There is rarely complete equality in relationships. Whether it’s with a friend, a coworker, or a lover, it’s often normal that one person in the relationship has more power than the other. When it comes to romantic partnerships (or triads, quads, etc.), this inequity can show itself in many forms and isn’t always limited to one partner being completely empowered and the other being controlled. Sometimes, one partner holds power over another in one way, and another person holds power in a different way. Whatever your situation is, it’s unlikely that you both hold the exact same cards when playing the game of love.
Maybe your partner is more financially stable than you; maybe you’re the one who has more say in social plans (like where you go to dinner or which friends you go out with); maybe you hold control over your partner emotionally, but they are the one who dictates your sex life. These imbalances are not always bad, and they don’t mean your relationship is doomed to fail. Keeping it afloat takes mindfulness and staying aware of all aspects of your relationship.
These relational nuances are worth interrogating. I often get letters from readers who come to me for some advice, but what they’re not seeing is the deeply manipulative situation they’ve found themselves in. The power seesaw has swung drastically out of their favor, and they are beholden to another person in ways that not only make them miserable, but put them at risk in myriad ways.
“A power imbalance can be tricky to recognize when you’re ‘in it,’” Anne Hodder-Shipp, ACS, a certified sex educator and founder of Everyone Deserves Sex Ed explains to TheBody. We need to keep tabs on behavior, feelings, and actions within our relationships. As unsexy as it sounds, if you don’t check in on relational happenings, you can wind up in situations that range from bad to straight-up abusive.
If you feel that there is a power imbalance in your relationship, read on, because without applying some guardrails and some uncomfortable conversations, you could wind up in a toxic situation—or perhaps you already have and need to have it laid out for you. Either way, being clear about your subjective situation is paramount to having a healthy partnership in which both people can thrive and feel safe.
Recognize Signs of Power Imbalance
While there is no definitive list of the ways people maintain, give, and take control in relationships, there are some signs you can look out for. Hodder-Shipp suggests using a “red and yellow flag” system to assist you in understanding uncertain feelings you might be experiencing. If you feel in your gut that something isn’t right, you’re probably correct.
Hodder-Shipp explains that red or yellow flags can present as follows: “You don’t feel safe to communicate and share your feelings to your partner; don’t feel respected by your partner during conversations, in front of others, or when you share feelings or needs; if having your own space, friends, and time to yourself causes conflict with your partner; if a partner expects you to change your appearance or personality in order to accommodate them; if you have to ask permission before doing or saying anything; and if the kind of safer sex methods that are important to you aren’t taken seriously or are dismissed.”
This last point has especially detrimental implications, as engaging in unsafe sex practices can lead to the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as HIV. In fact, studies have found that there is a definitive link between relational power imbalances and sexual health problems. “Power imbalances in relationships can make communication feel impossible or even treacherous, but without communication, there’s no way to discuss or disclose STI status, talk about using barriers or other risk-reduction methods, ask and share about recent testing, and share other sexual needs and desires,” Hodder-Shipp explains.
Control Is Not Always Conscious
While controlling another person in a relationship is harmful, often, using one’s power to control another isn’t intended to be malicious—and sometimes it’s not even conscious. It can be a coping strategy born out of an insecure attachment style. The grab for power and control is the only way this person knows how to cope with the uncertainty of romantic relationships and their deep-seated fear of being vulnerable, alone, or hurt.
Holly Richmond, Ph.D., a somatic psychologist and certified sex therapist, tells TheBody that fighting for control “can be a coping strategy, particularly if there is some aspect of their life and the world that feels out of control. When people control things, they feel safer, that’s the bottom line.” Understanding, empathy, and better communication is needed between couples to examine these power inequalities and to find ways to balance them.
The Outgoing Partner Versus the Introverted Partner
I don’t mean to overgeneralize, but in most relationships, there is usually one person who is more outgoing than the other; one who speaks up more often, while the other follows their lead. Richmond says that while it may appear the more outspoken partner holds all the cards, this isn’t necessarily true.
As a therapist, she seeks to determine which partner has the most explicit control—that is, the most obvious control in the relationship—and then suss out the nuances within that dynamic. “Let’s start on the hierarchy front: The more dominant or outspoken partner may appear to have the power (and sometimes they do), but it’s also critical to see how the less dominant or less outspoken partner tries to maintain it,” she says. “This may be through passive-aggressive actions that look like compliance, or it may even be something [such as] substance dependence or mental illness, [such as] depression, [that] provokes.” A person who “isn’t well” often has more implicit control because their partner needs to devote attention to them as a caretaker and therefore their lives become ingrained in that role.
As you can see, this stuff is complicated and takes a lot of self-questioning to see the relationship for what it is and what it is not.
How to Rebalance Relationships
“Having clear boundaries about shared responsibility and ongoing check-in types of conversations to see how everyone feels are important to maintaining balance,” Hodder-Shipp tells us. Relationships rarely exist in a 50/50 power split, no matter how healthy and open they may be. “[Relationships are] always in motion, moving side to side as the weight shifts and shows us that power may ebb and flow depending on circumstances and life changes,” she says. “The relationship can maintain a healthy balance as long as there is transparency and all parties involved are on the same page about each other’s needs and [are] prepared to be flexible and adjust the dynamic as needed.”
This means being open and honest with your partner. It means being able to give voice to your needs without the fear of retaliation, whether emotional or physical. Richmond says that these discussions can be very difficult, and we should prepare for that. “Couples definitely need to talk about where they see and feel the power imbalances and devise strategies for finding greater equality,” she tells us. “This starts with communication, and then active practice for placing more power back in the disempowered partner’s hands.”
Keep in mind that shifting the power in a relationship might not always be possible. If you attempt to communicate with your partner and they shut you down, scream at you, or dismiss you, it might be time to reconsider the relationship as a whole. Communication is key to making relationships work. I can say with complete certainty that without communication, all relationships fall apart. For a healthy dynamic to exist, everyone needs to be willing to put in the work. If that can’t happen, you’re better off walking away.