11 Signs You're Dealing With Power Struggles In Your Relationship & How To Cope

In the past, the power balance in relationships was vastly different than it is now. Although gender equality is still a large debate in society, modern women have much more power regarding careers, financial independence, and what they want from relationships. Interestingly, this has become a focus of study. The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships highlights that contemporary relationships now have to contend with new forms of power dynamics.

For both people in a relationship, their own status and power in relation to what influence they have in society are less critical for relationships than their own sense of personal power. Personal power, that is, confidence in one's own abilities to control the outcomes of their life, is a key aspect of power struggles in relationships. A promising career, opportunities, and the objective power that one has in life, therefore, are less important in relationships to how we subjectively perceive this power.

If one partner feels less control over their life or less decision-making power, they may become dissatisfied and try to exert more control. Conversely, if one partner holds a position of authority or power in the relationship, this could create a power imbalance that could lead to conflict or resentment. But power struggles aren't always a bad thing. Sometimes they can be necessary steps in relationship growth. Nevertheless, they're still essential to understand so that couples can build more equitable and fulfilling relationships overall.

There are subtle manipulation tactics being exchanged

Considering what we discussed above, you might wonder why there's a difference between how people view their power subjectively and objectively. Understandably, if one has objective control, i.e., finances, the ability to make decisions, etc., we might ask why they would perceive their actual power as different from reality. Well, one way of thinking about this is within the nuances of daily interactions with our partners.

Relationship researchers in the Violence Against Women journal noted that one way a spouse might limit the decision-making ability of the other is through subtle manipulation of the other person's autonomy. While the context of this research is looking at abusive relationships, often, these behaviors are normalized in society to such an extent that we might not realize they're unhealthy.

Manipulation, whether intentional or unconscious, can be enacted through different forms. In a paper in Armenian Folia Anglistika, linguists cite various actions or tactics which, when applied to relationships, could devolve into full-on power struggles, such as catching someone off-guard, gaslighting, snide remarks, or delegitimizing valid concerns. All these strategies undermine the authority and confidence of the other person in their decision-making skills. Recognizing and interrogating these signs is essential, not just in our partners but in ourselves too. It may indicate that we have unresolved feelings or insecurities over our relationship position that we unconsciously project onto someone else.

You're both competitive

In many domains, competitiveness can play a beneficial role in helping us to achieve our goals and work harder towards what we want. However, a competitive relationship dynamic is a prominent marker of power struggles. For instance, studies highlight that hypercompetitiveness correlates to more conflict in relationships (via the Journal of Psychology). Interestingly, while more competitive individuals tend to prioritize their own needs over their partners, this doesn't necessarily give them more personal power.

Personal power, if you remember, is about how we perceive our ability to determine our own destinies. However, research cited in the International Journal of Conflict Management shows that those confident in their abilities are likelier to take a "collaborative approach" in conflicts. Whereas those who perceive they have less power in a debate are more disposed to competitive behaviors.

If we are self-assured in what we bring to a relationship, we might conclude that we don't feel as much need to assert our capabilities in the form of competition against our partner. But if we feel the need to one-up a significant other in terms of who is contributing more to the relationship, it may be less about what they bring to the partnership and more about our own insecurities.

There's passive aggressiveness between you

When we see passive affixed to anything, it might not be your first thought when imagining the interplays of a power struggle between a couple. However, passive-aggressive behaviors can be an approach to gaining control in a relationship because they're a way of indirectly exerting control of another person's behavior without having to directly confront them with the real issue. We can let the other person know that something they have done is wrong in our eyes and should be changed, such as through a scoff in their direction, rolling our eyes, or sarcasm.

In psychology, this can be a defense mechanism for those with high attachment anxiety. Passive aggressive acts become a way of signaling distress to our partner that we have insecurities about their commitment, love, or attachment to us. In actuality, we want reassurance from them, thus giving us a sense of security. However, for our partners, this might come across that we are trying to push them into behaving a certain way or vying for more control over the relationship.

In a sense, we are doing that, but not for the reason that they think or that we even realize. Because of this mismatch between behavior and intent, passive-aggressive behaviors often create tension and conflicts, leading to dissatisfaction for both partners. Whereas, when we can better communicate our fears, much of this tension can be resolved.

Someone withholds affection when they don't get their way

Where people with anxious attachment issues will often be more combative in trying to elicit a reaction or secure attention from a partner, those with an avoidant style, that is, those who may have an underlying fear of intimacy, tend to exert control in relationships through avoidance and detachment. One such mechanism is the act of withholding affection.

Here, avoidant individuals restrict affection to minimize dependence and sustain control. However, this withdrawal may provoke greater demands from their partners, leading to anger and hostility due to the resulting power imbalance. This can create a power struggle between romantic partners as one partner tries to maintain control through withdrawal, while the other may respond by demanding more intimacy and influence.

When someone doesn't show affection towards their partner, it can come across as a way to control or have power over them. It can make the other person feel unsure about the relationship, giving the one withholding affection an advantage. In some cases, if one partner feels like they're not getting enough love, they might withhold it themselves to manipulate their partner into giving them more attention. However, it's more effective to communicate with your partner about your needs and boundaries rather than using withholding as a means of defining them.

You have different goals and values

As mentioned earlier, positional power (i.e., status, career, finances) is often less of an issue in relationships than our subjective view of power. However, having different goals and values in life can be a source of conflict, especially when one or both partners want to live a lifestyle that diverges from their partner.

Compromise may be a potential solution to diverging life goals — but there's a difference between good and bad compromises. For instance, a bad compromise is where one partner feels short-changed by the deal. And that when we give up on aspects of our autonomy, this can lead to depression and anxiety. In contrast, a good compromise must allow both parties to maintain their authentic sense of self while playing a key role in the relationship.

Research supports this idea. A 2019 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that being independent and interdependent aren't separate in relationships. This might seem odd, but as they explain, partners are more motivated to work on a relationship when they have their own sense of power and self. And this is where deviations in lifestyle choices can create power struggles. If our values and beliefs feel encroached upon by our partner, we may feel we are losing our autonomy and reassert this in unhealthy ways.

Responsibilities aren't being shared equally

Relationships are rarely smooth sailing, requiring effort, vulnerability, and compromise. However, in some cases, social norms can hide power struggles regarding who is making these efforts and why. For instance, in a political take on the exploitative power of love, Dr. Federica Gregoratto, a feminist philosopher, argues that certain gender-specific, societal, and romantic norms can be taken advantage of to justify exercising power over one's partners in ways that take advantage of their vulnerability (via the Journal of Political Power). 

For instance, a 2021 gender equality report by EIGE highlights that in Europe, employed women spend almost 2.3 hours each day on housework as opposed to men, who spend 1.6 hours. Even though both partners may have the same status (i.e., as employed workers), there's still a difference in the division of responsibilities.

The backlash resulting from this phenomenon can generate its own type of assertion of power. One study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior actually showed that women found their partners less sexually desirable when they didn't contribute to household chores. And as a result, the couples with less equitable divisions of responsibilities had sex less frequently. As we touched on earlier, this might be similar to a withdrawal of affection — where sex becomes a tool in defending one's position in the relationship, again leading to conflict.

You're dismissive of each other's feelings

Dismissive behaviors are one of the more obvious signs of a power struggle because it invalidates one person's feelings, creating a scenario where one person's opinions or feelings appear more important than the others. What is less clear is why this happens. Being dismissive of a person's feelings might be indicative of an avoidant attachment style, and this attachment style manifests in how we respond to the world.

A person with an avoidant style likely grew up in situations where their feelings were rejected or dismissed by their caregiver. As a result, avoidant people become uncomfortable with expressions of their emotions, both in themselves and others. The problem comes when they're faced with other emotionally dismissive individuals. Here, both parties want to shut down exchanges that make them feel vulnerable while also receiving the benefits that an intimate relationship offers. Unfortunately, these two behaviors are in direct conflict with each other and can quickly devolve into a struggle for power.

Both want to be acknowledged, but no one wants to take the first step, as the act of expressing any vulnerability feels like a loss of power. In such cases, an REBT (Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy) approach might benefit the parties involved; wherein a professional can guide you through the process of confronting fears of intimacy in a safe space.

One person has to dominate the conversation

Research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology demonstrates "low relationship power" is associated with greater aggressive behavior during relationship interactions, but only when low relational power exists. Although our finances and status in society play less of a role in relationships than they did in the past, when one individual feels as though the power a partner has in society is greater than their own, it can also affect their own sense of perceived power.

What we mean, for example, is if one person's social status, physical attractiveness, and emotional intelligence are perceived as inferior to the others, they might try to take back this perceived power loss by dominating the relationship in alternative ways — like in conversations.

Let's say one spouse earns much more than the other — the lower-earning partner might feel that society sees them as having less to contribute to the relationship. To regain control over the situation, they might become more domineering in interactions with their partner, trying to show off, so to speak, that they're just as important. This is an obvious relationship red flag. A healthier approach for couples who are aware of their individual sources of power and differences might negotiate and share power to build stronger, more fulfilling relationships. In such instances, we acknowledge each other's unique strengths and weaknesses rather than vying for the spotlight.

You're both keeping score

Score-keeping in a romantic relationship can signify a power struggle because it often indicates that each partner is keeping track of what they have done for the other and using this as leverage in future conflicts or disagreements. For instance, they might bring up occasions when they carried the heavier load in the relationship and bring this up in an argument to gain power and control over the other person.

Suffice it to say, this type of behavior can create a negative cycle of score-keeping, where each partner is constantly trying to one-up the other. It can make the receiver feel as though nothing they do is ever good enough, while the scorekeeper, conversely, is also dissatisfied because they feel as though they're doing all the work.

Instead of responding with defensiveness to an accusation of our failings, we need to look at the reason why our partner is keeping score in the first place or why we ourselves are doing this. We should question what we really want from the other person when we exhibit this behavior. Or, what is it the scorekeeper is really asking for? Underneath this behavior, we might find that, like the other signs on our list, what's happening is that one person is feeling vulnerable and needs reassurance of their place in their relationship.

You bicker in public

Occasional bickering is normal in a relationship. However, when our arguments take a public form, it is often more indicative of a power struggle. In a public forum, we effectively put our significant other on trial for a usually unwilling audience. This can be a way to gain control over a situation by putting pressure on the other person and as a means to get vindication in the court of public opinion. The other person who is exposed publicly is placed in a position where their relational power (i.e., their social status) is on the line, and the winner will likely gain more power over the relationship as a whole.

While you might not have thought of public bickering in this way, research cited in Personality and Individual Differences calls this kind of behavior "relational aggression," which is defined as behaviors intended to hurt or harm others through the manipulation of interpersonal relationships to damage feelings of acceptance, one's reputation, and social relationships.

As we alluded to before, when another minimizes one person's relational standing, it can also affect their self-confidence and perception of their power. And in the worst cases, it can negatively affect both partners' mental health and well-being. Thus, if we want to promote mutual respect in our relationships, it's important to consider having healthy boundaries around when and where we have such discussions so that both partners feel safe.

You don't trust each other

Trust, at its core, is putting faith in the ability or reliability of our partner to support us within a relationship. But this act of faith also requires that we give power to that person to influence certain aspects of our lives. It should be no surprise then giving over this power can be a barrier to trust. In relationships with an unequal power balance, both partners may be less willing to trust the other because they may see this as putting them in a more vulnerable position — and they want to stay in control.

However, what's interesting is that the more power we take in a relationship, the less connected we are to the other person. As psychologist and marriage expert John Gottman illustrates in a YouTube video shared by Greater Good Science Center, all power struggles come down to this key issue. Exchanges with our partners are built on moments of trust and doubt, like "sliding doors."

Every time we close the opportunity to build trust, we push ourselves further from the other person. But if we want to be happy in our relationships, this means giving over power, even for just one moment, to allow ourselves and the other person to be vulnerable. Because unless we are able to do this or if we keep vying for the relationship driver's seat, we will never benefit from the intimacy that trust brings.

How to cope with a power struggle in your relationship

Rather than thinking about power struggles as the end of a relationship, they might be a chance for growth. This doesn't mean we ignore or power through relationships that make us unhappy. Not every relationship can be improved upon — we have to be aware that some situations are simply toxic, and it is in our best interest to end the relationship. However, if we as individuals and partners can see ways in which it is possible to move forward, then we both have to be willing to put the work in.

Many relationships go through a power struggle phase, which can be necessary for developing equitable relationships. Both people are trying to self-actualize with the other person's support but need to find constructive ways to articulate what they need.

Instead of trying to coerce the other person into seeing our point of view through manipulation or hostility (essentially, any of the signs we see here), we need to communicate our need for validation of our personal and interpersonal journeys. This isn't forcing the other person to agree but to value our point of view. By doing so, we can reconcile power struggles in a way that respects the other person.