Just because we don’t talk about something, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. In my work as a couples therapist, and as a professor who trains people to do couple therapy, I have found a relationship dynamic that often gets overlooked. We do not talk nearly enough about the impact of power on our romantic relationships.
It is understandable to feel uneasy talking about power dynamics these days, as our news cycle is filled with story after story about (mostly) men carrying out gross abuses of power against (mostly) women and girls. If you were to ask a couple, “Who has the power in your relationship?” they would most likely respond, “We both do!” Most of us pride ourselves on creating egalitarian romantic relationships, and, especially when it comes to gender, we are mostly walking the talk.
Historically, traditional divisions of labor created power imbalances along gender lines by reifying a marital model of a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. The person with the paycheck had the power! Because of meaningful social change (some by choice, some by necessity), heterosexual relationships are far more egalitarian today than they were a generation or two ago.
In fact, a full 40% of households are run by a female breadwinner! And same-sex couples are even more egalitarian than heterosexual couples when it comes to power.
Power dynamics are about more than just a paycheck. And power dynamics can feel tricky to talk about. ..
…but you really should!
The definition of power is simple. Power is the ability or capacity to do something. Power is agency. Power is about your ability to have an effect on the world around you, including your partner.
Micro-Exchanges Of Power
Over the course of a day, there are numerous micro-exchanges of power between you and your partner. Your partner asks, “Where do you want to eat?” You reply, “Let’s go get sushi.”
- If your partner agrees to sushi, your partner has just given you the power to decide where the two of you will have dinner.
- If your partner responds, “Nah, I feel like pizza,” you and your partner are now in a power struggle, one in which you will each attempt to influence each other.
When you think about these micro-exchanges of power, you may be able to identify one of you who tends to lead and one of you who tends to follow. Maybe it’s based on personality—one partner is strong-willed and one partner easy-going.
Maybe it’s based on birth order—one partner was an only child who was used to getting their way and one partner was the youngest of four who was used to accommodating their older siblings.
Keep in Mind:
These micro-exchanges of power may be just the background noise of your relationship, but to prevent painful struggles around power, proceed with awareness. If one of you tends to lead and one tends to follow, notice that and be mindful.
If the leading partner feels weary of decision-making, ask the following partner to make the next plan. If the following partner feels edged out, ask the leading partner to step back to make space for shared decisions.
Proceed With Awareness
Power dynamics are present in our romantic relationships in part because life is a series of shared decisions, great and small. But there’s something else. Power dynamics are present in our intimate relationships because we bring all the parts of who we are into the relationship, including our cultural identities:
- Socioeconomic status (SES)
- Skin color
In all likelihood, your relationship is cross-cultural along with one or more of these domains. It’s so important that you and your partner understand how cultural differences affect your relationship because these differences matter.