- the ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality.
- the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.
What is your relationship with power? Do you crave it, secretly wish for it, or run away from it? Most people have an ambivalent or conflicted relationship with power. Yet it’s an important concept to understand as you navigate through your healing process.
As a partner of a sex addict, you may often feel painfully powerless. This sense of powerlessness can immobilize you if you believe that you can’t possibly stay with your partner if his behavior doesn’t change. It’s true that none of us has power over another person’s behavior, choices or thoughts. However, you do have power over how you respond to or what you do about the situations and events in your life. This kind of power is what I call authentic power.
Authentic power is personal power.
In the two definitions of power above, the first one describes authentic power while the second one describes “power over.” Authentic power isn’t “power over.” Authentic power is created through the process of:
- Knowing your reality
- Identifying your needs
- Knowing where you have power v. where you don’t
- Releasing or detaching from that over which you have no power
- Taking the necessary steps to change those things over which you have control or making requests of others and being willing to let go of the outcome
If these five steps sound challenging . . . . . they are! They take time, practice and lots of trial and error along the way. They’re also the foundation for good boundary work.
I often tell partners “you have much more power than you realize” and this is almost always the case. In your ideal world, you would probably like to say just the right thing, make just the right threat, or if all else fails wave a magic wand and have your sex addict partner change his behavior so that you can feel better. As wonderful as it would be to create this kind of immediate and lasting change – it’s not going to happen. Believe it or not, you will feel better and ultimately more powerful when you truly get that there is only one person over whom you have power and that is you.
Sometimes the partner takes an “ostrich in the sand” approach to the sex addict’s problems, telling herself that his problems belong to him and he needs to take care of them. She may have a completely hands-off attitude and ask little or no questions about the sex addict’s recovery activities. Although on the surface this may appear to be healthy detachment, I believe it’s a form of denial and a missed opportunity for growth and empowerment – for the partner and the relationship.
If you take the ostrich approach you will miss the opportunity to get in touch with your needs, the intimacy (and vulnerability) of asking for what you want, and the experience of exercising your authentic power. You may have never asked yourself what you want or need. You may have grown up in a family system where your needs and wants were neglected. Don’t do to yourself today what was done to you in the past.
When you ask for what you need you’re empowering yourself.
You will also find out much sooner whether or not your relationship is salvageable. Although it’s not your job to “fix” the addict, if he’s committed to healing, he also gets the benefit of your work. Why? It is almost always the case that when a partner educates herself and asks for what she needs, the addict’s recovery process is indirectly yet powerfully supported. Again, it’s not your job to do this for the addict — it’s just one of the many by-products of your work.
Authentic power isn’t “power over.” Partners sometimes try to offer help to the sex addict by leaving books around the house, asking indirect questions about his recovery activities, or suggesting he go to a meeting. She may even attempt to set up a therapy session for him or drive him to 12-step meetings. These are examples of indirect and ineffective strategies of control. When you step into control, you’ve stepped into “power over.”
In its more overt manifestations, power over takes the form of:
- telling the addict what to do
- excessively monitoring the addict’s activities
- making ultimatums or demands instead of requests
- shaming and berating the addict
- abusing the addict physically or emotionally
Power over is a non-relational strategy to regain a sense of safety or control by someone who feels helpless and powerless.
Although it’s a tempting strategy and sometimes appears to work for the short-term, it’s not a long-term solution. Over time, a power over strategy can lead to more disconnection, power struggles, profound resentment and even relapse for the addict if he doesn’t do his own boundary work with his partner.
When you act from a place of authentic power, you know your needs and wants and will go about getting them met in a clear and direct way. You will make requests rather than demands or ultimatums. If you’re wondering what kinds of requests partners typically make, take a look at my posts on the Partner’s Bill of Rights and the basics of first-year sex addiction recovery.
Finally, while we’re on the subject of power, if you have a relationship with a Higher Power however you define Higher Power for yourself, this is an excellent time to nurture that relationship. Sometimes one partner becomes the higher power of the other and this is toxic to any relationship. When partners of sex addicts attempt to control the sex addict they are, in essence, making themselves the higher power of the addict. This is not workable for you or your relationship. You can ask your Higher Power for guidance and remind yourself that your partner also has a Higher Power.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2014)