A reader recently posted a question asking how they can better equalize the power in their relationship.
To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, power is fundamental in the social sciences, much like energy is for physics. Despite its importance, psychologists still grapple with what power really is and how exactly it functions in intimate relationships. Perceptions of power inequality in relationships have been linked to a number of negative emotions, including depression.1 A previous post (“He’s just not that into you“) highlighted some of the big theories that have tried to explain power, such as equity theory,2 which proposes that both partners in a relationship are motivated to have outcomes that are equal. While this is nice in theory, the data actually show that responses to inequity differ depending on whether you are over- or under-benefitted. Although negative affect is typically experienced by both partners, the under-benefitted partner experiences more of them more intensely, particularly if they are male.3 In other words, if you feel like your partner has more power and gets a lot more out of the relationship than you do, you will experience more negative feelings and have decreased satisfaction with your relationship, particularly if you are a man.
So, let’s say your partner has a lot more power and control in your relationship, and you are not satisfied. What can you do about it? Much depends on the source of the power inequity, how much leverage you have to make change, as well as your partner’s motivation. The more powerful partner is typically not as motivated to change as the less powerful partner. This probably does not surprise, but how does someone get more power?
Does one partner have greater control over financial assets? The resource theory of power4 would propose that whoever has control over the money has more control in the relationship. Other economists build on this idea, stating that the partner who has greater education (earning potential is highly correlated with education) has more leverage.5 Also, if one partner brings with them expertise on something (e.g., she works for a life insurance company), that partner will be perceived as having greater decision-making authority in that domain (e.g., she decides what kind of insurance policies to buy). If you are perceived as being the one who knows about how the money in your relationship is best spent, then you would typically be given control in that domain. If you are perceived as knowing a lot more about child care, then that domain would be where your control/leverage/influence would likely lie. If both partners are motivated to alter the inequity that exists in the relationship, and there is not much that can be done about financial contributions, the domains of decision-making authority might be one avenue to explore with each other. In which domain(s) do you feel the greatest inequity? What would make the balance of outcomes feel more equitable to you?
Power is not something that one person has over another. It is simply the ability or potential to influence the behavior or outcomes of another person. Therefore, power cannot exist within one person independent of a relationship; power is granted. Being the more dependent partner is not easy; you need the more powerful partner to accomplish your goals to a greater extent than they need you. The way you can influence him or her will depend on what has worked in the past.6 For example, if you want to take a vacation, but your partner has control over the money and the way you spend your time together, asking directly about taking a vacation together may not be effective. Rather, discussing how a vacation together would be relaxing and relationship enhancing can activate the “us” social identity that you share, and make him or her more receptive to working jointly to achieve a desirable outcome that benefits both of you.
1Glass, J., & Tetsushi, F. (1994). Housework, paid work, and depression among husbands and wives. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 35, 179–91.
2Hatfield, E. (1983). Equity theory and research: An overview. In H. H. Blumberg, A. P. Hare, V. Kent, & M. Davies (Eds.), Small groups and social interaction (Vol. 2., pp. 401-412). Chichester, England: Wiley.
3Lively, K. J., Steelman, L. C., & Powell, B. (2010). Equity, emotion, and household labor. Social Psychology Quarterly, 73, 358-379.
4Blood, R. O., & Wolfe, D. M. (1960). Husbands and wives: The dynamics of married living. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.
5Costa, D. L., & Kahn, M. E. (2000). Power couples: Changes in the locational choice of the college educated, 1940-1990. Recent Developments in Urban and Regional Economics, 182, 263-291.
6Raven, B. (2008). The bases of power and the power/interaction model of interpersonal influence. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (ASAP), 8(1), 1-22.
Dr. Jennifer Harman – Adventures in Dating… | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman’s research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.