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Family Conflict: The Shift of Power and Control

In every family there are certain members that hold more power than other family members. How does power play out in the family?

Power is around who specifically in the family is the decision maker; who decides what the members are allowed, or not allowed to do. In other words the power person or couple sets up the rules, or the norms as to what is or is not acceptable behavior in the family culture. For example some families are more open to "outsiders", whereas other family units may in fact encourage their members to live a more insular life, and not be so welcoming to non- family members. Regardless whoever holds the power in each family will set in motion the appropriate rules and norms for it's members to play by.

When does this shifting of power become problematic for a family?

A more typical scenario that traditionally does not tend to pose red flags is when the parent unit are the decision-makers and thus the "power couple". However there are situations where the power can shift from a parent to a child, and in fact this can have life altering and dangerous implications. For example when I have worked with intimate partner violence I have seen quite frequently the power couple being the "father and son"; often the mother is demoted to having no decision making rights. Of course it does not always translate to such obvious overt shifts in power, rather it can be subtle and covert. Families are our first and our last sense of social connection in our life course, and have an ongoing and far reaching impact on our overall emotional health. Therefore it can be invaluable to develop some insight into how our own family of origin held and shifted power to it's members.

Ask yourself: In my family of origin did I have some decision making power, and if so over which aspects? Alternatively was I completely powerless in my family of origin? Which members tended to be in a position of power and control; Was it one or both of my parents? Was it a sibling alone or in a partnership with a parent?

These types of answers will shed some light on how you assume, avoid or navigate decision making aspects in your adult family life.

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