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Q&A: Power Difference in Relationships

October 15, 2013
The CSPH

powerdiffEach week, The CSPH answers questions asked on our site and through social media outlets like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. This week’s question is:

In a relationship in which there is a power difference due to age, money, size, with all going in the same direction, how is it possible to reduce the power difference?

Power difference is often a source of contention in intimate relationships; relationship power means that one partner has noticeably more influence in decision-making and persuading processes. Whether granted by one partner’s higher education, financial ability, and/or social status, every couple has dealt with consequences of power difference. For some, a lack of equal decision-making power can further cause feelings of resentment, dissatisfaction, or even depression.

Numerous studies have been conducted on the effects of power difference in intimate relationships—most of these studies focus on married and heterosexual couples; however, some of the findings may be applicable to other relationship structures. Several studies (Coleman 1986; Ronfeldt 1998; Kaukinen 2004) have linked power imbalance to higher rates of conflict, abuse, and violence. Gender roles play an instrumental part as well: Tichenor shows that when wives hold a traditionally-defined position of power (e.g. higher income and social status), they do not gain nearly as much negotiation power as their male counterparts. Therefore, the context in which power is created is as important as the cause.

First, let’s examine some of the potential causes of power difference in an intimate relationship. We already named money, education, and social status. Other potential causes include age, size, gender, family support, race/ethnicity, dis/ability, and immigration status. Some causes of power are due to an unresolved conflict. For instance, Alex and Sam disagree on whether they should move to Alex’s hometown. Despite Alex’s will, they end up going along with Sam’s decision in order to maintain peace in the relationship. Sam has defined decision-making power and will hold that power until both parties—not just one—are satisfied with the outcome.

However, sometimes a resolution cannot be reached. Not only in the case of conflicts, but also with regards to other causes of power: there is nothing you can do about your partner’s race, gender, or heritage. This is why acknowledging how power is distributed in a relationship is a first step towards creating power equality. Communicating with your partner, you can start by writing down a list of all potential causes of power imbalance in your relationship. It is entirely up to you and your partner to decide what gives one of you an advantage over the other. Further, try having a conversation about how each of you came to hold each advantage. While considering contributing factors such as privilege, personal interest combined with what society values, decisions you made as a couple, and so on, use “I” statements to describe your power positions. Instead of saying, “You earn less because you studied art and didn’t care as much about holding on to your job,” you can say, “I have a higher income job because I studied a subject that has a high monetary return, my gender and family privileges provide me with greater networking and negotiation power, and we decided to relocate so that I can keep my job and get promoted.”

Proceed by talking about how the power difference for every item on the list is impacting each of you and the relationship. Discuss how it makes you feel to be at either end of the power seesaw. Have you felt that having a physically less strong body makes you more vulnerable during arguments? Or perhaps, the fact that your partner owns the car you drive to work makes you anxious as to how far you can insist on your position during a decision-making process? Also, don’t assume that whoever holds higher power is entirely satisfied with the relationship. Your older, richer, bigger partner may also feel dissatisfied with the current power distribution. Perhaps, they wouldn’t mind changing parts of the equation around, if possible.

Once you have determined the significance of each power index in your romantic and sexual life, you are ready to think about a vision and the necessary action steps. So far, you have constructed a clear image of where you and your partner stand. Next, the two of you need to decide where you would like to be headed. How would the ideal power dynamic play out in your relationship? How are decisions made and what role do your differences play in such processes? Do you prefer to have equal power or would one of you like to submit some of their power in exchange for peace of mind or other reasons? Remember that in order to arrive at your mutual power mecca, you may need to experiment, increase your self-awareness, or seek help from a sex and relationship professional.

Make sure to work through tangible action steps with your partner. Focus on major causes of dissatisfaction with regards to your current power dynamics and discuss how you can work together to—temporarily or permanently—make changes. Keep in mind that acknowledging what you cannot change can be very empowering; especially if you are ready to have a conversation about it instead of pushing the matter under the rug. Remain in communication with your partner about the role of power in your relationship: your explorations can take on the form of simple agreements for your everyday life to more adventurous power-reversal play in your bedroom. That is, if you tend to sit on the lower side of the power seesaw, you can experiment with being more dominant during sexy time, while the opposite (being submissive) can be helpful for someone who wants to experiment with the feeling of giving up power. For more information, review our Q&A on Learning to Be Sexually Dominant.

Power difference is essentially caused by the power we give to our differences. It is our interpretation of our differences that results in one partner assuming more power and potentially abusing it. As much as our similarities are important, our differences keep a relationship exciting. Acknowledging the differences and their sources, as well as understanding privilege, preference, and the impact of each on our lives are your first powerful steps towards creating satisfactory power dynamics with your partner.

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