Have you ever experienced someone telling their partner off in front of you? That awkward moment when squabbles in a relationship burst out on a table. You’re left uncomfortably sipping your drink, pretending to show interest in a menu’s signature cocktails. This type of behaviour can be a subtle sign of power imbalance in a relationship.
What do I mean by power imbalance?
Healthy relationships have balance – there is no opinion more significant than the other and decisions are made equally. Sometimes, one partner may assert more dominance in certain areas. For instance, if you’re creative and love interior design, you might have more control over decorating. Overall, however, the partnership feels balanced and evenly supportive.
A power imbalance involves one person honing more control and dominance. This can lead to a parent-child relationship where one partner takes charge and sets rules for the other. The Big Think define power imbalance as the ability ‘to influence each other and direct the relationship.’
Signs of power imbalance
You make decisions without consulting your partner
Your partner tends to seek your approval
You usually have the last say in arguments
You have rules for your partner that you expect them to follow
The expectations you set differ from the ones you follow
You feel angry when your partner speaks up about their concerns
You believe you ‘wear the trousers’
Your sexual needs receive more priority
You question your own judgment
You often end up apologising
Your partner makes you feel intimidated
How you feel depends on how your partner feels
You seek ‘permission’ from your partner, even for small personal choices
You often go along with what your partner chooses
Their needs seem more of a priority
Your partner argues, humiliates, and confronts you in public
There are several reasons why these types of power dynamics happen. Humans naturally crave power – statistics show most of us want to be our own boss. Power gives us the freedom to follow our own beliefs and values.
In relationships, having power means we can eat the meals we want, live the lifestyle we desire and overall face little compromise. You might see this play out with one person who likes staying in deciding that their partner must also not go out.
Sometimes one partner is more dominant because they witnessed this type of relationship growing up. Other times, it can be due to a fear of losing control or a lack of trust. Submissive partners could be less confrontational and choose to go along with things to avoid arguments. According to Keir Brady Counselling, a dominant partner (the parent role) ‘can feel needed’ while the submissive partner (the child role) ‘can feel cared for’.
These situations can soon begin to crumble. The person with power may feel resentment for always being in charge while the obedient partner can lose confidence and become co-dependent. In unequal situations, intimacy and communication can break down.
How to restore power
It’s easy to assume the person who takes charge is somehow at fault. After all, we assume the ‘powerful’ one dictates everything. However, these power imbalances can occur because of low self-esteem.
People who suffer from low insecurity usually don’t value their own opinion. They look outside themselves for approval and rely on others for validation. Some people can gain comfort in dating a more dominant person because it gives them an excuse to remain in their unsure state.
One way to restore balance is to stop using your partner as a crutch. Focus on self-care and building confidence – a simple way to do this is to make more decisions. When you disagree, rather than keep quiet, open the dialogue by sharing how you feel. This doesn’t have to be an argumentative discussion.
Take the time to reflect on how you have changed since being in your relationship. Have you given up hobbies and interests, do you feel your friendships have taken a back seat? Have you changed your image to meet the expectations of your partner? Remember that while relationships will always involve some form of sacrifice, you should not lose parts of your own identity and independence.
Restoring power from a dominant person
If you’re more dominant, try to figure out why. What is it about your relationship that makes you feel you must take control? Perhaps it comes from a need to protect, or an anxious fear that letting go will lead to feelings of hopelessness.
Acknowledge that your partner is your equal and deserves the same respect and power. Do not assume that setting rules will lead to less hurt. Telling your partner to not go out without you, for example, will not stop them from having an affair.
Start introducing open-ended questions – ‘What are your thoughts?’. ‘How do you feel?’. Give your partner a chance to share their opinion, as well as form a new one. Do not assume what they will say.
Your partner may expect you to do more household and parenting tasks, leading you to deal with issues by yourself. This could be a case of sitting down together and creating a plan that relieves some of your burdens.
The power imbalance in a relationship
Patterns in a relationship can be hard to break. Your partner may not want to change your dynamic, or they may have gotten so used to the way you operate that they are oblivious to it being a problem.
We each deserve to feel secure and free with our loved ones. Pay attention to power dynamics – it could lead to a more satisfying and intimate relationship.
If you are looking for personal advice, write to my Ask Laura advice column.