Who is in control?

Power Struggles in Families

Have you often found yourself debating whether you should be the first one to give in after a fight with your partner? You experience an inner struggle between your ego and your desire to make things right in the relationship. If you give in, you might feel like you are surrendering or proving the other person right. But if you don’t, the stalemate continues. This is just one common example of how power works in a relationship- who has more power, how does he/she get that power, how is power used in a relationship. Family power can be defined as the ability of one individual to change the behavior of the other family members. Power is generally used when one member of a family wants the others to do something he/she wants them to. You might say to your spouse “if you really love me, you should give me what I want!” Here, you are trading on your partner’s desire to please you to get your own way, using the power you have in the relationship to your advantage.

A lot of research has gone into trying to understand what gives a person power in a relationship. One popular theory called the ‘Resource theory of Family Power’ says the balance of power in a marriage is related to the relative resources each spouse has in that relationship. Resources are what each person brings to a relationship-money, a good job, a good education, popularity, a charming personality, good looks etc. Simply put, the person with more resources has more power. For example, a housewife might have to accept her husband’s decisions in most of the family matters because he has all the power. He is the one who makes the money to sustain the family. But in a different family structure like a family in which both partners work, the distribution of power might be more equal.

Not all resources are tangible. Waller(1951) pointed out another resource which works very subtly in relationships to give one person power over the other. He called it the ‘principle of least interest’. The person who has the least interest in maintaining a relationship has the most power. If the other partner tries harder or is more keen to keep the relationship going, then he/she will likely defer to the least-interested partner. For example, Arjun might feel insecure that his girlfriend, Swathi, is much better looking and more qualified than he is. She says jokingly that she can do better than him. So, he tries harder and harder to please her to make sure she doesn’t leave him. Swathi appears to be the least-interested partner. She would then have the most power in the relationship.

If you take a typical heterosexual relationship, power might be divided in any one of these four ways: one in which the man is the boss, one where the wife is dominant, yet another in which both share authority and make decisions together and lastly, one in which both have equal power to make decisions in separate areas of their lives (for example, the man makes decisions about finances and the woman makes decisions about domestic matters.) Now, when we are stuck in a relationship where any one partner is dominant or has all the power, the relationship becomes somewhat one-sided. The submissive one can get fed up of always following while the dominant one can become tired of always leading. A relationship in which authority or power is shared as in the last two patterns tends to be more balanced and sustainable.

Reading this article might have given you an introduction into the influence of power struggles in relationships. It might also have helped you begin to become aware of the power dynamics in your own marriage or family. If you feel that the quality of your relationship is being affected by your personal struggle for control or by your partner or family members’ behavior, you can contact us at TalkItOver for face-to-face counselling and further information. You will also have access to related articles on different issues affecting couples, marriages and families in all stages of life. To find out more, click on the button below.

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About Sarayu Chandrashekar

Sarayu Chandrashekar is a qualified Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT). She has an M.S in Marriage and Family Therapy from Purdue University, USA, an M.S in Psychological Counselling from Montfort College, and a B.A in Psychology from Christ University, Bangalore. She has worked in a de-addiction centre and a family therapy clinic in the US as well as with the Association for the Mentally Challenged, Bangalore in the past. She has also completed a research study for her MFT degree on Indian couples living in the US and their marital satisfaction. She has nearly 1000 hours of counselling experience. She incorporates a combination of systemic family therapies and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) in her work. She has a passion for couple and family therapy and group work.