Power Imbalances in Relationships: Two Factors That Cause the Most Tension

power struggles in relationshipsThe greatest love songs of all time are songs about relationships, but those relationships are highly idealistic. Picture Celine Dion singing about how she’s felt blissful every single minute of her love affair, and you’ll know what I mean. In love songs, there’s no such thing as a bad mood or traffic or telemarketers. Coming back to earth, most relationships aren’t perfect or lovey-dovey on an hour to hour basis. Most couples find themselves dealing with garden-variety relationship issues. But for men and women who are stuck in relationships which present a major power imbalance, it typically involves one of two factors.

Power Imbalance Factor #1: Money, Hello!

In many ways, money is overrated. (At least, that’s the takeaway message of every lottery-winner-gone-bankrupt story.) But in relationships, an imbalance of money can cause major problems and fuel intense resentments. In order for a relationship to be healthy when there’s a major difference in earnings, the partner who earns more must be financially generous, and the partner who earns less – or even nothing – must feel that they provide enough non-financial support to function overall as an equal contributor. For example, millions of couples have made arrangements where one works and earns the primary income, and the other stays home and manages the kids. Yet if you don’t have or want to have kids, fear not: Couples don’t need to have children to survive a major disparity in earnings. In order for the relationship to function smoothly, the member of the couple who doesn’t contribute a lot financially must provide something significant (often emotional support or managing the couple’s social life or home life).

What to Do: If you’re in a relationship with someone who makes a lot of money and you feel as if he or she has more power as a result, you have to figure out if it’s you who doesn’t sufficiently value your contributions – or if it’s your partner. If you feel that your partner does not see you as an equal in the relationship, you have to deal with the issue directly. Ask your partner what he or she values about your contribution to the relationship. Ask what you do in your daily life that makes him or her feel proud. Finally, ask yourself which of your contributions to the relationship you’re most proud of.

Power Imbalance Factor #2: Attractiveness

Whether you like it or not, appearance matters. In fact, social psychology studies have shown all sorts of interesting effects that come with being considered especially physically attractive. For example, beautiful people get treated better in a wide range of situations and they get a lot of sexual attention. If one member of a couple is especially attractive and is significantly more attractive than the other, the attractive one is going to get a lot more attention and may even be asked out or hit on in front of the other partner. Hard to imagine, yes – but it happens every day. A relationship isn’t dysfunctional because there may be a major attractiveness discrepancy; it’s how each member of the couple handles the discrepancy that determines whether the relationship is strong enough to handle it – or whether it will fall apart like a house of cards.

What to Do: If you are the more attractive member of the couple, try to discourage or play down others’ comments or compliments about your appearance when you’re with your partner. If you are ever hit on in front of your partner, be clear about your disinterest and acknowledge – out loud – who your partner is. Say, for example, “Thanks but I’m in a happy relationship with [insert name].” In addition, make sure to go out of your way to verbally praise your partner for the traits that make him or her exceptional. The message you want to send is, ‘Sure, I get a lot of attention for my appearance, but you’re the amazing chef in the kitchen’ or ‘You’re the glue that holds our social circle together!’ On the other hand, if you are the less attractive member of the couple and you’re forced to deal with the constant barrage of attention your partner gets, try not to let it bother you. Make an effort to remember what your strengths are. When you do feel bad and nothing seems to help make you feel more secure or less frustrated, don’t forget that you won’t have to deal with the major attractiveness discrepancy forever. Why? Because looks fade. (Ouch!)

The goal for a healthy relationship has to be equality overall. Each individual must feel valued and needed in order to thrive – and to avoid resenting the other partner. Not everyone is going to be able to manage a relationship when the other partner earns a lot more money or is much more attractive. For some individuals, they struggle with insecurity and jealousy, and power imbalances push these individuals over the edge into occasionally-acting-crazy territory. If you’re considering dating someone where there is a major discrepancy in money or appearance from the very beginning, think long and hard about how you’ll feel about any imbalances several years down the road. While you’re dating, there’s still time to change course without major repercussions!

Have you been in either of these situations and how did it work out?


About the Author:

Dr. Seth Meyers has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve

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