When Someone Holds Too Much Power In A Relationship

The biggest warning sign of all? A “do as I say, not as I do” attitude.

One of my favorite moments from the first season of “Mad Men” is when the gang goes out dancing after work. Celebrating the first of many successes, a meek and modest Peggy Olsen (you’ve come a long way, baby!) finally cuts loose. She flounces over to co-worker-turned-lover Pete Campbell, but Pete is far from amused. “I don’t like you like this,” he spits, leaving Peggy to do the Twist all by her lonesome. Pete’s interest in Peggy, based entirely on his control over her, vanishes once she demonstrates any sign of self-confidence.

It may be easier to identify power imbalances left over from the Mad Men era in big-picture contexts—think wage gap and reproductive policy—than within our own individual relationships. But Pete’s drive to maintain power over a compliant partner is not uncommon, and sometimes love, desire, or simple heedless optimism can blind us to our own treatment. So whatever your relationship situation, I’ve identified four major “red flag” areas to be aware of if you feel more controlled than cared about.

1. Virtual Smothering; Real Life Snubbing

A few years ago, I became involved with a good friend. Our personalities had always clicked, we shared each other’s wildly brash sense of humor, so we both said “why not?” and had a lot of fun. Unfortunately, as the months dragged on, I realized a disturbing pattern. He had all the time in the world to text me, but always had an excuse as to why he couldn’t hang out. Then, when I would make other plans, he would keep texting away, wanting to know what I was doing and who I was with.

Technological advances have made it easy for someone to be in our lives in a way that requires very little commitment. The morning-‘til-night stream of messages, however many smiles it brings to your face, is a mere illusion of a relationship if it’s not backed up with actual time spent together. Natalie Lue, who writes about non-committal lack of courtesy on her blog, calls this dolling out relationship “crumbs”: giving you just enough to keep you hooked, but not so many that you think you actually…matter.

2. Any Version of the “You Knew What This Was” Speech

This line has become so much of a cliché that it now gets regular traction in sitcoms: Peter uses it to dump Tinkerbell in Family Guy, while Marshall jokingly uses it to boot Lily out of his twin bed in How I Met Your Mother. But any variation of “you knew what this was” is a very real way, like point 1, to make sure that you are around only when desired. A reminder that any consideration for your feelings can change on a whim, this isn’t just selfish and demeaning: It’s a lazy substitute for any kind of real communication.

Wouldn’t it be nice if these reminders sounded like “Hey, I care about you [in whatever capacity] and want to do right by you” rather than “Hey, you’re disposable”? My friend Mike’s personal motto is “always leave the other person in better condition than you found them in,” which I think is a great way of approaching anything from friends with benefits to a long-term relationship.

3. Balking At Tasks Or Ambitions That Lie Outside Of Traditional Gender Roles

Considering record numbers of stay-at-home dads and women in STEM, we’ve made tremendous strides in tackling what Betty Friedan deemed “the problem that has no name.” But there’s still so much work to be done, structurally and individually. A widely circulated study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2013 confirmed that men are often threatened by the success of female partners, even when that success is not in direct competition with their own. Betty Friedan herself dropped out of a postgraduate program after learning that her boyfriend resented her education.

This resentment is all too familiar to my friend Nicole, whose former boyfriend didn’t want her continuing past community college. “I knew with my career goals that I needed more education,” she told me, “and if I would have listened to him I would probably be stuck at a miserable job not doing what I love.” She is now engaged to a fantastic guy I’ve known for years, and they’re set to marry next month. “It makes a ton of difference when a guy supports your educational goals,” she said.

And keep in mind that even if your partner appears to support your ambitions, an adherence to outdated gender roles may crop up less obviously. A few weeks ago when I was moving to D.C. and my dad asked what he could do, I asked him to clean the dirty dishes in the sink so that I could box the rest of my things. “I don’t do dishes,” he said, sat down, and waited for me to pack more boxes so that he could load them. Just like at work, tasks are much more efficient and less time-consuming when all participants agree to pitch in where they’re needed.

4. Jealousy Issues

Jealousy in very small, manageable doses is OK if it jump-starts your appreciation of your partner, and useful if your intuition is nudging you that something’s wrong. However, if your partner’s jealousy is hindering parts of your life outside of your relationship, it’s probably a mechanism of control.

Most of the time, this jealousy rears its ugly head in the faces of friendships. Toward the end of our relationship, my college boyfriend accused me of having “emotional affairs” with virtually every one of my opposite-sex friends, gay or straight. I’ve also experienced the other side: jealous girlfriends who resent other women on the grounds that “men and women can’t just be friends.” A relationship is not two people alone on an island; it’s two people trusting each other to navigate through the real world.

Wardrobe regulation is another sign of irrational jealousy. Like point 3, this one is pretty gendered. If your partner regularly controls or criticizes what you wear, he is eliminating your agency of choice and implying that your presentation is always crafted with a man in mind: Either he views your style as a reflection of himself, or wonders who else you’re dressing for. There’s also a less common but infinitely more bizarre variation experienced by my friend Kate, whose former boyfriend pushed her to dress scantily in order to incite reactions from other men. “[Attracting stares] in my sexy clothes was all right because it made him proud to call me his girlfriend,” she told me, “but he got super jealous whenever men treated me with kindness or chivalry.”


The biggest warning sign of all? A “do as I say, not as I do” attitude.

People who are legitimately up to no good will frequently project onto their partners, so really ask yourself if they’re playing by a different set of rules than you are. Pete Campbell, though he scorned Peggy Olsen for socializing with other men, was hardly the picture of monogamy with a wife at home and a co-worker on the side.

For those with power issues, relationships become about two things: having options, and having someone to own. Pete may have had both, but life is too short for any of us to be either.

Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.

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