Managing the Balance of Power in Relationships

Couple arguing in living room

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Most of us don't like to think about "power" when we think about relationships. Intimate relationships involve sharing and cooperation — but it takes two to share and cooperate. What if one partner doesn't want to?

Whoever wants less of a relationship has more power. The most obvious example of this principle is divorce. It just takes one person to end a relationship. It doesn't matter how much the other partner wants the marriage to work.

This basic principle can be seen in many smaller interactions. Dinner and a movie? Only if both partners want to. Sex? That too works best when it is consensual and cooperative. Certainly, sex is not always consensual, but relationships don't usually last long after marital rape or other forms of non-consensual sex.

What makes non-consent such a potent tool? Not only does it put the non-consenter in the position of decision-maker, but it also sends a clear message that "my desires are more important than yours." For the partner who wants more from a relationship, this can be a devastating message to receive. It suggests that, for the future, the non-consenting partner will have the option of choosing to withhold or grant cooperation, affection, and support — with no regard for the needs or desires of the other member of the relationship.

Responding to Non-Cooperation in a Relationship

There are really only three possible responses to non-cooperation in a relationship.

  1. The first is to accept the decision of the non-consenter, whatever it may be, in order to maintain at least a semblance of cooperation and mutuality. This option, while it may be acceptable for a period of time, cedes control completely. For most people, it is not a viable long-term solution.
  2. The second is to fight for cooperation — a risky choice for someone who strongly desires a relationship.
  3. The third is to walk away, saying — in essence — "If you choose not to support me or join me, I'll go it alone or find someone else to give me the support or companionship I need." While this option may seem like the most promising, it can also be the most difficult for a person who relies on an existing relationship for security and self-esteem.

If this is the case, then how do relationships last? Trust is an essential component. When we trust our partner we are, in part, trusting that they won't leave. We are also trusting that our partner will consider our needs and desires when making decisions that will affect both partners. This trust is built gradually. If someone proves trustworthy in small ways we then take the risk of trusting them with even more.

Human relationships are about much more than power. These relationships are about intimacy, friendship, love, respect, curiosity, contentment, sharing, communication and much more. Despite this, it's still true that whoever wants less of a relationship has more power. In a good relationship, power shifts back and forth, as each partner considers the other's needs and takes or cedes power accordingly.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Melis AP, Semmann D. How is human cooperation different?. Philos Trans R Soc Lond, B, Biol Sci. 2010;365(1553):2663-74.  doi:10.1098/rstb.2010.0157

  3. Rodriguez LM, Dibello AM, Øverup CS, Neighbors C. The Price of Distrust: Trust, Anxious Attachment, Jealousy, and Partner Abuse. Partner Abuse. 2015;6(3):298-319.  doi:10.1891/1946-6560.6.3.298

By Leonard Holmes, PhD
Leonard Holmes, PhD, is a pioneer of the online therapy field and a clinical psychologist specializing in chronic pain and anxiety.