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Who's in Charge in Your Relationship?

When a couple feels an unequal power dynamic, it can affect everything.


by Max Belkin, Ph.D.

The glass ceiling is cracking, and hard-working, ambitious women are getting the recognition and compensation they have long deserved. For many couples, women’s growing economic power has led to greater stability, prosperity, and happiness. However, in some households, a woman’s success at work might inadvertently fuel a male partner’s insecurity and resentment, leading to covert warfare in the bedroom.

Power Relations Within a Marriage

Meet "Mel and Laura," a married couple in their mid-thirties, who turned to couples counseling when sex became problematic. One year after the birth of their second child, Laura returned to work as a corporate attorney. As her intelligence, knowledge, and work ethic propelled her to the top of her firm, Mel’s engineering career and earnings plateaued. At the same time, Mel became more critical of Laura—and less interested in making love to her.

When they first met in college, Mel was drawn to Laura’s intelligence and drive. In fact, he encouraged Laura to go to law school. “I opened Pandora's Box,” Mel jokes, sitting by his wife in my office. “At work, she is a bulldozer,” he continues. "At home, she is a super-Mom. And she makes twice as much as I do. I feel like her peon.”

Laura believes that she should be able to have both a happy family life and a successful career.

After all, men have done it for centuries.

Expectations Arising from Family of Origin

Mel and Laura grew up in traditional, patriarchal families in which the husband was the primary breadwinner and decision maker, with the wife playing second fiddle. Mel and Laura’s understanding of their respective gender roles is still being shaped by that upbringing. For example, Laura has a deep yearning to feel taken care of by her spouse. Similarly, Mel’s self-esteem and masculinity are linked to his ability to provide for his family. However, in their personal version of the modern marriage, it is Laura who wears the pants—and the skirt; that is, both the household chores and the financial decisions end up on her plate.

Mel finds himself in a double-bind of another sort: He feels jealous of, and emasculated by, Laura’s success—but he's too proud to admit it. So, without conscious awareness, his insecurity and resentment has seeped into their erotic life.

Mel feels like Laura is bossing him around when she initiates sex. Since Laura is already "the boss" in most areas of their partnership, responding to her initiation feels to Mel like submission and surrender.

In one of our sessions, I suggest, “Mel, it seems that you might sometimes feel that by refusing Laura’s sexual advances you are asserting your independence, while at the same time knocking Laura down a notch."

"Yeah, kind of,” mumbles Mel.

Laura looks surprised, angry, and hurt.

When the Woman is the Breadwinner

Mel and Laura’s predicament is not unique. Many men are too ashamed to acknowledge their insecurities, or their resentment of their wives’ accomplishments, even to themselves. Yet these men act on these feelings in the bedroom by denying their partners sexual intimacy and romantic validation. This “erotic sabotage” can manifest in different ways—diminished sexual desire, premature ejaculation, and infidelity.

This secret revenge, however, can be quite effective in making women feel insecure, unwanted, or frustrated. And it acts as a cover-up for men’s low self-esteem and vulnerability.

Guys usually get away with it—but it's toxic for a relationship.

Like other couples in similar situations, Mel and Laura are stuck in a vicious cycle of pursuit and withdrawal. The more Laura pursues Mel sexually, the more he withdraws from her. Dissatisfied and frustrated, Laura verbally jabs at Mel’s masculinity, and pours her energy into her work and children.

Both of them feel helpless to break the cycle.

In couple’s therapy, Mel and Laura have realized that neither of them feels emotionally safe or secure in their relationship. Laura has started to share with Mel how hurt and rejected she feels when he refuses to make love. She expresses her wish to feel taken care of—both emotionally and sexually.

For his part, Mel has disclosed to Laura his shame about his failure to provide for his family, and his fear of not being a “good enough” man and husband. He's explored the idea that his sexual rejection of Laura might serve to preserve his autonomy and reestablish an upper hand in their marriage.

In my role as therapist, I've encouraged both Mel and Laura to describe their loneliness and longing for connection, and to voice to their hurt and anger. The goal is to help them become more attuned and responsive to each other's emotional needs

Mel and Laura are becoming more emotionally available to each other. Their relationship, as a result, is more collaborative and compassionate, and less adversarial.

They've even started to make love again.

Max Belkin, Ph.D., is a relational psychoanalyst and psychologist. He is a graduate of NYU and the William Alanson White Institute and serves on the editorial board of Contemporary Psychoanalysis. He teaches graduate courses in couples counseling and individual psychotherapy at NYU. He works with individuals and couples in his private offices in Greenwich Village, New York City, and in Atlantic Highlands, NJ.

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