Having a High Sense of Personal Power Leads to Happier Relationships, Study Says

Older couple sitting on a wooden dock at a lake.
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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that the happiest couples included partners who both felt they had an influence on each other, as well as decisions in the relationship.
  • Imbalances in income, education, or career achievements did not seem to make a difference in the quality of relationships. 
  • Experts say you can cultivate personal power by being more involved in decision-making, expressing your ideas, and developing a support network outside of your relationship.

What’s the secret to a happy relationship? The answer, it turns out, has to do with both partners having a high sense of personal power, according to a new study. 

Research recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships analyzed the power dynamics of 181 couples. The results showed that objective power, measured by education or income, didn’t make a difference in the quality of a relationship. However, when both partners felt they had the power to influence one another and decisions in their relationships, they tended to be more satisfied as a couple.

Here’s what the latest research shows about power dynamics in relationships.

The Study

Researchers from Germany recruited 181 heterosexual couples for a study to better understand how power dynamics impact relationship satisfaction. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 73 years old and were usually in their second or third romantic relationship.

The average couple in the study had been together for nearly 8 years, but relationships were as young as 1 month or as old as 52 years. Roughly three-quarters of the couples were not married or engaged. 

Participants answered a series of survey questions on the quality of their relationships, based on factors such as sexuality, trust, and fascination with one another. 

Researchers also asked the couples about their experience with two types of power: subjective power (or the perception someone has about their ability to influence others) and positional power, measured by things like their educational achievements and financial situation. 

Relationship Satisfaction and Personal Power

After analyzing the results, the researchers found that when men and women each had a high sense of personal power and were satisfied with the power in their relationships, they tended to be significantly more satisfied as a couple.

“I am not surprised by these results,” says Catherine O’Brien, MA, LMFT, therapist and author of “Happy With Baby: Essential Relationship Advice When Partners Become Parents.” “‘Power,’ as used in this study, is another way of saying that the partners in these relationships feel ‘seen’ and ‘see’ the other partner. In my experience, couples that have this ability or characteristic are the happiest.”

Catherine O'Brien, LMFT

‘Power,’ as used in this study, is another way of saying that the partners in these relationships feel ‘seen’ and ‘see’ the other partner. In my experience, couples that have this ability or characteristic are the happiest.

— Catherine O'Brien, LMFT

In addition to feeling more seen by one another, partners with a high sense of personal power may also be more satisfied knowing that they can share the load in decision-making, says Emily Altman, MA, a couple’s counselor, relationship coach, and chief executive officer of The Couples Workshop. 

“Many couples desire decisiveness in their partner,” says Altman. “The biggest example here correlates to countless arguments about what to eat for dinner. A significant number of arguments are related to having an answer to everyday stresses that arise.”

What’s more, those with a high sense of personal power may have more confidence in selecting a partner who fits their needs and not relying on their relationship as a single source of happiness, but rather part of an overall satisfying life.

“Someone with a high sense of personal power is not dependent on their partner to make them feel a certain way,” says O’Brien. “They can recognize their strengths, are less likely to seek approval, and avoid toxic relationships because they focus on their own worth, esteem, and happiness outside of their relationships.”

Unlike personal power, positional power did not seem to have a major effect on the quality of a relationship, regardless of whether it was balanced or there were disparities between the partners.

“It may be objectively true that one person makes more money than another, but it does not necessarily indicate that the person has more power in the relationship. The perception of power is what matters, and if this study has value, it is to demonstrate that in the couple dynamic, the perception of power is the reality of power,” explains O’Brien. 

Study Usefulness and Limitations

While interesting, the results of this study are limited due to the broad range of the participants’ ages and the lengths of their relationships.

“A relationship’s commitment levels at 1 month versus 52 years looks drastically different due to their resiliency being heavily impacted by conflict management,” says Altman.

The research focused exclusively on heterosexual couples, which means the results may not be the same among more diverse groups of people.

“While same-sex couples have the same day-to-day relationship challenges as heterosexual couples, the social context in which they live differ greatly. This is largely due to the influences of the heterosexism of the dominant culture and gender role socialization on their relationship dynamics. Their definition of power (specifically regarding their positional power) would be impacted by their social environment,” says Altman.

She continues: “In addition to power, the fact that homosexual couples can survive (and thrive) despite these social hurdles is a testimony to their resilience. This could skew the commitment survey questions to their favor.”

The study authors also admit that their sample included “rather happy couples, which favours effective negotiation.” The effect of power dynamics could look different among couples who are overall less satisfied. 

Emily Altman, MA

A power imbalance can level out by implementing small daily choices. When asked what you want for dinner, have a meal or restaurant in mind. These small choices add up and tip the imbalanced scale more in your direction.

— Emily Altman, MA

Still, the research suggests that developing a greater sense of personal power—and supporting your partner in doing the same—could ultimately be beneficial for your relationship. You can start building your influence by being more involved in relatively minor decisions throughout the day, says Altman.

“A power imbalance can level out by implementing small daily choices. When asked what you want for dinner, have a meal or restaurant in mind,” she says. “These small choices add up and tip the imbalanced scale more in your direction.”

O’Brien also recommends being forthcoming with your ideas and opinions, acknowledging your value, asking for help when you need it, tapping into a supportive community, and taking time for yourself to recharge and reflect. 

Finally, cultivate your ability to resolve conflicts with your partner in a healthy way, such as using a couple’s therapist. Being able to solve problems and see each other as powerful, worthwhile individuals deserving of love and respect can support satisfaction in a relationship for the long term. 

“When you build tools to help with conflict management, you can increase your positive perspective,” says Altman.

What This Means For You

Differences in income, education, and other objective measures of power don’t necessarily lead to an unhappy relationship. New research shows that the happiest couples include partners who each have a high sense of personal power, or the ability to influence one another, regardless of other power imbalances. 

To cultivate a greater sense of personal power, try getting more involved with small decisions (like what to have for dinner) throughout the day. That can help you build more confidence and help you see the value you bring to a relationship. It can also be useful to cultivate healthy conflict management skills, either on your own or with a therapist. 

1 Source
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  1. Körner R, Schütz A. Power in romantic relationships: How positional and experienced power are associated with relationship qualityJ Soc Pers Relat. Published online May 17, 2021. DOI:10.1177/02654075211017670

By Joni Sweet
Joni Sweet is an experienced writer who specializes in health, wellness, travel, and finance.