Sources of Power in Relationships

scales-of-justiceThere 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 than their husbands when they make more money because most don’t like feeling like they are emasculating 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.

This was origninally posted Sept. 22, 2010

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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 January 16, 2017, in relationships and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Even though it is 2019, I still feel that men often hold more power in relationships these days. This is due to factors like they get paid more and traditional gender roles. Speaking from my own experience, I feel like it was the opposite for me. I feel like my mom had more control in the relationship between her and my dad. Even though they both had the same degree of high education, it seemed as though she cared the least about their relationship from a young age. My mom has a strong personality that not everyone gets along with, so that could also play into her controllingness. She is also a control-freak, which stemmed from her upbringing in a strict household. In this case, the traditional gender roles were switched between the man and the woman. In addition, my mom dated a lot more than my dad before they met, so that might have made her think she was better than my dad in that sense.

  2. I agree, it does feel like the breadwinner has more say at the end of the day. For example, if my partner is paying for a vacation then we are not likely to go somewhere they don’t want to go even though I do. Not because they wouldn’t be willing to, but because there’s kind of an unspoken feeling that the ultimate decisions are theirs because they’re paying for it. Even if I was to make more money I wouldn’t want my partner to feel overpowered, and besides I do like the feeling of being taken care of. It’s also true about the relationship options. If one feels their partner is more attractive and could have many options then they are probably more likely to give in to their way to keep them happy with them and hope they don’t pursue other options with the thought they could be happier with someone else.

  3. “1. Higher education, income, and occupational status”

    For a very long time, I believed this is what gave power in a relationship. Growing up, I saw how hard my mother worked and I told myself that I would want someone to take care of me. But also stated in this blog, men DO feel that if they obtain any of these qualities, they have the right to have more power? Absolutely not. If there is one thing I learned from seeing my mom work, it is that every women should have something to call her own. This became a real life lesson for me because my partner is a nurse and his income is twice as much as mine. I am fortunate enough to know that not all men are the same because we make decisions together. Reagardless of my occupational status, as long as I am contributing, then he has no right to have power over me. I feel that women who show dependency through higher education/income LETS the men have control over them and I may sound like a feminist but no women should ever feel they need to be taken care of. If you don’t have anything to call your own, you put yourself in that position and it would be impossible to get yourself out of it. This can completely destroy a persons dignity and this is how emotional and physical abuse derives. People, especially men will always feel the need to be in control.

  4. After reading this article I have to say that I have seen many women that are “in charge” of the relationship. But i’ve also seen situations when the woman is not in charge. I think this “in charge” role is based on culture. There are many relationships where women do have stronger personalities than men do, but it can go both ways. For example I know a family that comes from Mexico and the the “man of the house” is no one, but not because she does what she wants or because the husband doesn’t asks for permission to go out with his friends, but because she’s the one that handles all of the house duties, including the children, of course when the husband comes he’s taken into consideration about thoughts or ideas but the last word is hers, for he says “shes the one thats here all day, so she decides”. This to me seems like and equal partnership where he gets what he wants because both like the same things and share similar thoughts. They trust each other and know that they won’t let each other down. They were both raised in Mexico and live here now with their children, they both provide in their own ways to the family and are both acknowledged by each other.
    I do know though another family that both husband and wife were born here but come from Mexican families and the husband works to provide for the family and the wife stays home. This as mentioned in the article is “Traditional gender role” she does as he says and that’s it. Why, because he has the money and she doesn’t, and as mentioned in the article, women have gained more equality within gender roles but not quite 100%. The article mentions that whoever cares less has more power, but I dont think thats quiet true, for in this example that I just talked about they both care about the relationship, it’s just the fact that they were both raised this was, and they accept the role they have in the relationship. People who don’t care about relationships and are in a relationship are toxic to the other person, for they aren’t letting them be who they want to, a very selfish act, but it happens. I’ve seen it happen and what ended happening with this couple was that the person in charge got bored and left their partner. It was pretty shocking because the woman was in charge, and she said that the man was too easily controlled and she needed something else. Never would it cross my head that someone would do that but anything can happen right.

    • There are social patterns which are influenced by the culture, and then there are individual differences. Since we live in of patriarchy men tend to have more power, Typically, as a result. And yet there are things that can cause women to have more power in individual relationships like her personality or being much more attractive than the man she is married to — making him be more careful that he doesn’t lose her.

  5. I think this post is very true depending on the way you look at it because I can think of many examples in my life where these would be true. The strong personality is true because I see it in a lot of the people I’m friends with, there’s always going to be that one person in the group that has a strong personality or is hard headed. They always want things to go their way and fail to compromise with the other people’s feelings. These people tend to have it their way because of the #5 you posted which is the person who cares less about the relationship have more power. It’s easier for the person that cares less about the relationship to move on because if the relationship ends they might feel like they’re easy to find another partner. Where as the person who invested so much time in the relationship tends to compromise what they want because they don’t want to have an argument or end a relationship because they couldn’t compromise with the other person.
    This post can be very useful for people that are in narcissistic relationships.

  6. Thank you for sharing and I agree with your post!

    At an early age, I learned that men were the “head of the household” which meant they took care of their family and women were “housewives” which meant that they usually raised the children. Although our society has changed, a woman has become economically independent which is considered normal in today’s society. Women today have the right to vote, have outstanding careers, and support their families financially.

    Education has become a major accomplishment because with knowledge becomes power. Women challenge their relationships by having a strong stance on what they believe in and by defending themselves. However, it is noticeable that some men are more dominate, make more money and are usually in control. Additionally, woman and man should be considered equal. But as statistics shows, women that are traditional will accept male authority and their husbands having more power within their relationship.

  7. I agree with the posting on how manipulative men can be in relationships and the power distribution between men and women as there are many influences that lead to certain actions in the relationship. Men in relationships are manipulative as they try to follow this machismo mindset that all cultures have in common, which is the manliness portrayal of being the most courageous and masculine. I agree with the reasoning behind the strong personalities in a relationship because it may seem that the man is the powerful figure in the relationship when in reality the women is; she is seen as the nucleus of the relationship. There are relationships where men feel threatened about women being the power figure in the relationship, as if they don’t feel they are in control, which leads to violence with their significant other in order to regain “their power.” According to the US society, if a woman is the more dominant person in the relationship then it is a sign of weakness on the part of the male. People in society have to except that women are more than capable of being the head of household, there’s nothing wrong with interchanging gender roles.

  8. ‘The man of the house’ supremacy is certainly changing even in traditional societies as in India. The divorce rate in my home state of Kerala is among the highest in India, indicative of a lack of tolerance on both sides even to allow for a ‘cooling off’ period if a marriage is not satisfactorily holding up. From my circle of relatives, there was recently a case of marital discord where both husband and wife are medicos, the husband a cardiologist and the wife a paediatrist. The apparent reason was just the husband’s unease at his visibly more capable spouse doing very well in her field and being more in the limelight at a young age. Inspite of being a mother of two kids, she had no pangs in telling him to either move with the flow or buzz off. Luckily wiser counsel prevailed and the guy fell in line to maintain status-quo. I feel the same scenario will play out anywhere. What matters is proper education and financial independence. It is up to the women everywhere to make it happen.

    • It can be hard to know why couples divorce. Sometimes it’s pretty trivial and other times it’s not. When feminism first began in the United States a lot of people worried about the divorce rate. A lot of it was suddenly realizing you didn’t have to live in an unhappy marriage. Nowadays the divorce rate is lowest among Women who have the more feminist attitudes. Largely because they’re more educated and their marriages and families are more stable as a result.

  9. 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.”

    It’s one of those things where there are two realities. People may say that the man is the head of the home, though less likely in recent times. But even back then it still seems like, it was something just said, but I don’t know if unanimously believed. It seems like there’s the unspoken belief of women being in charge though because you see it in quotes or conversation or jokes. I’m not talking about she wears the pants as that’s related to the belief of men supposed to be in charge thus the pants remark. I’m talking about how, almost every guy I’ve seen that’s married. They usually are the one’s where they have to get clearance from their wives to like have a guy’s night, and be at their friends at night and play poker or watch football or whatever. If the man pisses off his wife guess who’s “sleeping on the couch” and getting no nookie? If the man is mad at his wife, I’m pretty sure she’s not sleeping on the couch or no hold off there. If anything it seems like society sets up it that women are usually in charge with relationships, probably because maybe women more emotional and the man having to do more to talk about it or her be happy and the controlling sex factor too. Like think about this. It’s true too, but I always thought this showed something lopsided to me and that women actually the focus for a relationship and more important than men.

    The fact of the phrase shows this to me ‘happy wife, happy life”. Ever hear that? The funny thing is studies, I like listening to radio show, John Tesch and it’s always various facts in different things with studies. Whether job interviews, health, relationship, etc. And something about how the relationships success is related to the happiness of the woman studies have shown and if the woman is the first one to calm down or be assured or something like that. So it seems like the woman is the one in charge and more important. Because to me obviously you want to treat the gf well and wife and have them be happy, but shouldn’t it be equal for the man too? I think a good relationship is one where mutual respect and importance on each other’s happiness. But it seems like from that phrase and the studies and other things I said, it’s the woman whose feelings are more important.

    • Yeah, you’re right. I know at least three families that are very conservative religious in their ideology, Yet the woman is more in charge in each case simply because she has a strong personality and her husband has a mild personality.

      Happy wife happy life — it’s true. One could turn it around but you don’t hear that do you? Maybe that’s because it’s a way of dealing with the patriarchal power that men have — in part because so many women give it to them. You may be powerful, But that doesn’t do you much good if you’re not happy, does it?

      • Happy wife happy life — it’s true. One could turn it around but you don’t hear that do you? Maybe that’s because it’s a way of dealing with the patriarchal power that men have — in part because so many women give it to them. ”

        I took it as, husband being happy as less important or irrelevant compared to the wife being happy. Therefore, her happiness more important to the relationship than the man’s which seems to show society saying one thing, but in reality women being in charge of the relationship. It just seems the discomfort or unhappiness of the woman has more of the effect and concern of the relationship than the man’s.

      • Interesting how we see it differently. I see it as a counterbalance to male power, while you see it as suggesting women actually have more power. If you look at the whole list, men do have more power on average.

      • Power to what end? Seems to me that (generally), the woman in a (hetero) relationship has more power over the decision of whether the relationship survives. Thoughts?

      • “Seems to me that (generally), the woman in a (hetero) relationship has more power over the decision of whether the relationship survives.

        Women are more willing to leave men than vice versa, generally speaking, probably because women aren’t as dependent on men emotionally since they usually have close relationships with women friends. Men often lack that because we socialize meant to cut themselves off from their emotions. Their women partners are pretty much the only people that men feel safe opening up to. And so men tend not to leave a relationship until they have another woman lined up.

        But men have more power in relationships in many other ways that I described.

    • A devout Christian friend of mine has been known to say that the husband is the head of the house, but the wife is the neck that turns the head.

      • exactly which to me, means women actually have the power. Men have the false power, but women the real power which is why I’m not sure about this belief.

      • Men and women have different source of power in relationships. I listed some types of power that men are likely to have, Some that women are more likely to have, And then you, Bob, bring up another point that Women are more likely to have. But in most committed relationships sociologist have found that men still have more power because most of us have internalized male dominance so that men tend to unconsciously feel more entitled and women unconsciously let them. Plus, men typically make more money which gives them more power in that way too.

      • Not sure about which belief?

  10. why didn’t I read this a year back. Not that it would have made a difference… but still… Thanks

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