In a new relationship, and maybe even in a not-so-new one, the person less dependent on the other, less in love, perhaps–holds the power. One way the least interested wields power is simply by refusing to become more interested.
To wit: A study I set up featuring a youngish couple I was seeing for therapy, one in a rather old-fashioned dynamic. I was getting my graduate degree at the time.
The wife, Madeline, came in saying that she felt “powerless” in her marriage. Her husband, Frank, made all the decisions, she said. He might be oblivious to this fact, she added,, and might want to believe otherwise, but their lives revolved around his desires, not hers. She felt this truth passionately, but had difficulty articulating the myriad ways in which her powerlessness was manifested—and how it diminished her. From what they ate for dinner to what they saw at the movies, she felt she had little say. Why? “Because I don’t decide how we spend the money, nor do I have access to our money.”
Frank said this was “nonsense,” that they were a modern couple and his wife had as much input into their decision-making as he did. Moreover, he said, she could have money “whenever she wanted it.” What was all this talk about “power” anyway?
Madeline shook her head in frustration, trying to articulate how it feels to be told what she “should” feel. When Frank was displeased, she said—as he inevitably was when she insisted on doing things her way, or when she spent money on herself or on things he thought were unnecessary—she felt not only his disapproval but overwhelming guilt. She’d got to the point where she couldn’t bear the questions at bill-paying time; couldn’t stand the expression on his face when she declared the movies she wanted to see, the books she wanted to read. She no longer wanted to share her innermost thoughts with such a disapproving fellow. She’d become, she felt, paralyzed to act and speak spontaneously and authentically and independently. She felt, she said, like a servant.
Frank acted mystified.
I asked one question: “Who has the control of your money?”
“Frank does,” Madeline shot back.
“Nonsense,” Frank said again. “She can have money any time she needs it. We’re equal partners.”
“Madeline has to ask for money, right? She then has to account for what’s gone and what remains—but you don’t.”
“Well, Madeline never asks me to! I would if she did.”
“Nonsense,” Madeline said.
I suggested that they change their financial set –up. “Since you’re equal partners, I want you to divide all your money in two, equally, each half in separate accounts, one for each of you. And I want you to do it this week, before you come back to see me.” I looked at Frank.
“Yup. And then, in the future, all your money should subsequently be divided equally and put into these two separate accounts.”
Frank gulped. “That’s ridiculous! We already share it!”
“Good,” I said. “Then this is a mere formality. Let’s try it for two months, and see how it goes.”
He was stuck. His assertion that they shared their money, that she had free access to it, that they were “equal partners,” that her complaints were all nonsense, was not being challenged theoretically, but practically. Frank finally agreed to set up their financial lives as I’d suggested, but he thought it was all ”horse shit.”
How fast did Madeline’s feelings of powerless disappear? I’d say within two weeks. By the end of two months, I had a different couple in my office. Even the blustering Frank had witnessed such a dramatic change in his wife that he was pleased. His “loss of control of their finances”—something he’d imagined would emasculate him, strip him of the very power he claimed not to have—was okay with him now. After all, he had his wife back.
The underpinnings of the Power of the Least Interested may turn out to have evolutionary and biological roots; it may even have its origins in the delicate workings of our brains. Certainly the principle itself operates in so many areas of life that the anecdotes alone could fill more than these seven blogs. From whence comes this complicated and Byzantine need in us—to want but not to show it; to buy, but only if others want it as much or more than we do; to desire that which is that’s most difficult to have; to cherish most what feels unavailable? Increasingly, our entire world, from our personal relationships to our economic system, depends upon our understanding—if not our acting upon–this fascinating, complicated principle which, said simplistically, is: If you’re the one who can walk, you’re the one who wins.