Balancing Power in your Relationships

We tend not to think of our interpersonal relationships, especially our intimate/romantic ones, in terms of power dynamics. After all, we are sophisticated human beings who operate on advanced intellectual and moral principles such as fairness, reason, justice, and democracy, not apes wandering the jungle trying to dominate and control.


Well, yes and no.

While we certainly have the capacity to display these advanced emotional and intellectual behaviors, we also can’t deny where we came from. Yes, humans can display extraordinary compassion, cooperation, reason, and kindness, but we are no less capable of using power – both physical and psychological – to survive and thrive in a world often fraught with obstacles. One need only read the news to see this dynamic playing out all over the world.

Survival, after all, is our primary instinct, and we have developed a whole host of behaviors over the course of millions of years to serve that instinct.

Of course, we are no longer hunter/gatherers wandering the savannah, and the hope is that these old, more primitive behaviors become less useful in a world in which diplomacy and negotiation can replace warfare, and where cooperation can replace domination and control.

Does One Person Have Too Much Power?

But what happens when one person in a relationship has too much power, and that power is used to dominate and control the other?

In a marriage or romantic partnership, inevitably one person ends up feeling weak and disrespected. What usually follows are feelings of resentment and anger, which leads to conflict and struggle. Rinse and repeat, as the cycle begins anew.

Of course, these situations are far more complex in reality, and highly individualized, and make no mistake, there are no completely innocent parties in these situations: interpersonal conflict is always a dance between two people.

And sometimes, for reasons that should be explored in therapy, one person gives up their power all too willingly, creating a power vacuum that is quickly filled by the more dominant partner. The result is an imbalance of power and the problems that usually ensue.

But whatever the root causes, a relationship that has significant power imbalances is a train wreck waiting to happen.

Finding Balance

So how to handle these power imbalances?

In intimate partnerships, this means that the dominant partner has to concede some of their power, and it means the other partner must accept the responsibility that comes with having increased power, and use it wisely.

Can a relationship ever be perfectly balanced? Probably not.

Must a relationship always be 50/50? Certainly not.

More importantly, power has to be distributed in a way that makes both partners feel comfortable. In other words, the partners must replace the paradigm of domination and control with a new paradigm that emphasizes power sharing, balance, cooperation, and mutual understanding. What this looks like in practice depends on the dynamics present in each partnership and will therefore look differently for different couples.

However, in all cases, it means viewing power not as something to wield against your partner for leverage, but rather as something that necessarily must be shared in ways that promote harmony and balance. The former is to remain stuck in old, primitive ways of being, which inevitably leads to conflict and suffering. The latter is to progress and evolve beyond these base instincts and instead embrace these more advanced human capabilities like cooperation, power sharing, diplomacy, and negotiation.

This process is not easy for either partner, because it means changing the status quo, which is always uncomfortable. But the alternative is a permanent fracturing of the relationship, or the perpetuation of a relational paradigm that will forever promote resentment, anger, and conflict. The compromise is to shift the balance in ways that create more harmony.

If you are the partner who is dominating, you have to ask yourself: is having power more important than having harmony, and are you willing to give up power in order for your relationship to grow healthier and more balanced?

And if you are the partner lacking power, you have to ask yourself: am I willing to become stronger and more powerful for my own personal growth, and for the health of the relationship?

The answers to these questions will determine your path forward.

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