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When One Partner Has Too Much Power

Feeling powerless drives self-silencing, over-apologizing, and worse.

Key points

  • Healthy relationships involve equality and mutual respect.
  • When one partner has disproportionate power, their goals and desires may be prioritized over their partner's.
  • Being in a powerless role can lead to self-silencing, over-apology, objectification, and negative emotions.
Liza Summer/Pexels
Source: Liza Summer/Pexels

A romantic relationship shouldn’t be a power struggle. While it may not be realistic to feel perfectly equal all the time, people in healthy relationships at least strive for this goal. Rather than trying to maximize their own power at their partner’s expense, they want one another to feel empowered to make decisions.

Not all relationships follow this pattern, though. Sometimes the balance of power is heavily lopsided, with one person’s needs and goals taking priority. The powerful partner may benefit from this dynamic, but the powerless partner is more likely to suffer.

Research has identified a range of negative experiences associated with being in a lower-power role, five of which are described here. If you relate to these, it could be a sign that there is an imbalance in your relationship worth examining.

1. You don’t feel like you can be yourself with them.

Powerful people may feel more free to express themselves, whereas those who lack power may feel pressure to tailor their behavior to the needs of others.

One study found that romantic partners with less power (agreeing with statements like, “Even if I voice them, my views have little sway”) were more likely to hide negative thoughts and feelings during daily interactions with their partners, whereas their partners were unlikely to feel this constraint.

Another study found that even just thinking about a time when someone else had control or influence over them made people feel that it was harder to be themselves and share their true feelings.

2. You’re always the one apologizing.

Power may reduce people’s motivation to apologize for their transgressions. In a series of studies, higher-power people were more likely to make “non-apologies,” for example downplaying the offense, making excuses, and blaming the other person.

Those in low-power positions were more likely to make genuine apologies involving taking responsibility, expressing remorse, and making amends—perhaps even when they were not the ones at fault.

Consistent with this pattern, research suggests that power may in some cases make people less likely to feel compassion for others’ suffering.

3. They can tease you, but you can’t tease them.

A third red flag is asymmetrical teasing. Teasing can be playful and harmless, but it can also be used to humiliate or belittle. Studies have found that people with higher power tend to tease others more frequently and in more direct and hostile ways.

Those with lower power, by contrast, are less likely to tease in the first place, and when they do, it’s more likely to be delivered in a kind and polite way, presumably because they fear a negative reaction from the higher power person.

4. They treat you like an object.

Research suggests that powerful people are more likely to objectify others, evaluating them in terms of their usefulness (that is, how they serve the powerful person’s interests), and giving less consideration to the other person’s humanity.

One set of experiments found that this objectification can be literal: when heterosexual participants were in positions of power, they were more likely to perceive images of opposite-sex people using cognitive processes similar to those used when perceiving physical objects, as if they were viewing a collection of parts rather than a person.

Other research has found that the dehumanizing effect of associating people with objects can increase the risk of sexual exploitation.

5. You don’t feel good when you’re around them.

Power creates what researchers have called a reward-rich environment, one where people feel free to pursue their goals and feel confident that good things will come to them.

Low power can instead create a threat-rich environment, where people have to stay vigilant to avoid negative outcomes or punishment and feel limited in what they can comfortably do or say.

Put simply, having power tends to feel good while lacking power does not. In one study, when dating couples discussed topics related to their relationship, partners with less power felt more negative emotions, including shame, embarrassment, and discomfort, whereas their higher power partners had more positive emotions, such as pride, happiness, and amusement.

Is There a Way Out?

Power imbalances can create a vicious cycle where the negative consequences of the imbalance only serve to reinforce it: the more self-conscious and inhibited the lower power person feels, the harder it may be to stand up for themselves, and the more easily the powerful person is able to get their way in the future.

Sometimes an imbalance can be rectified, especially if your partner is open to working on it, but other times ending the relationship may be the best course of action. This is especially true if there are signs of abuse. Research has found that a power imbalance is a risk factor for the development of intimate partner violence, making it important to identify and address this dynamic early on.

Even if a power-imbalanced relationship does not involve abuse, it may still cause harm. Getting support from loved ones and mental health professionals can be helpful for regaining a sense of power and re-evaluating the relationship.

For example, if your focus has been on what your partner wants and whether you’re doing a good enough job giving it to them, try turning the tables, and ask yourself what you want in a partner and a relationship. Does your partner have qualities that you value? Do you feel happy and fulfilled spending time with them?

These may seem like obvious questions, but when all your energy is going towards trying to please another person, you may forget to ask them. While it’s laudable to value your partner’s happiness, you deserve someone who will do the same for you.

Facebook image: New Africa/Shutterstock


If you’re concerned about potential abuse, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached 24/7 at 800-799-7233.

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