Power and Control in Relationships – Part 1

By Louis H. Primavera, Ph.D. and Rob Pascale, Ph.D.

August 08, 2016

Power and control can be an issue in all kinds of relationships. There are some in which the two parties consider themselves to be equals and treat each other as such. In many, however, one person might have the upper hand. The one who is higher in the pecking order very often has the ability to influence and manipulate the other person. When we dominate a relationship, decisions usually go in our favor, we often dictate what to do or even talk about, and our emotional state can influence the emotional state of the other person. 

Establishing a hierarchy of power sometimes occurs because of the dynamics of the relationship and the type of people involved. Sometimes it’s because of force of personality and sometimes because of assets. One person either has certain personal characteristics that make them more forceful or more subservient, or one brings something to the relationship that the other person needs. While at times they may find their authority challenged, there is still a tendency for the dominating person to hold hegemony over the other.

Who’s Really in Charge?

Power struggles can also be an issue in any relationship. Some partners might share power equally, and in others one partner accepts a more subservient role and allows the other to be in control. However, in some relationships, the struggle for control is undecided because one partner refuses to submit and be dominated by the other. In these relationships, the battle is ongoing and the relationship is often contentious, with continuous disagreements and skirmishes as each partner struggles to gain either the upper hand or equality. Power issues in relationships can be subtle; sometimes partners aren’t even aware that the real battle is for dominance, not about the specific issue they’re arguing about at the time.

Does Money Dictate Power?

Historically, power was pretty well established in relationships and especially in marriage. Men were usually in power at least that’s how it appeared and what men believed. Men’s power derived from their social status and money. Couples accepted their gender roles that men were dominant and women submissive, and men were usually the sole income earners in the household. Money can be a source of power because it reflects the resources that partners bring to the relationship. Again we are referring to the notion of social exchanges, in which couples look for balance between what they’re giving and receiving to make sure they’re benefiting as much from the relationship as their partner.

When one partner brings more resources, they have more bargaining power and hence more influence. Because they held the purse strings, they called the shots and were able to control the lives of the people around them. With few opportunities available, women had no choice but to submit to their husbands. As one positive, relationships were easier because couples had fewer reasons to argue, and because they both, well, more accurately, women, knew their place.

Modern Day Viewpoints

That was then, but the world is much different now. Today individuals are more concerned with their personal well-being. They place greater value on having their own needs met, and to some extent their self-interests have overridden their sense of obligation and commitment to the institution. However, far more impactful on the relationships between men and women have been social changes. The women’s movement has been slowly whittling away at old gender definitions and has moved the issue of equality to the forefront.

One important feature of this movement is the entry of women en masse into the workforce. Women pursuing careers has affected the amount of housework expected of each partner. Taking on careers and earning money has also changed how women view themselves. Jobs have provided them with an outside source of self-esteem and recognition, and have allowed them to develop a sense of independence and self-reliance. Such ego-gratifying benefits have also changed their priorities. A woman’s sense of self-worth and well-being used to be driven by the quality of their home life, but it’s now driven more by their jobs. While most women still define themselves as family members first and career professional second, they are starting to think more like men, especially if they have high paying or high prestige positions. Men primarily look at their jobs as the way of supporting themselves and their families. Women can hold jobs for a couple of reasons. Some do so for the same reasons as men, that is, to earn money, support themselves, have a career, and feel productive.