Power control and individuality issues in relationships

Power and control are two of the most significant issues in any relationship. The more trouble the relationship is facing, the more these power and control issues will come to the surface. The better the relationship is working the less power and control issues will be a problem. 

A really functional "grown-up" relationship will be marked by the lack of emphasis on issues about power or control. Instead, both the partners will feel closely connected (linkage) while maintaining a strong sense of individuality and independence within the relationship. This is how relationships are meant to be.

None of the first four kinds of relationship described below, are recommended. But I have included these four as a kind of bench-mark and as a contrast with number five, the "grown-up" relationship. Many of us have experienced one of more of these first four kinds of relationship in the past and most of us hope to avoid them again in the future. But because they have been so fully accepted (traditionally) in the past it's worth looking at them in terms of  two basic positions:

  • how effectively power and control issues are resolved


  • how much or how little  individuality and freedom is experienced by each partner within the relationship

Number five, the "grown-up" relationship is different. This kind can only be created by both partners working together as a team to discover better ways to minimise power and control issues. At the same time both partners work just as hard to recognise and maintain a strong sense of individuality within the relationship.

1. Traditional Patriarchal.

This type of relationship is based on male dominated teachings typically found in conservative religion based societies where the male is regarded as unquestionably dominant. Patriarchal relationships are based on and justified by their traditional view which regards women as weaker, less intelligent and therefore entitled to be controlled by the stronger male. Neither men nor women question this assumption. Females are expected to be subservient to males on most matters both within and outside the family. In this kind of relationship while the male experiences many opportunities for independence, there is very little opportunity for the female to experience life as an individual. See also separate page about the Inner Patriarch and Inner Matriarch.

2. Traditional Matriarchal.

This type of relationship while theoretically acknowledging the male as the head of the partnership, in practice places the female in the position where she exercises many subtle but powerful forms of control. This results in her having the final say on many significant family issues. Matriarchal relationships tend to regard men as being at best, "little boys" who (when it comes to family matters) need to be guided by stronger women. It is commonly found in many traditional Mediterranean, Eastern European and Jewish societies. Neither male nor females feel much sense of independence or freedom to be themselves as individuals. See also separate page about the Inner Patriarch and Inner Matriarch.

3. Co-dependent relationship
The unquestioned assumption here is that "the relationship" is more important than the independence of either individual.

Each partner is focused mainly on finding ways to make the "relationship" work. So each partner experiences a major loss of self (their individual identity.) After a while each partner recognises this loss but they each tend to blame the other partner for causing it. Typically a co-dependent relationship allows neither partner very much room to experience life or to grow as an individual. (See separate page "The Fable of the Two Codependents".)

4. Engulfment-Abandonment relationship (the Dance)

In a relationship like this, each partner would describe themselves as controlled by the other. However, what one is experiencing as "control" is almost totally opposite of what the other is experiencing as "control".

Partner A has strong abandonment issues, a fear of not being close enough to his or her partner. Partner E has the opposite, that is strong  issues about being engulfed or smothered by a partner who wants to get too close too much of the time.

Partner A's aim is to continually try to get closer and closer to Partner E  to make sure E will not abandon him or her. 

Meanwhile Partner E is continually trying to break free from what they see as As engulfing, smothering and clinging.

Power and Control issues in this relationship

So Partner As experience of being powerless and controlled in the relationship is based on their ever-present fear that E will abandon them. However, E experiences a different sense of being controlled. Partner A who is seen as "controlling" through his or her continually trying to keep E too close. 

Partner E with strong engulfment issues is overly concerned about losing his or her own identity, of being overpowered and over-controlled by Partner A. Which as we know is poor old worried As way of trying to reduce his or her fear of being abandoned.

Individuality issues in this relationship

There is an irreconcilable conflict here: 

  • E's fear of loss of individuality through being over-controlled by A
  • A's  fear of being left alone which for A means too much individuality 

The more A tries to keep E close to them  the more E will feel overly smothered or controlled. This increases the chance that E will naturally try to spend even less time with A in order to maintain their (E's) sense of individuality. 

Interestingly, an E partner, in trying to protect their individuality may have a fear that they will appear as "too controlling" since they do not like being controlled themselves. So they tend to avoid methods of control like manipulation that they regard as "dishonest". 
The A partner on the other hand may be inclined to use almost any technique including manipulation to try to keep E. close to them. That leads to more disagreements, more abandonment for A, more engulfing for E. Backwards and forwards they go,  the result is often described as being like a kind of toxic self-defeating dance. It's not a  pretty sight, but one that is all too common.

5. The Grown up Relationship

One of the comfortable features of this kind of relationship is that issues around power and control take up very little time and seldom assume much importance for either partner. A peaceful relationship is not one that is free of conflict. It is one where both partners have the ability to deal with conflict in fair and moderate ways.

As they follow the guidelines below and other guides they work out for themselves, grown-up partners learn to define and agree on how their particular relationship can work best for them. There are no standard rules, each couple has to work their own set of rules out between them. However typically there will be some emphasis on issues like:

  • ways they are both comfortable with for developing a very strong personal bond and ways of connecting closely and comfortably with a high level of trust, mutual respect and friendship
  • at the same time, allowing each partner plenty of room to still maintain their individuality, that is each person allowing the other as much space as they need to continue being who they are as an individual
  • ways of developing closer intimacy at some times, while maintaining strong individuality at other times

To achieve this kind of outcome both partners will need to become well practised in different grown-up partnership skills. These will in themselves help define the nature of their individual relationship for example:

  • working out ways that suit both partners that allow them to share any resource that is limited, for example, time, money, physical energy, space, professional activities and so on. For example: For how long and how often does each person want to spend time with the other and how much time apart? How will expenses be shared? What expenses will not be shared? How much time is it Ok to spend apart because of work or professional commitments?
  • agreement about defined limits, that is what is and is not acceptable within the relationship. This is a very important part of providing each partner with a continued sense of being an individual, and protecting them from losing their individuality within the relationship. Some relationships may involve very few limits and still be successful.
  • a willingness to experiment, to try new ideas and solutions without a guarantee that they will work. It helps if there is acceptance that in a relationship there is no such thing as a totally failed experiment. Some useful new information will always be discovered as a result of trial and error experiments even if the end result shows of no immediate benefit.
  • developing their own set of negotiation (conflict resolution) skills to deal with issues of conflict. Understanding that in every negotiation it is normal for one person to want more or less than the other. Negotiation it is just grown-up way of discovering a midpoint where both are as comfortable as possible with the outcome. 

Useful conflict resolution skills might include for example:

  • mutual sharing, give and take, trade-offs, one person giving up something in return for a benefit from the other
  • agreeing to disagree rather than continue allowing unresolvable issues to damage the friendship. Agreeing to put a difficult matter on hold (time-out) for a fixed period of time before bringing it up again.
  • developing the ability to negotiate in a grown-up way about living arrangements, (cooking, tidying, shopping, laundry).
  • Finding ways to help make it safe for each partner to increase their sense of intimacy within the relationship. Understanding that the greater the level of intimacy the more it is normal to experience an increased sense of vulnerability.  
  • developing ways to warn the other partner when this happens, so they can back off for a while or do something which will help make it safer for both of them. (See separate page "Choosing between personal and impersonal channels")
  • developing boundaries that are comfortable for both partners around critical issues such as sexual boundaries and limits, financial boundaries and limits, boundaries and limits relating to other members of the each partner' s family and friends both children and adults.

Other pages:

Making up after a fight with your partner

The Many Languages of Love

Making Your Relationships Work - What is Love? What is commitment? What is the difference ?

Choosing Between Personal and Impersonal Channels - Added February 01 2004 

Fights where inner matriarchs and inner patriarchs take over - 2004

Explanation of Bonding Patterns - 2003  

Bonding patterns  - Case Studies1 - 2003

Bonding patterns  - Case Studies2 -2003

Bonding Patterns - getting out of them - 2003


See also our new website www.successful-relationship-secrets.com

Feedback - please e-mail  me John Bligh Nutting -   at   nutting@growingaware.com.au

Copyright John Nutting 1996 - - 2004  and     GROWING AWARENESS   All rights reserved World Wide   LAST UPDATE  Saturday, 10 May 2008 13:08

Don't worry about these copyright notices at the foot of each page. It just means I want to hang on to legal ownership of what I write for use in future books.  Until that day, please feel free to copy and even adapt them for your own use and for friends as long as you acknowledge me as the author and owner of the copyright and you don't charge anyone for them. If you want to use them professionally or commercially (charge a fee for them) or for clients, each sheet you hand out must include full acknowledgment of copyright ownership as above and if  you are benefiting as a result, I would appreciate an appropriate sharing.


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