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Who Has the Power in Your Relationship?

The obvious answer, if there is one, may depend on the sphere.

Whose name comes immediately to mind? Him? Her? “I do” stated proudly? “We both do” or “It varies with the situation”? This question doesn’t always have a clear answer.

Sometimes who holds the power in a relationship is obvious when it comes to money. The answer would be whichever of you has or earns the most. It could also be determined by which of you can make major household purchases without a consultation.

In previous times the model for heterosexual couples was that she stayed home and ran the household, he went to work and earned all the family’s funds, and he handed her an allowance for household needs and for her own personal ones. This was the standard for how it worked with money. Even in those couples where he handed her his whole paycheck to allot for the family, he was still the sole wage earner and how much he earned placed the family socially as well as financially.

Speaking of social placement, it is often the one who comes from a higher status family that holds the power. This might be true if both partners value breeding and social status even if it does not affect the living standard of the couple.

The truth is that even in the most egalitarian arrangements where both earn money and each has an equal say-so in family decisions there may be a serious power imbalance in the bedroom. She or he who wants sex more or differently is at the mercy of the partner who doesn’t.

A difference in sexual desire is one of the most frequent issues that brings couples into a marriage counselor’s office. Certainly, that’s true in mine. A couple may have a preference for different TV programs, for different hobbies, for different vacation plans, and even for different meal times. All these can be peacefully accommodated, but for a monogamous couple who only have sex with each other, the one who doesn’t want sex as much or won’t do things the way the other partner prefers — that person holds the power.

Sometimes the difference in desire for sex or intimacy is just naturally occurring. Sometimes this imbalance is an intentional power grab by the one who feels one down in other areas of the relationship. (“You never seem to hear me but you will certainly take notice if I don’t put out!”) In any case, the person who wants more is at the mercy of the person who wants less in a monogamous coupling. The one with the higher libido is likely to feel resentful that s/he is sexually frustrated while the other partner may feel resentful at being pestered and put upon for sex.

There’s nothing that can be done about financial or family status differences that are equated with power in some couples. Honestly, there’s nothing to be done with naturally occurring desire disparities either. None of these things can be changed but they can be and are dealt with in a manner that the couple or the individuals in it are not adversely affected by the power imbalance, often through couples’ counseling. Sometimes each person will define his or her own sphere of power within the relationship so that, in the whole, things balance out.

So, I ask again: Who holds the power in your relationship? Is this something you want to change? Can it be changed?