An Intimate Partner Who Dominates Never Initiates Change

It's the other partner who holds the key.

Posted Jan 29, 2019

Source: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Living with an intimate partner who dominates the relationship and blocks attempts to shift this dynamic can engender in the other partner a feeling of powerlessness. The good news is that although a formidable obstacle, it’s workable. When we recognize that feeling powerless in a relationship is part of an illusion orchestrated by the dominant partner, change becomes possible and within reach.   

If you’re with a partner who believes they’re always right and puts themselves in charge, then the relationship is unbalanced, with one partner having more power and control. We know from Gottman’s research that one partner overpowering another is an imbalance that is destined to fail an intimate relationship. (Gottman, 2000)  

We are living through an exciting time of social movements that impact our culture and gender relations. It’s timely to draw on this inspiration to create a personal movement of change in a dominating relationship that shifts to a healthy partnership.

Recognizing the Mission Starts With Healing

When you live with a partner who assumes power over you, it’s well-documented that such a relationship is harmful to your mental health in many ways that may or may not be obvious to you. One sign is powerlessness — a lack of capacity to act in your own best interest. Feeling powerless is not a strong standing from which to launch change. First paying attention to what within you needs to heal makes way for growth and emotional strength. 

The healing process requires women with dominating partners to commit to creating a healthier scenario for their life, their children, and possibly their partner. 

For women to examine their experience, it takes courage to look honestly and deeply at their partner. They must identify specific behaviors that coerced them to go along in the first place. Often, women are amazed at the similarities they experience with other women in this situation. For example, their partner’s behaviors that isolate them from family and friends are not unique to them. Neither is recognizing how they keep trying to fix the problems they are blamed for, yet never seeming to get it right. It’s particularly eye-opening when they see the depth of harm they endured from their partner’s need to dominate, which has diminished their self-esteem, self-identity, and agency over their life.

In time, as they move through their recovery, they become clear about their true relationship. They feel grounded and move away from self-blame to trusting their own judgment. With growing confidence, they position themselves to address their partner’s behavior. 

Taking a Stand: What Do You Want From Your Relationship?  

And here is why recovery first is essential — For change to happen, it comes down to the one who feels under siege to take a stand. If you’re the one who wants your relationship to change, it needs to start with you. This can feel unfair, but the “I’m right and in charge” partner has little incentive to do things differently. Standing for what you want is not easily done, nor does it always feel safe to do, but such conviction is necessary to have more control over your life and fulfillment of what’s important to you. 

Instead of looking at "what to watch out for," focus on "what to look for" to have a relationship that benefits both partners. We know from research that the following three points are central to a successful relationship:

  • When a couple has shared or equal power in a relationship, they are in the best position to succeed. They feel safe to openly state their thoughts, desires, and together make decisions that impact their relationship and family ( Frisco & Williams, 2003).
  • Taking responsibility for ourselves — what we say and what we do — is essential. Having the courage to own up to being wrong and to apologize if warranted are strengths that contribute to a successful partnership.
  • Each partner having the ability to influence and be influenced by the other is basic to a healthy relationship. When this occurs, both partners have the experience of being heard and recognized. With mutual influence, communication has an openness that allows for the sharing of feelings, needs, and concerns. A couple has intimacy that satisfies them both (Steil, 1997).

Who we live with matters. They are the people who make the biggest impression on the quality of our lives, as we do with them. Decide what is most important in your relationship. Be the agent of change, and once you’re ready, take on the task and see what’s possible with your partner.

Find a therapist in your area with Psychology Today's Therapist Directory.



Frisco, M. and K. Williams. 2003. “Perceived Household Equity, Marital Happiness, and Divorce in Dual-Earner Households.” Journal of Family Issues 24: 51–73 

Gottman, J. M. and N. Silver. 1999. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Harmony. 

Steil, J. 1997. Marital Equality: Its Relationship to the Well-Being of Husbands and Wives. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE Publications.