4 Truths About Power in Relationships (Including Yours)

And 5 questions to help you start to figure it out.

Posted Feb 29, 2016

Pressmaster/Shutterstock
Source: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

We don’t talk much about relationship power but rarely do couples share it evenly. Still, a healthy power balance likely matters for relationship well-being.

What do the power dynamics look like in your relationship?

A recent paper investigates relationship power using Simpson et al.'s (2015) dyadic power-social influence model (Farrell, Simpson, & Rothman, 2015). This model focuses on a person’s ability to influence another, while also resisting the other influencing him or herself.

Think about where power comes from: It's not just one person. Relational power reflects the “me” and the “you” that make a couple, but also the “us” that emerges from a relationship; people’s personalities, as well as the interdependent experience of being in a specific relationship, help define what power looks like in any given relationship.

Farrell and colleagues (2015) highlight four key points to consider when thinking about relationship power:

  1. Power differs across relationship domains.

    Does your boyfriend make most decisions about weekend plans while you’re in charge of financial decisions? Dividing up power in different domains is typical in relationships.

    Established couples need to make decisions in numerous aspects of their lives together, and each of these domains has its own power structure. After surveying about 100 individuals, a few decision domains emerged as important for most couples. These included: How couples spend time together; how they demonstrate affection; how much time they spend together; managing interactions with family and friends; making future plans about careers or moving; religion or value decisions; finances; and household tasks. (For couples with children, childrearing was another important decision domain.)
     
  2. Power includes the decision process.

    How do you make decisions in your relationship? Who writes the pros/cons lists? The process of researching or presenting options may have power differentials, outside of the actual final outcome of any one decision.
     
  3. Power reflects interdependence.

    It’s not enough to focus on one person’s dispositional tendency towards influencing or being deferential. A complete understanding of power in a relationship requires a study of each person’s power within the context of the other person’s power. How you view your own power and your partner’s power may affect your partner’s perceptions of power.
     
  4. Resisting influence is a type of power.

    We tend to think of power as persuasion, but that’s not the only type of power. The ability to resist your partner’s ideas, counter their suggestions, or veto their decisions is also an important type of relationship power. 

Farrell and colleagues developed two different ways to evaluate relationship power. The first is domain-specific: Individuals identify specific decision-making domains before answering questions. The second is more general. This version, the general Relationship Power Inventory (RPI), is a 20-question survey about relationship power.

Here is a sample of questions from Farrell and colleagues’ (2015) general RPI. What kind of power dynamics are in play in your relationship? Your responses should be on a 1 (never) to 7 (always) scale.

  1. I have more say than my partner does when we make decisions.
  2. My partner has more control over decision making than I do.
  3. I lay out the options more than my partner does when we discuss decisions.
  4. I tend to bring up issues in our relationship more than my partner.
  5. My partner is more likely to get his/her way than me when we disagree about issues.

You can find the Relationship Power Inventory here. These questions are great prompts for thinking about power in your own relationship. They target important aspects of power—and responses to the complete measure did a good job predicting the power dynamics in actual couples' decision-making, as judged by observers when researchers invited couples into the lab (Farrell et al., 2015).

Power is a fascinating dynamic in relationships, well worth some reflection. It likely plays a role in conflict, persuasion, trust, and information sharing. As you think about your own relationship’s power, keep in mind that, for healthy relationships, power isn’t a stable entity: It changes over time, across and within domains. What your power structure looks like today may be very different from how it will look in years to come, as you tackle new challenges and adapt to new circumstances.

References

Farrell, A. K., Simpson, J. A., & Rothman, A. J. (2015). The relationship power inventory: Development and validation. Personal Relationships, 22(3), 387-413.