Power Distribution in Relationships

Elizabeth Grauerholz. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Editor: Harry T Reis & Susan Sprecher. Sage Publications, 2009.

The power distribution in a relationship refers to who has greater ability to influence or exert control over others in the relationship despite resistance. Power is fundamental to all human relationships no matter how close or distant. Further, all relationships—heterosexual, homosexual, romantic, family, coworkers, and friends—can be characterized as power relationships regardless of whether power is an obvious component of the relationships. The distribution of power also affects a wide range of other relationship matters, including feelings of trust, satisfaction, violence, leisure, and longevity.

Power is not an individual trait such as physical appearance. There are no inherently powerful (or powerless) people; certain people are powerful because they possess more resources or other qualities than others. In this sense, power distributions are relative in nature. Another way in which power can be thought of as relative is that a person’s power must be understood in the context of a particular relationship. Thus, an individual may have a high-status job or prestige in the community, but this does not necessarily translate into higher power within his or her marriage or other intimate relationships. Whether one’s social power contributes to greater power within intimate relationships is dependent, in large part, on how much power one’s partner has. A woman manager, for instance, may be capable of exerting considerable power within the workplace, but may not be able to do so within her romantic relationship, especially if the partner is of equal or higher status. Cultural traditions and norms, especially gender expectations, also dictate the distribution of power within relationships.

Power may be manifested in various ways, such as having greater say in making important decisions, veto power (having the ability to veto the less powerful member’s decision), dominating conversations, and so on. Power can also be overt (exercised outwardly) or latent (hidden); verbal, psychological, or physical; or spoken or unspoken. Indeed, it is not necessary for power to be exercised at all in order to have it. Take the case of a child who “walks on eggshells” around his father, trying hard not to upset his father. The child’s fear may be rooted in previous violence, but it might also stem from knowing that the father simply has the ability to punish. Researchers also make a distinction between orchestrative power (making decisions about what gets done) and implementation power (deciding how it will get done).

Generally speaking, power can be distributed unequally or equally. When power is unequally distributed in a relationship, one person or group has greater influence over the course and definition of the relationship. In cross-sexed relationships, an unequal distribution of power can be characterized as either male-dominant (men hold most of the power) or female-dominant (women have more power). When power is equally distributed, no one person or persons dominates the relationship and interactions. This doesn’t mean that they share power across all areas or domains of the relationship; rather, on balance, everyone is recognized as being equally powerful. When individuals exercise power in different domains, but essentially have equal power, the relationship is said to be autonomic. When individuals share power across domains, they are said to be syncratic.

Determining whether a relationship is equal or unequal is not an easy task for a number of reasons. For one thing, what goes on in the privacy of individuals’ lives is usually hidden from outside observers. Even the individuals involved in the relationship may not agree on whether and who among them has more power. Research has shown that individuals tend to underestimate their own power in relationships.

Another reason it is difficult to determine whether a relationship is equal or unequal is that there are so many areas in which power can and is exercised—or potentially can be exercised—that it is difficult to gain a clear sense of its balance in a relationship. Suppose it was within your power to make the important decisions for your family, such as whether to have another child, whether to move the family to another town for your job, whether to initiate a divorce, and so on. The fact is, these decisions affect everyone profoundly, but are made infrequently; thus, it might be easy to lose sight of how much power you really have in the family. Suppose you do not have control over the big decisions, but can affect many small decisions, such as what the family will eat for dinner, whether the children will go to after-school care this week, or whether to invite friends over for dinner this weekend. It may appear and feel like you have most of the power in the family because these decisions are so much more immediate, but the reality is more complicated than that.

This scenario leads to another important factor with respect to determining the distribution of power in relationships. Suppose a couple has a traditional, autonomic relationship: Her primary roles involve taking care of the house and children and she has nearly complete control over issues such as decorating the house, what to feed the family, whether to home school the children, and so on, whereas his responsibilities center on supporting the family financially. On the surface, it would appear that the couple’s arrangement is egalitarian (autonomic). But what if her husband is thrilled that she is taking on domestic and child-care responsibilities because he has no interest in such matters and even considers them to be “below” him? In such cases, it could be argued that power is not equally distributed and that in an autonomic relationship the respective domains must be valued equally by all in order for it to be egalitarian.

Research has shown that couples commonly engage in “myth making” in order to convince themselves (and others) that their relationships are consistent with what they value.

Who Has the Power in Relationships?

Research has shown that power is usually not distributed equally in relationships. The earliest studies on marital power revealed that husbands had slightly more power than their wives. For instance, with respect to decision making, most couples were “autonomic,” although husbands had more say than their wives; in conflicts, husbands were more likely to get their way; and when it came to making major changes for one’s partner (such as relocating for one’s spouse), wives tended to make such sacrifices more than their husbands. Studies of dating relationships revealed similar patterns.

As families and relationships change over time, expectations concerning power within these relationships also change. Prior to the mid-20th century, most marriages in the United States were considered patriarchal or autonomic. It was generally assumed that men made the important decisions and had final say. The Women’s Movement challenged men’s presumed privilege, and women entered the labor force in record numbers, giving them more equal standing in their relationships. However, even in contemporary intimate heterosexual relationships, men are likely to have slightly more power than women. Such power is likely to stem from two major sources: persistent gender inequality within society that grants greater privilege and status to men and values masculine traits and skills over feminine ones, and the fact that power is based in part on resources (e.g., expertise, money, education) and men tend to be older, more educated, and earn more money than their partners.

What happens when gender is taken out of the equation? Research has shown that in same-sex relationships, power continues to shape the relationships. Lesbian couples tend to be more egalitarian than either gay or heterosexual couples, whereas gay couples tend to be less egalitarian than heterosexual couples. Similar to heterosexual couples, power in same-sex relationships largely depend on who brings what to the relationship in terms of status and resources, and what the couple values.

In recent decades, parents’ power over children has also been challenged. Whereas parents were once assumed to have nearly complete control over their children’s lives, cultural influences in children’s lives such as media and consumerism have instilled a greater sense of power among children and has led, to some extent, to a redistribution of power between parents and children. Research shows, for instance, that most parents today consult their children before buying clothes for them or give them the money to purchase their own clothes, whereas parents in past generations were more likely to buy children’s clothing with little or no input from the children. As children’s dependence on parents declines, parents’ power also declines.

The Egalitarian Myth

In some relationships, power is a clear and fundamental aspect of the relationship, and it is clear to everyone who should have the power. In employer-employee or parent-child relationships, for instance, everyone expects the employer and parent to be more powerful (although the reality is not always so clear). Other types of relationships, such as friendships, however, are expected to be more egalitarian. In the United States, power in romantic partnerships is also largely expected to be relatively balanced. To acknowledge to others or even oneself that the relationship is unequal is to go against strong cultural norms about how relationships should work.

When cultural expectations dictate that relationships should be egalitarian, individuals may work hard to hide signs of inequality from critical outsiders and even to convince themselves that the relationship is balanced. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild studied how couples manage the housework within busy families and negotiate rules for doing so. She found that most couples want to share equally in the housework, but that usually didn’t happen. To obscure that unpleasant reality, they might develop myths to convince themselves that everything was fair. For instance, one couple that had fought continuously over who did the housework finally “resolved” the issue by symbolically dividing the house into the “upstairs” and the “downstairs.” The upstairs, which the wife handled, was most of the house; the downstairs, which was basically the garage, was the husband’s domain. On the surface, things appeared fair, and the tensions that had evolved around doing housework had been quelled. The problem was that there were many more tasks associated with the upstairs than with the downstairs.

The Changing Nature of Power

Power is a fluid concept—a person’s having power at one point in time does not necessarily mean that he or she will be powerful throughout the relationship. Consider what can happen over the course of a marriage—the couple may break up and reunite, marry, divorce, bear children, change or resign from jobs, and so on. Friendships often experience periods of intense intimacy and times of greater estrangement. Children begin their lives completely dependent on parents and others, usually gain independence in young adulthood, and finally may be responsible for the well-being of their aging parents. All of these factors influence the distribution of power.