Why healthy relationships must kick this dynamic to the curb.
Posted January 9, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
In 2017, women were strongly reminded of our gender inequality and the abuse of power. When we live in a culture where genders are not treated equally, women are at risk of being overpowered and mistreated in the workplace and in their intimate relationships. It’s the latter I want to address here.
Cultural Influence on Intimate Relationships
Many years ago, a 60-year-old woman in one of my recovery groups for women with controlling partners asked, “Do I need to be a feminist to be in this group?” I said, “No.” I recall telling her she didn’t need to be one for equal rights. She should expect her husband to treat her respectfully. I added that women who choose a more traditional marriage are certainly not signing up to be abused. I now wonder if it is possible to have one without the other.
We know that physical or psychological abuse is created by a power inequality within an intimate relationship. This discrepancy then leads to an abuse of that power. Research shows when a partner dominates or overpowers another, it is a prime deterrent to a successful relationship (Greenberg & Goldman 2008). In other words, when one intimate partner coerces another to obtain the upper hand, it is a setup for the relationship to fail without exception. Research reveals this about marital relationships:
- Husbands are likely to receive more support from their spouses.
- Husbands fair far better in marriage.
- Women receive less support from their spouses.
- Women experience greater stress from giving support.
- Women experience a higher rate of depression in marriage.
- We know what is not working for women with an intimate partner who chooses to overpower them.
Mutual Influence Creates Successful Relationships
From research, we also learned when a couple has equal or shared power in the relationship, they are in the best position to succeed.
What does an equal relationship look like? One significant study (Steil 1997) showed when both partners see they can influence each other, they have the experience of being heard and recognized. This mutual influence fosters open communication and the greater likelihood of sharing feelings, needs, and vulnerabilities. Better intimacy is created with both partners benefitting and feeling satisfied with the relationship.
However, Gottman recognized in his long-term research on marriage, husbands were far less willing to be influenced and often stonewalled or distanced themselves verbally and emotionally from conversations (Gottman and Silver 2000). He also determined from his studies that 81 percent of men who are not willing to be influenced by their partner are at risk for divorce. That women seem more interested in a balanced relationship between partners might account for the findings that more women instigate divorce (Coontz 2005).
What We Can Do
Western culture’s patriarchal influence on social norms and practices has played an important role in creating these power differences between men and women. To work toward an equal relationship, women and their partners need to pay attention to how they may have adapted to these existing social and gender norms in relationships—even subconsciously.
It’s important to recognize we create social norms by what we do. Changing what we do can, in turn, create new social norms. Equality in relationships, although not fully supported by many social institutions, is still progressing. One study of couples (Haddock & Bowling 2001) believed to be successful at achieving work-family balance identified that having equality and a true partnership were the keys to success.
Couples can forge a relationship of equal partnership when both partners have the desire, make the effort, and fully commit to making the relationship work for both. When this occurs in more and more homes, a positive influence on future generations is underway.
Coontz, S. 2005. Marriage, a history: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Viking.
Gottman, J. M. and N. Silver. 1999. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Harmony.
Greenberg, L. S. and R. N. Goldman. 2008. Emotion-Focused Couples Therapy: The Dynamics of Emotion, Love, and Power. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Haddock, S. A., and S. W. Bowling. 2001. “Therapists’ Approaches to the Normative Challenges of Dual-Earner Couples: Negotiating Outdated Societal Ideologies.” Balancing Family and Work: Special Considerations in Feminist Therapy. New York: Haworth Press.
Steil, J. 1997. Marital Equality: Its Relationship to the Well-Being of Husbands and Wives. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE Publications.