Getting Relationship Balance
Moving Away from Dominance and Submission
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
Attachment to the abuser often occurs when the primary caretaker of an abuse survivor was abusive. This attachment pattern can come from great fears of being abandoned. Margaret Mahler describes how a submissive partner can over-idealize a dominant one who may represent the all-powerful parent from the past. Submission and becoming dependent upon someone else can be a coping mechanism that prevents further growth; giving in to meet the needs of others is a habit that is hard to break. Due to their unconscious defense mechanisms, submissive people must find dominant people for relationships.
Domestic violence is defined by Ann Jones and Susan Schechter in When Love Goes Wrong as a “pattern of coercive control that one person exercises over another in order to dominate and get their way.” The authors go on to explain that abuse is a behavior that compels someone to behave in ways that they do not freely choose, which arouses fear and is emotionally or physically harmful.
The research shows that domination and abuse are typically men’s issues. Of course, the person who holds the power can also be a woman in a relationship, but most often it is a male gender issue as relayed by the research on domestic violence. Macho behavior is over-compensation for feeling vulnerable inside and needing power. The need to dominate others becomes a way that the individual handles feelings of inner anxiety and helplessness. Aggressive behavior can be used in an attempt to avoid feeling shame and vulnerable. The macho man can’t allow feelings of being weak so chooses a partner who is submissive and will not challenge authority. He believes that it is the woman’s role to meet all his needs and soothe bad feelings. Others who submit to a man’s demands give him the illusion that he is powerful. He feels justified in confronting the woman if his needs are not met.
There is always a strong imbalance of power in disordered relationships. The dominant partner justifies the negative means through which he or she keeps their partner in tow. They come to believe in their absolute power and suffer from a power addiction. As children, they observed how anger and intimidation were used in the family to control others. They learned to identify with the aggressor, first as a means of surviving, and later to get their own way. They use the defense mechanism of denial to continue their behavior. Lord Acton summed it up well: “Power always corrupts, absolute power absolutely corrupts.”
In sick relationships, coercion and techniques of mind control are used to keep the partner in a submissive state. Mind control refers to a system of influence that disrupts or undermines another person’s identity to replace the independent sense of self with self-doubt and increased dependency needs. Mind control techniques are described in Steven Hassan’s classic book about cult behavior, Combating Cult Mind Control. Hassan’s description of the mind control techniques that are used in enemy prison camps and religious cults parallel those used in abusive relationships. Coercive Control is a legal term associated with an ongoing pattern of: isolating the partner and control of access to financial resources, employment or education, monitoring their activities and micro-regulating their daily lives. Illinois, Colorado and Arizona and the United Kingdom all have laws linking coercive control to domestic violence.
One type of mind control used by the partner who is in charge is “Read My Mind” as he expects that his thoughts should be interpreted and carried out by others. The controlling partner gives little or no information and expects others to be on the same wave length, understanding what he wants. When asked for clarification, he gets angry and berates the other person for not getting it right. The submissive partner becomes helpless not knowing what is wanted and spends time in trying to cue in to avoid punishment. In this confused, hopeless state, the internal boundaries of the submissive partner become more fluid allowing the dominant partner to take over. Her self-esteem, already fragile, becomes eroded.
Balanced relationships share power as both partners care for and respect the other’s needs. Continuing abuse happens when there is a power difference in the relationship. One occurs when the submissive partner values the relationship more and allows the abuse to happen because they love their partner “soooo much.” They give their power away. Often this is misguided love that throws the relationship off balance. As one partner becomes more submissive, the other becomes more aggressive. Systems theory recognizes that people in relationship exert mutual control over each other. As one becomes passive or submissive, the other becomes aggressive.
Here is the dynamic of having too much love and giving one’s self away as shown in this anonymous Japanese Haiku poem: “One umbrella-the person more in love-gets wet.” A balanced relationship would allow for both partners to be half dry and half wet!
Be Willing to Change your Dominance Behavior
Understanding how power gets out of balance and recognizing and taking responsibility for one’s own dysfunctional behavior is the first step to changing unhealthy patterns. A dominant person can recognize how the unfairness of his demands creates separation and loss of the very love he seeks. Some aggressive people do not care. They value the satisfaction of mind games and putting others down. However there is always a cost, too much taking and not enough giving in a relationship causes a lack of intimacy. As A Course in Miracles says, “Would you rather be right or be happy?” To paraphrase: “Would your rather have power or love?” Apparently there are many people who choose power over being connected to others.
Loving couples share the power. They act more as equals than trying to establish power and dominance. Men have written me telling me how horrified they are when they finally understand that they have been abusive, and they then decide to make amends to family members and change into a strong, secure man who values fairness over getting his own way.
Going from selfishness to maturity is related to the willingness to be open-minded. How much of a no brainer is this? Dear Abby said, “I believe in constant self-help.” You can make the decision to change behaviors that hurt others. There are some fantastic programs that you can search for to help you with dominance issues. Here is a positive way of thinking about getting the balance between being a taker or a giver in life. If you have been too selfish, you can change.
Bring to your conscious mind what you are doing that is unhealthy to others! Copy these affirmations in your handwriting and post them on your mirror to say daily.
- I am willing to examine and change my selfish behaviors and those where I give myself away. I choose to learn the balance between giving too much and taking too much.
- I am willing to examine how much my strong opinions and behavior hurts others. By observing others’ reactions to how I act instead of feeling satisfied with me, I can learn to be more connected and loving.
- I am willing to change unhealthy patterns of submission and dominance learned in my childhood and substitute the skills of communication to have loving, fulfilling relationships.
- I am willing to do an emotional-regulation or stress management procedure when I feel disappointed or angry because I don’t get my way.
- I am willing to have my relationships be a force that allows me to become the best person I can possibly be.
The Willingness Exercise is from my book, Your Quick Anger Makeover; Plus Twenty Other Cutting-Edge Techniques to Release Anger.
Dominance issues can be processed by working with talented therapists who are trained in working with disruptive early experiences that have affected one’s sense of safety and thus loss of identity. As spiritual teacher Vernon Howard said, you owe it to yourself to “release living with a self that is burdened and confused.” Go to findatherapist.com and put in your zip code, town and state and look at the descriptors of problems listed on the right side of the web page. This will take you to pictures and descriptions of therapists in your area. If you want to find a therapist trained in the energy techniques, google ACEPT or Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology and look at their list.