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The Passive-Oppressive Relationship

Some people find themselves feeling oppressed (trapped, frustrated, helpless) in their relationships. And when asked what the other is doing to make them feel that way, sometimes the only answer they can think of is . . . . . "nothing!"

Relationships are all about coming together, give and take, compromise, and shared understanding of mutual goals. But what happens if one party to the relationship doesn't see things the same way, doesn't engage, or when there is an imbalance of "power"?

Bob and Louise have been married for 25 years. Bob has always been conservative with money (having been raised that way), and spends very little. Louise has been raised to believe that "if the money's there, use it", and will encourage Bob to do the same. Bob feels frustrated that he just wants to have some savings put aside, while Louise seems to spend on luxuries and extravagances. The result is that Bob tries harder to save . . . and Louise has more to spend.

In this illustration, it doesn't matter whose financial management style you agree with, or what the outcome might be. What matters is that Bob feels oppressed. Neither one is doing anything different to what they've always done, but it's gotten to the point where Bob just doesn't feel content, or even secure, in the relationship any more. From Louise's point of view, she's doing "nothing" to contribute to Bob's feelings (particularly as she encourages him to spend just as much as she does).

What is "Passive Oppression"?

When a situation exists in which one person feels disempowered, or is suffering in some way . . . and the other person simply does nothing either to help or hinder . . . we have a passive-oppressive situation. One person's passivity (or refusal to acknowledge a problem) results in another person feeling (or being) oppressed. This type of situation can exist in a marital relationship, in a parental relationship, in a business relationship, in government . . . just about anywhere that two or more people come together in a partnership of some sort.

Whether the passivity is the result of indecision, laziness, disregard or a desire to maintain the status quo, the result is the same . . . nothing changes, and in fact, the prospect of "change" is often not even explored. Furthermore, this type of situation typically leads to (or stems from) an imbalance of power in the relationship. When the "oppressed" individual finds themselves unable to effect a change or to take a meaningful stand, they discover that they have less power to influence the relationship than the other person.

Marla and Frank are in a long-term relationship. Frank has a number of interests (such as sports and motor vehicles) that take up his time, and that also afford him opportunities for travel. Marla is a very social person, keen to interact, and has often "gone along for the ride" with Frank's trips and activities. The result is that Marla has never really developed a life of her own. Since Frank's recent illness, he has been housebound and irritable. Marla has no outlet, and feels compelled to go along for this ride too.

How does a passive-oppressive relationship develop?

When two people get together, there is an opportunity to discuss how that relationship will take shape, who will take on which roles and responsibilities, and what the benefits for each will be. In the absence of any such discussion (which is quite common among marital relationships), things just happen as they happen. And of course, if one partner HAS a plan (or a need), and the other partner doesn't, then that one partner's plan will likely be followed. If this continues and becomes a pattern, it might end up becoming passive-oppressive.

Relationships are almost always co-created. That is to say, in the absence of a total power imbalance, BOTH partners create the pattern that unfolds over time. One decides not to choose, while the other decides to choose, and both have thus contributed to the outcome. But when circumstances change, or when the less active partner decides things are no longer satisfactory, problems begin to arise. And when asked directly, "What am I doing that is stopping you from doing what you want?" . . . the answer can be hard to find.

Here is a current example from the world of sports:

In a particular worldwide sport, the men's basic minimum wage is AU$75,000.00. There are thousands of athletes in this sport, and it is overseen by an international governing body. In that same sport, the minimum wage for women is non-existent. In fact, half of all female participants in the same sport receive no salary at all. Year after year, the women lobby for at least a minimum wage (half that of the men), and each year, there is little or no official response from the sport's governing body to that plea.

In this situation, the governing body is not actively doing anything to suppress the rights of the female athletes. They are simply doing nothing to change the archaic system that existed before women took up the sport. And their passivity, whatever its basis, has the effect of keeping all women who engage in that sport oppressed. They have no voice, they have no money to fight the situation, they have no means to elevate themselves, and so they remain powerless to effect change. (There is only one woman in the governing body.)

So what can be done about this?

Awareness gained through education (i.e. counselling) can help both parties in a passive-oppressive relationship understand how things need to change. It can often be hard for someone on one side of the relationship to see things from the perspective of the other side, and it can require careful exploration of the historical patterns that exist in order to lay out a foundation for that understanding to take place. (After all, why would anybody deliberately choose to have LESS pie, so that somebody else could be free to have more?)

The unfortunate alternative to change . . . at least in marital relationships . . . is that one day, the person who feels oppressed stands up and says, "I can't do this any longer! I don't know what's wrong, and I don't know what I want, and I can say what you did, but I want OUT!" And rather than exploring what has been unsatisfying or imbalanced for all those years, and seeking a more mutually satisfying partnership, the relationship comes to an abrupt end. It is often at this final point that couples will seek counselling as a last-ditch effort.

Going into relationship counselling with an awareness of this common problem can be very helpful. It's not about the money, or the new bike, or the garden, or the chores. It's usually about the pattern that has developed over the years, and about how it eventually becomes unsustainable for one of the partners. It may take time (and skill) to uncover that pattern, and it may take time (and effort) to change it, assuming both parties are open to change. But a passive-oppressive relationship is ultimately unhealthy, unfulfilling and unfair.

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