For my birthday a few months ago, my husband whisked me off into the city for a surprise night away. We were excited for our adventure. Hotel bedlinen! A chance to sleep late!
After we’d found parking in Long Street (never an easy task), we lugged our bags one block to the hotel entrance and up two flights of stairs to the Reception desk.
‘Booking for Kelly, please: the Beach House.’
The receptionist shook his head: ‘Sorry, you’re at the wrong hotel. This is Daddy Long Legs. You’re looking for Grand Daddy, five blocks down.’
So back down the stairs with our bags we went, and into the bumper to bumper stream of cars to look for parking. Again.
Joel looked over at me: ‘Sorry! You must think I’m an idiot.’
It doesn’t have to be a dog eat dog world
Now if we were dogs, this would be the equivalent of one rolling onto his back and baring his tummy to the other. And this is one of the things I love about my husband. He has a way of giving over power that is endearing yet also quietly strong.
And instead of placing my paw on his chest and revelling in that moment of dominance (Bloody hell, you should’ve double checked… saved us all this hassle…), I shook my head: ‘Don’t be silly, I would probably have made the same mistake’, and patted his leg affectionately.
So we continued on our adventure, laughing. Together. Not in opposition to each other, or in a tug of war over who was right and who was wrong.
When someone loves you, they don’t amplify your insecurities
And on days when my skin hangs awkwardly on me, and I’m tentative and anxious, Joel offers me the same grace. He envelops me in his arms and holds me and says something to make me laugh. He doesn’t amplify my anxiety, or mirror my insecurities. Instead, he focuses on my lovableness. And soon, everything fits better.
And when I cut a slice of the sourdough loaf skew (again) and he has to saw off a doorstop just to get the loaf back on track, he looks over at me with fond exasperation. Or he reaches out for the bread knife: ‘Let me do that.’ Not impatiently or patronisingly, but helpfully.
Somehow we both know that love is not about scoring points. Loving someone is not about winning power or dominating them (at least, not unless your partner hauls out the velvet handcuffs!).
This is not to say that we always get it right. I must admit to a certain spark of smug satisfaction when he’s looked through the whole laundry basket for an item and I retrieve it with one swoop. ‘Boy look’, we both say.
Most of the time there’s an element of playfulness to our interactions. Usually we are able to dance lightly around the underlying power games that are inevitable in a relationship.
If Joel’s irritated about something I’ve done or (more likely with menopausal brain fog), forgotten to do, I’ll stand in front of his desk and tease him: ‘Want to see my boobs?’ No matter how grumpy he is, a smile creeps onto his face. The answer to this question is never no. This playfulness acts as a kind of ice breaker. It’s my ultimate trump card, and because we both know this, it always makes us laugh.
I was in an eight-year relationship in which dominance was the main ‘game’ being played, so I know a lot more about power than I’d like to. I know all about not having it, and fearing a partner who wields their physical and psychological power in order to coerce and control.
There are power games everywhere. Not only between genders, but also between old and young, tall and short, strong and weak. When I’m with my mum, because she’s older and slower, I often have to bite down on my impatience. Some days, even though I grit my teeth, I can’t help but get a bit ‘toney’ with her. She might not instantly grasp something that, to me, is obvious and I’ll look at her, roll my eyes and huff: “Mum!’.
She’ll give me a sideways look and mimic my tone: ‘Mum!’ and roll her eyes exaggeratedly, which makes me giggle then lightly squeeze her hand in apology. We love each other – there is no need for point-scoring.
When you feel comfortable in your own skin, and empowered in your own life, you don’t have to steal power from others. You are happy to share it. Sometimes you might even give power away because you know someone needs it more than you.
In a recent Q&A about my book, Boiling a Frog Slowly, I shared my tendency (and this is most often a feminine trait) to apologize even when I’m not at fault. For instance, at the shops, I’ll sing out ‘Sorry’, even if someone else has bumped into me.
What I have realised is that this is not at all because I’m apprehensive of repercussions or timidly apologising to all and sundry. Instead, I’ve come to see that this is actually a quality I like about myself. In many ways, a willingness to apologize can come from a feeling of fullness and empowerment.
To choose to concede power doesn’t cost me anything. In fact, it’s my belief that this kind of civility – used appropriately, of course, and not to cover up secrets or ‘make nice’ when things are really shite – helps to oil the wheels of society.
Of course, there’s a codicil to this. When things are really shite, and conceding power would mean that those who are power-hungry get to feel like they have won and can continue walking over others, we need to know when it is time to stand strong, our feet rooted in the ground, and say No, I will not accept this. No, this is not right.
Give and take
What I’m talking about here is more the give-and-take dance in personal relationships. Because if we can get this dance flowing, this one step forward, one step back rhythm in our intimate partnerships, then surely that has to have a ripple effect? Surely this generosity of spirit can spread to neighbours, strangers in shops, towns, countries, the world?
Because now more than ever, our world needs people who, instead of taking part in the sweaty tug-of-war, are comfortable enough in themselves to drop their end of the rope and step out of the power game. Perhaps our world needs people who are big enough to walk over to the ‘opposing’ team and hand over the rope, because they’d much rather lie in the shade of a nearby tree.
Surrendering power can be an act of generosity
This willingness to surrender power (again, only in certain circumstances) is a kind of generosity. It comes from a playful sense that this (*waves hand vaguely over everything) is all a game anyway. It means that we are comfortable with who we are and have no need to fight for power, because we already have all we need. It means knowing that love is bigger than any power game we could ever play.