In most relationships there is an asymmetry of power. Both parties do not perceive each other to be of equal power. This asymmetry is constantly changing. Some times there is just a little power difference and sometimes there is a big power difference. Some times the power difference can completely change direction. A man and a woman may get married and he has most power in the relationship. Then three years later she is the one who has the most power.
There is a saying that you sometimes hear husbands report:
“Happy wife, happy life”.
Translated the husband is saying, “I perceive you as more powerful than me so sometimes I will consent to things that I don’t want to consent to”.
In relationships this consent can vary from the banal, such as to what music they listen to while riding in the car. He will consent to listening to music that he would prefer not to listen to and then have the resultant uncomfortable feeling.
Or it can be about much more important issues, sometimes known as the “big four”. In a marriage there are four common issues that couples may experience difficulty about. If they disagree on any of these issues then that is much more serious for the relationship, and these are:
The management of money
The sexual relationship
The management or parenting style of children
The management of relationships with in-laws and other family
If a couple have a significant difference in views on any of these that can cause serous difficulties for the marriage. For example if a wife has the view, “You spend what you earn” and the husband has the view that you “Must save, save, save”, then this can cause big difficulties. Or one person may wish to keep their finances completely separate and the other wants the finances combined.
One parent may have a more authoritarian parenting style compared to the other who parents with more of a permissive, counselling style of child management. These can lead to very significant marital difficulties and will at times add to the reason for a marriage breakdown.
And then there is the sexual relationship where couples can have arguments over that. The one who has the most power in the relationship will tend to structure the marital sexual relationship the way they want it. If the wife has the most power she will structure it how she wants it and vice versa for the husband.
In all these instances the person with less power will consent to things which they don’t want to consent to and when they do they will have some kind of problem feeling afterwards. If the wife spends most of the money they earn and the husband consents to that, then he may have feelings of ongoing anxiety about what he sees as the financial insecurity in their lives.
In the local newspaper they recently reported on a new book written by Mena Suvari about her life including difficulties in her early life. She was one of the main actors in the movie “American Beauty” and the well known bath scene in that movie.
In this book she chronicles some of her early life experiences including those about her sexual relationships with men she knew. In it she reports where she consented to some sexual activity that she didn’t want to do and the resultant distressing feelings afterwards. She consented because she saw them as the more powerful one in the relationship at that time. She said yes when she wanted to say no.
This illustrates two different types or levels of consent. A social level of consent and a psychological level of consent
In Australia at the moment there has been a lot of public discussion about consent in sexual relationships especially for teenagers and younger people. As a consequence some schools now do more education about consent, what it is and what it means for the sexual relationship. I hope this ‘education’ includes a description of these two types of consent but I suspect that some of them do not.
As a result the teenager maybe worse off from this eduction. If a young person, especially the female is only told about social level consent and not psychological level consent. Then she consents at the social level to sexual activity with her boyfriend but does not want to at the psychological level then she will have some resultant distressing feelings afterwards such as reported well by Mena Suvari.
If she has been told about social level consent, consents with her boyfriend and then has distressing feelings afterwards, she may easily conclude, “I openly consented with my boyfriend, now I feel bad about what we did, so these bad feelings must be all my fault.” She is now worse off than when she started.
Again it needs to be stressed that this is not an uncommon thing in relationships and extends well beyond just the sexual relationship. In all sorts of ways people will say yes, when they want to say no and then have the bad feelings afterwards. An imbalance or asymmetry of power I would suggest is the norm in relationships. And it will vary in direction and degree over time. However the one with less power will consent and say yes when they want to say no to whatever the issue is and then have to deal with the emotional fallout from that.
However if we are educating teenagers about consent I hope that eduction addresses this issue about the normality of power asymmetry in relationships.
I suspect both the social and psychological consents are not specifically called out, however if the focus is on how the teenagers can listen to how they feel about sex with a.n.other, then does that in a roundabout way get there? Or at least to the psychological consent. And I doubt power asymmetry is talked about, but maybe I am being cynical.
At least things have moved on and it is discussed in the classroom. As a teenager at a catholic school in the 80s I had zero sex education but had to sit through “the silent scream” which was a graphic anti abortion film of its time. Around the same time there were all the doom and gloom UK ads too on HIV. Enough to terrify any kid and so I guess it did act as a sex education in some form.
Never heard of the big 4 before – they make sense. Interesting 3 of them are about relationship with each other (sex) / family (kids & inlaws.).
That is a very good question Kahless. At some level both parties know the psychological dynamics of the relationship. Some are clearly aware of it and some are only slightly aware of it.
If the wife has the psychological power in the relationship. To pick a banal example. When they are driving in the car she puts the CD on and it is of ABBA. He speaks up and says he would like to hear Rammstein this trip. A discussion ensues and eventually because she has the power they listen to ABBA and he consents to that.
By him saying yes when he wants to say no, he will have angst and uncomfortable feelings afterwards. That can be any feeling of anger, sadness, shame and so forth. If this continues on for many years then those feelings become more and more prominent and his dissatisfaction with the marriage gets more pronounced. Then the wife with the power starts to lose out as well because the quality of the marriage declines and then she suffers as well. Eventually the marriage may end and then of course she loses out as well.
Of course if it is not a banal example and the issue is one of the big four then the dissatisfaction with the marriage will happen much more quickly and in a much more dramatic way.
Then of course we get to the eternal question. The question is not about if you have the power but how you manage the power. If she manages her powerful position in the marriage well then they both win and she will not lose out in the long run with the destruction of the marriage or its quality. If she manages her power badly then they both lose out in the long run.
So power asymmetry is a fact and changing in nature over time. And if I have this right, there is only difficulty if the psychological consent is not there.
Aside from the big 4, where does compromise come in? Successful relationships are built on compromise (if achieved). So can there be successful trading of mismatches in psychological consent?