Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera Ph.D.

So Happy Together

Are You in a Power Struggle?

Unequal marriages are not satisfying to either partner.

Posted Dec 19, 2018

Power and control are issues in all relationships. Sometimes it comes through force of personality and sometimes through assets. One person either has certain characteristics that make them more forceful or more subservient, or one brings something to the relationship that the other needs.

In marriage, some partners are equal, and in others, one partner accepts a more subservient role and allows the other to be in charge. However, for some couples, the struggle for power is not settled because one partner refuses to be dominated, or both want to be the boss. These relationships are often contentious, with continuous disagreements and skirmishes as each partner struggles to gain either the upper hand or equality.

Equality is important for a healthy marriage. Couples have stronger emotional bonds and feel like true companions. There’s mutual respect, so they have more effective ways of communicating, and are more open and supportive of each other.

A relationship that’s one-sided isn't satisfying. Certainly not for the submissive partner, who may feel they have no control over their marriage, and sometimes over our own lives. Those playing that role are likely to lose interest in their relationship because their needs are regarded as secondary, and so often unmet. Furthermore, as no one likes being treated like a second-class citizen, the submissive partner may feel angry and resentful, and certainly not emotionally connected.

Truthfully, even the dominating partner is not happy in such a relationship. Domination often leads to discomfort. Most people who hold more power than they should usually have a hunch they’re taking advantage. The submissive partner might be unwilling to voice opinions or present new ideas, or express their true thoughts and feelings, and that can make the relationship boring, even frustrating, for the dominating partner. Unfortunately, a dominating partner may not realize that what they lose in the quality of their relationship is not made up for by the benefits of being in charge.

Dealing with power issues in marriage isn't easy. As part of the problem, some couples might not be aware that a power struggle exists. Partners who aren't getting along might believe they’re just not suited for each other when in reality they’re actually battling for position. For example, couples who fight about money might think the issue is about how it’s spent, but in fact they’re fighting about the right of each partner to spend it.

But even if a dominating partner knows the relationship is unfair, they still have to be willing to do something about. The problem here is that they strive to be in control, and they can feel entitled to that role. Some might believe that the success of their relationship depends on their ability to make all the decisions. They might believe they can best manage their partner's lives for them, and they’re doing it because that’s what is best for them.

However, the person who is being controlled is not likely to see it that way — they are likely to find their relationship aggravating and their feelings toward their partner less than loving. Forcing someone to behave or think in a particular way is a very good way to alienate them.

Furthermore, what a dominating partner often doesn't realize is that it's not in their best interests to take on that job. When we try to control another person, we’re deciding we know the best way for that person to live. However, a way of thinking or acting that’s best for us might not be best for another person. Secondly, while we may believe we have our partner’s best interests at heart, that’s not usually the case. Very often we’re working from our own agenda, and we want our partner to live and act in a certain way because it fills our own needs, not theirs. Finally, if you try to get someone to act a certain way, you become responsible for what happens to them and how they feel as a result. The responsibility for outcomes suffered by your partner is one you should be happy to avoid, because when things go badly, you get and deserve all the blame.

If you’re in a continuous power struggle and don’t like it, you can try to discuss the issue with your partner. However, be aware that such conversations are likely to be confrontational, since a domineering person likes the position they hold, and will often resort to hostile tactics to stay right where they are. Be patient, stay calm, and stick to your guns. Point out that you expect to be treated as an equal and your partner cannot always have their way or tell you what to do. Point out how being treated as an inferior makes you feel more resentful than loving, and that means you’re less interested in doing things that make them happy.

Talking about is one approach. Another, and a more important one — don't allow yourself to be forced into doing something you don’t want to do. If you feel that's about to happen, calmly explain that you will do this instead of that, and don’t allow your partner to draw you into an argument about it. To learn how to be effective in this regard, you might want to consider assertiveness training, on which there are a number of excellent books, or you may want to seek help from a marriage professional.

Regardless of how you approach the problem, it’s important for your personal well-being and the goodness of your marriage that you do something. While submitting to your partner’s demands is less stressful in the short-term, in the long-term you’ll be much happier if you can find ways to make your relationship more balanced.

If you occupy a submissive role in your marriage and you’re comfortable with that, well, frankly you shouldn't be. A willingness to be submissive can signal other problems, such as a lack of confidence and self-esteem, attachment anxiety, or a fear of abandonment. If you feel your emotional state or personal traits are at the core of your submissiveness, these are issues you need to deal with first and foremost — ultimately you will be much happier for the effort.