Power Dynamics in Relationships

Aug 03, 2014 10:44 pm | Mirel Goldstein

One of the most confusing power dynamics in relationships that comes up in my work as a therapist, has to do with feelings of confusion and insecurity that come up when clients spend time with people who seem very nice and harmless on the surface, but somehow manage to get under their skin time and time again, no matter what they do to try to stay in control of the interaction.

For example, one client found that she always felt so confused after talking to her sister because her sister always seemed to turn the conversation into one that left my client feeling bad about herself, no matter how determined she was before the conversation to stay away from touchy topics between them. My client would mentally prepare herself before each conversation, deciding how she was going to avoid getting into any discussion topics that would lead to bad feelings. But somehow, her sister had the upper hand, and each conversation left my client feeling like she had lost control of the conversation and gotten into some touchy topic that left her feeling either extremely criticized or very guilty. And she could never understand what it was that her sister had said that left her feeling so rattled.

It can be hard to believe this, but there are some people who use relationships simply to confirm their own sense of power, by trying to catch others “off guard” as their main goal in the relationship (this is not conscious, of course- it’s out of the person’s awareness, although very difficult to deal with nonetheless). If you are on the receiving end of this kind of interaction, you may feel like you can’t think, or become very self-conscious that you’ve overreacted or done something out of line (or out of character for you), or you may simply be extra worried about how much of your own insecurities contributed to the bad feeling you have after the conversation is over. These types of conversations often feel like a complex game of “mental gymnastics”, with the other person calling all the moves.

So, if you have people in your life who always seem to leave you feeling insecure; confused about whether you’ve done something wrong to them; or like the conversation keeps going places that you weren’t expecting, leaving you feeling disarmed or manipulated but unable to explain how you got to feeling that way, it may be time to look beneath the surface of the relationship. You may be dealing with a person who is exploiting your own vulnerabilities in order to keep himself/herself feeling that he has none; and he/she feels more safe, powerful, and in control as you feel increasingly insecure, vulnerable, confused, or ashamed. You may also find yourself reacting in ways that surprise or shock you, leaving you distracted from noticing their attempts to make you feel vulnerable and insecure, as your focus is drawn to being taken by surprise by your own behaviors and reactions.

This kind of relationship setup (and it is a “setup”) is not about trying to get you to have a specific feeling or reaction- such as anger or fear- but is more about the sense of power that comes with being able to provoke any reaction in you that you were not planning on having- it’s about getting you to feel “provoked” in general, without you realizing that that’s what’s happening. This might be similar to a child who seems to provoke his parent over and over again until he gets the reaction he is expecting- such as anger- and there seems to be a triumphant feeling about having been effective in that way, about having been effective enough to cause the parent to react. However, it’s not nearly as easy to deal with this dynamic when it shows up in adults; the person is often unaware that he is doing this, and may seem very innocent and charming on the surface, so that you might feel that you are dealing with a “manipulative” person, without being able to figure out how to dodge manipulations that you don’t become aware of until it’s too late.

However, once you see the situation for what it is (often a good reason to talk it over with a skilled therapist, if you find yourself in a relationship with such a person)- that this is really a perverse attempt to feel effective with others, but can have a very damaging effect on those on the receiving end- it becomes much easier to deal with. You will be able to step back from getting caught up in the dynamic in ways that leave you feeling off-center.

For one thing, seeing this dynamic for what it is will help you feel and act less defensive (or caught “off guard”) when your vulnerabilities are being highlighted, when false accusations are being thrown your way, or even when you feel you can’t think straight. Instead of feeling out of control, confused, or insecure- you will be clear that your feelings of insecurity and vulnerability are a normal response to the other person’s subtle attempts to provoke just those feelings in you. You can then give yourself the permission to accept your feelings rather than reacting to them, and this will allow you to avoid giving the other person control through being caught off guard in your own reactions. At that point, it simply becomes interesting to notice how good these people are at getting you to feel bad, and at undermining your ability to feel in control in the relationship and interaction.

So if there are people who constantly leave you feeling like you don’t have any idea what just happened in the conversation to make you feel so bad, yet you always feel bad nonetheless- think again. A very unhealthy dynamic may be at play. Or, if there are people who always manage to get you to feel extra self-conscious about your insecurities after you spend time with them, this may be their attempt to feel a sense of power and control by getting you to feel small. And if you dread seeing or talking to people who always seem to leave you with a bad feeling- but you can never tell what they did to make that happen- that might just be their point. Trust yourself and stay strong in yourself. This is not about you!

What do you think?