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? 

A Note on Fellipe do Vale’s Review of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

This review was published yesterday at London Lyceum: https://www.thelondonlyceum.com/book-review-the-rise-and-triumph-of-the-modern-self/

Fellipe do Vale, fellow at London Lyceum and TEDS Professor, makes the following critiques:

(1) Historical arguments, especially genealogical arguments, must be extremely careful about establishing claims of causation.
(FAIR POINT, though this methodological constraint would have made broad analysis like this book almost impossible; I am sure Trueman was very aware of what he was doing.)

(2) one also finds some significant historical inaccuracies
(do Vale cites one example. I am not competent to judge this on most of the historical figures. I did wonder about Trueman’s characterizations in a few points. I’d have liked it if do Vale had referenced more examples even if he did not unpack them.)

(3) The identifying traits requisite for a figure to contribute to the development of modernity are poorly defined
(I take it do Vale is gesturing toward what I complained about above [on my goodreads review], that Trueman’s categories are a bit blunt. do Vale cites an example I too noticed the notion of the “psychologized self.” It’s not that it obviously doesn’t refer to something real in the world; it probably does. The problem is without clear definition it is hard for the reader to judge what developments contribute to it.)

(4) [Consequently], Trueman’s selection of examples often appear unwarranted

(5)–cited at length:
“Finally, there is a pastoral worry. Even if the above objections were avoidable, is this the kind of book that would help a pastor shepherd a flock through the complexities of sex and gender faced today? I don’t think it is. Individuals today experiencing gender dysphoria or who are same-sex attracted are not helped if they are assumed to be a part of a movement or a revolution, especially a political one. Some might have political motivations, others may not; it seems unwise to assume one way or another. Pastors are more successful if they pay careful and compassionate attention to the particular story of the individual in question, not automatically placing them within a broader story they may not themselves recognize. Rather, their sensitive listening should help the person find their home in God’s story, that of the gospel. In the end, it does not seem to me that Trueman’s book encourages careful and gentle attention to the individuals who may walk through the doors of any church”

I am appreciative of Fellipe do Vale’s review and concur with at least half of it. On this last point, I agree that people should treat individuals experiencing gender dysphoria with compassionate attention. This is an important caveat. My sense is that do Vale is offering this as a “pastoral worry” rather than a critique. If so, I wholeheartedly concur. Though I see it as poor form to criticize a book for what it does not address, Trueman might have said something about this. Yet, I am not sure that do Vale’s analysis appreciates the importance of what the book is doing with regard to personal care. Trueman explicitly traces how private sexuality has been politicized. The inverse is also true: public ideas about sexuality are always part of private experience. The politics of sexuality must not dominate caring for people, as it very often does among religious conservatives. But we are not able to bracket out “social imaginaries” from individual experience. Cultural narratives contribute to our embodied habits and our interpretations of bodily experience at a pre-conscious level.

For example, evangelical sexual culture can be Exhibit A for how damaging a cultural lens can be for self-understanding. Evangelical men have often adopted a hyper-sexualized interpretation of their own sex drives. They largely do not think that chastity is a virtue necessary for married men (it may be that this last sentence doesn’t even make sense to most readers, see Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s Glittering Vices). Evangelical men tend to see their sex drive as unalterably who they are and that it is a grace that they’ve been given their own lawful sex partner to deal with it. This is a deplorable way to serve their wives. Understanding the contribution of Freud, for instance, to this unconscious assumption is helpful for learning new ways of being for our own flourishing and for that of others.

Reflections on Psalm 140

Ps 140
1 Rescue me, LORD, from evil men.
Keep me safe from violent men
2 who plan evil in their hearts.
They stir up wars all day long.
3 They make their tongues
as sharp as a snake’s bite;
viper’s venom is under their lips.

Throughout the chapter these evil men are called violent and slanderers. It is their thoughts, words, and deeds that make them so. But the Psalmist begins with the thoughts. They “plan evil in their hearts…all day long.”

Are we really exempt from this charge? How do my thoughts run? Do I not engage in ceaseless self-justification? Do I not judge other people’s behavior as unjustified and cruel? Are not slanderous words about others spoken in my own heart, even if they never leave my lips? Evil men need not be self-consciously evil; I may easily put on the habits of self-justifying slander.

But what about violence? Surely, I am not the man. Ours is an age of passive aggression, not overt aggression. Do we not spin the narrative to make our enemies out to be ugly or unwise? Do we not indirectly fight for their ruin or humiliation? Rescue me, LORD, from myself.

Ps 140
9 As for the head of those who surround me,
let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them!
10 Let burning coals fall upon them!
Let them be cast into fire,
into miry pits, no more to rise!
11 Let not the slanderer be established in the land;
let evil hunt down the violent man speedily!
12  I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted,
and will execute justice for the needy.
13 Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;
the upright shall dwell in your presence.

Prov 25
21 If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
22 for you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the LORD will reward you.

Psalm 140 calls for protective judgment with a confidence that God will execute justice. Proverbs 25 specifies what sort of action this confidence inspires.