In my last two posts, we looked at the power-over power-under dynamics that often take place in relationships where cheating has occurred. Cheating partners go one-up when they break the sexual agreements in the relationship and keep their behavior secret. Once discovered, the dynamic flips with betrayed partners often operating from a one-up position as a way to protect themselves. No matter who occupies the one-up role, power-over dynamics are dehumanizing to both people in the relationship.
This begs the question: What should be happening instead? How do we deal with the way we have been dehumanized by the cheating and lying while not joining in the power-over power-under dynamics?
The first step is always awareness. We have to be aware of the reality that these dynamics are in play and they are very tempting for us as humans to latch onto. If you look around at our world right now, you will notice that the primary dynamic in many human relationships is power-over and power-under. We see it in politics, religion, racism, financial institutions, business operations, and international relations.
The biggest motivator of our behavior as humans is to fit in with and belong to the group. This is because our survival depends on relationships with others. This instinct is primitive and about staying alive. So belonging meets one of our deepest emotional needs.
Most of us belong to many different groups. We belong to a couple, a family, a country, a political party, a religion, a sports team, a fan club, a race or ethnicity, etc. Identifying with and belonging to our group can be life-giving. Think about the pride and honor at the opening ceremony of the Olympics when the teams from different countries are announced and walk in, or the fun and banter at a sports bar when two rival teams are facing off.
We need to belong. It is our most powerful survival tool and the foundation of our health and well-being. However, anything that has the potential for powerful good can also be used for powerful harm. We walk a fine line as humans when we identify with our group to foster belonging, and we can easily slip over the edge into wielding belonging as a tool by taking a power-over position with others.
We take power-over when we believe that our family, social group, country, race, religion, etc., is better than someone else’s. We go even more one-up when we make other groups into enemies, believing the very worst about them (ahem, politics). We begin to believe that the ‘other’ is a danger to us, and we begin to assign the worst possible interpretations to behaviors of the ‘other,’ rather than extending empathy or even just the benefit of the doubt.
We are prone to this behavior (and let’s just all bow our heads for a moment, take a deep breath, and admit that we all do this) because the quickest way to heighten a sense of belonging for ourselves within a group is to establish a common enemy. When we identify a common enemy, it increases our sense of identification with and belonging to our group.
Taking a power-over position goes beyond disagreement or distinctions. We are wired to protect our group and to look for danger outside of ourselves. Because of this, when we take a one-up stance over the ‘other,’ it is easy for us to believe that we are justified in doing so because we are right and they are wrong, we are deserving and they are not, we are the haves and they are the have-nots.
To use belonging as the powerful force for good that it can be in our lives and in our worlds, we have to be aware of our human tendency to protect against threat by elevating our group and dehumanizing others. We have to be aware of the pull toward this over-belonging behavior, and we have to actively resist it. The path of least resistance leads right to power-over power-under dynamics (have you been on Facebook or Twitter?). Only by being conscious about this and intentionally working to counter our own human frailty around this issue can we foster healthy relationships in our lives.