Sources of Power in Relationships

There are many sources of power in relationships, but a few stand out:

1. Higher education, income, and occupational status, especially in marriage relationships when men make more money. Both partners tend to feel that a man should have more say since he contributes greater resources to the family.

When wives are economically dependent and fear they can’t support themselves, husbands can become especially powerful. Some abusive men purposely get their wives pregnant (by destroying their birth control) to increase their wives’ dependency – and their control over their partners.

Women are less likely to become more powerful when they make more money because they generally don’t want to diminish their partners.

 2. Relationship options. Perhaps a woman is economically dependent, but she is beautiful and she knows it. She also knows that if she leaves the relationship, she can quickly find someone else. This gives her a lot of clout.

3. Traditional gender roles. People who hold traditional notions about gender are more likely to accept male authority. While our society has achieved greater equality, men still typically have a bit more power in relationships.

Interestingly, young men today more often say they prefer equal partnerships.

4. Strong personalities. Even among the traditional-minded, some women just have stronger personalities. The couple will often deem the man, “head of home” when really, the woman is in charge.

 5. Whoever cares least about the relationship has more power because the partner who cares more is more likely to cave in.  

There are two ways of looking at this. On the one hand it may simply be a sad, but true, fact of life.

Yet there may be some poetic justice. If one person is poorly treated, he or she will be more likely to leave. And this can create an incentive to change. If the relationship moves back into a better balance of happiness, equality can be regained.

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on September 22, 2010, in feminism, gender, men, relationships, reproductive rights, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. “Women are less likely to become more powerful when they make more money because they generally don’t want to diminish their partners.”

    I think there’s great truth in that. We are generally often anxious to not diminish men. We’ve all heard about their sensitive ego, their fear of rejection and need for validation/admiration. Even when it comes to sexual advances, I usually find myself looking for the gentlest, kindest way to rebuff the unwanted ones. To the point of just ignoring them, hoping he would get the hint (even though they tend to actually interpret silence as consent). This typically means that in the end I have to refuse him in a harsher way, and he is upset and confused because he perceives it as mixed messages: first you allow it, then you are suddenly annoyed.

    I think it’s the same way with relationships. We “allow” men to be, or if he cannot be, at least appear to be, the richer/stronger/smarter/etc. of the two of us – we feel a certain obligation to. He becomes used to it and sees it as a given, and if it changes, he feels diminished. Whereas if we wouldn’t start off with the premise that his superiority is a given and a good and proper thing, maybe eventually the men would also not get hung up on it so much?

  2. I prefer to look at the comment “young men today more often say they prefer equal partnerships”. There doesn’t need to be power in a relationship. 50/50 is the only way to go. If you have a mutually respectful and loving relationship, there is no room for one feeling more powerful over the other. Each person brings something to the table. If the husband works and earns most of the money, the wife and mother has an equally important job of raising the kids. My husband has always earned more money than myself and we share the household tasks. When you work together for a common goal, power just doesn’t enter in to it.

  3. When looking upon relationships the fact is nothing is perfect. Most of the time the outside factors either make or break a relationship. Money, religion, ethnicity, and other social constructs that can put stress upon a relationship. Being able to violate that norm is what truly tests the relationship and how much you truly care for someone. If you aren’t able to defeat the odds and fight for your relationship than you probably have no business being in it anyway. For some people who are on the lower end of the totem pole trying to defy these odds can be challenging but if you can successfully than you have broken the norm.

  4. Katherine Alvarez

    I think that higher education, income, and occupational status as well as traditional gender roles definitely apply more to women than men. Traditionally, men have higher education, higher income which then allows them to have a higher status and this allows them to have more power in relationships. I think when women are put in that position they definitely become dependent on their husbands or significant others. Even when women are in these roles, it isn’t the woman of the house it is the man of the house which doesn’t make sense to me really. I definitely think that the traditional gender roles of the man bringing in the income and the woman traditionally a house wife automatically puts men in power and it is a difficult stereotype to break.

  5. These points are true and it depends on the couple, in my relationship myself being female having a job and my boyfriend being one not to have a job, but we hold traditional gender roles. Not saying I am in no control we discuss things and he is usually the one to carry out on the plan or decision. If there is something that needs to be done like he needs to go to the doctor I am the one to schedule the doctor appointment. I do all the cooking and he helps with some cleaning, but will not wash dishes. I also thought the comment 5 whoever cares least about the relationship was funny because sometime when I do not want to go somewhere or do something that my boyfriends wants to do or go he always pulls well if you love me you will say yes and guilt trips me. Not in a bad way but he still uses it, but then i do come back at him with if you love me you would not make me do anything that I do not want to do. I enjoyed reading this and do agree with the comments.

  6. Every time I argue with my boyfriend, and he blows me off, I throw this fact [whoever cares least about the relationship has the most power] at him… though I later realized that telling him this can go both ways… it might make him feel more powerful, or it might make him feel like crap. I think we’ve both come to realize that we balance each other out because we both have different ways of power in our relationship…. which helps when one of us is trying to get our own way.

    But I’ve mostly seen this with my parents. Just like Pamela’s, my dad is always the more passive one who resorts to talking things out, where as my mom definitely comes out more aggressively when they’re arguing. I realized it’s because my mom stresses out when she realizes that my dad feels like he has more power and she’s so dependent on him because he’s the one bringing in the money while my mom is a homemaker. I think that often times, the idea of a “homemaker” is thought of as negative because people think that it’s so easy because all they have to do is stay at home and watch the kids. I’ve seen otherwise, and sometimes though my dad works long hours, watching all that my mom does makes me realize that they actually balance each other out in terms of work…But because in our society money is everything, we feel that without money we can’t survive and that’s why a working husband is so powerful… even more so when he knows it too. If my dad was to leave, he would lose nothing… he has a job etc. but my mom has more at stake because she would essentially have to start all over… and I’m sure she’d be scared of that so she would rather just deal with the inferiority.

  7. I can agree with this article 100%. Particularly, number 4 strikes my interest, because my mother has a strong personality like this and tends to take charge of my family when it comes to disciplining, and organizing family matters. Even though my father is the one working, and supporting our family financially, my mother takes charge of the household, which is not a bad thing at all, it just is what it is. I can also agree with Pamela Robinson’s point as well- my father is also very much passive in the relationship with my mother, however, he balances the relationship out, and also takes charge when family matters of significance occur.

  8. Even such a thing as active vs. passive can be controlling in relationships. My dad was very passive in the relationship with my mom. For years I thought that she was the one in control. But it was that dynamic that gave him the control, plus he made more money and my mom was a traditional woman. She was the one who came “unglued” all the time because he was passive. What is it that they say, “The last one to talk loses”? He would just sit there while she was talking away. Perhaps this is an example of Number 5, I’m not sure. She had much more to lose than he did.

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