Coming Out on Top: Power Struggles in Your Relationships
In the piece on Dale Carnegie’s advice, a commenter asked about dealing with power struggles:
“Hey Chase this is a great article. Could you do an article about how to handle power struggles in friendships? I find it really has to do with investment. For example, my friend wants me to meet him somewhere, but I want him to meet me. Its like five minutes away, but its a power struggle thing. I get really annoyed when people do this because I’d like to have friends who don’t try to make things a competition like this. But I also have learned from this site that everyone is like this. Can you help me out?”
In the end, power struggles are always about the same thing, whether they’re in your romantic or sexual relationships, or your platonic ones – and I’ll cover all of these and everything else in the scope of this article.
There’s little more frustrating than having to deal with the relationship equivalent of guerilla warfare, but this is exactly what power struggles are – someone using frame control attempts, passive aggression, moral superiority and other forms of social subterfuge to undermine your position and climb the social ladder to a position above you in the hierarchy.
Not fun at all... and frequently quite draining.
So let’s talk about how power struggles come about, and what you can do once you realize you’re in one.
The first thing to understand about anyone who engages you in a power struggle-type situation is that he (or she) is an opportunist. If he did not think he could win the struggle, he would not commence it in the first place... instead, he would continue to hang back, observe, and wait for the right opening.
Power struggles most often occur in situations where a leader is inexperienced, uncertain, or otherwise unpopular.
In a group of friends, for instance, if one takes the initial leadership role because he is louder and bolder and more outgoing, for instance, but the other friend or friends begin to detect holes to his approach that make them begin to suspect he is merely putting on a show, they’ll begin to challenge his leadership and struggle with him for power.
In a sexual relationship, if you start off in the up role and your partner is in the down role, but she begins to see things that don’t add up for her and make her think that you aren’t as legitimate a leader as you claim, she will begin to test and challenge you here.
The big thing to understand is that people doing this are not bad people – because EVERYONE will do this with anyone in a leadership role over him but who he starts to get the impression would make an inferior leader to his own self.
If you and I are friends, and I always plan things out and take the initiative, but you start thinking for whatever reason that I’m not really doing such a good job of it and you’d do a better job yourself, you will start countering my suggestions with your own. No matter how swell a guy, if I am sufficiently not a good or respectable leader for you, you will begin to get annoyed at doing things the way I want to do them.
And next comes the power struggle.
The Follower’s Dilemma
I’ve noticed when we discuss leadership-follower dynamics in both romantic relationships and other social relationships, a lot of people’s hackles get raised. In the modern West, we just DON’T like talking about social relationships in terms of leaders and followers, or dominant parties and submissive parties, or social rank.
Everyone, we have been told our entire lives, ought to be equal.
Indeed, my normal advice to anyone finding themselves playing politics too much is to get out of that circle, stop climbing the social ladder, and elevate himself above this pettiness (because really... is there anything pettier than wrestling around with someone for control of some insignificant friend group of a handful of ordinary people?).
Yet, there’s no denying the reality of social rank WITHIN social systems; when you are in a well-formed social group with other people, you’re either the top guy, or you’re somebody else, and the farther down the chain you get the more confused you become as to exactly what your role is, partly because it’s harder to tell... but also partly because if you’re not the top guy, the intrinsic vanity we naturally possess as people tends to not want to let us recognize this.
The follower’s dilemma, then, is this: he gets to relax and not have to make as many decisions, BUT he must trust that the leader is doing a better job of leading than he would or could himself – and that means:
- The leader plans better events,
- The leader handles logistics better,
- The leader gets cooperation from others better, and
- The leader helps him (the follower) achieve HIS OWN objectives
... than the follower would on his own.
If he starts believing that the leader is NOT or CAN not do this, then he has a difficult decision to make: does he stick it out and hope the leader gets his act together... does he walk away and give up on the group altogether... OR, does he launch into a power struggle and see if he can’t rise to power, take control of the relationship, friendship, group of friends, company, country, or other human/social organization, and do things better than the old leader did?
Signs of Weakness
The major signs of “weakness” in a leader thus are:
- You think you’d do a better job planning or scheduling events than him
- You think you’d do a better job handling logistics and coordination than him
- You think you’d do a better job getting group buy-in and cooperation than him
- You think you’d do a better job helping yourself (and others in
the group, if more than two people) achieve your objectives than him
As soon as you, or anyone else, starts feeling this way, your mood in the group will change... from “content” to “dissatisfied.”
And the worse a job you think the leader is doing, and the more you feel your and/or the group’s needs are not being met, the greater the dissatisfaction you will feel will be, the more you will resent his “unrightful rule”, and the more openly you will begin to resist and challenge him.
If you are on the receiving end of a power struggle, what this usually means is that you’re slipping up on your role as boyfriend, lover, paramour, friend, coordinator, etc. Depending on the other person or people involved, you may have made a BIG slip, and LOTS of them... or you may have just made one small, tiny slip just once, and the other person pounced.
This is especially true if she is narcissistic; some people simply don’t gel with the follower role and will fight for leadership in whatever group they are a part of the moment they see a realistic opening for them to. When you deal with very confident, high ego individuals, you must be PERFECT in your handling of your relationships with them IF you are in the leadership role and don’t want to deal with power struggles.
As you might guess, power struggles are almost inevitable over a long enough amount of time – even if you have a friend or a girlfriend who’s very submissive, over time you will tend to forget about something important to her, or start stomping all over one of her goals accidentally, and she’ll have no choice but to start fighting you for control of the relationship to either
Seize it herself and get what she needs; or
Fight to a standstill / true equality, at which point she will leave (because you are not her follower, she doesn’t need you as a leader, and there’s essentially no point to retaining her ties with you since she is going to fulfill her own objectives as a leader while you go to fulfill your own objectives as a leader – the two of you go your separate ways); or
Compel you to do a better job as a leader, regain control of the relationship, and start serving her needs better.
And if your lover or friend is a less-submissive person by nature, it’s going to take a lot less of a buildup before the power struggles start showing up at your doorstep.
Worth noting that sometimes, if you are a very calm/relaxed person
and you are dealing with a very vibrant, high-energy person, you may
encounter large initial power struggles because high-energy people are
used to having most lower energy people roll over around them purely by
being pushy and persistent enough. In this case, if you really ARE a Law
of Least Effort dominant individual, they will
quickly find that their efforts to roll you are like waves crashing
against the rocks – maybe if they had a few thousand years they might
roll you down, but in the meantime, it’s just a whole lot of wasted
However, they will still try
first because experience tells them that high energy person vs. low
energy person leads to them winning 99% of the time, and they won’t
know it’s different with you until they try and find you won’t budge.
This is the case of them reading a strength of yours as a weakness
inaccurately because they are filtering it through their lens of
previous experiences, and there are other things like this.
I started privately referring to putting down episodes of drama from girlfriends as “quelling the rebellion”, as in, “Wow, that was a lot of drama – but I sure quelled that rebellion pretty nicely.”
And it’s the same with any kind of power struggle, whether
relationship drama or attempts by friends to shift your outings with
them onto terms more favorable to them (akin to what we discuss in “Dating
on Your Terms”).
If this is a deep relationship with a clear hierarchy between the parties, power struggles really are a form of rebellion; they’re a way of throwing off the yoke of someone in control who isn’t serving your needs properly.
However... there is another situation we need to discuss first, and that’s the situation where the other person just genuinely doesn’t need you all that much.
When It’s Not a Rebellion
I occasionally will find myself in a situation with some person I’ve met – could be a girl I grabbed a phone number from, or some guy who’s contacted me and wants to talk business or hanging out – and he or she will want me to do things on his or her terms.
But, I genuinely just won’t care very much about what this person has to offer me. I WILL see them or talk to them if they will do it on MY terms... but if they won’t, I just don’t really care.
For instance, a girl may be trying to get me to come see her, but I would rather she come see me. If she won’t come see me, that’s fine, because I have plenty of other things to do and other girls to see. I probably won’t even think about her again until I hear from her again.
But in her eyes, we may be locked in a power struggle. She’s trying to get me to do what SHE wants, and, to her, it seems like I’m trying to get HER to do what I want.
In actuality, she’s the only one in a power struggle; I’m telling her, “Here’s my offer; take it or leave it; I’m indifferent either way.”
Likewise with some people who contact me to talk business or socially or whatnot; I’ll get a lot of, “Let’s do a phone call; I’m available at this time, this time, and that time.”
But what’s being offered doesn’t really interest me, so I offer to talk over email instead. They counter with how important it is to talk over the phone.
They may view this as a power struggle; I’m trying to do things on my terms. But in reality, I just don’t care enough to set aside some of my time to hop on the phone with this person and let them talk away at me about something I’m not terribly interested in. An email I can browse quickly and fire off a response to at my leisure is one thing; a long phone chat with someone I hardly know about something I’m not interested in is another entirely.
So, when you’re assessing whether you’re in a power struggle or not, this is an important question to ask yourself first: are you meeting important needs of this other person, and/or providing value that is hard or impossible to replace... from her point of view? If “yes”, then you probably are in a genuine power struggle.
If “no”, though... it may just be that what you view as a “power struggle” is simply the fact that the other person doesn’t view what you have to offer as worth the trouble of doing things the way you want her to do it.
It sometimes is simply the case that before you can even worry about a power struggle, you’ve got to worry about providing more social value to this other person that he or she values, subjectively, personally (that is: not stuff that you think he SHOULD value, but stuff he actually values, himself), instead.
Putting Down Power Struggles
Back to rebellion-quelling.
Let’s say it’s pretty established that this is a substantial relationship between you and this other person. Let’s say you BOTH get solid value out of the relationship, and things were great for a while, but recently, there’s this power struggle dynamic that’s entered into things.
Well, the solution’s simple enough: you need to be more willing to boot this other person than she is to boot you.
You must have an abundance mentality about whatever it is this person is to you: lover, girlfriend, buddy, boss, colleague, etc. Power struggles in the end are ultimately about who needs whom more; if you need him more than he needs you, you will fold to his efforts eventually.
Yet, if he is a more replaceable part of your life than you are his, you’ll find it not terribly difficult to regain power.
That works like this: in examples like our readers from the start of the article, where the reader asked a friend to come to his place, and the friend countered by asking the reader to come to his place, here’s all you do: you communicate back something like, “Haha, guess we’re both super lazy today. Well no worries; I’ll be here playing backgammon [or whatever] – stop by later.”
Now, either the friend will come by, or he won’t. If he doesn’t, it’s either because:
It’s become a big ego thing for him now and he HAS to win (that is, it’s become a dominance contest, and whichever of the two of you wins is going to get a testosterone spike, while the loser takes a big testosterone hit), OR
He just doesn’t really care a whole lot about getting off his behind and walking 5 minutes to come hang with you
Generally speaking, the rule of thumb among men here is that the inviter goes the distance – if you’re going to ask your buddy to hang out, you should probably go to his place or offer to pick him up. Sending messages like, “Hey dude, come over,” comes across as dominating and emasculating to all but the most cowed males, unless you have something really amazing to offer him if he does (e.g., “Hey dude, come over – I’ve got these two swimsuit models in my living room and I need a wingman” – he should have no problems coming over for THAT one).
So, make sure you’re not the one making a faux pas by asking someone for investment without providing sufficient incentive for him to feel like it’s worth doing for any reason other than that he is at your beck and call.
Assuming you are the one in the right here though – you’ve been perfectly cool, offered him value that you know HE will appreciate, and you’re not asking for investment without offering something of equal or greater value in return – then the right play is just doing the, “Cool, no worries, catch you later then bro,” message which basically says if you’re going to be a dick about it, I’m not interested.
The subtext here is, “If you can’t be cool and do things on my terms, then the awesome value I’ve just offered you is closed to you.”
So if you texted your friend and said, “Hey man, head on over and
let’s do some pregaming then hit the bars and go pick up chicks,” and
he says, “Dude, why don’t you come over here?” a, “Haha, cool, guess
we’re both lazy, well let’s try to meet up later,” followed by you
making no effort to text him later will send the right message that
that behavior is not cool and you’ll waste no time on it, and he loses
whatever value you offered if he’s going to behave that way.
In romantic relationships, the dynamic you need to follow is what we’ve discussed in other articles on dealing with drama; if she’s a casual relationship, you must never freak out or let it be a big deal – just act like she’s being ridiculous. If it’s a serious relationship, you must put the pimp hand down, so to speak, and deal with the rebellion in a very firm, very non-negotiable way. Here are the articles on the specifics of doing this if you need a refresher:
- Women and Drama
- Fighting in a Relationship: Causes and Cures
- End Relationship Drama with These 2 Rules
Conditioning in Your Romantic Relationships
In larger groups of people, it’s mostly about letting the group decide. Groups are intelligent in that they will let the best leader lead. So power struggles here aren’t really power struggles so much as they are requests that the group decide whether you or another really makes for the best leader.
As an example, let’s say you are currently calling most of the shots about what a group does. Let’s say you propose that everyone meets for giant margaritas next Wednesday at Jorge’s Mexican Ranch. Some guy who’s been power struggling with you a lot then jumps in to say that Wednesday’s not really a good day for him and Thursday would be a lot better... and let’s all do that trendy new lounge instead, that’ll be a much better place than Jorge’s. This is a clear vie for power – he’s rejecting all of your suggestions and making value judgments on them, which is his way of saying to the group, “Hey, this other guy is doing a crap job at leading the group – I can do way better.”
At that point, the other members of the group are either going to say, “Yeah, the lounge sounds great!” or they’re going to mumble and grumble and go, “Nah, let’s do Jorge’s... I don’t like that new lounge.”
The key to winning power struggles here is just having a better thumb on the pulse of the group. If you know what the other people in the group want and are doing a commendable job leading it and helping the group do what it most wants and enjoys to do, any challengers looking to unseat you who don’t have an even BETTER read on what the group wants will fail (and usually un-invite themselves from the group not long after... it can be pretty humbling for a guy to try to seize power in a group and fail; and, generally, if you’re trying to seize power it means you aren’t happy with the current state of things and are trying to remake the group in your own image; if the group just stays the way it is you’re likely to bail and go looking for something more in-line with your wants, needs, and objectives).
Power Struggle Recap
Ultimately, legitimate power struggles are all about one thing: I feel like you aren’t doing a good enough job of tending to my needs.
The person who declines because he just doesn’t care about what you have to offer is telling you that you’re way down the line value-wise – clearly, you’re not taking care of HIS needs (and probably don’t even know what they are).
The person who was good with you for a while but now is fighting you is telling you that somewhere along the line she’s started feeling unsatisfied – and now you either need to shape up, hand the reins over to her, or let her go to find someone who can do a better job of leading her.
And, the person who barges into a group and starts trying to wrest control of it from you is saying, “You don’t have a very good bead on what this group wants – I can do a better job of it,” and going back to the group for a yay or nay vote. One of you will come out on top – and the other will probably soon exit the group.
Remember that to quell the rebellion, you must not just be able to put things back onto terms favorable to you, but fix the value problem you’re having so that rebellions don’t keep springing up.
A band of guerilla fighters doesn’t start fighting the government because it thinks getting shot at and massacred is a good way to spend the next 5 to 20 years. It rebels because it thinks the government is doing a crap job of tending to its needs, and that if it gains control of the nation it can do a better job.
When people are power struggling with you, it’s the same deal, just at a much smaller scale – instead of trying to run a nation, they’re trying to be the ones running the dynamic between you and them.
Fend that off, and do a better job of running things and meeting and exceeding everyone’s needs, and you won’t long need to deal with this.
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