Why Equal Power Is Not Enough: Love Transforms Power

As a teenager, I believed that the two things every person wanted were love and power. In retrospect, I don't think I was too far from the truth. We want love because we were made to be in relationship, loving and being loved. We want power in the positive sense of efficacy because we groan against the powerlessness of being in a broken, unjust world. We want power in the negative sense of dominance, and full autonomy because we believe the lie that we can be our own -- and everyone else's -- god.

I recently read an article by anthropologist Dr. Wednesday Martin, who studied women and marriages in the Upper East Side of Manhattan for her book Primates of Park Avenue. She describes the disconcerting reality of wives who are granted "wife bonuses" and treated like probationary employees of their husbands, as well as prevalent sex segregation and a childhood rat-race through which mothers are expected to usher their children. She ends the article by hinting that if a woman doesn't earn as much as her man, or at least enough to be financially independent of him, her marriage has little permanent hope of equality.

She is a social researcher who presents her findings in the language of her field; she doesn't claim to have formed a universal assessment of human life. But as true as many of her observations and conclusions are, evaluating relationships solely based on economic power differentials is completely unsatisfying. There are plenty of homes in which uneven power relationships are serious problems. But a system of carefully balanced power dynamics is only a "floor" of ethical marriage and family relationships, not a "ceiling." It's a bare minimum, not the ideal. Oh, there is so much more!

As Dr. Martin affirms, there are some husbands who "talk the talk" of marriage partnership, while using their economic power to oppress their wives. But the mere existence of power does not negate justice; the absence of genuine, self-giving love is what irrigates abuse. Love does not just temper power, but transforms it. The one who truly loves seeks the best for the other person, at whatever cost to himself, rather than seeking his own interests, at whatever cost to others. True love brings life, whereas lust for domineering power destroys.

I declare it daily in our home, in the midst of both the mundane and exciting: We are a family of love. Yes, there are days when we are not very loving: when we are critical or impatient or ungrateful. But we press on to foster an environment of love that is protective, trusting, hopeful, persevering, patient and kind and humble, not envious or dishonoring, not self-seeking or resentful.

It's a tall order, no doubt. We fail a lot. I fail daily, but I relish the grace that makes each day -- each hour -- a new beginning. This love is our highest aspiration and our driving force, and I see it woven into the fabric of our family. Like when my husband gets up early with the children and starts breakfast, letting me sleep longer just because I'm tired. When he gets even more excited about my accomplishments than I do. When he vies for the right to read the kids' favorite bedtime stories and uses his best voices to make them come alive. As for children, they love when they have first been loved. The two-year-old kisses his baby brother's fuzzy head and brings him toys when he's crying. The five-year-old tells her toddler brother that she will make him his very own Lego spaceship to reward him every time he uses the potty. She brings me water and a blanket when I feel sick and compassionately puts me to bed (if only I could stay!).

Husbands and wives have power over one another, and parents have power over their children. If used in life-giving ways, it is a blessing. If abused, it is a curse. My husband and I are equally valued partners, each with our own role. He views being a husband and father as the most important work he will ever do, and he will not let his personal ambition supplant that. Neither will I. Because we are a mutually self-sacrificing team, we work together -- I support him and he supports me -- and achieve more of our dreams than either of us could alone. We work to reconcile whenever we have fought, and he often leads the way into grace and forgiveness by softening and apologizing first. We apologize to our children and ask for their forgiveness when we have wronged them, because it is terribly serious to break the trust of a little one by using authority wrongly.

I know that many women and children suffer in the hands of powerful men in the home (though let's not ignore the quieter reality of abusive women). I know from experience and from stories entrusted to me, about the sometimes acute and sometimes slow, ratcheting damage that results from the abuse of power. Those in positions of vulnerability and powerlessness must be protected and advocated for. But let's bust through the floor-level goal of equal paychecks and strive for something higher.

Power matters, to be sure. But is it the only element in the equation, to the exclusion of love? I don't think so. You might even say that free and joyful, mutually-giving, persevering love conquers all.