Who Needs the Relationship? The Dynamics of Power in Friendship

If you want a good indicator of who holds the power in a relationship just ask the question, who doesn’t need the relationship?

Now, it is true that many relationships are more or less equitable in terms of power, like two intimate friends who’ve learned to depend on each other. And it must be said that holding power is not itself bad. In a community there will always be people who are disproportionately in demand relationally. A healthy relationship depends on the proper use of relational power.

Television shows depicting the 1950s often display the male abuses of power within marriage relationships. In the second episode of The Queen’s Gambit, the orphaned chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, gets adopted by Alma and Allston Wheatley. Their relationship is troubled by an abusive power imbalance. Clearly Alma needs the relationship more than Allston. There are several clear signals of this dynamic in the episode. Allston is largely silent in it. He does nothing to welcome his new adopted daughter, preferring to sit in his chair reading a newspaper while his wife gives her a tour of the house. He silences his wife with a grunt when she says “I’m not allowed…” In another scene, while she is vacuuming Alma lets out a startled yelp when she sees her husband arrive home early from a business trip. She runs upstairs to put on a dress before he can get in the house.

The abusive power imbalance is evidence in the level of accountability the two people have with respect to each other. One partner can criticize and expect things from the other; the other cannot.

1950s marriages are a convenient way of displaying these sorts of power imbalances for a couple of reasons. First, within a traditional 1950s marriage, relational commitments are pretty clear. Each spouse had obligations toward each other that were recognizable and culturally licit. Second, from our vantage point those obligations were recognizably unfair. Modern society sees marriage as egalitarian in terms of its power dynamics.

I am worried about relational dynamics that are not so clear. One of the difficulties of the modern world is that, outside of marriage, no one seems to know who they are responsible for or to. To whom do I owe friendship? We have more “friends” than we can manage, and just when we become “friends” or stop being “friends” is not clear at all. We need to talk seriously about social obligations.

But perhaps more troublingly, when relational power dynamics are not clear, it is easy to take advantage of them in unconsciously abusive ways. In status unbalanced relationships we unconsciously know whether we are the pursuer or the pursued. It’s much more comfortable to be the pursued except when we’re pursued by people we don’t want a deep relationship with. To be the pursuer seems to require a deference or humility like that of Greco Roman patron-client relationships, where clients would gather at the patron’s home in the mornings to offer help and flattery in exchange for a daily dole and networking. In other cases, sometimes the pursuer is clearly moving downward in terms of status. Then pursuing is a boon offered to another.

All of this is quite uncomfortable to talk about. But it is necessary, because without acknowledging these relational dynamics it is far too easy to abuse them. It is easy for those who hold the power relationally to see the relationships as an endlessly interesting market for novelty and advantage. Relationally powerful people can see friendship merely as networking. If I have the power to start up relationships with powerful and interesting people, I can make a habit to enhance my life and prestige by doing this as much as possible. We call these people “great networkers.” They are also sometimes very poor friends.

But here is my real concern. Every narcissistic person has this in common: he expects a very high degree of relational accountability from others, but offers very little accountability in return. In other words, the person who needs the relationship must adapt himself to the one who doesn’t, and not the other way around. When a narcissistic person apologizes, it is a maneuver. He has almost no relational necessity for pursuing deep change. He can rely on the offense being forgiven because of his status or move on to another relationship. Relationally poor people know the pain of needing to change to maintain relationships. Those near the top of the power ladder do not need to change at all. There will always be other people willing to pursue them.

There is a danger with drawing attention to these dynamics. It might cause more suspicion and division rather than healing wounds and relationships. So, let me be plain about what I hope to accomplish. I hope that people with relational power recognize that power and recognize the potential unconscious abuse they can make of it. I urge people with a high degree of relational power not to use that power to fuel their fascination with novel, interesting, or powerful people, but to commit to friendships where they are vulnerable and accountable. I hope also this group of people will obey Scripture by committing together to diverse friendships. Paul says in Romans 12, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” 

It is far too easy not to associate with the lowly by engaging in practices that unconsciously reinforce status and create distance. We do this by choosing alienating extravagances like sumptuous and expensive foods or costly travel. Or we subtly brag about our networks by mentioning who we could ask this or that question or favor. We talk more than we listen, failing to engage others when they are suffering, thereby avoiding bearing it. We overschedule or overfunction to feel important and needed. We give generously things that cost us nothing, reinforcing our superiority.

Finally, I hope that those who are relationally poor would not despise those who are in relational demand but would remember that Jesus associated with the most status-poor people of his culture, prostitutes, sinners, and tax collectors. 

He was perhaps the most status-ambiguous person who ever lived. On the one hand, Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. He fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. The cultural elite worried that “the world has gone after him” (John 12:19). On the other hand, he gave his attention to children. He allowed prostitutes to wash and to weep over his feet, and even washed the feet of his own disciples. And by going to the cross, he embraced the greatest shame possible in Roman society. 

And Jesus says to the poor, I have come for you. I am interested in you. I offer you my friendship by embracing shame among you. 1 John 1:3 says, “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” You are included in the circle that matters more than any other. You are beloved. 

So, to return to our opening question, who needs the relationship? We all do. Relationships are a principle means of grace for sanctification (Eph 4:15-16; Col 2:19). It is vital for all of us to invest in the well-being of others and to make ourselves subject to the relational demands of others. We all need to embrace the hard accountability of needing to change, and especially those who have wide ranging relational possibilities. We must choose to make ourselves accountable to enduring friendships. 

All of us are causing pain to others in ways that are hidden from us. The question is, are we willing to open ourselves up to others to find out how? Are we willing to make ourselves accountable to truth spoken in love? The proper use of power in relationships is to bless others. But we bless each other most when we model the humility and humanity of our Lord, who committed himself to twelve people and accepted the invites of social outsiders. 

We all have the opportunity and power by the Spirit (Rom 8:4) to live differently, to decide what we do next. Will we follow Jesus’ example? 

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