Every couple has different needs, preferences, and ways of working together. So it isn’t necessarily a problem, for example, if one person in a marriage or other relationship makes the majority of the decisions for the family. But then again, it might. There are caveats. The point is, if couples aren’t thinking about their relationship power dynamics, things can easily slide into an unhealthy imbalance.
The drive of one partner to take control in a relationship can be well-intentioned and stem from deeply ingrained behavior. Growing up, someone might have been the one other family members looked to take on a leadership role. Continuing to take control as an adult could feel natural to that person.
“Relationships are loaded with both conscious and unconscious drivers that inform the choices we make,” says Laura Petiford, a marriage and family therapist and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. “The ‘whys’ as to what makes one partner want to be a decision-maker and another not run the gamut and may or may not be conscious.”
Another reason might be that one member of a partnership naturally is more detail-oriented while the other is more of a big-picture thinker, notes Rich Heller, a social worker, couples counselor, and mediator. Many day-to-day decisions are about details, so it isn’t necessarily unhealthy if the big-picture partner takes a backseat when it comes to the smaller decisions. And in many long-term relationships, couples have learned to pick their battles, so it’s not unusual for them to be more on the same page in terms of vision and goals for the family.
“If one partner bows out because they would have made most of the same decisions, and they’re saving their veto power for when it really counts, [it can be] more about giving your voice more power when you choose to exercise it,” Heller says.
Whittier, California, marriage and family therapist and father of two Dave Grammer says he knows of a couple in which one partner makes many of the decisions. Her partner is laid back and happy to tackle the to-do lists she leaves for him, but she mostly calls the shots. A crucial element that makes their dynamic work, Grammer says, is that he’s comfortable stepping in and making himself heard when necessary. When both partners are on board and engaged in decision-making, it’s healthier and more effective.
When Uneven Power Dynamics in a Relationship Become Problematic
When “leadership” in a relationship veers toward “control,” that’s when things become less healthy.
“The need for control tends to come from fear, or anxiety to some degree,” says Grammer. “In controlling relationships, the controlling partner is usually insecure. If someone is feeling powerless, one of simplest ways to feel powerful is to exert power over others.”
If decisions in a relationship are being made regardless of whether the other partner is happy about them, then that’s a red flag that indicates a greater need for collaboration.
In addition, a partner who opts out of decision-making runs the risk of being less able to function in many aspects of their life. They also may resort to behaviors that can be corrosive to the relationship, per Grammer. A partner who feels like they don’t have equal say in the family’s finances might rack up debt on a secret credit card, for example, or become disinterested in sex with the partner who controls everything else, he says.
“It also creates a power differential that may become less amenable to change over time,” Petiford says. “Alternatively, the person who may have initially enjoyed being the decision-maker may tire of the responsibility and become resentful.”
Couples, she suggests, should consider to what degree they’re each capable of taking care of themselves physically, emotionally, financially, spiritually, and intellectually.
“These areas require consistent upkeep to remain vital and healthy,” she says. If any of them are lacking in a partner, it can lead to problems.
How to Keep Your Relationship Power Dynamic Healthy
So, how do you ensure that the power dynamic in your relationship is equitable and healthy? Here are a few points to remember.
1. Work With Each Other’s Strengths and Weaknesses
Grammer’s wife is a dietitian, so it makes more sense for her to dictate what their children eat, he says. She also loves day trading, which gives Grammer a headache, so he’s happy to let her handle their investment portfolio. But when it comes to parenting decisions, they consult not only each other but their kids, too (within age-appropriate reason.) If one of their children really wants to do something, for example, he says, they ask why and work out the pros and cons together.
Or, he says, “If I ask my son to pick up his toys and he asks if he can sweep or vacuum instead, I don’t care, as long as something helpful is being done. You have to consider whether you want something done as a means of control, like, ‘Do it because I said so.’ That’s not giving him agency.”
In a strong partnership, each partner will make decisions in their area of strength, but they should check in regularly to make sure decisions are being made based on their shared vision and values, Heller says: “When they stop consulting with one another, it’s too easy for things to slip off track.”
2. Keep Communication About Decisions Fluid and Flexible
During the pandemic, many rules and routines in families were thrown out the window for various reasons. Pandemic-related adjustments had to be made, illustrating the need for couples to problem solve with some flexibility, Grammer says. Remember that people change and evolve, and rigidity can get in the way of couples’ ability to adapt. Feeling unheard in a relationship necessitates a conversation. In healthy relationships, the recalibration of power should be non-threatening with both partners participating to mutually address changes and problems, Petiford says.
How Do You Change the Power Dynamic If You Need or Want to?
Here’s the truth, per Heller: One person becomes the primary decision-maker because the other allowed it. So it’s going to take some work to change the established dynamic.
If your relationship power dynamic is starting to feel unfair, Heller says the first step is for the marginalized partner to get clear about areas of disagreement. “This may be challenging,” he says, “as often these folks allowed themselves to be marginalized because they don’t want any kind of conflict.”
Step two is identifying why these areas may be triggering. Be prepared to “reset” emotionally if one or both of you are feeling triggered when discussing them, Heller says.
The next step is to get to a point where it’s okay that you disagree, and understand why the other person believes what they do. Next, empathize with their “why”, and really try to understand how you would feel in their shoes.
Once you’re able to empathize, try to get to the underlying values behind why your partner believes what they do, and find commonalities in your values. The last step is to make a plan together that’s based on those shared values.
“Humans like to take positions and argue from those positions,” Heller says. “But often we confuse the ‘position’ with what’s really important, which are the values and principles.”
When you hold a position, you’re more likely to focus on being right while the other person is wrong. There’s little room for compromise, and, says Heller, “when we do compromise on those terms, everyone feels like they’re losing because the underlying values are being ignored and/or diminished.”
Discussing why those values are important to each person leads to understanding and empathy that sets the stage for new and creative agreements, he continues.
“It’s not an argument but a discussion exploring what could work. What would be fair?” Grammer says. “Ultimately, what we’re doing is getting all the info from each other that we need to make the best decision. If someone isn’t willing to engage in that process and doesn’t care what their partners’ opinions or feelings are, then they’re not being respectful and not trying to find the best solution.”
It doesn’t actually matter which of you pulls the trigger on picking out a new car, planning the family vacation or making investment decisions. Ideally, Petiford says, “Couples will make decisions mutually, giving weight to each other’s preferences and maintaining a level of flexibility that allows for any needed shifts that arise as people change and grow.”