The idea that we can own other people has been played out since time immemorial—and it’s still pervasive in our cultures, communities, and homes today. If we believe we own our spouse and our children, our interactions come from a sense of entitlement. Put another way, we think—however consciously or subconsciously—that we have the right to dictate what others do with their body, mind, and decisions.
Ownership mentality gets its roots from the slave trade, colonization, and human trafficking. Even proselytizing is a form of owning how people should believe and think. The assertion of a superior position of power and hierarchy over others is rife in our world. It is so embedded in our thinking about what is fair and acceptable in relationships that egregiousness overstepping of appropriate boundaries between individuals often goes unnoticed.
In America today there are still loopholes and laws that allow people to “own” others. The 13th amendment allows for jailed people to essentially be used as an unpaid workforce—continued slavery. Parental rights often trump the human rights of children—sometimes allowing for continued abuse. Look no further than the ownership mentality played out among white men in government-issued uniforms and the black men, women, and children they’re tasked with protecting and serving.
But can you take that critical eye even closer to home? Conventional marriage carries the routine assumption that we now own each other’s sexuality, desire, bodies, and sometimes freewill. That assumption is the death knell of any spontaneity, kindness, or authenticity in a relationship. Couples can fall into patterns of “ordering” the other person around, and assuming certain “obligations” as a mandatory part of marriage. Cultivating a feeling of “you owe me” brings a commerce-like rationality into personal relationships—which ends up negating personal will.
Don’t get me wrong—I do believe that for adult relationships to work there must be reciprocity and balance. Reciprocity is when both parties show investment and generosity through their actions. People contribute different qualities, acts, and tangible gifts in relationships—as long as both parties feel there is a balance, all is well. The opposite of an ownership mentality starts from a place of neutrality, without assumptions, and involves checking in with the other person on a regular basis about how you are co-creating your relationship. It is a different practice to make conscious agreements (versus static rules) in areas of money, sex, housework, and childcare.
How does an ownership mentality play out in parenting?
Have you ever heard parents say things like, “My house, my rules”? While it is true that overly permissive parenting can lead to rude and unruly kids, it is also true that extremely domineering parenting can lead to alienation, resentment, rebellion and distrust. [“limiting” feels vague. Can you be more specific?]. No one likes the idea of being controlled and having no freedom. Being related to as if you have no agency leads to alienation and resentment.
When child-rearing, I think the best gauge of boundaries is parameters guided by issues of health and safety. It feels very different if someone is trying to keep you out of harm’s way versus control you. Often societally acceptable “rules” start to veer into an ownership mentality and ageism with children—as in I’ve lived longer and I know more—therefore I am always correct. [how so with ageism? I’m not following] as well. A common example are parents that dictate what their teenagers can wear—particularly females. The underlining belief here is: I own your body, I own your “honor” or sexuality. Again, I think it’s fine to have a conversation about what is appropriate dress for work or school—but that conversation has an entirely different tone when it is not coming from a place of hierarchical overstepping.
As a parent, I set boundaries with my children when health and safety issues arise. When we are crossing a busy street, I insist my 9-year-old holds my hand. If my teenager wants to go to a party, I need more information about where it is and who will be there—not because I “own” her but because my intention is to make sure this is a safe situation.
I spend a lot of time educating my kids—for example my husband and I researched rape statistics. We found that most rapes happen when drinking is involved. We discussed this at length as a family. My daughter internalized the idea that to stay safe, it probably wasn’t a good idea to drink with people she didn’t know or in any kind of situation where she needed to be alert of her surroundings. I was not encouraging my daughter to drink but being realistic about the fact that many teenagers experiment with alcohol and then make poor choices. We also had conversations about never drinking and driving, or taking a ride from someone who’s been drinking.
This process was not about controlling her but encouraging her to learn how to keep herself safe. If we had simply set down rules, or shamed her for wanting to go to parties as if we had the right to dictate her desires—she likely would have resisted our efforts to protect her. By trusting her innate intelligence (see relationship artistry) she developed an internalized a gauge of how to make sure she was setting up a safe situation.
How is an ownership mentality important to marriage and intimate relationships?
We don’t own our partners, we don’t own their bodies or their sexuality. Domestic violence is a clear expression of ownership mentality: I own you, I own your body, I dictate what you do. If there is an ongoing sense of control in a marriage, over time there will be a deadening of the connection. There is no space to expand, change, grow, or even have empathy for a partner in this scenario. Checking in with the other person—not trying to exert control but instead discover more of who he or she is, while being curious—is the opposite of the ownership mentality. It grants those we love the space to evolve freely.
For relationships to thrive, over time there has to be fluidity and responsiveness built on a foundation of consent and equality. Please see my article on relationship artistry—the other end of the spectrum in terms of creating intimate relationships that allow both people to thrive.
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