Power Imbalance in Marriage

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Power struggles can occur in all relationships, from the parent-child argument to coworker scuffles, but we don’t like to think of it occurring in romantic relationships. However, a marriage can very well involve power struggles, and if one partner consistently exercises greater control, the relationship can develop a long-term power imbalance.

Signs of Power Imbalance

A power imbalance occurs in a marriage when someone disproportionately uses his or her leverage to make decisions, control resources, or control expressions of affection. According to educational publishers McGraw Hill, resources might include income, emotional investments, time, and sexual availability. For example, one spouse might make most of the money and therefore control all financial decisions while the other partner is left powerless, or one partner may have less interest in the success of the relationship and therefore control all of the emotional investment.

Common Centers of Tension

Typical sources of conflict for a marriage with a power imbalance include how to handle money and how to raise children. Many younger couples experience power struggles related to cleaning, says Norah Dunbar of California State University in Long Beach. Couples view the spouse who cleans more as the one with less power, and therefore they will develop conflicts over cleanliness expectations. Flaunting a disregard for punctuality can be another way to demonstrate the power imbalance in a relationship, says Dunbar: the person who can make his or her spouse wait wields more power.

Gender Roles and Power

Though many young couples are actively participating in transforming gender roles to put heterosexual couples on equal footing, Dunbar says that many gender expectations remain to be changed. For example, even college-educated women are reluctant to ask a man out on a date for fear he’ll think she’s "easy." In marriage, there has been some clear progress. A 2007 survey published by the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center revealed that the majority of husbands believed their wives should be able to work, and that employment does not interfere with parenting, while wives expected their husbands to take on an equal share of the housework. In many marriages that suffer from an imbalance of power, traditional gender roles may be a factor.

Resolving Power Imbalance

A marriage in which both spouses don’t have equal shares of power to make decisions, control resources, or express and receive affection is generally not a very happy marriage. Resolving an imbalance of power takes work, especially if the situation has continued for many years without interruption. However, open communication and expression of what each spouse wants, combined with effort from both parties, can make a difference. Consider seeing a mediator, such as a counselor or therapist, to help equalize power in your marriage.