Why Power Matters in Couple Relationships


This week’s post is by Dr. Carmen Knudson-Martin, one of top experts on gender in couple relationships. She discusses why power should be on the minds of partners and how it influences your relationship. Her post is based on a plenary she was asked to present at the American Family Therapy Academy.

Power is relational.  It is reflected in how the needs, interests, and goals of partners influence the other.  Those in power positions tend to be less aware, less tuned into the needs and interests of their subordinates.  The balance of power is reflected in who notices the other? Who feels entitled to express their needs of have them fulfilled?  Who accommodates and organizes around the other? In healthy relationships the flow of power is mutual.  It goes back and forth as each person tunes into the other and is influenced by them.

 Here’s where it gets tricky—people can hold this kind of power without even being aware of it.  It tends to be built into social structures.  For example, when power is part of normative gender patterns women tend to automatically organize around their partners.  They may be more likely to check their partner’s schedule and plan around it; they may notice what he is feeling or needs and automatically adjust in response.  When I see couples in therapy or teach about these issues in class, women usually nod in recognition of these patterns. Men are often confused or surprised at first, because most of the men I see don’t really want power over their partners.  They are often surprised to learn how frequently their female partners are organizing around them. 

One couple that I interviewed illustrates this point.  Judy and Al (not their real names) were in their first year of marriage.  I asked them how they decided how much time they spend together.  Judy said, “If I know that Al is going to be home, I try to plan my schedule to be home too.  I go out with my friends when he has other things going on.”  Al was surprised by her answer. He did not know that she did this.  In fact, he said “what would really bother me was if what I did was controlled by her.”   This difference in who organized around the other—and did it “naturally”—already was beginning to create an imbalance in who was influencing whom!! 

Sometimes people think the answer is for women to be just as independent as men.  This can be an important step for women. BUT, it can result in neither partner attending to the relationship.  This is why our study group on couples emphasizes mutual attending and being open to change in response to other as so critical to long term relational success.  The key is often helping the more powerful person (i.e., the one less attentive and open to influence) learn to focus more on the relationship.  Like any new habit, it may take time but is worth the relational investment.

When power is mutual, both partners feel valued—and loved.  Use the brief checklist below to evaluate the balance of influence in your relationship.  

                              Me          My Partner
___I noticed and responded to my partner’s needs. ___My partner noticed and responded to my needs.
___I felt free to express my opinions ___My partner felt free to express opinions
___ I adjusted in response to my partner ___My partner adjusted in response to me
___I took initiate to maintain or repair the relationship ___My partner took initiative to maintain or repair the relationship.

Unequal Incomes and Power


This week’s post is from Veronica Viesca a new member of our clinical research group. Veronica shares her experience and struggle combining finances in a new marriage. Her experience highlights the difficulties couples can experience when one person makes more money.

Money and power two words that in our society seem to go hand in hand. People with more money seem to have more power and those with less money or none at all seem to be powerless.

Given this, how does one couple go about creating equality in their relationship when one member holds all the money and power?

This is the question I have been asking myself for the past month. You see, almost one month ago, I married my Prince Charming, Jeff. He is amazing and our life is basically perfect with our perfect puppy and our perfect home with a white picket fence with one big exception… money. I am a girl with needs and for the majority of my adult life, I have maintained a way of life that has afforded me almost everything I could want or need- great clothes and shoes, trainers and boot camps and the most costly private school tuition.  And yes, at times, this life style meant using my financial aid to buy new jeans or pay bills, but I made it happen and I loved my life. So when Jeff and I agreed that I could be unemployed to pursue every opportunity my PhD program had to offer I was ecstatic. It had been a dream of mine to have someone else pay my bills! That is until I began to get annoyed with having to text or call Jeff to ask if I could eat lunch or buy a drink at Starbucks or get gas. Outside of feeling like a bug-a-boo, I was feeling stripped of my power. One month ago, I was working full-time feeling like I had power. I could buy new clothes, have lunch with the girls and spend my money on whatever I felt like at my own discretion but now I was stripped of that. Most of all, Jeff and I have struggled to see eye to eye on what “important” really means.

I think Veronica is making a really important point here, that having more money doesn’t necessarily give the power, but who decides what is “important” may be where they power really lies for some couples.

Now before I get ahead of myself, let me say that Jeff never asked me to call/text/talk to him before making purchases but during the joining of our “assets” we thought it best that I join his bank account and during that transition I quit my job and closed my bank account. So there I was on Jeff’s turf with a debit card that had my name on it, but felt it did not belong to me because it was Jeff’s account and he was the only one contributing to it. We had agreed that Jeff would manage all the bill paying. So somehow in our negotiations, Jeff ended up with all the fiduciary power. Had we made some kind of newlywed mistake?

I quickly took to the phone and called my mother. She and my father had been managing their money together for as long as I can remember. My dad managing their retirement and my mom paying the “household” bills. But almost every weekend, the two would come together and discuss what needed to be paid and where the money was going to come from. Alas, while my mom was supportive that things would fall into place and we would find our routine, she was not able to offer any concrete advice because both she and my dad have both always worked full-time or brought in income to contribute to the household.

While Jeff and I attempt to find our footing in our new life together, I continually remind myself that equal does not mean the same in the context of relationship equality. Jeff and I will not be putting the same amount in the pot, at least for the next few years. So we have to figure out how our financial equality will take shape given that our tangible contributions have such a large disparity. If all else fails, we will just talk all the power right out of it. Jeff and I are always looking for contributions and would love to hear from people who have navigated tricky financial situations while maintaining equality in their relationships.

I think Veronica and Jeff are already making important progress in preventing issues from arising from this unbalance. First they are aware of the power difference inherent when one person is the breadwinner and they are having conversations about how this may impact their relationship and the position this puts each person in. Secondly, they are seeking help from others who may have pearls of wisdom to give about successes and failures.



Relational Development Part III: Relational Dread


We've all felt this right?


In last week’s post I talked about how men are steered away from connection and into a focus on difference from others.  Regardless, men still seek out connection with others in intimate relationship.  This weeks post is about “relational dread,” a term coined by Dr. Bergman to describe the process that occurs when push for connection overpowers men’s ability to stay in it.  Reading about this has shed light on something I have had difficulty understanding as a woman and a couples therapist.  Men want to connect and stay connected, but their emotional and physiological response overwhelms their ability.  Here’s a simple example of how this happens in interaction:

“Woman: What are you feeling?

Silence from the man.

Woman: Can you tell me?

Man: I don’t know

Woman: Sure you do, please talk to me?

At this point a man may take evasive action, falling silent, changing the subject or yawning, striking with anger or sarcasm, or making a rapid exit.” (p. 8 )

What makes up this sense of relational dread?

  1. Inevitability of disaster – nothing good can come of this
  2. Timelessness – this will never end
  3. Damage – immense and irreparable
  4. Closeness – the closer I feel, the more intense my dread becomes
  5. Precariousness – even if I start to feel better, it can turn back to dread at any moment
  6. Process – a quickly forward-moving process in which I am unsure of the validity of my perceptions
  7. Guilt – I feel guilty about not being enough relationally
  8. Denial of and fear of aggression – if I feel trapped or pushed too far, and I’m unable to withdraw, I may panic and become violent and hurt someone
  9. Incompetence and shame – not only does she know the territory better, but she also seems to know me better than I know myself
  10. Paralysis – if I can’t fix it, I won’t say anything at all

I’m not going to pretend that I fully understand men’s experience of this, but it does help me understand my fear around approaching men about relational matters.  As women I think we sense men’s relational dread and try to adjust ourselves accordingly by picking our battles, strategizing how to approach, and backing off when things feel tense.  The ways we try to skirt around men’s dread speaks to the power of this male response. To men this may seem contradictory because I’m positive that no man would say he feels powerful in this process.

In the beginning, women seem able to tolerate male dread in the interest of keeping conflict low and protecting the relationship, but after awhile can start to feel hurt that her efforts to connect are rebuffed.  She begins to react to male dread with anger or sadness, which increases men’s sense of incompetency and intensifies their sense of dread ~ and here we have a vicious cycle that many couples have difficulty breaking.  Each time the cycle is enacted it, the emotions driving it intensify, making resolution appear impossible to attain.

So what can men and women do?

Well there are a few things, but none will be as effective as partners coming together to change this process together.

Continued next week….

Bergman, S. J. (1995). Men’s psychological development: A relational perspective A new psychology of men (pp. 68-90). New York, NY: Basic Books; US.


Gender, Power, and Sex Drive


I have always been interested in the role of power in sexual relations. I just found this really interesting article that talks about gender erotic plasticity.  This refers to the “extent to which the sex drive can be shaped by social, cultural, and situational factors” (Baumeister, 2004).  There is considerable evidence that women’s sex drives are more adaptable and changeable than mens.  The lower plasticity that characterizes men suggests that their sex drive is inflexible and independent of circumstances.  The author provides some evidence:

  1.  wives change and adjust more sexually during marriage
  2. women report more fluctuations over time in the amount of sexual activity they have
  3. men are less likely to add new sexual activities over time
  4. men are more likely to be homosexual or hetersexual and women go back and forth more often
  5. specific social and cultural influences (religiosity, education) have a bigger effect on women’s sexual practices than on mens
  6. women and girls perform more sex acts that they themselves disapprove of

There are many reasons why this may be.  Baumeister believes that men’s greater motivation (sex drive) is less prone to socialization influences.  He does not form an opinion on whether men have greater sex drives due to biological or social factors.  Probably because this is a heated debate in academia.   What is more interesting to me is that in discussing the implications of these findings he does not make a connection to power in intimate relationships!  To me regardless of whether men have higher sexual drives due to genetics or social factors, the fact that they are less likely to be changed by their female partner’s preferences indicates a large power imbalance.  Women would be accommodating much more often and this could  impact both her and her male partner’s satisfaction in the relationship.  Seems like if one person is always having it their way, it may get boring, or the person who is always accommodating may become resentful.

Now we are back to the question of what to do about this difference?  Do we ignore the information we have and just continue on with life because “that’s just the way it is?”  Or do we frame this power in the way that many blatant power differences are.  For example, the President of the United States has a considerable amount of power, but does this mean he can use it to fulfill his own personal needs?  No one would argue that that would be just, moral, or right.  In this case his power comes with a great deal of responsibility and accountability to those he has power over.  This is the way I view the implications of these findings.  Men need to take into consideration their position and influence over their female partners in determining what becomes of their sexual relationship.  They need to be responsible and accountable to the person they are in a loving relationship with, to ensure that their female partners are getting their sexual needs and desires met.  Or consider that sometimes their female partner may not want sex and that this has nothing to do with them.

My guess is that women and men have very different ideas about what arouses them and that women are being measured by men’s standard’s of what drives their sexual desires and this may be why it appears that women have lower sex drives.  Just a thought!


The Best Christmas Present I Ever Got


Hi Everyone!  I’m back, sorry for not posting last week I was playing catch up from my trip to Florida to present my research at the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) conference.  In the study we look at how ideas about gender influence couples therapy sessions.  But that’s for another post…This week I have been doing some Christmas shopping, braving the crowds!  Being a student I don’t have a whole lot of extra cash so I like to think of gifts that are more thoughtful than expensive.  Combining this with thinking of everything I am thankful for in light of American Thanksgiving (I call it American because I am Canadian :) ), led me to think about some of the most rewarding relationships I have in my life.  Although I have not had the pleasure of being in a committed intimate relationship, I am more than filled with joy from relationships with family members, friends, professors, co-therapists, and classmates.  As I thought about what made these relationships so special and satisfying, it dawned on me that they are based on a desire from both people to make the relationship good for both people.  When both people are putting effort into making sure the other person is happy, power is being shared.  To me this is the essence of equality in relationships.

Power is a part of ALL relationships, and sometimes it is functional i.e. parent-child, teacher-student, etc.  Other times when there is the expectation of equality and the relationship is characterized by an imbalance in power it creates problems.  Most people don’t attribute their problems to power imbalances, but it plays a big, big role in problems that reoccur and those that do not seem resolvable.  So what can we do about this?  It is not realistic to eliminate power completely from a relationship, but instead to work towards equally sharing power.   How do you do that?  Well there’s no one answer, but I think it has to start with a desire and motivation from each person to not only be happy in relation to someone else but also to contribute to the happiness of the other person.  And this last week I got an early Christmas present from someone very special to me.  I don’t think the person realized at the time how much their words meant to me or what it symbolized in our relationship.  To me it symbolized thoughtfulness about what I want from our relationship and a desire to make me happy.  Now I know this will not be an easy task, as giving up power never is, but I will now be alot more tolerant if the person messes it up now and then.  Part of what let’s me know this person is open, is that they are willing to hear when I feel like things are not being handled in a fair way.  It’s not important to me that I always get my way, but that my position and feelings are being considered.  And that at times I am able to influence this person.  So thank you, you know who you are.  And for those of you wondering who this person is…I will never tell!  I’m just kidding, but seriously I never told this person I was going to write this post and I have to take into consideration that not everyone is comfortable with having their name on the internet.  So I am airing on the side of caution, thinking about how my actions might affect our relationship.  I am curious about what makes the great relationships of your life so great?


Are we really equal? Mutual Influence


In my mind Mutual Influence is the most complex of the 4 elements of the cirle of care.  On the one hand it is  one of the easiest concepts to understand, but on the other hand it is the most difficult for couples to practice consistently.  As you’re probably thinking, it is the ability to influence your partner.

Mutual influence is important to equality and relationship health because it contributes to a feeling of fairness.  When one partner starts to feel a sense of unfairness, there are feelings that go along with that, i.e. resentment, anger, loneliness.  Most of all you might start to think and feel that your partner does not care about you, because if they did they would want to put their feelings about doing something aside and do it to contribute to your happiness.

Here’s an example.  Let’s say a female partner asks her male partner to empty the garbage.  She wants it done now and he thinks it can wait.  Now this does not sound like a big deal to most people.  And if she went “off” on him for not doing it, most of you would say she is overreacting.  What we need to understand here is that taking out the garbage is most likely not the first thing she has been unable to influence her partner to do, so now it becomes a symbol of all the times he does what he wants.  Hence all her emotion attached to that comes out over a “little” thing like the garbage.  I’m sure the men reading this have found themselves in that situation and are having an Aha moment!  And women are saying, “I’m not crazy”!

Practicing Mutual Influence is very difficult, mostly because everyone already thinks they are doing it.  If you don’t perceive something to be a problem, you’re not going to try and work on it, right?  When we ask couples in therapy, how do you (as a couple) make decisions?  It is interesting that men tend to answer  the question for the couple and say things like, I listen to her and she listens to me.  She picks the movie one week and I pick it the next week.  We compromise.

As research has shown, just because you think you are doing something does not make it so…..

In our society males were traditionally in charge of decision-making, which is probably why when posed a question about it, they answer for the couple.  Although not many people would say they still hold that it is ALL the man’s responsibility or right, some remnants of this idea still exist.  Typically men are concerned with being autonomous and independent, even when in relationship with others.  Women on the other hand tend to be more concerned with peace in the relationship and with making their partner happy, so they are more willing to give in.

Another important facet is that being influenced might not feel like “giving in” to women, but when men allow themselves to be influenced it can feel like they are giving up alot.  This is how power differences emerge.   When men “give in” a few times they begin to feel like there is an imbalance and unfairness.  Women on the other hand will continue to “give in” to their partner without fail and only begin to feel unfairness when it is not noticed, appreciated, and/or reciprocated.

What is your personal experience of mutual influence?




Shared Relational Responsibility – Who Takes Care of Us?


Responsibility.  In our society this word really packs a
punch.  But does the notion of being responsible in relationships differ for men and women?  Typically it does, when men think of
responsibility to their partner, they think of protecting and sometimes providing.  Also they think they need to
help their female partner solve any problems she may be experiencing with the world outside of the relationship.  Women
on the other hand are raised with a focus on relationships and such seem to “naturally” think about the couple relationship, how to maintain it, and how to make it better.

When one person is carrying the burden of caring for the relationship, power differences can result.  Ever hear someone say, “the person who cares less about the relationship has more power”, well I sure have!  In my experience, men seem to be able to “get over” relationships faster than women.  When one person is responsible for caring for the relationship, I’m sure they feel like they have much more invested in it and probably have a harder time moving on.

Also, the person who is responsible is typically the one who gets blamed when things are not going well. If it’s your fault, then it follows that you should be the one who changes to make things better.  When partners are both taking responsibility for changing to make things better this contributes to equality.

Shared relational responsibility consists of both partners recognizing their impact on their partner and on the relationship.  Asking yourself how can I organize myself for the betterment of the relationship?  The act of thinking about the relationship in
itself is taking relational responsibility. Practicing Mutual Attunement and Shared Vulnerability also contributes
to shared relational responsibility.