In responding to a post on an online forum, and in other thoughts recently, I’ve been discussing the concept that all relationships inherently involve power exchange. Certainly my Grandmother and Grandfather had power exchange. What makes what we call “power exchange relationships” unique is that the exchange is negotiated rather than based on some implicit interpretation of tradition. I think the real focus is on the concept of negotiated relationships, and I don’t think that’s a concept we separate enough.
All relationships involve some exchange of authority and power. How this happens is determined in one of two ways:
a) Tradition – the relationship is a “type” and the exchange of authority and power correspond to a general model laid down by other couples. Examples might be marriage in a small town, or dating in a High School where social norms set certain conventions about letter jackets, who pays for dates, and rings.
b) Negotiation – negotiated relationships start with the presumption that the rules of how things work will be settled by agreement between the partners, and that new cases will be resolved by a process, whether that is debate, voting, or one partner being ‘in control.’
There are three problems with Tradition.
Individual Freedom – The first is that it doesn’t allow for individual freedom. “You have to be the housekeeper because my mother was the housekeeper.”
Being on the Same Page – The second is that in our modern society the odds of two people having relationship traditions that are identical are vanishing small. So many marriages break up because one partner’s definition of what constituted ‘marriage’ is, after several years, just not the same as the other.
Lack of Flexibility – When the extent of upper middle class social relations was “she decides who to mail invitations to in the morning mail,” and the extent of lower class social relations was “we send the children to bed, then sit at the tap bar downstairs with the same dozen friends after she cooks dinner and he comes home from the mill” one pattern could work for a lifetime. But that doesn’t take care of things like “I wanted to play a game but you want to talk to your friend on Facebook.” We have more choices on what to do than any people at any time in human history. There are a million options, and a million dead ends. We are made offers at the speed of light for a million things. Navigating those options requires a flexibility that wasn’t necessary in 1880 after “who hits who with a frying pan” had been worked out.
Power exchange relationships can be “traditional.” Many M/s relationships have failed because the partners decided to “do M/s” without actually delving into what that meant to each of them, only to find their expectations were poles apart. I’m convinced that one of the reasons Gor has persisted as a model is that even though it is not an ideal basis for power exchange it is better documented than most other models, so at least the people getting into it are more likely to have the same idea what the tradition is.
Power exchange relationships based solely on tradition can survive essentially to the extent that the executive partner is a good decision maker, and can advocate and respect the agency of the other individuals in the relationship. Negotiated relationships are not per-se the opposite of tradition, as a well negotiated, mapped and understood tradition where expectations are clearly spelled out can serve as the basis for a negotiated relationship. Even there it is good to exercise care.
Power exchange relationships make one of the partners into an executive, and establish that they will be the one to decide on the strategic goals of the relationship, and often set the short term goals, while delegating specific short term goals to the other partner. In the modern world, which can be overwhelming this can be comforting. Negotiated relationships don’t have to be the sort of Power Exchange we envision. There are classes for married and poly couples that teach egalitarian negotiations, for example I knew a couple who had a card they passed back and forth to determine who would pay for dinner, to make sure it was done fairly.
Power Exchange is alluring because it sets clear expectations within the relationship. The principal downsides emanate from the issue of lack of agency. If the executive partner is a petty tyrant, they can strip the other partner(s) of all agency. Since most human beings want and need to exercise some agency, if they crush all “appropriate” channels, agency will usually be expressed through passive aggression or desertion. This is seen in various models exemplified by the old “Master is always right” ideal. When passive aggression creeps in, we can often see a dynamic where the Executive partner ends up with little real power, because it has largely been subverted by the other partner, and they hold it in name only. Because many individuals come from co-dependent backgrounds, that’s a not infrequent way in which co-dependence is acted out through Power Exchange.