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? 

Samuel Johnson defends blogging

(tongue firmly in cheek on the title, in case you’ve never heard of him)

Samuel Johnson’s first essay in The Rambler: “No. 1. Difficulty of the first address. Practice of the epick poets. Convenience of periodical performances.”

“I hope not much to tire those whom I shall not happen to please; and if I am not commended for the beauty of my works, to be at least pardoned for their brevity. But whether my expectations are most fixed on pardon or praise, I think it not necessary to discover; for having accurately weighed the reasons for arrogance and submission, I find them so nearly equiponderant, that my impatience to try the event of my first performance will not suffer me to attend any longer the trepidations of the balance.

“There are, indeed, many conveniencies almost peculiar to this method of publication, which may naturally flatter the author, whether he be confident or timorous. The man to whom the extent of his knowledge, or the sprightliness of his imagination, has, in his own opinion, already secured the praises of the world, willingly takes that way of displaying his abilities which will soonest give him an opportunity of hearing the voice of fame; it heightens his alacrity to think in how many places he shall hear what he is now writing, read with ecstasies to-morrow. He will often please himself with reflecting, that the author of a large treatise must proceed with anxiety, lest, before the completion of his work, the attention of the publick may have changed its object; but that he who is confined to no single topick may follow the national taste through all its variations, and catch the aura popularis, the gale of favour, from what point soever it shall blow.”

Quotable: “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”

You’re welcome, future me.

Geoffrey K. Pullum bashes The Elements of Style in his article, “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”


What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don’t know what is a passive construction and what isn’t. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard” is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors:

“There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.

“It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had” also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction.

“The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired” is presumably fingered as passive because of “impaired,” but that’s a mistake. It’s an adjective here. “Become” doesn’t allow a following passive clause. (Notice, for example, that “A new edition became issued by the publishers” is not grammatical.)

These examples can be found all over the Web in study guides for freshman composition classes. (Try a Google search on “great number of dead leaves lying.”) I have been told several times, by both students and linguistics-faculty members, about writing instructors who think every occurrence of “be” is to be condemned for being “passive.” No wonder, if Elements is their grammar bible. It is typical for college graduates today to be unable to distinguish active from passive clauses. They often equate the grammatical notion of being passive with the semantic one of not specifying the agent of an action. (They think “a bus exploded” is passive because it doesn’t say whether terrorists did it.)


It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can’t help it, because they don’t know how to identify what they condemn.

“Put statements in positive form,” they stipulate, in a section that seeks to prevent “not” from being used as “a means of evasion.”

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)

And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”

That’s actually not just three strikes, it’s four, because in addition to contravening “positive form” and “active voice” and “nouns and verbs,” it has a relative clause (“that can pull”) removed from what it belongs with (the adjective), which violates another edict: “Keep related words together.”

“Keep related words together” is further explained in these terms: “The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.” That is a negative passive, containing an adjective, with the subject separated from the principal verb by a phrase (“as a rule”) that could easily have been transferred to the beginning. Another quadruple violation.