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Who Really Runs Your Relationship?

Who makes the rules vs. who follows them.

Key points

  • Power dynamics in relationships underlie who makes the rules and who follows them.
  • Research on power dynamics in workplace settings suggests that rules in relationships can fluctuate from day to day.
  • Finding ways to agree on your own relationship rules may be as important as are the rules themselves.

In relationships, there is an inevitable balance of power that characterizes the person who leads and the person who follows. You and your partner can’t both be the leader when it comes to making decisions, even though those decisions typically are ones that you both agree upon.

The same principle applies to relationship rules. Those guidelines for behavior that you both follow were decided upon at some point, and now you both try your best to adhere to them. It’s in the carrying out of those rules that relationship dynamics really play out.

Taking a potentially silly example, consider the “rule” you might have that when one of you decides to sleep late, the other remains as quiet as possible. Since your partner tends to sleep in more, the rule applies mostly to you. In order to adhere to the rule, you tiptoe around as you get dressed, never turn on the light, and always close the bedroom door when you leave. All your partner is doing is lying there while you do everything you can to abide by the rule. Both of you have agreed on this rule, but it’s you who has to follow it. For the moment, the power is in your partner’s hands.

Consider another example in which the power dynamics are less clearly defined. You’re the one who does the online ordering for various household supplies, mainly because your partner just isn’t very good at this. You’re abiding by your partner’s rule, but you are the one who runs the show. If you disagree with your partner’s desire to have a certain brand of toothpaste, you can just say that the manufacturer doesn’t make it anymore or that it’s out of stock. Your partner made the rule, you do all the work, but you also control the outcome.

The latest insight into these types of power dynamics comes from research carried out in an organizational setting, but that still has a bearing on power as a component of any relationship. According to Tyler Sabey and colleagues from Texas A&M University (2021), power can be defined as “mental representations of asymmetric control or influence overvalued resources in relation to others” (p. 1357). According to this definition, you and your partner have ideas about who controls the “valued resources” such as money, use of time, childcare, living conditions, and- yes- even how to respect each other’s need for sleep.

The Day-to-Day Shifts in Power Dynamics

Sabey and colleagues propose that this “mental representation” doesn’t remain static but varies from situation to situation, even in a work setting. People in power in one situation, such as running a meeting, aren’t in power in another, such as sitting in a supervisor’s office to receive instructions for an upcoming report. To find out who runs your relationship, then, it’s necessary to delve into these power dynamics as they play out on a day-to-day basis. Once you do, you can come up with your own “formula” that would allow you to decide who is the one really in control of your relationship.

The Texas A&M authors proposed that it’s important to investigate “power fluctuation, which represents the extent to which individuals’ power relative to others is inconsistent." As these changes happen, the parties involved go through “micro role transitions” in going from the one in charge to the one being told what to do. The results of these shifting sands in a relationship can have significant consequences, Sabey et al. noted, in terms of an individual’s emotional state, contributing either to better team performance or emotional exhaustion and frustration.

To study the daily fluctuations in power in a work setting, the Texas A&M team recruited online samples of employees who completed daily surveys over two weeks with instructions to complete the surveys three times a day. Coworkers of those employees also completed surveys, but once a day. The incentive for participation consisted of monetary compensation with a maximum of $55 for employees and $20 for coworkers. The final sample consisted of 103 employee-coworker dyads.

Turning now to the measures, the employees rated themselves on a set of 8 statements with instructions to do so as they “felt right then.” Two sample statements reflecting perceptions of power are: “I can get people to do what I want” and “I think I have a great deal of power.” The measure of variability of these ratings across times and days became the index of power fluctuation. Employees also rated how frustrated, angry, unhappy, and annoyed they were and whether they felt emotionally exhausted. Coworkers, for their part, rated how much the employee seemed to be able to take other people’s perspectives during the day, as well as how much they contributed to team performance.

The reason the investigators included measures of perspective-taking can be traced to the “social distance” theory of power, which proposes that “power fluctuation can produce benefits” such as perspective-taking, but “those outcomes may come at a cost” (p. 1358). Thinking now about your relationship’s daily power variations, there may be times that you perceive your partner to be in control, but you don’t mind it; at other times, though, the perception that you are powerless can leave you feeling that you’re not being treated with respect.

Translating the Texas A&M researcher’s measures to your own home life, you could go through the mental exercise of rating how powerful you feel at varying times of day, being very specific about the situations that make you feel more or less in control. Turning to that online shopping example, you’re doing the work of the couple, and therefore being “bossed around” by your partner’s requests. However, you can make the ultimate choices, placing yourself squarely back into the driver’s seat. For all of this to facilitate your relationship’s harmony, though, it’s important to understand your partner’s needs and wants, such as their really preferring one type of toothpaste over another.

How Do Shifting Power Relationships Affect Your Relationship?

When you take stock of the times when you’re in power vs. the times that you’re not, at least according to your perception, you might be surprised at the score. You may also be surprised to learn that the power dynamics don’t actually stay the same from one situation to another. What you thought would be a score that showed your partner was in charge may be highly variable. You rule some aspects of your relationship, and your partner rules others, and even within domains, you and your partner may trade places. When you do, each of you can gain insight into your partner’s priorities and preferences.

The findings of the Savey et al. study revealed another potentially surprising outcome of those mini power variations. There were indeed some benefits of seeing things from another person’s perspective and a greater sense of emotional exhaustion when people have to adjust to constantly changing patterns in which they must confront their feelings of loss of control.

As you calculate your own power fluctuations with your partner, it’s essential to consider the average (high to low) of your sense of control and the extent to which the person in charge varies across the days. Less variation is probably better than more, based on the Texas A&M findings, so a goal of this exercise could be to find ways to maintain more of a steady state.

Given that intimate relationships operate under a different premise than organizational ones, that steady-state might best allow you and your partner to agree on who rules which situations and when. Trading expectations for control with your partner can allow you to figure out in which situations it makes sense for one or the other to carry more weight than the other in decision-making, all the while respecting each other’s wishes.

To sum up, gaining insight into the power dynamics in your relationship can help you come to a new realization with your partner that rules are negotiated rather than assigned. When both of you can participate in these decisions as equals, the answer to the question of “who” rules may eventually become “both.”

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Sabey, T. B., Rodell, J. B., & Matta, F. K. (2021). To and fro: The costs and benefits of power fluctuation throughout the day. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(9), 1357-1373. doi:10.1037/apl0000828