Power and Politics in Families
By Linda Sapadin, Ph.D
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In politics it’s all about who has the power; but is it that way in a family too? Isn’t family supposed to be a loving, caring crew, pulling together to meet each others needs? Hmm, sounds good. But in reality, family is a hotbed for daily clashes, contests and combats for power. This is true even in the best of families. Obviously, it’s a lot more intense in the worst of families.
Simply put, the person in the family who has the lion’s share of power is the one who calls the shots. The others are told what to do and when to do it. This is not as bad as it may sound. Often, an unequal share of power is just what is needed. Young children need their parents to make decisions, lay down the rules, and instruct them what to do. Even when they complain about it, they know they need it.
Uneven distribution of power, however, is not just limited to the relationship between young children and adults. It also occurs between siblings and mom and dad. This, too, is not always bad.
Inequity of power may actually be experienced as attractive. Sam loves having a big brother who sticks up for him, tells him what to do, and occasionally, throws him a needed lifeline. Selena, six years younger than John, loves being married to a man who is more sophisticated than herself. When he tells her what to do, she feels taken care of. She relies on his “strength”, “brains” and “opinions” to help her through tough challenges.
Families are not static entities. The power in a family can shift. As time goes by, members need to readjust to accommodate individual growth and role changes. Kids get older. They start telling parents what to do. If the shifting power dynamic is respectful, it works well. However, when kids gain too much power, treating parents like pawns, conflicts will magnify.
Power shifts happen between adults as well.
Fast forward 10 years; Serena is now the mother of two young sons. She has immersed herself in child-rearing books, taken parent ed courses and is confident that she knows how to be a good mom and run a household. Now when John, (formerly the wise husband), gives her advice about how to raise the boys, she doesn’t appreciate it at all. She views his counsel as “critical, controlling and sexist.”
Today John and Serena are immersed in a battle of wills, each attempting to impose their ideas and beliefs on the other. John views himself as the same person he’s always been. Hence, he doesn’t have a clue as to why Serena is so upset with him. He views her retorts as “foolish.” After all, he’s just trying to be helpful.
Family fights about “foolish” matters are not foolish at all. For, at the root of these skirmishes is a struggle for power and control. In a relationship with perceived power disparities, no one wins, not even the one who is in control. Why? Because as every parent knows, the power of the powerless can run deep. They can criticize, sabotage, threaten, discount, ignore and withhold love and respect, making life miserable for all.
Just like in the political world, families need to create an equitable balance of power in order for conflicts to decrease and harmony to increase.
Linda Sapadin is a psychologist and personal coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. For more information about her work, contact her by email or visit her website at PsychWisdom.