Both men and women can feel powerless in relationships. Sometimes it’s not obvious, and sometimes we call it something else – such as happiness or lack of happiness – when really it’s a feeling of powerlessness. Warren Farrell discusses power dynamics between the sexes in Why Men Are The Way They Are, which was written 30 years ago but is just as relevant now as it was then. The book is chock-full of insights about understanding men, but I’d like to highlight the section describing how both sexes experience power and powerlessness in relationships.
Farrell describes power as having control over one’s life, defining our own expectations, and then meeting them in five areas:
- Access to external rewards and resources (i.e. income, status, possessions) equivalent to the level of a person’s expectation or desire.
- Access to internal rewards and resources (i.e. inner peace, the capacity for emotional release, positive self-concept, alignment of overall values with daily activities, spirituality). Access starts with the awareness of the importance of these rewards, and becomes real with the time and ability to experience them on a level equal to one’s expectation or desire.
- Access to interpersonal contact (attention, affection, and love and respect from others, whether family or friends [or partners]) equivalent to one’s expectation or desire.
- Access to physical health, attractiveness, and intelligence equivalent to one’s expectation or desire.
- Access to sexual fulfillment in a form that meets one’s expectations.
If we think of power as control over one’s own life in the areas listed above, both the limitations of those we think have power and the real power of those we think of as subordinate becomes clearer.
Farrell asks, “Does a company president who has never known how to be intimate have power? Does a 13 year old Olympic gymnast who has never known whether she is loved for herself or for how she performs have power? Does a boy who must register for the draft at 18, or is shot through the face in Vietnam have power? Does a beautiful woman who marries a doctor have power, when she never discovers her own talents? Does her doctor husband have power when he is forever the slave of his beeper?
He continues, “Which of these people has control over his or her own life? When we call people ‘heroes’ we encourage them to replace real power with an image. When we say ‘men have the power,’ we reinforce the assumption that income, status, and control over others are more important than assessing our values internally.”
Women who feel men have the power are also the most likely to reinforce the male acquisition of the image of power by marrying the men with that image. In the process, they adapt to these men, often losing their identities and therefore their own power.
With the accusation “men have the power,” women enforce the belief that external reward power is all there is to power. The more they see the limits of external reward power, the more they will stop saying “men have the power.”
The phrase “equal to the level of one’s expectation or desire” is important. For example, John gains income and loses inner peace. Did he gain or lose power? We cannot tell until we know John’s expectation or desire. If he expected or desired that his income produce inner peace, then, from his perspective, he has lost power, since his real goal was inner peace, not income. From the perspective of an outsider who saw only John’s income soaring, John gained power. But if John never even considered the option of inner peace, he can be considered cut off from power in this area.
Each component of power can be feigned, which usually gives a person just the appearance of power. For example, if a marriage that everyone thought looked happy is not at all happy, it makes the couple more powerless every day. They are forfeiting power in the area of human contact – the very power they are feigning. To say nothing of inner peace.
So why do people stay unhappily married? Take Ralph [a man mentioned earlier in the book who had worked very hard to become a senior partner at his law firm so he could provide for his family and enjoy life – at the expense of really getting to know his kids, a growing distance between himself and his wife, and becoming someone he wasn’t sure he even liked]. His “family man” image is part of an executive package that gets him promoted to more external rewards. Nelson Rockefeller’s divorce is often thought to have cost him the presidency. And John F. Kennedy is widely believed to have persuaded Jacqueline to remain married to him so it would not cost him the presidency. Generally, if the external rewards are significant, people discount the internal rewards of a happy marriage. External reward power is the most common “bribe” for both sexes to give the appearance of power.
On the other hand, a job, or other external rewards, can bring internal rewards such as inner peace, which in turn can reduce stress and improve physical health.
Do men have “power”? And why would they want to change?
- In the area of external rewards, a man’s socialization is still to be able to provide for a woman as well as himself. Women currently learn three options to get external rewards: through marriage, through their career, or through some combination of both. So men earn the most power through external rewards; married women share most of the money and a portion of their husband’s status. Never-married women earn 91 percent of what never-married men earn.
- Conversely, in the area of internal rewards, a man becomes dependent on a woman for emotional support. The competition to supply external rewards for himself and others encourages a man to devalue internal rewards, and his need for emotional support is intensified by the fear of failing to support more than himself…
- In the area of access to interpersonal contact (attention, affection, love), each sex experiences about an equal amount of deprivation, though in different ways.
- In the area of physical health, women fare far better than men. On average, women live 7.8 years longer than men; men suffer over 98 percent of the major diseases. Some of this may be biological. But since the gap has increased in the United States by almost 700 percent since 1920 (from 1 year to 7.8 years), and since many causes of death have high sex-role-related characteristics, from war (the all-male draft) to the 600 percent higher incidence of work-related accidents among men (including over 2 million disabling injuries and 14,000 deaths per year), we can see that a god portion of this difference is due to sex-role assignment. It is in the area of physical health and longevity that men’s power – control over their own lives – begins to fall considerably short of women’s power. There can be no greater loss of power than the loss of life…
- In the area of sexual fulfillment, both sexes feel frustrated, but for different reasons. Both ideally would like sexual contact with someone to whom they are attracted, for whom they have respect, and with whom they feel an emotional and intellectual connection. How do they both end up feeling sexually powerless? Here’s how, for starters…
Women are still taught to be sexually cautious until two, three, or all four conditions – attraction, respect, emotions, and intellect – are met. Many women add fifth and sixth conditions: singleness and status/ success. And many add a seventh, eighth, and ninth: the man must ask her out; he must pay; and he must risk rejection by initiating the first kiss, being the first to hold hands, and so on…
Men are socialized to want sex as long as only one condition is fulfilled – physical attraction. For each sex, the demand is so great in relation to the supply, each perceives himself or herself as sexually unfulfilled, and therefore powerless in this area. But by being cautious until more conditions are met, women gain enormous sexual leverage power over men. They can use this power to get the external rewards of which they feel deprived. An example is “marrying up.”
Women ideally would like more than external rewards from men. But men are so busy competing for the external rewards women feel deprived of, they are often never even aware of internal rewards. Communication, intimacy, love, and commitment have different meanings for each sex. Both sexes feel powerless, but men are less in touch with their powerlessness because they know less about what it is they are missing.
Women end up finding few men who have the combination of qualities that lead to their total sexual fulfillment, which makes them feel sexually powerless. Men feel as if their expectations are so much lower than women’s – there is only one condition – and they can’t even meet that. And so men feel sexually powerless… [Men] have internalized their lower expectations. Not many a man ever expects an attractive and successful woman to whom he feels intellectually and emotionally connected to ask him out the first time, pay for him, and keep making advances until he responds. Many women expect these conditions, which are beyond the limits of men’s fantasy lives. A man often feels subconsciously that a woman’s minimum requirements are greater than his wildest fantasy…
A man experiences a dilemma when he finds that the most beautiful women have the least incentive to become well integrated with the other areas of power. He knows intellectually he should choose a well-integrated woman. But he feels torn between attractive women, whom he notices are choosing “supermen,” although he realizes supermen are often not well integrated themselves, and less attractive women, who have had more incentive to integrate all five areas of power. So he is caught between giving up his first and only condition for sex (attractiveness) and getting the condition met at the price of sacrificing the other areas in the woman.
What does a man do before becoming a Superman? He goes to a party and hopes merely to achieve sexual contact. He may call it sexual fulfillment, but in reality he is subconsciously redefining sexual fulfillment as merely getting to the stage of sexual contact.
The gap between a woman’s desire for the conditions she would like fulfilled – such as emotional connections – and the conditions she actually gets fulfilled is reflected in compensatory mechanisms such as “women’s magazines,” romance novels, and soap operas, all of which hold out the fantasy of the integration of sex with the right conditions. The male gap is reflected in a man’s compensatory mechanisms like pornography and prostitution: pornography gives him attractive women vicariously for little money, prostitution directly for more money. Both help him avoid being rejected for not meeting the nine conditions.
For women, learning to depend on the power of youth, beauty, and sexuality turns beauty and sexuality into power tools rather than internal sources of fulfillment, which thereby denies a woman the very integration within herself she was socialized to desire for both herself and her man.
It would be wonderful if more of us thought about our own experiences of power / powerlessness and had more compassion about what it’s like to be in the opposite sex’s shoes in our daily interactions. I hope you’ve found Farrell’s ideas insightful, too!
Further reading: Men’s Fear In Relationships