Rarely do we talk about power in relationships if everything is smooth sailing. Yet, when there is an imbalance of power in relationships, it becomes a topic since it invites the couple to work on it.
Struggle for power in relationships can damage the overall satisfaction with the marriage. Therefore if the couple wishes to have a happy and healthy relationship, the power shouldn’t be in the hands of one of the partners.
What is power in relationships?
When we talk about power, we talk about a person’s ability to exercise control over others. In relationships, this is seen as the ability to influence the other person when it comes to making decisions and having priority in their needs being satisfied.
Power is not inherently negative or positive. What says about the nature of it is how it is used or abused.
Power in relationships can cause a great deal of stress and frustration when used inappropriately and selfishly, for example, when one partner is controlled by the other one. This can jeopardize the relationship if not addressed.
How can power affect relationships?
Every relationship has a concept of power associated with it. Power in a relationship enables us to bring control, make choices, and have the capacity to impact our current circumstances and that of others.
When we do have power in a relationship, we can deal with our feelings; we accept that we matter and that we can influence results. We have a feeling of viability in our lives instead of being dependent on others.
However, many of us do not have power in our relationships; we are victims to others and outside forces. A lack of power is a constant reminder of not being in control of our decisions or our destiny; further, even an attempt to exercise our power might feel uncomfortable.
The way power in relationships is distributed and exercised can have a significant impact on it; in a state of imbalance, a relationship can have an impaired sense of power.
Commonly associated with codependent relationships, an impaired sense of power in a relationship can be due to low self-esteem, a lack of autonomy, fear of abandonment or rejection, having unreasonable expectations, lack of responsibility, and many such reasons.
A relationship with a shared sense of power is often found in relationships where the partners are aware and confident about their self-worth and autonomy.
Partners in such relationships understand and fulfill their responsibilities towards each other. They value each other enough to be vulnerable and are able to express their likes and dislikes.
What is a “power imbalance” in a relationship?
Contemplating where “power” comes from – it’s not simply from one individual. Power can be characterized as the capacity or ability to direct or impact the conduct of others with a specific goal in mind. Power isn’t restricted to control.
All things considered, power in relationships is perceived to be the capacity of every individual in the relationship to impact one another and direct the relationship.
Ownership of power changes the human mind, normally in manners that we don’t know about – one of which is the initiation of the behavioral approach system that is situated in our left frontal cortex.
This framework is powered by dopamine, which is also considered as a ‘feel-good’ chemical. Being in charge or having power feels better – this flood of dopamine that comes from feeling engaged or incredible is programmed; it’s not something we can control.
How does imbalance in power dynamics affect the relationship?
In relationships that are strong and healthy, the influence both partners have is (almost) equal. One might have more financial power, the other more social connections, but ultimately they are respectful of one another and make decisions together.
When there is an imbalance of power in relationships, there are several adverse effects:
Impaired self-esteem, self-image, and sense of personal value
Isolation, threats, and abuse as a means of maintaining the power imbalance
Lack of trust in the partner and endurance of the relationship
Decreased overall satisfaction of the relationship
End of relationship or marriage
How a negative struggle for power can damage your relationship
A negative struggle for power in relationships can result in three types of relationship dynamics:
1. Demand-withdrawal dynamic
A Demand-withdraw dynamic occurs in a relationship when one of two patterns between partners, in which one partner is the demander, seeking change, discussion, or the resolution of an issue, while the other partner is the withdrawer, seeking to end or avoid discussion of the issue.
2. Distance-pursuer dynamic
In a distancer-pursuer dynamic, during times of stress, the pursuer seeks their partners increased closeness and reassurance, while the distancer feels overwhelmed and even smothered by their partner’s pursuits.
3. Fear-shame dynamics
A fear-shame dynamics is observed in a relationship when the fear of one partner triggers shame-avoidant behavior in the other.
Also, watch: Pursuer/Distancer relationships – How to Survive?
What is positive power in relationships?
No struggle is easy. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be called a struggle. The power imbalance can cause the relationship to deteriorate and partners to suffer.
Although struggles for power in relationships are not a pleasant experience, they can lead partners to grow as individuals and as a couple.
If a power struggle has a positive result, we can say it is positive. We talk about something being good or bad based on the consequences it produces.
When it leads to the demise of the relationship, the power struggle is a negative thing. Yet, it can help you improve and grow, and that power struggle can be positive due to the outcomes it produces.
10 signs of unhealthy power dynamics in the relationships
How to recognize if you are experiencing power imbalance in relationships? Watch out for the signs and if you notice them, address them so you even out the power-relationship.
1. It’s difficult to stand up for yourself
When the dynamics of power in relationships are off-balance, you will feel uncomfortable speaking up for your own needs, wants, and desires. Possibly because in the past you felt rejected or they retailed when you did.
Anyhow, in a healthy relationship, you should be able to advocate for your needs without fear of consequences.
2. You feel constantly criticized
One of the signs of struggle for power in relationshipsis regular criticism that one of the partners endures.
This is yet another way they seize control over you. Emotional power-plays can shine through continuous remarks regarding your behavior and demands to change.
3. They need to have the last word
When you fight, do you feel like you are not getting through to them even when you point out what it is doing to the relationship and both of you?
Do you feel they care more about being right and having the last word? If so, this could be another symptom of power in relationships.
4. You don’t feel part of major decisions
We make decisions every day, and most of them don’t require us to check in with our partners.
However, if you feel left out of the major decisions that impact you both, and you asked to be included several times, you are experiencing one of the important signs of power imbalance in relationships.
When there is a struggle for power in relationships, people care more about getting their way than having harmony in the relationship. In a healthy relationship, partners take each other’s opinions and feelings into account when making decisions that could impact their lives together.
5. They put you down
Another way to exhort power over you is to write off your ideas, needs, and values. They are not respecting the way you see the world.
Not saying they have to agree with everything you say, but in case of uneven power in relationships, you feel like they are dismissing or disrespecting your opinions as a way to position themselves over you.
6. You feel isolated and disconnected
As a result of numerous efforts your partner has made to control or change you, you feel alone when you face a problem.
You hardly share anything as you think they will utilize this as another way to undermine you when they need to tip the scales of power in their favor.
7. Their calls have priority over yours
Unequal power and control in relationships are best recognized through the way the couple approaches satisfying their needs. Do you feel you could make a list of their needs, and if you asked them to do the same, they couldn’t guess half of yours?
In healthy relationships, both partners strive to be there for one another’s needs. On the other hand, in power-relationships, you would feel your needs are not getting as much consideration and attention as theirs.
8. They are not taking accountability as much as you
If they are always right, they can’t be the ones to blame when things go south or when you have an argument, right?
As a result of their need for control and power, they often renounce the responsibility for issues that happen while you are willing to admit to your own faults.
9. You bring up the relationship issues to light
In a healthy relationship, both partners care about the well-being of the relationship, and when they notice something endangering it, they bring that to light.
In power-relationships, you feel you are the one detecting problems and calling for improvements almost all the time, while they are investing far less energy and effort into the maintenance of the relationship.
10. You feel pressure to please and dread what will happen otherwise.
Do you feel the pressure to please them instead of feeling like it is your choice? Do you dread their reaction when you do things “wrong”?
Ask yourself, are you afraid they will reject, criticize, or leave you if you displease them. Fear is one of the major red flags of power imbalance in relationships.
Questions to evaluate the power balance in your relationship
If you are wondering how you can evaluate the balance of power in relationships, you can turn to insightful questions, such as those created in research by Allison Farrell, Jeffry Simpson, and Alexander Rothman.
I have more say than my partner does when we make decisions in our relationship.
I have more control over decision making than my partner does in our relationship.
When we make decisions in our relationship, I get the final say.
I have more influence than my partner does on decisions in our relationship.
I have more power than my partner when deciding about issues in our relationship.
You can access the entire Relationship Power Inventory and use the question together with your partner to gain more insight into the power balance.
5 tips for managing the balance of power
1. Empower yourself first
One of the reasons the power in relationships is disproportionate is due to both partners. Although they might try to seize control, due to many factors, such as fear of abandonment or wanting to be a good husband or wife, you allow it.
When it was happening, you might not have seen it for what it is, and now you are in this power imbalance. Don’t despair; you can still turn things around. The first thing you need to do is to work on yourself.
Ask yourself, “do I want to allow this to continue happening?” “How does it make me feel” and ‘what would I want instead of that?”. You deserve to be treated fairly and with respect. To gain that, you need to believe it first.
If you recognize you might need professional help in empowering yourself, experts can assist you in this journey. If you are to shift the power scales, you need to have the strength to consistently do so. And for that, you need to feel you are entitled to have your needs met as well.
2. Voice your needs and wants
Once you have worked on step one, you want to start to speak up for yourself. At first, this will most likely cause an adverse reaction. That is why feeling entitled and empowered is important, as it will help you continue to ask for what you need even when you get shut down at first.
Since getting shut down is painful to all of us, most of the time, we pull away and minimize our needs. It helps protect us from further hurt, but it also prevents us from having those needs met.
When you ask, you have a chase to fulfill your desires; when you don’t, the answer is most likely ‘no.’
3. Understand the reasons behind the need for power
There is a reason why your partner needs control and power in relationships. They might fear they won’t be listened to or have their needs met otherwise. It might be the only way they know how to relate.
Therefore it will take them time before they learn how to relinquish power and find a new way to connect.
To assist them on this journey, you might want to look together for reasons they need control. Once you understand it better, you can address the root of the issue.
4. Keep their needs in mind as well
Most of the time, power in relationships is something we learned early on. It might have been the only way to get what we needed and not get neglected.
Therefore, while you are advocating for your needs, keep theirs in mind too. Don’t take away all that you have provided to your partner so far, and wait to give it back when they start providing to you more.
It will scare them, and it will most likely lead them to try and seize more control. Instead, be there for them and ask for what you need simultaneously.
5. Call in outside help
When you feel like you are not managing to accomplish all this alone, call in reinforcements. We are not proposing you organize an intervention with all your friends there, rather turn to a therapist for help.
Power dynamics in a relationship are a common topic in therapy. A counselor will know the right questions to ask and how to help you move to a place of a more even power distribution.
Present this to your partner, not as a way to change them, but as an option that will improve your relationship for both of you.
Most relationships run into a power imbalance in their relationship at some point and over some topic. Power struggles can harm relationships unless addressed.
The signs of uneven power can be seen through the inability of one of the partners to express and have their needs fulfilled and stand up for themselves, taking accountability for their actions and relationships success.
This can be draining and lead them to devalue the relationship. However, it is not all hopeless.
Most relationships can work through power struggles successfully. That is when both partners are willing to work on it. Work on empowering yourself first, ask for what you need, and keep your partner’s needs in mind. If you are consistent, you will see progress, especially if you have expert help by your side.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Sylvia Smith loves to share insights on how couples can revitalize their love lives in and out of the bedroom. As a writer at Marriage.com, she is a big believer in living consciously and encourages couples to adopt this principle in their lives too. Sylvia believes that every couple can transform their relationship into a happier, healthier one by taking purposeful and wholehearted action.