Over the last month, power dynamics in relationships has been a hot topic for my clients. In particular, women have been describing what I call ‘the command’, where a man instructs a woman about what she should be doing. I know for myself, this immediately shuts down my body and my heart. And it is difficult to transition from these interactions into more sensual and sexual spaces. So, what is going on here between men and women in romantic relationships?
Often the command is not so much about the words but the tone. “Could you move please” is not a polite request, but instead has an insistent and aggressive tone. In my own relationship, I find this dynamic can come up around a physical task.
Recently my beloved and I hired bicycles. As we started to mount up, I felt he was instructing me about what I should be doing, rather than sharing helpful information. He was definitely in his command tone. Let’s talk about my reaction first. When these dynamics are in full force, I can get triggered and my instinctive reaction is to apologise. Somehow I have gotten in his way without realising it or intending to.
Now pay very careful attention here – my default is to think that I am in his way. My physical body becomes tense, my throat gets a bit of a catch in it, and I feel flustered in the moment. In essence my reaction is some form of fear. I feel I am being reprimanded, I am in trouble. As a long-term meditator, I have built the capacity to notice these states without always automatically reacting to these feelings.
Often we have these responses because parents, teachers and other people in ‘authority’ commanded us when we were young. This why it can become a power struggle, and it feels difficult to voice our feelings, needs and thoughts.
How do you react when a man raises his voice, or drops it down until it feels like cold steel going into your ears? Or when the silence has the edges of emotional violence, when you can hear the pumping of emotions? You might have one or more of the following reactions.
Now think about these reactions, where do you yield and why? Do you yield because it seems easier to submit than work with the backlog of feelings and despair and confront his behaviour?
If you look deeper at these patterns, when you feel a man is commanding you, there is real loss of equality. You feel disrespected, but you also lose respect for him. And that is a critical tear in the fabric of loving relationships.
As women we have been trained from an early age to never make a man feel uncomfortable. So, we often have long held patterns of trying to placate men; soothe or gloss over any discomfort.
These dynamics underpin a lot of romantic relationships, and the ways in which women yield to try and keep things OK. We all try to hide from being difficult, high maintenance, too demanding, too much, too overbearing, too needy or too insecure.
However, at social events the rumblings can reveal themselves if we mock, tease and joke about our partner’s poor behaviour. And everyone else feels the discomfort. Or worse, sadly, other women chime in about how bad their own partners are. And somehow, there is tacit agreement that this is what it is to be married, or partnered with men.
It’s important to know, when a man is using his voice, actions and energy to command or dominate you – this is a habit. It has been learned. And it has probably been effective, either up until now with you, or in his history of relationships. In some cases he may not realise in the moment he has started issuing commands.
These patterns can be deep, long held and entrenched. But that is no reason for you to accept them in your relationship. This is not the purpose or price of romantic relationship and love. In fact these very edges are the place where you and your partner can grow.
In my relationship with my beloved, power dynamics are everywhere, and a lot of our relationship processes are about navigating and at times mitigating the need for power grabs between us.
One of our earliest conflicts was actually in the kitchen cutting carrots. He started commenting on how I wasn’t doing it correctly, or exactly following the recipe. And there was certainly an air of superiority: what I was doing was wrong and what he thought was factual and right. I noticed myself feeling reprimanded. I also had enough awareness to call it out immediately. I told him that this level of controlling behaviour would be the death of a relationship before we even got started. Harsh? Did he escalate and backlash? No, he was savvy in the moment too. He realised and said that some of these patterns had been exactly the type of behaviour that plagued his previous relationships and he was committed to not ‘stuffing it up’ again.
In the bicycle incident, I said his energy felt very charged. I was experiencing him commanding me. And then I left it with him for a while. I didn’t try to soothe it, or argue and escalate with him. I let him know that my body and heart felt shut down when I experienced his words as aggressive. I didn’t shame him or get righteous myself (well at least that time!).
I said what I needed to say, and then I let go of expecting him to respond fully in the moment. When these incidents arise, I know that he will be available to talk it through, especially once he has had time to think about his own feelings and what has been going on for him.
Does that mean he never defaults back into the command habit? Does that mean we have perfect communication and no one ever gets righteous, hurt, or feels aggressive? No, not at all. What it does mean however is that for us, everything is on the table. We agree to talk about the difficult things and own up to our poor behaviour with each other. When we recognise these patterns, we aim to call it out and give each other time to come back to the centre.
Intimacy is a dance and none of us is perfect. In the face of triggers and fears, our reactive habits can take over. Every situation is different, so follow you own intuition. Here are some of my tips:
Your power, passion and healthy boundaries are critical to your capacity to flourish in relationships. So we need to let go of never making a man feel uncomfortable. We need to sit with our own edginess, and compulsion to make it all better.
A mature man will thank you for calling out his behaviour. He wants to treat you well and be accountable for his actions. And most of all, he wants to know what you are feeling and where it hurts.