The Emperor

A middle-aged man sits commandingly, and perhaps a bit defensively, on a throne, while two nubile young women attend him.

The Emperor is all about control. He sits on a dais, to ensure that his head is higher than any others in the room. Others come to him and provide him with what he needs, but he seems reluctant to make eye contact with them. The Emperor creates a structured environment in which others do only what he expects them to do (at least while they are in his presence).

He can control people in this way because he wields some kind of power - financial or political, or perhaps just simple psychological or physical intimidation. The laurel wreath on his head represents official sanction of his authority; he has received approval in the eyes of the establish social order. Even the Roman emperors of history did not rule by sheer brute force and conquest, but received the endorsement of their society's power structures.

From time to time, we all need to take control. When there is an emergency, or when our children suddenly become minions of chaos, it can become necessary to simply determine what needs to be done and lead, using whatever personal authority one has to command others. Control is also a trait that is admired in many professions. If one has good ideas and a good track record of producing postive results, others may happily support the controlling person. Control can result in impressive efficiencies and rapid successes. If the controller has a naturally even temperament and some degree of objectivity and fairness, others may even appreciate having a clear structure of expectations in which to function. It is better than the chaos of back-biting and gossip that may develop when anarchy is allowed to reign.

Most often, though, control is a great enemy of intimacy. At its worse, it becomes abusive, a power imbalance used to exploit and degrade. Even in less extreme cases, though, control can be extremely harmful, because it circumvents grappling with personal differences and conflicting needs. Other human beings will behave as we expect only if they compromise their own identities in the process. Add to this the one-way nature of communication in a controlling relationship, and we have a recipe for resentment and anxiety. The Emperor, finding willing servants who don't talk back, continues to expand his expectations, losing contact with how he appears to those who do his bidding. In the illustration, the Emperor has acquired two young women who conform to his picture of sexual beauty . . . youthful, trim, and shapely. His own body is far removed from any parallel standard of male beauty, but the power imbalance allows him to see himself as beautiful in the eyes of his servants. This is a metaphor for how control not only oppresses its victims, but also deprives the controlling person of necessary information with which to build a healthy and realistic relationship.

Often control arises not from an overblown ego or a desire to subjugate, but simply from convenience which leads to habit. When we withdraw from differences of opinion in silence, we tacitly endorse the other's control. Often, avoiding conflict is easier for both parties. Squabbling over each minor difference just produces a tense and unloving atmosphere. The danger is that an imbalance will arise - one party will capitulate more than the other, and the beneficiary of these concessions will not reciprocate or investigate the other's true feelings. This sets up habits of dominance, which may result in a spiral of power imbalance and resentment.

In most relationships, it is clear early on which way the power balance is likely to tip, given the personalities involved. To avoid the pitfalls of control requires the active engagement of both parties. The person who naturally assumes the role of Emperor must learn to seek out the partner's opinion and collaboration. The person who tends to adopt the role of servant must learn to speak up instead of feeling victimized. When love is strong, both partners will embrace these departures from habit, and see them as opportunities for fostering intimacy.

If the Emperor and his serving girls ever make eye contact and engage in authentic conversation, the whole picture will change.