In all relationships exists a delicate balance of power. All interactions between partners influence this power, and direct the relationship a certain way. Bringing these power dynamics to the surface of our consciousness can help us to better understand ourselves and each other, and create a healthier dynamic.
Why is power important?
Power dynamics in a relationship can have a huge influence over its quality and success. Power exists in every area of our interactions, from the way we talk to each other, the money we earn and spend, the jobs we hold, the friends we have, our age, lived experiences and how much we share of our lives.
Noticing power shifts can help prevent common relationship problems like arguments and spousal depression. In fact, a study has shown that one power struggle in particular is a leading cause of marital dissatisfaction and a predictor for divorce.
3 power dynamics in relationships
In psychotherapy, there are thought to be 3 types of relationship dynamics that can result from power imbalances within the relationship: demand-withdrawal, distancer-pursuer, and fear-shame.
The demand-withdrawal dynamic happens when one person is the “demander” who seeks to discuss and change the dynamic. They are in frequent search for a resolution to issues, while the other partner withdraws and avoids those issues. This dynamic, as mentioned earlier, is a powerful predictor of divorce and marital discontent. In cis-hetero relationships, it is more typical for the demander to be the female. Arguably, the withdrawn partner holds more power, while the other partner does all the work to tirelessly try and fix matters.
Gina notices Bart isn’t helping much around the house and appears lazy and distant. She wants to talk to Bart about this, and discuss any factors that might be influencing Bart’s disconnect from her. Bart is fed up of being quizzed and, after a long day at work, just wants to be left alone. He feels Gina is annoying with her questions and he doesn’t wish to discuss his feelings. Gina feels rejected and feels the problem has not resolved due to the avoidance in Bart.
The distancer-pursuer dynamic happens when one partner (the pursuer) attempts to achieve and maintain a degree of intimacy with their partner (the distancer), who perceives this affection as ‘suffocating’. The closer the pursuer gets, the more withdrawn and resistant the distancer becomes. The distancer may perceive their partner as needy and decide that this is the main relationship problem. The pursuer might suggest that the other partner is cold and that this is the main relationship issue. The power struggle here is about the level of intimacy and who is ultimately to ‘blame’ for this lack of harmony.
Gina and Bart normally spend every Friday night together but Bart wants to change this to go out with a friend. Gina wants to know why Bart isn’t spending time with her, and is worried she has done something wrong, or that she might get lonely without Bart. Bart feels Gina is being smothering and controlling in wanting to spend Friday with him, especially as he sees her all the time and has only changed the dynamic once.
The fear-shame dynamic is frequently an “unconscious” cause of relationship problems. It is where the insecurity in one partner brings out shame and avoidance in the other. The dynamics interplay in a vicious cycle of one partner having anxious reactions to the other partner’s withdrawal or avoidance, and this avoidance being a reaction to the anxious partner.
Example. Gina is convinced Bart is mad at her because he isn’t behaving in his normal manner. She has a strong emotional reaction to his withdrawal, by crying, breaking down and insisting Bart doesn’t love her anymore, that there must be something terribly wrong. Bart cannot handle this level of emotion and becomes angry at Gina, telling her to stop being so dramatic and ridiculous. He storms upstairs to get out of Gina’s way. Gina then cries and screams as a reaction to Bart’s rejection of her, which makes Bart yell at her again.
All three dynamics above are unhealthy, and all have similarities and crossover. You may have been able to identify with one of them, or even all three! They also overlap with drama triangle and transactional analysis dynamics.
If you think your relationship needs work, couples therapy can help. Bringing power dynamics to the surface in a safe and controlled way can help you both shift into a more balanced communication style.
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