain our existence for us, and we are incapable of dominating Them in any way. Our three Gods are the only Beings in existence who have absolute power, and because of this, They are getting exactly what They want at all times.
When our Gods are communicating with us, They often make it sound as if humans can do things that They don’t want humans to do. They present Their will as something which either does or doesn’t happen, and They often speak as if our choice to rebel is a grievous thing to Them. But when They talk like this, They are intentionally misrepresenting the way things actually work. In life, our Gods are constantly presenting us with choices and then telling us to choose one choice over the others. Sometimes we obey Them, often we don’t. To help us grasp the principle that obedience is extremely important, our Gods often respond to our disobedience with negative words and forms of discipline. But this is all for our own benefit, because we are the ones who will end up suffering if we refuse to align with Them in life. From where They’re sitting, They only ever give us options that work for Them, and so no matter what we choose, it is impossible for us to mess up Their plans (see God’s Will vs. Human Choice Q&A). Our Gods always get what They want in this world and in every other world that They have made. While They give us the option of making choices that will greatly distress us, They Themselves are never distressed by anything that we choose.
It is a failure to understand the absolute sovereignty of our Gods that leads to the belief that we can hurt Them or disappoint Them or prevent Their plans from going forth. And because we’re such power hungry creatures, we really resist acknowledging the absolute power of our Gods. Instead we constantly exaggerate the extent of our own power while we downplay Theirs. Then we set ourselves up to be not just servants, but invaluable assistants who our Gods can’t work without. Here is where we get into the idea that demons can’t be cast out unless we humans do some fasting and anointing. Whenever you find Christians exalting the power of prayerful intercession, you are hearing a rejection of the way things actually are between us and our Gods. In our relationship with Them, all of the power is on Their side. There is absolutely nothing we can do to stop Them, control Them, or confine Them, yet They can do anything They want to us whenever They want. This is not a situation in which the power is equally balanced, and humans find this so threatening, that you’ll see Christians working hard to push the delusion that we have more power than we do in the God-human dynamic. And yet no matter how many verses we quote or how many useless rituals we invent for ourselves, the fact remains that all of the power is on the side of our Creators and nothing will ever change that.
THE GOD-HUMAN DYNAMIC
As a human, you can form many different kinds of relationships. Each relationship needs a specific power structure to be maintained if that relationship is going to thrive. When it comes to your relationship with your three glorious Creators, you are dealing with a dynamic which is unique in a couple of ways. For starters, the power structure is being totally controlled by Them and it cannot be changed. Such is not the case in human relationships. In human-human relationships, the power structure is negotiated between the two parties and it is always subject to change. It is only through mutual cooperation and constant adjusting that power structures remain steady in human-human dynamics. But in God-human dynamics, you don’t get any say in how the power is distributed. Your Creators hoard all of the power and leave you with none. They do give you choices and They say that those choices will have an enormous impact on your future happiness as a creature. But They don’t let you control Them with the choices you make. Many Christians attempt to do this by engaging in sacrificial giving, fasting, and good works. First we believe that these are things that God rewards. Then we try to control the quantity and type of rewards He dispenses by pouring on the tithes, going without food, and working our tails off in ministry efforts. There is a common belief that we can make God show up in some sensual way if we fast or camp out in a prayer closet or work ourselves into an emotional lather singing worship songs. In such moments, we are trying to use the choices we’ve been given as a way of gaining more power in the relationship. Our goal is not to please God, but to gain some control over how He interacts with us. Well, as many frustrated souls have learned, our Creators cannot be manipulated like this. They never allocate power to us in the God-human dynamic. Whenever we think this is happening, we are misunderstanding what’s going on.
In the Church, you’re often taught to view “spiritual gifts” as allocations of Divine power. The healer has the power to heal. Yes, we say it is Divine power, and yet at the same time we say that the healer can control when that Divine power flows by choosing when to lay his hands on people. Rather than view ourselves as mere conduits through which God chooses to move whenever it suits Him, we start talking as if we have been given possession of some amount of Divine power. It’s the difference between your friend Jack agreeing to pay for your lunch versus Jack giving you money and telling you to go buy yourself lunch. In the first scenario, you can order whatever you want at the take out counter, but the restaurant owners will not give you food unless Jack agrees to pay for it. Should Jack suddenly announce that he won’t buy you anything, you’re stuck, because you have no money of your own. This is always the way it works with our Gods. We never gain possession of Their insights and wisdom. It’s more like They choose to keep showing us things, but They can just as easily choose to stop doing this, at which point we’d be stuck because we have no spiritual wisdom on our own.
In the Church, you’re often taught to view your “spiritual gift” as Jack handing you some money to spend however you want. If you have the “gift of teaching,” then that means that you’re the owner of some amazing talent and you now need to decide how you want to help God build His kingdom by exercising your gift in some smart way. God is no longer viewed as the Owner of the gift. Instead, He’s been reduced to being the recipient of your generosity. You’re the powerhouse—you’re the bank account that God has downloaded funds into and now He’s hoping you distribute them in a way that He wants because He’s counting on you. Well, no, this is all egotistical rubbish. God is certainly not depending on you to help Him out in any way because God has absolute power and He’s helping Himself to what He wants just fine without any assistance from you. You see, when we reject the way the power structure actually works between us and our Creators, we end up all puffed up on pride and taking glory that we don’t begin to deserve. When some soul is uplifted by your comforting words, it’s not because you have “the gift of comfort,” it’s because God spoke through your mouth in that moment. You didn’t make Him speak. He spoke because He was in the mood to do so. God never functions as our pawn in life. We can’t make Him talk by cracking open the Bible, we can’t make Him show up by starving ourselves, and we can’t make Him give us some particular gift by dumping loads of money into the offering plate. God cannot be manipulated, but He manipulates us all the time and He accomplishes His will in our lives whether we want Him to or not.
TWO BASIC HUMAN-HUMAN DYNAMICS
Now when we get into the world of human-human relationships, there are two basic kinds of dynamics. In authority dynamics, one party functions as dominant over the other, and the dominant party has the most power. Examples here are parent-child, teacher-student, boss-worker, and ruler-citizen. Authority dynamics are essential—our societies would be in chaos without them. For authority dynamics to thrive, the power must be distributed unequally between the two parties. When the power becomes too equalized, chaos ensues. The father acts like a buddy instead of a parent and his children become unruly brats. The youth pastor acts like an adolescent when he’s with his teens, and the youth room is filled with loud, disorganized chaos in which no real teaching can be done. The boss gets too buddy-buddy with his employees and they stop respecting his orders and start doing things their own way. Without a proper balance of power, militaries could not function, laws would not be upheld, crime would go unchecked, and we’d all degrade into the basest form of carnality. Authority dynamics are critical.
The second kind of dynamic is one of human peers. In these relationships, power must be equally distributed for the relationship to work. In peer dynamics, an unequal distribution of power quickly results in abuse. Examples here are friend-friend, student-student, neighbor-neighbor, some sibling relationships, some coworker relationships, and marital relationships. In Christian communities, the marital dynamic is the peer dynamic that is most often misunderstood. Because Christians fail to recognize that the ancient Jewish practice of turning the marital dynamic into an authority dynamic was incorrect, they listen to the apostle Paul saying that women should be subservient to their husbands and then they think that’s the way that God wants things to be. Well, no, it isn’t. For the husband-wife dynamic to thrive, it should be treated as a peer dynamic with the power being equally distributed as much as possible. Ever wonder why women were treated like chattel in ancient Jewish society and why boys were viewed as so much more valuable than girls? This is what happens when peer dynamics are turned into authority dynamics. God never intended for the man to dominate the woman or vice versa. To thrive, spouses must work to keep the power equally distributed.
In the human-God dynamic, maintaining a correct power structure is a breeze because our Gods hold all of the power and They don’t allow any fluctuation to happen. But in human-human relationships, the power is constantly in flux, and this means that both parties must constantly adjust to keep the power correctly allocated. Let’s run through some examples to see how this works.
Jane is the manager of George. Since boss-worker relationships are authority dynamics, it is important for Jane to retain the majority of the power. It doesn’t mean she abuses George. She can be a very fair and encouraging boss, but she must not relinquish too much power or the dynamic will dissolve into a mess. One day Jane gives an order that George finds very annoying. George is having a bad day, so he blows Jane off and does the opposite of what she wants. By doing this, George is attempting to increase his power in the relationship. And since there is only so much power to go around, by increasing his power, he is decreasing Jane’s. To keep this dynamic working smoothly, Jane needs to address this issue. She calls George to her office and asks why he disobeyed her orders. George tells her that he’s stressed from fighting with his wife the night before and that he didn’t like what Jane told him to do. Here Jane can express sympathy for George’s personal problems, but unless he provides evidence for why her order was unwise, she needs to insist that he go back and do things the way she wants. This is how Jane will reclaim the power that George has taken out of her court. When Jane insists on having her way, George can either agree to relinquish the power he tried to take, or he can rebel and try to seize more power. If he rebels, Jane will need to fire him and find someone else who will accept a subordinate position under her. But if George agrees to do as Jane wants, then all is well again and they can move on.
Then there is Mike. Mike just married Paula, thus entering into a peer dynamic where equality of power is critical for success. But the problem with Paula is that growing up with a domineering father has given her doormat tendencies and she keeps trying to surrender power to Mike. Whenever it’s time to make a decision, her answer is always, “I don’t care. Whatever you want.” She won’t disagree with Mike, even when she is upset by what he is doing. This throws the dynamic off balance and it threatens the success of the whole marriage. Happily, Mike is a mature man who understands what is needed to make his marriage succeed. So when Paula keeps giving up her power, he responds by giving it back to her. He and Paula have a routine of going for walks in the evening, but one evening Paula is very tired and doesn’t want to go on a walk. Noticing this, Mike says, “We can skip the walk because you’re tired.” Remember that power is expressed in human relationships by whose preferences are being satisfied. By offering to satisfy Paula’s preferences over his, Mike puts power on her side. But Paula immediately rejects that power by saying, “No, we should go. I know you want to. I’ll be fine.” Here is where Mike needs to insist on Paula keeping her power by saying, “No, it’s fine. You’re tired and you should rest. So let’s stay in.” These verbal dances are how Mike keeps correcting the power structure that Paula keeps throwing off balance. The hope is that Paula will grow more comfortable with an increase in power and stop fighting Mike so much when he tries to equalize the relationship. Now if Mike wasn’t the mature man that he is, he could easily take advantage of Paula’s constant surrendering of power and allow the marriage to turn into an authority dynamic. This would result in a miserable Paula always groveling to a selfish, uncaring Mike, and everyone would end up in a mess. Marriages must be treated as peer dynamics to thrive.
Then there is Stacy. Stacy has a friend named Beth. In this peer friendship, an equality of power is needed. But Beth is one of those quiet, polite types who is so very easy to take advantage of, and Stacy is an alpha personality. Whenever they meet for lunch, Stacy always picks the place and sometimes she even orders for Beth when she wants Beth to try something new. Stacy is always making the choices for the unit, and Beth is always going along with her. This creates an unhealthy authority dynamic in the relationship, and over time, Stacy loses respect for Beth and Beth gets tired of feeling steamrolled by Stacy. To salvage this friendship, the power needs to be equalized. Beth needs to demand more power by refusing to always go along with what Stacy wants to do, and Stacy needs to relinquish power by encouraging Beth to express her preferences and satisfying those preferences even when Stacy isn’t thrilled with them. For example, Stacy always chooses Italian restaurants because Italian food is her favorite. But Beth likes Chinese. If the women start rotating between Italian and Chinese, this will demonstrate a shift in power. Then there needs to be an adjustment to their style of conversation. Stacy usually does all of the talking while Beth can’t get a word in edgewise. To equalize power here, the women should start taking turns talking and Stacy needs to focus on listening while Beth needs to share more than two sentences’ worth of thoughts. By intentionally rotating whose preferences are being satisfied, these ladies can equalize the power in their relationship and possibly salvage the friendship.
Correcting imbalances of power takes cooperation on both sides. Dysfunctional relationships form when two partners are intentionally maintaining an imbalanced power structure and then defending the resulting abuse as a good thing. Sadomasochistic pairings are a classic example of this. Sexual relationships are supposed to be peer relationships in which the power is equalized between the two partners. But in sadomasochistic pairings, someone who enjoys abusing gets together with someone who enjoys being abused and the two engage in an authority dynamic. The result is excessive degradation and abuse of the masochistic partner while the sadistic partner behaves like a cruel monster. In the end, both partners end up with severe psychological problems.
When you hear terms like enabling or entitlement, these are references to people trying to fight for a wrong power structure. The typical enabler is refusing to claim the power that they should have in the peer dynamic, and instead they are agreeing to be kicked around by someone else. The entitled person is a power hoarder who tries to aggressively punish anyone who challenges his or her authority.
APPROPRIATE POWER SHIFTS
While peer dynamics need to strive for power equality, some authority dynamics are supposed to go through an evolution in which the authority figure intentionally relinquishes more and more power over time in order to achieve equalization or a complete reversal. The parent-child dynamic is a prime example of this. When children are born, they hold very little power and the parent is supposed to act as a stalwart authority figure who punishes attempts to change the power structure. When little Tommy steals a cookie after his mom told him not to, he needs to be disciplined. It’s not about the cookie, it’s about him trying to reduce her power in the relationship. Early stage parent-child relationships will degrade into chaos if the power becomes too equalized. This is why negotiating with young children instead of spanking their little behinds is such a bad idea. Children are not adults, and they shouldn’t be treated as such. Attempts to reduce the parent’s power should be disciplined swiftly and with enough severity to discourage future attempts at rebellion. When children are allocated too much power too early, it frightens them on deep levels, and they feel insecure in the home. This results in aggressive, violent behavior, as the child keeps trying to provoke the adult into correcting the imbalance of power. Children instinctively know that they are not safe in their own care and they need their parents to dominate them. There are plenty of ways to do this without taking love and affection out of the equation. When discipline is handled properly, the child understands that his rebellion is what is being rejected, not his personal self.
Now as time progresses and the child grows up, the parent’s job is to prepare the child to be self-reliant by allocating more and more power to them. The power difference in early stage child-parent relationships is supposed to be great, and then it is supposed to shrink as the child ages until eventually a peer dynamic is achieved when the child is a mature adult. A common mistake parents make is to rush into the peer dynamic too early. The teen years are especially difficult, with the child aggressively grabbing at more power and viewing himself as far more capable and mature than he really is. It is very important that the parents do not accept a peer dynamic until the child is fully grown, and they do this by refusing to relinquish power no matter how much the child pushes for it.
Before we discuss how to correct imbalances of power, it’s important to note that it is never appropriate for a human being to be forced into a position of total powerlessness. Even babies should be given some degree of power by having their preferences accommodated. To refuse to respond to an infant’s pleas for food or warmth or fresh clothes is a form of abuse, and abuse is always the result of an imbalance of power. No matter how great the rank difference is between the authority figure and the subordinate, the subordinate must always be given a degree of power, and that means that they will have some of their preferences satisfied. It is God who teaches us the rightness of this, and it is God who says it is wrong to abuse each other. Since we all want our own core needs to be met, God tells us to “treat each other as we’d want to be treated” as a way of helping us identify when we are drifting too far afield.
So how do you correct an imbalance of power in a human relationship? Since humans measure their power by how often they get their own way in a relationship, bringing the power back into balance becomes a matter of changing response patterns. Your entitled mother expects you to drop everything and entertain her whenever she comes into town. She is claiming too much power in the relationship. To improve her treatment of you, you need to stop giving her what she wants. The next time she comes to your house without notice, you say, “Sorry, Mom, but I’m busy and I can’t go out with you today. No, you can’t come in. Next time, if you give me advance notice, I can tell you whether I will be free or not.”
Now when power hoarders suddenly start feeling their power being taken away, they usually panic and try to use aggression to reestablish control. This is the husband who suddenly hits his wife when she finally says “no” to one of his demands. He’s never hit her before—he’s always used verbal aggression to keep her in check. But now that she’s threatening to take his power away, he suddenly spikes his aggression to new levels in order to scare her back into a subordinate position and hopefully discourage her from ever challenging him again. This is the boyfriend who goes ballistic and rapes his doormat girlfriend the day she finally scrapes up the courage to break up with him. This is the wife who threatens financial ruin if her husband dares to file for a divorce. This is the teen who pulls a gun on his mom when she tries to withhold her paycheck from him.
When the power structure has been allowed to get way off balance for a long period of time, correcting it is not an easy process. Often a period of total separation is needed to totally break old patterns, and often the dominant party chooses to find a new person to kick around rather than relinquish power to their original partner. This is the boyfriend who dumps his girlfriend as soon as she withholds sex from him. Why should he bother with respecting her when she can be so easily replaced? It is a fear of being dumped that motivates many women to get in bed with a boyfriend who is pressuring them. The next thing they know they’re his live-in prostitute who is doing his laundry, cooking his meals, and paying his rent while they hope in vain for a proposal of marriage. But no, he isn’t going to propose, and even if he did, she shouldn’t take him because he is refusing to allow the power to equalize in the relationship. The common belief that getting walked on is better than being alone simply isn’t true. You’re much better off single and unattached than you are partnering with someone who is perpetually abusing you for their own selfish gain.
Not all relationships can be salvaged. Fixing imbalanced power structures takes cooperation on both sides. While you can certainly distance yourself from abusers and limit the control that they have over you, you can’t make an abuser turn into a friend. Abusers hoard power because they are afraid of being without it. Relinquishing it brings up a lot of internal issues for them, and unless they are willing to deal with those issues and do the painful work of processing past traumas, they aren’t going to feel like relinquishing power is a viable option. In the same way, you can’t get a doormat to stop being a doormat just by treating him or her nicely. People avoid power for the same reason that others hoard it: they are trying to cope with internal fears and woundedness. We can’t fix each other, and when you try to leap into the role of rescuer without God’s permission, you will end up in a frustrating mess. Recovery is a choice which many people refuse to make.
The topic of developing healthy human relationships is quite vast, and here we’ve only touched the surface of a very complex issue. But simply being aware that there is an element of power in all human relationships can really help you in life. Understanding that power must be correctly allocated for a relationship to thrive can help you assess what’s going wrong in some of the relationships that are currently frustrating you. It’s not always about an imbalance of power—but so often it is, and learning to better use the power that you have will help you get the most out of the relationships that you have. As always, we want to be looking to our Gods for guidance in these matters. No one understands humans better than the Ones who created them, and when we sincerely seek Their wisdom in life, there is no end to the fascinating insights They will reveal to us.
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