3 Types of Power Dynamics in a Relationship (And How to Find a Balance)
We often hear the term “power dynamic,” but what does it mean in romantic relationships?
When we talk about “power” at its basic level, it refers to one person's control over another person or a relationship. In romantic relationships, power refers to the abilities that both partners have to influence or change their dynamic. When there is an imbalance of power, the dynamic typically evolves into three different negative types: demand-withdrawal, distancer-pursuer, and fear-shame.
As you’ve probably gathered, these three types of power dynamics are considered unhealthy in romantic relationships. These don’t just have the potential to damage your relationship — they can negatively impact your mental health as well.
Here, we’ll take a look at the three different types of negative power dynamics in romantic relationships and how to restore the balance.
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The Struggle for Power in Romantic Relationships
When negative power imbalances exist in a relationship, it can result in three different types of power dynamics:
1. The Demand-Withdrawal Dynamic
This type of power dynamic describes one partner who wants to address change, discussions, and issues in the relationship (known as the “demander”). The other is more withdrawn, typically wanting to avoid problems.
Research has shown that a demand-withdrawal dynamic is a significant predictor of divorce and marital dissatisfaction, as well as spousal depression. The same study also found that women tend to be the “demanders,” while men are more often the “withdrawn” partners.
2. The Distancer-Pursuer Dynamic
In this dynamic, the “pursuer” tries to reach a certain level of intimacy in the relationship, while the “distancer” considers the intimacy “smothering.”
Typically, the pursuer pushes so much that the distancer eventually becomes resistant and defiant. While the demand-withdrawal dynamic is about who has more power, the distancer-pursuer dynamic is more of a struggle over the level of intimacy and connection.
3. The Fear-Shame Dynamic
This power dynamic is considered more “unconscious” than the others. Ultimately, the fear and insecurity of one partner bring out the shame and avoidance in the other, and vice versa.
A common example used by psychologists is what happens in the car: the passenger gets startled at something, and the driver gets angry, thinking it’s an assault on their driving ability. They might make a snarky comment or drive more erratically to make the passenger more afraid. Each partner believes the other is overreacting, insensitive, or immature. This is most commonly seen in heterosexual relationships.
This dynamic isn’t intentional — it’s instinctual. There are different factors that influence feelings of fear and shame, including hormone levels. Females tend to be more fearful (thanks to increased estrogen levels), while males tend to be more aggressive and physically powerful. When males cannot protect females from certain dangers, it can lead them to have feelings of shame.
When a woman experiences anxiety or fear, it can cause an immediate shame reaction in the man who feels like her emotions are a direct attack on his ability to protect her. He may respond by being aggressive, defensive, or by shutting down — which causes more fear in the woman.(A vicious cycle.) Usually, it’s not the woman’s intent to belittle their partner or make them feel inadequate. This dynamic, although unintentional, can lead to a lot of issues in a romantic relationship and increases the risk of divorce.
Signs of an Unhealthy Power Imbalance in Your Relationship
While your relationship may not fall directly into one of the three negative power dynamics, there are still signs to look out for that indicate there is an unhealthy power imbalance. A few common ones include:
You don’t feel comfortable speaking up for yourself
In any healthy, romantic relationship, both partners should feel comfortable expressing thoughts and opinions without fear of judgement, ridicule, or retaliation. If you are too afraid to speak your mind to your partner, it can sign of control and, by extension, an unhealthy power dynamic.
Your partner doesn’t consider your feelings when making big decisions You and your partner should have an equal say in decisions that affect your relationship. If your partner is making all of the decisions without taking into consideration your needs, desires, preferences, or opinions, then they are seizing all of the control in the relationship.
Your partner physically intimidates you
Physical violence, whether threatened or acted upon, is never okay in a relationship. If you’re afraid of your partner’s words or reactions, it signals an incredibly unhealthy power dynamic. Your partner is turning to physical force as a control tactic to ensure their own needs are met. If this is the case, you should find a way to safely end the relationship.
You find yourself apologizing all of the time (even when you don’t need to)
There’s a term known as “gaslighting” in the relationship world, which refers to one partner enacting an unhealthy level of control by making their partner question their actions or even their reality. Every argument or disagreement is your fault — and never theirs.
While it’s important to know when to say sorry in a relationship, it’s also important not to fall into the trap of saying it just to appease your partner. This is a telltale sign that there is a negative imbalance of power in your relationship.
Your partner’s needs are met, but yours are not
Do you feel like your partner is content in your relationship at all times, but you find your own needs aren’t being met? It’s a classic sign of an unhealthy power dynamic at play. Both of your needs should be respected and met in a healthy relationship. If your partner demands that their wants and needs come first, but fails to focus on yours as well, your relationship is not likely to survive.
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There is an absence of mutual respect
Mutual respect in a romantic relationship allows both partners to feel safe, valued,and encouraged. You can say anything around each other and accept each other for who you are, even when you disagree. You show kindness and consideration toward each other and are willing to keep an open mind when it comes to different perspectives.
If your partner constantly has contempt for you or expresses how “better” they are than you, they are exerting power over you. They put you down as a way to boost their own egos, which is absolutely devastating to your relationship.
Are All Power Struggles Unhealthy?
In a word, no — there is such a thing as a positive power struggle.
When two people first start dating, they are more willing to overlook differences. But, as the relationship progresses, the reality hits that they are two different people with unique ideas, opinions, needs, and goals. Naturally, there are going to be times when you argue or disagree, or your ideas clash — also known as an imbalance in the relationship.
The difference between a negative and positive power struggle is that a positive one encourages you to understand and respect each other more, which leads to a deeper connection. Sure, you’ll have struggles, but at the end of the day, you will have reached an understanding of each other’s boundaries while finding ways to compromise. (A true sign of respect in a relationship.)
How to Restore a Healthy Power Balance in Your Relationship
A healthy balance of power in a romantic relationship is known as “shared power.” Both partners take responsibility for the health of the relationship, along with themselves as individuals. They make decisions together and respect each other’s views, ideas, opinions, and values. They can be vulnerable with each other, keep the communication open, and work through issues in a healthy way.
To get to a level of shared power, your relationship needs to include:
- Both partners feeling like their emotional needs are being met
- The ability for both partners to speak their minds
- Decisions that are made jointly with each partner’s needs in mind
- A strong foundation of mutual respect
- A healthy amount of personal space for each partner to grow as an individual
- Responsibilities that shared equally between partners
- The ability for each partner to admit fault and take responsibility for their actions
Sometimes, it’s not easy to reach shared power on your own, which is where a relationship coach or couples therapist should be considered. They can help pinpoint the areas where there is an unhealthy power dynamic and determine ways to restore a sense of balance.
In any healthy relationship, the power structure is bound to shift and change as you face new challenges as a couple. They key is being able to work through them in a way that brings you closer together — not in a way that results in one person holding all of the control or power.
It all boils down to a few key actions for breaking down an unhealthy power struggle: a regular assessment of your relationship dynamic, an implementation of healthy boundaries, and an open line of communication about your needs. All of these can help get you and your partner back on track and restore trust, satisfaction, and overall happiness in your relationship.
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