7 Signs Your Relationship Has Unhealthy Power Dynamics

A relationship's power dynamics are less like the scales of justice and more like a see-saw. There should be an equal give and take, with flexible movement, shared decision-making, respect, and a sense of empowerment. When a relationship's power dynamics are static, with one partner routinely exerting more authority, something's wrong.

"Our power in relationships comes from the ability to make empowered choices about them, and feel like our advocacy for those choices is listened to, trusted, respected, and valued by our partners," Adam Maynard, a relationship coach who specializes in helping people navigate relationship challenges, tells Bustle. "When a relationship's power balance is out of whack, we lose our ability to affect these desired changes with one another in good faith—and feel mutually loved and supported along the way. This typically leads to feelings of neglect, resentment, anger, sadness, and disappointment, and conflict ensues."

Here are some tell-tale signs that the power dynamics in your relationship are dangerously off-kilter.

1. One of You Makes All the Decisions

Couple buying couch in furniture

When power is shared equally in a relationship, decision-making should be a process that involves the both of you, writes Theresa E DiDonato Ph.D. on Psychology Today. But if one of you always calls the shots about where to go to dinner and which couch best suits the living room, you've got an imbalance of power on your hands.

Even the process of making decisions can be imbalanced, DiDonato says. If one of you always does the research and presents the other with an array of options, an imbalanced power dynamic is also at play "outside of the actual final outcome of any one decision."

2. You Feel Alone

A healthy partnership should make you feel seen and valued. If you feel lonely, your partner may be exerting power by withholding demonstrations of love and affection that would help meet your emotional needs in the relationship. Studies show that as high as 40 percent of married individuals complain of feeling lonely sometimes or often, Psychology Today reports.

"Unhealthy power dynamics erase your agency in the relationship — your ability to affect the change you need and want," Maynard says. "This erasure eventually manifests as a feeling of isolation because of the way it undermines your sense of yourself as an autonomous actor in your own life."

3. You Feel Criticized


Psychological researcher, clinician, and foremost marriage expert, John Gottman, calls criticism the first of his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which predicts divorce with more than 90% accuracy. Other forms of emotional power-plays can stem from it, including emotional abandonment and contempt. In a healthy partnership, one partner is not the other's punching bag.

"A nonstop barrage of criticism never helped anyone improve," writes Lolly Daskel on Inc. "It's not about making things better but boosting the critic's ego."

"If you feel insecure around your partner, you must understand this is not a typical feeling," the website Power of Positivity states. "Our loved one is supposed to be a person we're free to be ourselves around, not watch ourselves around."

4. You're the One Who Has to Bring Up Issues in the Relationship...

Negotiating the waves and riptides of the relationship should be a shared endeavor. When one person bears the burden of always bringing up difficult areas in the relationship that need to be addressed, it can indicate a power imbalance.

"In many relationships, it becomes one person's job to bring issues out into the open and one person's job to keep a sense of proportion. Or perhaps you each take on one of these roles at different times. Both jobs are equally important." writes Andrew G. Marshall at BabyCentre.

It might help to set aside time for a monthly relationship meeting in which you both bring challenges to the tables. Then both parties will know, at least, there is a time set aside when it's expected to address any relationship issues—even if it's just a ripple or two.

"Without communication, there is no relationship," writes Daskel. "Period."

...And They Always Get Their Way In Fights

When one partner never apologizes, it demonstrates their self-perceived superiority and is a tactic used to show dominance. In equal partnerships, both partners admit when they've done something wrong. Even when only one person is in the wrong, a healthy and equal partners will often both apologize over the fact of the conflict.

5. The Relationship Revolves Around Their World

When you partnered up, did you stop seeing your friends? Do you spend evenings attending parties and events your partner is interested in but never the ones you are so that it's all Monday Night Football and never Monday Night Open Mic? Have you given up all the activities you pursued when you were on your own? A healthy partnership includes a balance of autonomy and togetherness, of unique individuality—your own friends, your own interests—and shared pursuits.

6. You Feel Pressure to Please Them

Successful romantic relationships routinely involve compromise, but if you feel pressure to please your partner—to roast the chicken, not grill it; to dress in skimpy clothes that make you feel uncomfortable or to cover up when you'd rather flaunt your assets—it could indicate an imbalance of power. Pleasing one's partner should feel like a choice.

...and Are Afraid of Their Response

Are you afraid if you disappoint or displease your partner they will leave you, criticize you, or worse? Fear is a giant red flag for a relationship power imbalance and has no place in a healthy and secure relationship.

"A big reason you don't speak up for yourself is because you fear your partner will reject that part of you, or that they'll retaliate against you in some way," Maynard says. "They have outsized control over you — you can't get your core needs met or advocate for aspects of the relationship that are important to you."

7. They Only Care About Their Experience During Sex

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If you're the one who regularly initiates sex but is rarely the focus, it's time to make a change. "Whether it's a simple lack of awareness or outright selfishness, not making an effort to satisfy you in the bedroom is proof that your partner thinks you're only there to serve their needs," Maynard says. "This tendency is the epitome of a power imbalance, even if it's subconscious on their part." Both partners deserve to be sexually satisfied in an equal partnership. Otherwise, you're better off alone.

"Love and power are not incongruous," writes Darlene Nancer, author of How To Speak Your Mind: Become Assertive and Set Limits. "In fact, love doesn't mean giving up oneself, which eventually leads to resentment. Love actually is the exercise of power. To claim our power requires learning to live consciously, taking responsibility for ourselves and our choices, building self-esteem, and asking directly for our needs and wants. As we learn to express ourselves honestly and set boundaries and say no, we create safety and mutual respect, allowing our partner to do the same."

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