Do you have an unhealthy power dynamic in your relationship?

A couple exercising together.
(PHOTO: Getty Images) (ijeab via Getty Images)

Welcome to A Millennial's Dating Diary series, where we explore real-life interactions and the hurdles of dating in Southeast Asia. The series will feature the dating stories and misadventures of Arika – a 26-year-old, straight female marketing manager with a penchant for over drinking — and fellow millennials.

Whether it’s obvious or not, every relationship has some form of a power dynamic. Sometimes, it’s so obvious; you can almost see who’s in charge in the relationship from a single glance.

Dealing with the power dynamics in a relationship is a balancing act. But, in general, I’ve noticed that successful couples have been able to manage the ebb and flow of power with a lot of humility, respect, and consideration for one another. They talk through decisions, consider each other’s feelings, and needs.

In my last relationship with my ex-boyfriend, *Jack, 27, it was clear he had (and always had to have) the upper hand.

From making plans with his friends to deciding what we do on our evenings together, Jack almost always had to have his way. I still remember how upset he would get if I couldn’t hang out with his friends because I had prior engagements. How dare I, a seemingly independent woman, make my own plans without first consulting with him?

This need for control trickled down to the way he dictated how I did everyday things. From cutting vegetables in the kitchen to what I said in front of his friends, to how I threw a beach ball in a friendly game of pool volleyball, Jack knew he could assert power and wasn’t afraid to do so.

Relationship troubles ahead for a couple.
(PHOTO: Getty Images) (nadia_bormotova via Getty Images)

“I don’t feel like you’re challenging me enough,” he used to say to me. “Relationships should involve challenging each other all the time.”

Once, after I took a little longer than usual to do something around the kitchen, Jack felt the need to sit me down and show me a YouTube video of how people could do things more efficiently in the kitchen. In the video, the man talked about multitasking and methods to prevent wasting time that was so basic; I felt embarrassed that my own boyfriend was trying to “teach” me something like that.

Was this what he meant by challenging each other? Was he trying to make me “better”?

It wasn’t long before I started feeling like I was a pushover, and allowing Jack to have his way almost all the time was taking a toll on me. I also felt like I was so stupid that I was legitimately wondering how I made it through all my years of existence. In essence, I was playing the role of The Pet without actually knowing it, and Jack was my Master of sorts. The worst part was that this wasn’t even consensual.

My friend, *Douglas, 27, used to tell me he’d date girls he didn’t think were very pretty because he wanted the upper hand. But, to be completely honest, Dougie really is a catch. Successful, smart, and good-looking, I’ve always felt all the girls Dougie dated weren’t his type.

“I just like knowing that because I was earning more and that I’m not completely ugly, that I had the upper hand when it came to how I wanted to handle my relationship with these girls. I knew that if I walked away, they’d be longing for me.” he once told me.

Every fibre in my feminist being wanted to shout at Dougie for saying something so insensitive, but I also saw his point.

“People live for ego-inflating moments; they live for power. I mean, think about it, knowing that you ‘own’ someone and have the power to tell them what to do because they love you so much is a privilege, and if you’re not very careful, you could easily trip over this feeling,” says my friend *Erika, 27.

Looking back, perhaps Jack enjoyed the fact that he was able to “control” me because he needed that ego boost, and I was the right person for it. I was easily agreeable, and I always wanted to please.

Eventually, my relationship with Jack ended when I caught him texting his ex on New Year’s Day. Frankly, I wasn’t surprised when he did that. After three months of dating, we discussed where things were going for us, and I vividly remember Jack telling me he didn’t think we had a deep connection like the one he shared with his ex. In retrospect, perhaps Jack just wasn’t happy with our relationship but didn’t quite know how to put it.

Fast forward to the present, I occasionally think about the power dynamics in my relationship with *Mark, 31, the guy I’ve recently become exclusive with.

In everyday situations, Mark and I are equals. We’re both relatively easygoing and open to adapting to the other’s needs and wants because we genuinely care for each other.

However, I’ve also noticed that in arguments, Mark usually hands the reins over to me because I’m almost always in need of extra time to deal with my emotions. He’s also extremely understanding and self-aware that he sort of lets me drive the situation because he already knows what he wants to do.

This realisation has made me reflect on my time with Jack, and the imbalance of power I had with him. However, I also know that I don’t want a repeat of my situation with Jack, so I’m learning to tread the thin line between standing up for myself and being respectful of Mark’s needs and wants as well.