Power exists in all relationships. Having power means to have a sense of control, to have choices and the ability to influence our environment and others. It’s a natural and healthy instinct to exert our power to get our wants and needs met. When we feel empowered, we can manage our emotions, we believe that we matter and that we can affect outcomes. We have a sense of efficacy in our lives, rather than being at the effect of others and circumstances. Instead of reacting, we can act because we have an internal locus-of-control.
In contrast, codependents often feel powerless and victims of outside forces. We can feel like our destiny is out of our hands. Some of us voluntarily give up our power to others. We may feel uncomfortable with exercising our own power, and believe that we will alienate others. We might feel like we’re being mean or raising our voice when we merely state what we want or don’t like. This impaired sense of power stems from:
- A habitual external focus
- Shame and low self-esteem–not feeling worthy
- Dependence and lack of autonomy–excessive need for a relationship
- Lack of assertiveness and deference to others’ decisions
- Discomfort with power and a belief that it harms relationships
- Fear of rejection and abandonment
- Need for others’ love and approval to feel content and happy
- Denial of needs, wants, and feelings
- Having unreasonable expectations of others
- 10. Lack of self-responsibility (victim-blame mentality)
In relationships, ideally power is shared. This is a process that’s learned. It recognizes the worth and autonomy of each individual. Yet, traditionally, women were second-class and had no real power in the family or society at large. Consequently, they developed skills in understanding and reading those with power and figuring out how to influence and get their needs met indirectly. This also leads to resentment and disempowers women.
As codependents, most of us grew up in families where power was exercised over us in a dominant-submissive pattern or our needs and feelings were ignored or criticized. Our power and self-worth weren’t encouraged and we came to believe that power and love can’t coexist. Power got a bad rep. Some of us decided the best way to feel safe and get our needs met is to exercise power over others. Yet, this also is a lose-lose proposition, since it breeds fear and resentment and makes our partner withdraw or behave in passive-aggressive ways.
Self-worth and autonomy are pre-requisite to sharing power and feeling entitled to express our desires and needs, including needs for respect and reciprocity. Relationships and intimacy require boundaries. Otherwise, risking honest self-expression feels too threatening. In order to set boundaries and be vulnerable, we have to know what we want and feel and value and trust ourselves. Knowing that we can survive on our own permits us to not be so dependent on others approval.
Codependent relationships typically have power imbalances. But when we don’t express ourselves and our power due to codependency, it’s natural for someone else to fill the vacuum. Often, one partner, sometimes an addict, narcissist, or abuser, wields power over the other partner. Usually the acquiescent partner attempts to exert influence in indirect or passive-aggressive ways, such as withholding. Chronic lack of power can lead to depression and physical symptoms. In somewhat healthier relationships, both partners vie for power in ongoing power struggles. These typically revolve around money, chores, childcare, and negotiating how and with whom time is spent. To avoid conflict, some couples segregate domains where they each exercise more control. Because of socio-economic and cultural influences, historically, mothers ruled the roost and fathers earned more and controlled finances. This continues in many families despite women’s improved earning power, especially when they have young children.
Traditional roles are changing and becoming more egalitarian. By working or having power outside the home, women learn that they can function outside the marriage. This potentially gives them greater power within the relationship. Some partners become resentful when everything isn’t split 50-50, but more critical is the perception of unfairness and imbalanced power. When our feelings and needs are ignored, when we don’t feel listened to or that our input matters, we feel unimportant and resentful. When we have no influence, we feel disrespected and powerless.
In healthy relationships where power is shared, both partners take responsibility for themselves and for the relationship. Decisions are made jointly. It’s necessary to say what we like and don’t like and what we want and won’t tolerate. But many codependents have never learned these skills. They’re unable to know and assert their wants and needs or make decisions, often even for themselves. Assertiveness requires a safe atmosphere built on healthy boundaries and a foundation of autonomy and self-esteem. See my ebook, How To Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits.
Control is one of the primary symptoms of codependency – control of self and/or others. As codependents, rather than taking responsibility for ourselves and our happiness, our focus is external. Rather than attending to our needs directly, we might try to control others to make us feel okay on the inside. Many of us relinquish control over ourselves and attempt to control others, because we actually lack a sense of power in our lives. We think, “I’ll change (or manipulate) him (or her) to do what I want, and then I’ll be happy.” This behavior is based on the erroneous belief that we can change others. When our expectations aren’t met, we feel more helpless and powerless.
Instead of believing that love and power are incongruous and that ideal love means giving up oneself, we need to claim our power. This requires learning to live consciously, taking responsibility for ourselves and choices, building self-esteem, and knowing and asking directly for our needs and wants. As we learn to set boundaries and say no, we create safety and mutual respect, allowing our partner to do the same. By accepting ourselves and our partner, there’s goodwill and respect for our partner’s differences. When power is shared, we feel safe and then can be vulnerable. Doing so gives up some power, but actually strengths our true self in an environment of mutuality and trust. Thus, asserting our power permits safety, and allows for intimacy and love to flourish. When we feel powerless or unsafe, love and the health of the relationship are threatened.
©Darlene Lancer 2014