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This Dynamic Between A Couple Can Cause Significant Strain On Their Relationship

July 30, 2020

Who has the power in your relationship? 

The way each member of a couple answers that question has a significant impact on how happy the relationship is, according to recent research. A study published in the 1Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy1 found more power-balanced couples tend to have higher-quality relationships, though the reasons might be different for men and women.

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Equality makes for happy couples.

Czech researchers collected data on 192 heterosexual couples from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds who had been surveyed in previous studies throughout 2008 and 2018. The couples were all in long-term relationships, together for at least eight months and living together for at least five.

The members of these couples were individually asked about who they thought had the most power in the relationship, including who has more say between the two of them, who controls decision-making, who usually has more say in whether they have sex, and who has more dominant personality traits.

The findings showed couples that shared power equally tended to be more satisfied with their relationships.

How men and women respond to a power imbalance.

Among the more unequal relationships, women had more power in 54% of them.

Interestingly, power inequality tended to more strongly affect men's relationship satisfaction than women's. When men perceived themselves as having either less power or more power than their partner, men's happiness with the relationship tended to decrease. They also tended to be less happy when their partner felt she had less power.

How happy women were with the relationship had more to do with the negative ways power imbalances played out in the relationship. Specifically, women were less happy with their relationships when they were dealing with a partner with a very dominant personality or a partner who tended to exert a lot of control over her. The mere perception of a power imbalance wasn't what affected relationship satisfaction for women; it was the negative characteristics that came with that imbalance.

"Male power has been associated with more coercive behavior than female power," the researchers write in the paper on their findings. "Men are more likely than women to use more direct, self-enhancing, and aggressive influence tactics. Women, on the other hand, are more likely than men to use communal and other-oriented actions and indirect strategies."

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What happens when one person has all the power.

Past research tells us why equal power matters: More unequal relationships tend to foster more negative behaviors and poor communication, such as coercion, aggression, and violence.

Even in relationships without any violence at all, it can simply be harder to be open about how you feel and what you need when you know your partner will be able to do whatever they want anyway. But when couples are on an even playing field, there tends to be more mutual respect, more open and honest communication, and more attention to decision-making that feels good for both parties.

In unbalanced relationships, even the person with more power tends to be less happy—and this was particularly true for men in this study. The researchers hypothesize that this might have to do with having a "higher mate value," which is essentially science-speak for "out of your league." Essentially, someone who tends to have a lot of options for people to date will have more power in a relationship with someone who has fewer options. The person with the "higher mate value" is less dependent on the relationship because they can easily find another partner, which gives them more power in the relationship. The person with the "lower mate value" is more dependent on the relationship—but also happier with it, because they're dating someone who's a great catch. Meanwhile, their partner might be less enthused if they know there are better alternatives outside the relationship. 

Yes, this all feels pretty icky. But it's one contributor to power dynamics and a potential reason power-imbalanced relationships may tend to be less satisfying.

The bottom line. 

Relationships where one person has more power than the other tend to be less satisfying, for a multitude of reasons. Egalitarianism, on the other hand, feels great for both parties. Other research similarly finds that couples who are equally involved in money management and who split child care equally tend to be happier. So the principle of equality checks out in more ways than one.

If things tend to be a little uneven in your own relationship, it's worth opening a conversation with your partner about what it would look like to even the playing field a bit more. That might not always be easy, especially for the person who feels like they have less power, so don't be afraid to reach out to a relationship professional who can help you navigate these dynamics and get your relationship to a place that feels good for both of you.

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Kelly Gonsalves
Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.

You can stay in the loop about her latest programs, gatherings, and other projects through her newsletter: kellygonsalves.com/newsletter