Both nature and nurture create a complex template that determines who will dominate in dyadic relationships.
It has become a modern aphorism that all relationships are essentially power struggles. One can readily see how this would apply in the case of political relationships, corporate relationships, institutional relationships and the like. But when it comes to inter-personal relationships, this may appear to be a cynical observation. However, the more one thinks of it, the more likely is one to appreciate that this belief is not entirely devoid of merit.
Looking around, one can see that in most dyadic relationships (those involving two people), there is the tacit, often explicit, assumption, that one of the two has a casting vote. Whether between parent and child, man and woman, boss and subordinate, teacher and student, sibling and sibling, friend and friend or service provider and service recipient, most fallouts take place when one doesn’t recognise or respect the authority of the other, or worse, attempts to reverse the power balance in the equation. The most serene relationships are those in which the power structure is accepted unquestioningly by both partners in the dyad, and both can therefore be relatively true to their respective selves and each other within the framework of this acceptance.
For millennia, in our country certainly, patriarchy has been accepted as an incontrovertible bedrock of cultural existence, except in certain pockets, where matriarchy ruled the roost. While this is slowly changing, whatever else the khap panchayats may want to believe, the fact that in the most intimate of dyadic relationships, one gender had be ‘in control’ of the other, represents the nucleus of this issue. This phenomenon extends itself to other less intimate relationships as well. Even within the same gender, there still exists a pecking order between the two participants in the equation, determined by the predefined authority that is traditionally vested on the prescribed role each is playing. The one who’s less ‘powerful’ is always expected to play the subordinate role in the relationship. Which is why regardless of strengths or weaknesses, the boss is always right, or the husband’s word is law, or the brother is more equal than the sister. In other words, for a relationship to proceed smoothly, everyone has to “know their respective places” and function within these perimeters.
The cycle goes on
In more orthodox societies such as the one we live in, social roles are clearly institutionalised, and ‘violations’ are easily identifiable. But in modern societies, which have broken the barriers of institutionalisation, new parameters to determine who has the power in a dyadic relationship are periodically redefined based largely on the zeitgeist of the culture one is part of. Thus, you have attributes like wealth, attractiveness, education, personality and the like that create a new class of relationship controllers; the richer, more attractive, the better educated and the more extroverted one is, the more the balance of power shift in one’s favour. What is ironical is that the attempt to break the shackles of rigid control mechanisms like patriarchy, has resulted not in a state of classlessness, which one would imagine was the primary goal of rebellion, but in the emergence of new and equally rigid classification processes. Tomorrow, new parameters that define power-structures in relationships are bound to emerge. And so the cycle will go on.
But why should it happen in the first place. Is it just learned behaviour? Or is it hard-wired into us, part of our DNA? Certainly control or dominance is something we engage in instinctively without being taught. But even if it’s been drilled into us that by virtue of having certain attributes we can be dominant in a relationship, it’s not uncommon to see men who are controlled by women or a younger sibling taking the one-up position over an older one or children who grew up in an ambience of pacifism turning out to be chauvinistic and intolerant. I would imagine that both nature and nurture together create a fairly complex template in the back of our minds that determine how we will behave in dyadic relationships.
But why do we need to have power in relationships? I believe that the closer and more intimate the relationship, the more dependent is one person on the other, whether financially, emotionally, physically or sexually. And when there exists a lack of reciprocity or mutuality, one partner is seen as needing the other more. The more ‘needy’ one feels the other is, the more likely is one to take the upper hand in the relationship. Some do it gently, some boorishly, and some even unconsciously. But we all do it, however evolved we may think ourselves to be, bolstered by the ‘benevolent dictator’ argument which rationalises dominance on the basis of good intentions.
However, if we are not conscious of the power games we play with each other, or if the balance of power in a close or intimate relationship is permanently tilted in favour of one person over the other, a fallout is waiting to happen. But if we consciously work towards having a reasonably stable power structure in a relationship, then our power games can actually be fun (as games are meant to be), instead of resulting in power outages, as sadly, they so often tend to.