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What Is A Power Dynamic? Psychological Self-Defense #2

Cain Parish

In This Article:

We take a look at power dynamics – the underlying social forces and pressures that influence how we deal with other people.

We go into what a power dynamic is, how to recognise it, how it affects us and some common examples.

For anyone that feels they’ve been victim to a power imbalance, this article should help you defend yourself.

Let’s get into it.

A small woman practicing karate next to a much larger man demonstrating what is a power dynamic for psychological self defense

Introduction: What Is A Power Dynamic?

When we look at interpersonal relationships, we notice that they’re not all made equal. Whilst a majority of our interactions feature both parties maintaining equal levels of influence, in some cases we see what is known as a power dynamic.

This feature of social dynamics describes how two people of differing levels of status find themselves changing their behaviour based on the circumstances. For example, a boss might find it very free and simple to say whatever they like around their employee, whilst the employee might feel restricted and unable to speak/act their mind.

Pretty much every relationship has a power dynamic – but not every power dynamic influences how we deal with each other. A power dynamic can be relative to the context of a conversation – a tech wizard might have influence over someone when discussing computers, but be on equal footing when the conversation turns to volleyball.

The power dynamic between two people can ebb and flow depending on the circumstances, and even if a power dynamic is present, it’s not always a guarantee of influence. We only really have reason to be concerned when coercion or influence takes place – a power dynamic is not inherently harmful by itself.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at what status is and how it feeds into the power dynamic between two people.

What Is Status?

Status is a complicated subject. As with most things inside social dynamics, it’s intangible and a little bit subjective. Things like reputation, clout or street cred all make up a portion of status, but aren’t the entire answer.

Many people consider status to be an attractive quality – we all respect the guy with the inside connections or ability to garner respect from everyone around them. Status represents your appearance of value inside a particular environment and is represented on a spectrum of higher to lower status, with high status being more desirable.

Why do I say the ‘appearance’ of value? Because status can be faked.

If I purchase twenty thousand fake Instagram followers, I can leverage those to appear higher-status than I am. Some people will be fooled by this, and consider me to be more valuable or popular than I am. Of course, they would still feel that way if the followers were real, but the impact of status is almost entirely in your ability to present the appearance of high status.

Status can be global or local. A bartender has extremely high status inside his bar – he’s constantly in demand, in control of the people and the environment around him, and he has everyone seeking alcohol, something they can only get by interacting with him. If you want to experience the easiest and most significant instant boost in status, try being a bartender.

Having said that, once a bartender’s shift is over, he goes back to being a regular person. That status does not carry over once he leaves the venue, and he’ll find it difficult to leverage in any other environment. This is similar to how power dynamics shift – the context of a person’s circumstances dictate the power and status they have relative to other people.

How does this affect power dynamics? Simply put, someone with high status can use it to get leverage over someone with low status. A bartender has the ability to abuse their position with a customer – denying them access to the venue or to alcohol, or evicting them from the bar altogether.

When people are given status, it gives them the potential to abuse the inherent power dynamic that access to more resources and opportunities creates.

This is the core concept of a power dynamic – someone with more opportunity/resources/status/freedom/power/experience leveraging that to gain an advantage over someone without those things.

How Power Dynamics Can Be Abused

I promised this would be a psychological self-defense article, right? Let’s understand what we’re defending ourselves from.

Using An Example

Take a classic example – the age gap. We typically see this with an older man pursuing/dating a younger woman. Let’s break down how this power dynamic exists and how it manifests itself.

Say the man is 40 and the woman is 20. A nice cozy doubled age bracket. Most people understand that this is a red flag, and a majority of people would say it was wrong. This is because the power dynamic between the two people opens up the potential for abuse.

Someone with double the life experience has had literally twice as much time (considerably more even when you consider that childhood development years can be excluded from consideration here) to learn things about life, people and the world. They have more time to develop resources, to see how people interact and take advantage of one another, and to understand the things that only experience can teach someone.

Based on all these constants, the 20 year old is likely to defer to the older person’s experiences. The role of authority figure is automatically given to the one with more power in the situation – an instinctive decision that our reptile brain makes by assessing the situation.

This trust and automatic authority is what makes power dynamics so potentially dangerous.

The younger person is not only more susceptible to manipulation because of the inherent trust and responsibility placed in the older person, but the older person has been in significantly more relationships. An older person is likely to know more tricks, to have more experience with manipulation and abuse.

Additionally, the older person can simply brush off any accusations or criticisms with the bias of experience. The younger person simply doesn’t know any better, they rationalise away. With this renewable trump card, it becomes very difficult to challenge the other person and defeat the power dynamic.

What Does That Mean For All Power Dynamics?

The age gap is a perfect example because it demonstrates how all imbalanced power dynamics work.

  • An imbalance in opportunity/resources/status/freedom/power/experience presents itself
  • Through this imbalance, one person gains leverage/status/authority over the other
  • The leverage makes it difficult for the powerless person to assert themselves and simple for the powerful person to shrug off criticism
  • Because of their relative power, the person in power can influence or assert themselves onto the powerless person, who has fewer options and a poorer ability to defend themselves
  • Patterns of abuse emerge as the powerless person defers to the powerful, or the powerful person does things that would otherwise be considered inappropriate or unavailable to them

This is the pattern that abuse of power dynamics consistently follow.

Of course, not all power dynamics lead to abuse. An age gap is not inherently a bad thing – but the power dynamic that comes from experience is always going to be there.

We only demonise age gaps and other similar power imbalances because they’re often sought out by people looking to abuse them. Unfortunately, people that seek to abuse their power know that power dynamics exist, and what kind of person they need to find in order to commit such abuse.

How Can We Defend Ourselves?

The issue with defending ourselves against power dynamics is that they’re present in every relationship, from a manager to their employee, to a boyfriend and girlfriend with different life experience, to a teacher and their students.

Someone practicing psychological self-defense against a power dynamic by meditating against their looming shadow

We can’t avoid power dynamics, so the best option we have is awareness.

The key to removing the power from a power dynamic is to call their bluff. Or, simply put, to see whether their power actually carries consequences for you.

For example, a boss has power over their employee’s livelihoods. That’s an unescapable fact. We can’t get around that particular power dynamic, as much as we might want to. That’s why so many people are unhappy with their boss – the power dynamic prevents them from asserting themselves to fix the situation.

However, in a 2 month old relationship where a predatory 40 year old woman is putting pressure on a younger man in his early twenties, the younger man actually has a lot of options.

Part of the abuser’s playbook is to make their victim feel trapped – unable to escape the situation or like they don’t have any options. Unless the abuser has any actual agency over a person’s life, this is often more illusion than it is reality.

In the above example, the older woman is likely to abuse the power dynamic to try and make the younger man believe that he is dependent on her or unable to do any better than her. She can leverage the inherent authority in her status and circumstances to give her false credibility and persuade the younger person, who is often more naïve in comparison.

If the younger man is able to understand the manipulations for what they are, the power suddenly decreases in potency. Without the false authority and pressure given by the perceived status of the woman, she has fewer tools to abuse the relationship. Furthermore, the man may realise that there are very few consequences for disagreeing with the woman, regardless of what she might say to the contrary.

What If There Are Consequences?

If you’re not able to diffuse the power dynamic by seeing through the attempted influence or understanding there to be a lack of consequences, it becomes much harder.

Unfortunately there are many situations in life where there is a distinct difference in status or power. Power dynamics are not always facades.

A large man is always going to be physically imposing next to a tiny woman. That difference in physical power will never go away.

The only thing we can do to try avoiding the consequences is to prepare ahead of time.

It’s why so many women take steps to keep themselves safer – locking car doors when driving, carrying pepper spray or other defensive items. They understand the consequences and the likelihood of an impending power dynamic, and have taken pre-emptive steps to do their best to even the playing field with tools and strategies.

This is something you can do in any power dynamic – learn to compensate.

If we know ahead of time that we’re lacking in certain areas and that opens us up to abuse or influence, we can take steps to even us out in other areas, or compensate in other ways.

A person who’s broke refuses to bow to the power dynamic that their financial status presents to them at a birthday party by making a thoughtful gift that the recipient enjoys just as much as a show of material wealth.

An employee learns their legal rights online so they are prepared next time their boss oversteps their bounds and abuses their authority.

A younger person takes steps to educate themselves on psychological self-defense and methods of influence, manipulation and abuse, so they become much less susceptible to predatory people.

By understanding where we lack personal power, we can take measures ahead of time to shore up our weaknesses.

Conclusion

Hopefully you now understand the core concepts of power dynamics:

  • They’re present in every relationship
  • They’re context and situation dependent
  • They change with status and other types of resources
  • They open us up to abuse and influence
  • We can take the potency out of them by calling their bluff or finding ways to compensate.

If you’ve got a grasp on all that, you should be more equipped to defend yourself. Best of luck.

F.A.Q.s

What is a power dynamic in interpersonal relationships?

A power dynamic describes the varying levels of influence between two people in a relationship, often changing based on the context or situation. It is not inherently harmful unless it involves coercion or undue influence.


How can power dynamics be abused?

Power dynamics can be abused when one person leverages their higher status, experience, or resources to gain an advantage or exert control over another, potentially leading to manipulative or abusive behaviour.


How can one defend against the negative effects of power dynamics?

Defense against negative power dynamics involves awareness and preparedness. Understanding the nature of power imbalances and taking steps to mitigate their effects can help maintain autonomy and prevent abuse.

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About

Cain Parish

Cain Parish is the owner of cainparish.com. A prolific writer, educator and relationship coach since 2019, he specializes in dating, relationships, emotional intelligence and social skills. He is also the author and creator of the world’s largest and most comprehensive database for dating and relationship advice, which can be found on his website. His first book, I’m Sorry I Egged Your House, is due to be published in 2024.

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