Dangerous Compassions

unbalanced power in relationships

Hello.  How have you been?  I’m thinking about unbalanced power in relationships.  I was on instagram and saw a post by a therapist I like Nedra Glover Tawwab.  She is so smart and direct.  I don’t always agree with her ideas.  But she gives me such tasty food for thought.

People talk crap about social media, but wow.  I am so grateful for how it’s brought good to my life.  There are many ways to use social media.  I respect people who choose not to engage.  Of course, you have no responsibility to.  But it’s been great for me, once I learned how to prune and curate it.

This is the post that I enjoyed this morning from the smart therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab who says truths I need.

She’s encouraging people to speak up about what’s not going well in relationship.  I love that, and I’d like to speak up more.

story of pain

I’ve been on the receiving end of huge relationship surprises.  I had a friend I loved very much, and she held inside deep pain about an aspect of our relationship that was hurting her.  It was a huge surprise, when she told me something I’d been doing the whole friendship was hurting her.

The friendship ended soon after.  I was confused and heartbroken.  That my friend hadn’t brought it up meant she had formed years of suffering around the subject, and there was no way to heal that, by that time she said it was hurting her.

It felt unfair, that she had held this thing against me when I had no idea it was hurting her.  So my response had some defensiveness.  That didn’t help.  She used my defensiveness as further evidence that I was Bad.

There was misunderstanding involved, which made it even harder.  There was no way to correct the error-harm.  Felt like a solid crust, part of the relationship itself.


I wonder if that hardcore not talking about something was really a way to sabotage the relationship.  It’s weird–we could talk about anything, except this this one thing she didn’t bring up.

Almost like she was holding onto that, the way a spy might hold onto a suicide pill.  Or just a self-destruct button to destroy the spaceship relationship, if she ever wanted to.  Something was off about it, for sure.  At this point, I’ll never know.

She is lost to me, like so many people.  I love deep and hard.  It can burn fast, like a bright fire.  Not everyone wants intensity, and it requires a lot of honesty and trust.

too scared

I’m much more familiar with the other side of communication fail in relationships.  I am hurt by something in relationship and feel too scared to say anything.  So the harm accumulates until I get fed up and need to say something, or I need to leave.  The relationship falls apart.

It’s hard to know how to speak up when a lot is at stake and I’m unsure my needs make sense.  My first 35 years of like, I was punished for asserting my needs, which has made me doubt myself.  So I push them down.  By the time I can’t take any more pain in a relationship, it can feel too late to fix anything.

Unbalanced power in relationships makes speaking up so scary.  When someone is equal to me, listens, cares, makes time for me, and shares the reins, then speaking up is ok.  That requires skill and honesty that most people just don’t have.

How often have you heard anyone say to you, “I see that I have more power than you.  I will be careful to hand you power, over and over again, to make sure things are fair between us.”  No, I have never heard anyone articulate that in my life.  People pretend power is equal when it’s not.  It’s a sham.

When someone else is in power over me, like controlling my housing or other huge aspects of my life, there’s no way I feel free to communicate about what’s hurting me.  I clam up.  If speaking the truth endangers my housing, I can’t risk that.

Especially if they’re like almost all people who will say they want feedback, but don’t actually want feedback and lash out with cruelty, if they feel criticized.

how people hoard power in relationships
  • deciding what we do together
  • controlling how we express affection
  • controlling how much time we spend together
  • what words we use for what we’re doing
  • the whole tone
  • how money is handled
  • how chores are handled
  • conflict style

It’s ok if someone has strong needs in one of these categories and things aren’t perfectly balanced.  But if someone has 95% control, that’s a scary situation.  It starts to look like a mini-cult.  I have experienced that: someone holding all the power in the relationship until I was painted so deep into a corner, there was no way out but out the window.

That’s a scary one because if someone wants that much control, there’s something very wrong with them.  Yes, that’s the person who becomes harassing and stalking, when you finally do get away.  Yikes.

Move on and get a life, controlling assholes.  No one should be your victim.  Please find better things to do than pursue the people who get free.  You are creepy.  Leave us alone.


A good example of unbalanced power in relationships is control of language.  I see this often in intimate relationships.  People are charmed by one another, and then they get closer.  One of them wants to be girlfriend / boyfriend, girlfriend/ girlfriend, nonbinary friends, etc.

The other person is scared and like–no, I don’t want to be anyone’s boyfriend.  So they deny the language of what’s actually happening, in an effort to maintain freedom and dodge responsibility.

In response, the other person suffers as she gives and gives to this bottomless well of need who won’t even put a name to what they’re doing together.  He’s pretending that she’s not his girlfriend, while she does more and more emotional labor and other kinds of labor, to earn a safe place in his life.

But he is deeply selfish.  Safety isn’t possible with him.  He has some loophole of why they are not a couple.  I see people get very hurt in this way.  I’ve been there myself.


That type of unbalanced power in relationships is destructive.  Communication gets messed up for sure.  I have been intentional about telling the truth.  Doesn’t matter.  I get whacked down like a whack a mole for saying things the other person doesn’t want to hear.

If I pay attention to his requests and try to communicate how he wants, in order to keep him happy, doesn’t matter.  Really that’s not possible.  I contort myself into a pretzel.  But his requests are just a wild goose chase.

He wants to be told 24-7 how great he is and has never done anything wrong in his life.  It’s very strange.  I offer real love, and it doesn’t matter.  He’s not looking for real love with an actual person.  He wants adoration on his terms, from someone who has no needs, and will hold him in unconditional positive regard.  Like a cult leader.  Yuck.


Yes, I think about power a lot.  As I speak up more, cut ties with people who abused me, make more time for myself, set boundaries and say no, comprehend my own disabilities and needs, and continue to grow up, I do better at not being exploited.

But ideally we would make a world where dodging harm wouldn’t need to be a primary life activity.  I’m dodging harm from sensory overwhelm, abusers, the medical industrial complex, ableism, diet culture, misogyny, capitalism, pollution.  What a pain in the ass.

Makes me wanna just stay home and stare at fairy lights.

fairy lights

By Laura-Marie

Good at listening to the noise until it makes sense.

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