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 evidenced 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 pain they can cause with 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? 

“Husbands, love your wives”

It’s relatively easy to entertain and please a woman over a cup of coffee on a relaxing Friday afternoon. It’s much more difficult to do it consistently for fifteen years. The former takes a sacrifice of $2.05 and your best stories in exchange for a beautiful smile. The latter takes the willingness to encounter your worst self—the part of your way-of-being that causes her pain—and to expose it regularly to examination. For the latter we get not just beautiful smiles, but also (sometimes) her most painful sacrifices, her body for children, friends, family, vocation, and dreams.

In my experience, women are much more inclined to self-giving sacrifice than men. But this is not an inexhaustible resource; women must be loved. The greatest mistakes men regularly make are taking this devotion for granted as ego-building (she loves me vs. she loves me) and failing to cultivate the glory of the the woman’s self-giving love by committed loving in return. My worst self is a loveless, self-consumed egoist.

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”

Ephesians 5:25

Descartes’ Discourse on Method

Descartes’ Discourse on Method, Clearly and Distinctly Summarized


Once upon a time in a century not too distant from our own, there lived a man named René Descartes who put forward his “paths” to knowing as if in a “fable” encouraging men to follow his trail. This Descartes lived in a world where all men were endowed with “good sense” (by virtue of their form or nature being consistent). Therefore, all that was necessary to bring about agreement was a sufficiently well established path, a method. So this Descartes set out to do a service to his fellow man by laying a path that could not cause stumbling, an indubitable one. (And all men lived…dare I say happily ever after?) This path is the topic of his Discourse on Method.

From the beginning of his Discourse, Descartes is clearly troubled with difference in belief. Moreover, it seems to be a source of great discomfort for him not to know whom or what to believe. But this troubles us all. For Descartes the situation is worse because he also believed that reason is the form of man that all men held in common.[1] So for Descartes the difficult question is not if truth exists (as we ask), but how is one to account for error? He is left in the doubly difficult position of explaining difference of opinion and holding a strong account of universal Reason.

Reason is for Descartes the (God given) power for judging what is by way of clear and distinct ideas. The notion of “clear and distinct” is similar to Plato’s notion that reason contains forms that it matches with images produced by the imagination to accurate perception. Descartes seems to think that reason is primary in this way, that perception or imagination (with which it cooperates) only serve reason with impressions of the outside world that reason takes full responsibility for.[2] So it is, Descartes presents as a paradigmatic rule that any idea which reason accepts must be “so clearly and so distinctly” to be beyond doubt. You might call this a snap-to-grid account of reason. When an idea is clear, you have clearly hit a gridline of reality. The source of error is undisciplined ventures of belief by people who accept as true what was not “clear and distinct.” These accepted false notions must be cleared away to pave the road for clear and distinct knowing. So Descartes lives as a “spectator” for nine years traveling the world, essentially living as a modern Socrates. The effect of his travels is to convince him that he does not know a great many things; it effects a clearing away of his knowledge by mere custom.

Next, secluding himself, Descartes seeks to lay sufficiently firm foundations (indubitable) for his entire project of knowing. He applies himself to doubting everything, opinions of morality, sense perception, even mathematics. He finds that while doubting he is thinking and he cannot doubt that he is thinking: cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore, I am.” This is his first principle of knowing, and from here he understand the essence of his nature, a thinking person independent of matter. From here he judges that what he could conceive very clearly and distinctly is true. And since he can conceive of a being more perfect that himself, it must both exist and must not be sourced in himself. This idea is of God and must be sourced in God.[3]

Finally, once Descartes has established the existence of God on the basis of his idea of him—God being more perfect than Descartes—he has good reason to be certain about clear and distinct ideas being true, and can build on this.[4] From here he proceeds to astronomy—though he does not publish this work—and then to the nature of fire. The fact that fire can sometimes produce heat and no light and vice versa, leads him into an inquiry of fire in the human heart. He describes this in great detail in part five. He concludes his work by setting out some principles for continuing his work after his death.


Evaluating Descartes one is tempted simply to throw one’s hands in the air and say “how naïve!” But it is important to understand Descartes in his social setting. It is important to see that while Descartes is typically talked about as the first modern, he was not himself modern. He was remarkably ancient in his epistemological convictions. He treatment of reason and perception for instance follows typically Platonic and Aristotelian judgments, but with the caveat of being more inclined to see error.[5] Further, Descartes thinks that man is vegetative and sensitive on account of God kindling “in the man’s heart one of those fires without light.”[6] It is really unfair to judge Descartes more harshly for his errors that come from his social context than we do others for their errors with the same source. In one sense, Descartes is not modern.

And yet, in another Descartes is the cardinal modern. Descartes seems to begin modernity in two related ways. First, Descartes is really concerned with difference in belief. There are historical reasons for this concern coming to the foreground at this particular moment, but the important point is that it continues to today. Negotiating difference of belief is the principle cause of the entire epistemic turn. Second, Descartes seems to be the first to flip the priority of epistemology and metaphysics.[7] In other words, Descartes at least makes methodological claims to start with epistemology rather than starting with faith seeking understanding. This is a massive shift in method that gets taken up with greater consistency by later philosophers to devastating effect on religious belief.

[1] In an Aristotelian sense, or “nature.

[2] For instance, he wonders in Meditations how we recognize wax as wax when its properties are altered through melting. He notes that bare perception would be confused, but that reason still recognizes it.

[3] This is obviously a very insufficient summary of the argument due to space limitations. The key moves are 1) ideas of things more perfect than Descartes cannot come from nowhere, and 2) ideas that exist clearly and distinctly must be true. It should be obvious that Descartes’ “foundation” relies on a massive set of assumptions about the nature of reason and reality and their relation.

[4] He says, “[W]e should never allow ourselves to be persuaded except by the evidence of our reason.” René Descartes, Discourse on Method, translated by Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998.

[5] I have written a paper comparing Descartes and Aristotle’s accounts of error. They are remarkable for their similarity even though Aristotle famously says that sense perception cannot err in what is proper to it and Descartes doubts it all.

[6] Discourse, 26.

[7] Interestingly, there are two senses in which Descartes seems to be contradictory on this point. First, he claims not to have abandoned his religious beliefs. But later he talks of abandoning all beliefs. I take it that Descartes is simply deceitful about always holding to his religious beliefs; this is inconsistent with his stated methodology. He would have reason to be deceitful, something he explicitly admits in part six. But second, he is inconsistent even with his methodological claims since he does have some metaphysical assumptions that he cannot rid himself of. Later philosophers, like Hume, more consistently adopt his methodological claims without his metaphysical assumptions.