Power infuses all relationships, but today there’s a new paradigm: Only equally shared power creates happy individuals and satisfying marriages. Increasingly, it is the passport to intimacy.
As water is to fish, power is to people: It is the medium we swim in. And it is typically just as invisible to us.
Power is not limited to leaders or organizations; it doesn’t require outright acts of domination. It’s a basic force in every social interaction. Power defines the way we relate to each other. It dictates whether you get listened to. It determines whether your needs take priority or get any attention at all.
The problem for romantic partners is that power as normally exercised is a barrier to intimacy. It blunts sensitivity to a partner and precludes emotional connectivity. Yet this connection is what human beings all crave, and need. It satisfies deeply.
But there’s only one path to intimacy. It runs straight through shared power in relationships. Equality is not just ideologically desirable, it has enormous practical consequences. It affects individual and relationship well-being. It fosters mutual responsiveness and attunement. It determines whether you’ll be satisfied or have days (and nights) spiked with resentment and depression. “The ability of couples to withstand stress, respond to change, and enhance each other’s health and well-being depends on their having a relatively equal power balance,” reports Carmen Knudson-Martin of Loma Linda University. Equality, psychologists agree, is the world’s best antidote to isolation. It’s just not easy to attain or to sustain.
Intimacy is nothing new. Seeking support, feeling close, forming strong emotional bonds, and expressing feelings are essential to the human experience. Both physical and psychological well-being, in fact, depend on the ability to do so.
But where we place intimacy in our lives certainly is new. The intensification of individualism and the development of the love match—ultrarecent phenomena on the human timeline—concentrate inti-macy in couplehood. Until the 20th century, says social historian Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, intimacy was dispersed among wide family and social circles. The closeness mothers and daughters and even mothers and sons enjoyed, as well as siblings and cousins, would be considered enmeshment today. Saying “I love you” to a cousin or even a neighbor was commonplace. So was displacing a husband to spend a night in bed sharing secrets with an old friend come to town. “We have upped our expectations of intimacy but downgraded our definition of from whom it is expected and to whom it is owed,” says Coontz. “We’ve taken all the personal feelings and expectations from other relationships and put them onto the couple relationship.”
So much have social lives shrunk that men today tend to have only one confidante—their wife. That makes men especially reactive to their wives’ emotions—notably their negative emotions. That’s not to say that wives are not reactive to men’s feelings, but having a wider social network allows women more opportunities to calibrate their emotional lives.
The place of intimacy is not all that’s changing. For a long time, the prevailing definition of intimacy has revolved around the sharing of feelings and insecurities. Necessary as it is, it is no longer sufficient; confiding can be confining. It makes little allowance for individual growth, a requirement in long-term relationships. And individual growth fuels not only the expansion of love but the sexual desire and eroticism increasingly expected if relationships are to satisfy for a lifetime.
“Intimacy rests on two people who have a capacity to both listen and speak up, who have the courage to bring more and more of their full selves into the relationship,” says psychologist Harriet Lerner. “Both need equal power in defining what they want and what they really think and believe. But you have to know you can leave a relationship. If you truly believe you can’t survive without a relationship, you have no power to really be yourself within it.”
Too often, one partner gives up too much self—core values and priorities become compromised under relationship pressures; one person does more than a fair share of giving in around decision making or gives the other’s goals priority. “Historically speaking, that person has been the woman,” says Lerner. “I see it more both ways now that women are more economically independent. It takes courage to act on your own behalf.” What often happens, she says, is that people accommodate, accommodate, accommodate, grow to resent it, and then fly out of the relationship when they needed to reclaim their power much earlier. “They needed to say much earlier, ‘I don’t want you to treat me this way and I won’t be in the conversation when you talk to me this way.’ ”
Because intimacy is more important than ever, relationship equality is more necessary than ever.