The Roots of Power Struggle in Relationships

Create relationship balance by recognizing your own power

Posted Jun 11, 2013

Is your relationship a tug of war? Image: Flickr/Scott1723

Margaret Thatcher said, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” Often, I see this in relationships – it’s those who feel powerless who in turn act in a demanding, overwhelming, power-driven way to compensate for their perceived powerlessness. As a result, they underestimate their ability to affect others and behave in extreme ways that are aggressive or disproportionately intense. This has far more negative impact on their partners and their relationships than they had ever intended.

The struggle usually starts in childhood. In a classic article for the journal Child Development, Martin Hoffman showed that powerful parents can create feelings of powerlessness in their children. Children can also feel powerless when they are not understood, supported, or protected by the adults in their lives, resulting in a chaotic environment. (Of course, this experience is different than the confident parent who is loving, but stern and consistent, which fosters a safer more predictable environment for children.) Hoffman defines power as “...the potential for compelling unmotivated behavior in another person.” He extends this definition to encompass emotion — from childhood through adulthood, your sense of power is partly shaped by recognizing that you can alter the mood of those around you, by understanding that you have the ability to determine outcomes, both physical and emotional.

Here's the thing: by acknowledging, understanding and respecting the power you’ve grown into, you will be able to more clearly recognize the extent to which you impact your relationship  – otherwise, you may overcompensate for your childhood powerlessness with intense, heightened, exaggerated, or at times punitive actions toward your partner. You may create unrealistic expectations and irrational demands on the relationship. To prove his or her power, this tyrannical adult may overpower the relationship's emotional energy.

Now, imagine your relationship as a see-saw. If both partners understand their power (or are empowered), the see-saw stays relatively level and balanced. But if one person in the relationship has brought in a feeling of powerlessness, he or she may try to  compensate by baring down on the see-saw, shifting his or her weight, and perpetually uprooting, destablilizing, ungrounding his or her partner on the other side.

At best, the partner will be perplexed but willing to go along with these demonstrations of power. Just know that the longer you go without recognizing you’re a force and continuing to be an emotional dictator, the more likely your partner will be to retreat. Ultimately, this manifestation of your attempt to feel powerful will be to drive your partner away. 

Try to acknowledge that by choosing to be in a relationship with you, your partner has demonstrated that you have meaning. Because you have meaning to your partner, you affect your partner’s emotions for better and worse. As an adult you have the ability to alter a mood and perpetuate the tenor of the household. The attitude, outlook and sensibilities are influenced and impacted by you.

The more you can work toward acknowledging and accepting your power, the more it will calm and center you in the relationship. This more accurate appraisal of your own power can help you to use it productively. Acknowledging your power as an adult can help you balance your relationship. Like Thatcher’s quote, if you truly appreciate your own power, you don’t need to demonstrate it.


I would love to know about your experience of power in relationships! Please comment here or get in touch via the social media links below.

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