When Power Is Unequal

3 Relationships That Will Change Your Life

When we were children, our parents or caregivers needed to run the show for us. Gradually, they turned the reins over to us, making us equals to them. Or did they?

As I look around the world and see how companies are run, governments are organized, and even families and communities are structured – there is a theme of order-driven by “who’s in charge.” A hierarchy of who’s on top, who has the last word, who gets to say the way things will be. The Top Dog – Underdog structure. Of some at the “top,” this hierarchy can tell those at the bottom who is okay and who isn’t.

Remember how the father treated his children in the movie “The Sound of Music”? When Baron von Trapp blows his police whistle, his children line up in front of him, stiff as boards, you see the top dog in action. When the nanny comes into the picture, you see the children relax, enjoy themselves, and learn to trust themselves and each other; you see an equal approach. Then, when von Trapp begins to relax and get closer to his children, we see a shift from top dog to the partnership.

You may have worked for a boss that watches every little thing you do, who’s afraid that if things aren’t done exactly their way, everything will fall apart, who has to be in full control all the time. This is how the top dog model works. If you work for someone who inspires you and facilitates your ideas, which gives you guidance and support and encourages you to use your own judgment and creativity, you begin to move toward partnership.

If your spouse abuses you emotionally or physically, you’re in a top dog marriage. If you’re in a relationship that gives you and your partner freedom to be fully authentic and at the same time mutually supportive, you’re in a partnership relationship.

Remember the movie “The Horse Whisperer”? The term “horse whispering” is a kind of euphemism for a state of being, a relationship between humans and horses, says Robert Redford (director, producer, and star). It is simply a way to be with horses that sends a message of understanding and compassion. Instead of beating a horse into submission or using punishment as a tool, it’s a way of developing trust and understanding. If you want the horse to do something, you begin by letting the horse know that it’s okay to be a horse, not your version of what you think you need. It’s about understanding who you are and respecting your place with one another. To have this kind of acceptance requires a deep respect for The I-Thou relationship (Martin Buber).

The top dog model is unpleasant, painful, and counterproductive. Yet, we live with it and its consequences every day. I don’t think anybody really wants to live like this. But what happens is that when people relate to each other as superiors and inferiors, we raise children to feel that they are less than the adults in their world; top dog-underdog then gets installed at very tender ages. The legacy of this type of relating is perpetuated.

So how do we shift to a more partnership way of relating in our lives and bringing change to the world?  We begin with 3 key partnership relationships:

  1. Our relationship with ourselves and our stories
  2. Our relationship with our inner feminine and masculine
  3. Our relationship with power

Try this: 

  • Think about how you were raised.  Were you raised to be obedient and compliant?  Were you encouraged to explore your creativity and interests?  What thoughts, feelings, stories do you tell yourself about who you are?
  • Pick a day when you can observe your relationships with others.  When do you exercise Top Dog to get things done?  When do others exercise Top Dog with you to get things done?  How far are you willing to go to get what you want?  Where are boundaries crossed, and by whom?
  • Where do you see examples of top dog/underdog in society?  What are actions within your control to bring about a more egalitarian world?

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