Success on Relationship Tips

At a recent dinner party, I witnessed a group of friends teasingly ask each other who was in charge in their relationship. The question was meant to be playfully provocative, with most people laughing as everyone else at the table shouted, often in unison, who they perceived as being the boss: “Well, he decides when they go out, but she decides everything else!” Or, “She sounds like the bossy one, but he’srunning the show behind the scenes!” Sometimes, the couple themselves would chime in, with one claiming, “I wear the pants in this relationship!” and the other rolling their eyes as if to say, “You wish!” While the whole conversation was meant in good fun, and the sheer lightheartedness of the friends’ tone made me doubt any of them would seriously condone any power dynamic operating in their relationships, they were actually hitting on some serious issues within most couples.

Culturally, it seems we’ve grown a little too relaxed about accepting that one person is “the boss,” or in control of certain aspects of an adult romantic relationship. Equality is one of the most important elements of a successful relationship, and yet countless couples fall into dynamics and roles that are inherently unequal. One person tends to be more childish, the other more parental; one more submissive, the other more dominating.

Individuals are often drawn to these roles because on an unconscious level, they allow us to play out dynamics from our past that are familiar, and therefore, in some ways, make us more comfortable. For example, if we felt like we didn’t have a voice in our family growing up, we may choose a partner who speaks for us. We may even find ourselves being much quieter around our partner, encouraging them to represent us. If we grew up in a family that made us feel like we couldn’t do things for ourselves, we may have the tendency to act helpless with our partner. We may find ourselves struggling with simple tasks and depending on our partner to take care of us. Conversely, if we grew up feeling rejected or as if we had to take care of ourselves, we may find ourselves seeking control anywhere we can find it. We may not easily trust others, and may try to control our partner’s movement to help us feel more at ease in the relationship.

Each of these scenarios can lead to a pattern of behavior in which one of us becomes like a parent and the other like a child. Without knowing it, we tend to play out the half of the dynamic that provokes our partner to play out the other half. While we may regret these ways of relating, we actually help create them. Again, it may not feel pleasant, but it often feels familiar. It may not even be a conscious process, but for many people, feeling like we have control—or that we have someone else to control us—relieves our anxiety or insecurity.

We’re initially attracted to these roles as a means to making us feel more comfortable or secure, but these power dynamics still generate a lot of tension and conflict. They may lead to arguments and actual contempt, or they may subtly subdue our feelings of love and attraction. When we start to overstep each other’s boundaries and stop treating each other like two separate people with two sovereign minds, we seriously diminish our feelings of respect and attraction. When one partner exercises control over the other, we tend to experience less loving interactions where we really see and feel seen by our partner. We start to replace substance with form, imposing expectations and routines on each other, rather than accepting the more natural give and take that characterizes an equal, adult relationship.