Over time an unequal power balance may develop in a relationship where one partner becomes the more dominant person and the other becomes the more submissive.
In this article you will learn to recognize the signs of an unequal relationship and will learn more about what to do if you feel controlled or stifled in your relationship...
How to Know if You are with a Domineering Partner?
Dominance in relationships can be exercised in many ways, but generally revolves around the ability to define reality and set the agenda for both partners in the relationship.
A more dominant partner may exert their dominance in any of the following ways:
- They may adopt the role of the helper who looks at their partner as a "project" or as someone who needs saving
- They may present themselves as having the superior logic about matters of mutual concern and may try to win every argument by an appeal to what is rational
- They may resist change in themselves and make you feel like you are the only one with the problems or the only one who needs to change.
Through these subtle or not so subtle ways, the dominant partner gets to define reality. They get to determine what is rational and irrational, who is in the right and who needs to change, and who has it together and who needs saved.
Signs that You May Be in a Controlling Relationship:
If you are the more submissive partner you may unfortunately be paying a heavy price for keeping your more dominant partner content and staying in an unequal relationship.
You may experience that:
- Your viewpoint or feelings are invalidated, or feel that you are irrational or wrong for seeing the world the way you do
- Your partner talks to you like you are not really as smart, competent, or capable as they are, and that they often take over or take charge before you even get to prove yourself
- There is not really any room for real dialogue or conversation without getting into a power struggle because things always have to go your partner’s way
- You are left feeling empty, out of touch with your own needs, or depressed because you don’t really have much of a voice or have lost touch with who you really are
These kinds of experiences of invalidation, infantilization, powerlessness, and helplessness are often the result of being with a partner who needs to be in control in order to maintain their own self-esteem.
Stated differently, your partner may always need to be right or have things go their way because they really feel weak, deficient, or small underneath their air of superiority. If they were to admit to be being wrong, or if they were to allow someone else to take charge, they would feel unbearably vulnerable, and so they can't let that happen.
The Subtle Ways Dominant Partners Exert Control:
Oftentimes dominant partners seek to protect their low self-esteem or vulnerability in very subtle ways that can be hard to even detect.
- Make little wisecracks at your expense which put you down while at the same time making you seem like you are being too sensitive or have no sense of humor if you express feeling hurt
- Make you feel like you are the one with the control problem because you are the one who are always asking them to change, to listen more, or to come closer
- Make you second-guess yourself by asking you a barrage of logical questions intended to catch you in a logical contradiction or make you feel silly for having your feelings
- Subtly belittle you by talking to you like you are cutely naïve, or attempting to laugh with you at the ways in which you are being overly emotional, irrational, or silly
The result of these little micro-invalidations can often be that you start doubting yourself.
You may come to define yourself through the viewpoint of your partner and may end up feeling trapped in a one-down position where you can’t really assert yourself, don’t really have a voice, and don’t really feel worth much as a human being, wife, husband, or lover.
What to Do if You Feel Trapped in Your Relationship?
The trick to getting out of this prison of control is to help your partner get in touch with the underlying feelings of shame and vulnerability that fuel their desire to be right or dominant.
Oftentimes getting your partner to look inward can be really difficult precisely because this request for introspection and acknowledgement of responsibility challenges their very need for control and dominance, to be seen as being “in the right”.
Invested as they are in maintaining their one-up position in a relationship, dominant partners are often very stubborn and resistant to any suggestions of change in the way things are done in their relationship.
Convincing a Dominant Partner to See a Couples Therapist with You:
The best solution is therefore often to try to convince them to come with you to see a couples therapist.
This of course will often also be met with resistance, mostly because in the eyes of a dominant partner, the other person is the one with the problem.
They may therefore suggest that you just go by yourself to work out your own issues, or they may agree to indulge you, simply to avoid being badgered, secretly hoping that the couples therapist will agree with them about how irrational you are.
Why Couples Therapy is Often Necessary:
Couples therapy, however, is often necessary to change a dominance/ submission pattern. This is because every effort to apply pressure from within a dyad simply leads to more resistance. The more you want to change a relationship dynamic from the position of the place of feeling disempowered, disenfranchised, and talked down to, the more you are simply going to increase the need for the more dominant partner to exert control, maintain authority, and invalidate your desire for a change in how you relate to each other.
With a third person in the room, however, the dyadic interactions can be explored from a perspective of someone who stands outside the negative relationship dynamic itself.
Working with Shame in Couples Therapy:
Once in couples therapy the underlying shame or feelings of inadequacy of the dominant partner can be brought to light, and the dominant partner can be helped to tolerate these feelings, rather than hide them.
Instead of immediately meeting a threat to their self-esteem with a reaction to invalidate, belittle, or disenfranchise the other person, the dominant partner can now begin to examine where their sense of shame and inadequacy comes from.
Oftentimes shame and inadequacy about the “self” comes from narcissistic injuries in childhood or adolescence.
We all have a need to feel good about ourselves, to feel important and valued. When we don’t, we can either react by feeling bad, broken, or deficient, or can attempt to rise above these wounds, by seeking dominance or control over others.
This does not necessarily mean that we become haughty or contemptuous of others, or consciously think we are better than them. It can also manifest in more subtle ways of getting involved with partners who seem to need guidance, mentoring, or help, which then makes us feel needed and valued without the need to expose our more vulnerable feelings, or ever be in a position of depending on anyone.
How to Resolve Wounds to Self-Esteem:
Once a more dominant partner is helped to acknowledge, tolerate, and express the more vulnerable parts of them, they are then able to communicate these and get another response than the one they fear.
Rather than seeking to increase their confidence and worth by putting the other person down they can now reveal themselves to another and experience acceptance and love from their partner instead of contempt and rejection.
If your partner can learn to love and care for the parts of themselves that they most dislike and want to hide, then you will no longer need to serve as the receptacle for their anger and contempt. This then will also make you feel closer to your partner and more compassionate towards them because rather than keeping a distance to you through a feeling of superiority or control, they can now be more human and more like an equal.
The Path Toward a More Fulfilling Relationship:
When partners become more equal this usually starts a different more positive cycle where one person’s ability to be vulnerable makes the other person care for them more and in turn risk being more vulnerable themselves.
The path toward this change in the way you relate to each other is by no means easy and will require a lot of effort on both parts, but the alternative is to continue a relationship that is ultimately destructive since true love and intimacy cannot grow between unequal partners.
The price for staying in a relationship that is abusive, invalidating, or undercutting of a genuine need for respect and equality is simply too high.
A relationship needs to make us feel like we can become our better self, that we can be safe to reveal more of who we really are, and that we can grow and flourish through the love and support from another who accepts us for our strengths as well as our flaws.