They say we never know what goes on behind closed doors, and they are right, including when it comes to power dynamics in romantic relationships. We might assume that he’s in charge because he’s the high-earning CEO and breadwinner whilst she’s a housewife, but new research suggests the balance of power isn’t necessarily based on income and titles as one might speculate.
You can be that stay-at-home wife with a wealthy high achieving husband and still feel there is an equal power balance. It’s time to throw out those assumptions made about that ‘poor little housewife’ (and also about that woman with a head scarf). What sometimes looks like a submissive woman from the outside is often, in reality, a powerful woman on the inside.
Power dynamics research
New research by Körner, R., & Schütz, A. (2021) highlights that there are different types of power in romantic relationships and that even when there is an imbalance in one type of power, there can be a balance in a different type of power, and such an imbalance and balance, respectively, can lead to higher relationship quality and relationship satisfaction.
The two types of power that the researchers assessed were ‘positional power’ and ‘personal sense of power’:
- Positional power in romantic relationships stems from hierarchical factors such as level of income, education and occupation, and how that increases one’s capacity to influence one’s partner and decision-making.
- Personal sense of power refers to the person’s perception of their capacity to influence one’s partner and decision-making.
Using 181 heterosexual couples in the study (362 people), it was found that whilst there is still an imbalance in positional power where men still tend to have more positional power, much like in days gone by, there tended to be a balance in personal sense of power.
Personal sense of power was measured by asking participants to rates questions on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) like, ‘My ideas and opinions are often ignored’.
Satisfaction with power was determined by asking participants to rates questions on a scale from 1 (very dissatisfied) to 7 (very satisfied) like, ‘How satisfied are you with the extent to which you influence decisions in your relationship?’
Positional power was calculated using an index of each person’s educational/occupational qualification and financial situation.
Key research findings
Here are some of their key findings on power dynamics in the modern day:
- There was usually a balance in couples’ personal sense of power and yet at the same time, an imbalance in their positional power, i.e. regardless of positional power, both partners could feel they were equally powerful when it came to decision making overall.
- A balance in personal sense of power, rather than a balance in positional power, was most important for satisfaction with the relationship.
- Those satisfied with their personal sense of power, i.e. their ability to influence and make decisions in the relationship, were also satisfied with the quality of their relationship (measured on the dimensions of Fascination, Engagement, Sexuality, Future, and Trust).
- When one partner was satisfied with their personal sense of power in the relationship, their partner was happier, too, and invested more into the relationship.
It can sometimes be that your personal sense of power is determined by your ability to make the decisions that matter to you whilst your partner could get priority over those decisions that mattered to them. For example, one might be more concerned with having the final say on decisions regarding house decor whilst the other may have the final say on where they holiday.
Interestingly, the researchers state that some traditional gender roles are still pervasive as many women were more satisfied with the relationship when their partner subjectively felt that he was in charge.
Basically, it’s nobody else’s business how the personal sense of power is split in your relationship; as long as you are both happy with it, that’s what matters.
The truth is, every relationship dynamic is different and your relationship or marital roles should be based on whatever works for you and your partner, irrespective of what your parents did, what your friends do, and what society’s telling you to do.
In each relationship we bring our experiences of the past and our desires for the present and the future. Each person’s emotional, physical, sexual, financial, practical, social and spiritual needs are unique, like our finger prints. So your blueprint for relationship satisfaction should be just as unique. But it must accommodate both partners for the relationship to be happy and healthy.
How does the balance of power between you and your (prospective) partner impact your romantic relationship and your relationship with yourself? Findings from this new research should both enlighten and empower you.
5 tips on how to ask for power dynamic changes
If you are not satisfied with the power dynamics in your relationship and feel comfortable discussing this with your partner with the aim of creating a balance that truly satisfies both of you, here are 5 tips to help you:
- Get clear on what you want those changes to be. Think about the areas in which you’ve wanted more decision making power and what difference it would make to your happiness and relationship satisfaction if you could exert greater influence in those decisions.
- Communicate the specifics of your desired changes to your partner. Explain what you want, why it’s important to you, and what it would do to your relationship if they agreed to those changes.
- Ask them what their thoughts and feelings are about these requests and if they too would like any changes to how decision making takes place in your relationship.
- If need be, allow them time to think about your proposal and revisit the conversation at a later date.
- Communicate with compassion and respect throughout. Like attracts like. You want them to understand your needs and the positive outcomes for both of you as per the ‘key findings’ listed above.
If you are afraid to have this conversation with your partner, you may find it easier to resolve this and other issues with a professional. Life is too short to be unhappy. Decide what you want and go after it.
Körner, R., & Schütz, A. (2021). Power in romantic relationships: How positional and experienced power are associated with relationship quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 38(9), 2653–2677. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075211017670