When it comes to relationships, there are some things that are obvious in theory, but more difficult to understand in reality. We all know that communication should be strong, but it can be harder to see what that looks like in practice. We all know that we should respect and trust our partner, but how do you really earn that? And we all know that a relationship should be a partnership of equals, but how do we know when there’s a power imbalance?
Seeing a power imbalance in a relationship is especially tricky, because very few relationships start out with one. Most relationships wouldn’t make it very far with an obvious power imbalance—instead, one partner normally becomes more dominating, maybe even more controlling, over time. Very often, though not always, it’s because of deliberate, subtle manipulation, while sometimes it’s just a product of how the relationship develops. But understanding when there's an unequal power dynamic is crucial, because relationships that are unequal just aren’t healthy—or sustainable. So here’s how you can see a power imbalance in a relationship, because sometimes you need an objective eye.
There’s a Financial Disparity
Financial disparities are a really common source of imbalance in a relationship—which is probably no surprise, given that money is the number one source of stress among couples. Now, there are some financial imbalances that can’t be helped. If one of you earns more than the other, if one of you has a wealthier family than the other, that can just be a fact of life. It may cause relationship stress, but with open communication and a little work, you should be able to move past it.
But the bigger financial imbalance that you need to worry about is about control. If one partner controls more of the finances than the other, it can be incredibly manipulative—in fact, it can even constitute financial abuse. It doesn’t matter how much either of you makes, there should be at least some equality when it comes to access and distributing finances. If one of you relies on the other for access to shared funds, that's not OK.
There’s a Sexual Imbalance
A sexual imbalance is an issue that’s not spoken about enough, especially because it’s one of the most common reasons that couples seek out therapy. If one partner has a stronger sex drive than the other, that can throw the dynamic of the relationship off. Sometimes the person pursuing sex seems more powerful, while in other relationships the person not interested in sex wields more power. But in either case, the balance isn’t equal.
When this happens, you need to keep communication open and if you need more help, seek out a therapist. Differing sex drives don’t have to wreck a relationship. There’s normally room for compromise and ways to make everyone feel satisfied and find equal footing, but allowing the issue to grow without being addressed can create a really toxic dynamic.
There Are Unilateral Decisions on Big Issues
The most obvious sign that there’s a power imbalance? If big decisions are being made without consulting each other. If one partner constantly makes unilateral decisions, doesn’t keep the other person in the loop, or ignores their input, then there is a serious relationship imbalance.
Sometimes, it’s an innocent mistake—someone is so used to making decisions at their job or in their old relationships that they don't realize they should be communicating and compromising. But if you bring this issue up to your partner and they either don't see it or refuse to change, it may be that there are much larger relationship issues at play, and you may need to consider whether or not it’s the right relationship for you.
Your Friends and Family Have Noticed Something Off
Sometimes you might not notice a power imbalance yourself: One way to tell if this is happening in your relationship may be if the people who care about you have noticed that something is wrong. Because power imbalances and manipulation often come in slowly, you may not even realize that they’re happening. You can become slowly sucked into a new reality where you’ve lost your agency and your independence. If this is the case, it can be really difficult for you to see it. If your friends and family start expressing their concern that you don’t seem happy, you're not acting like yourself, or that you don't seem to be in charge of your own time and decisions, it’s time to listen to them and look at the relationship as a whole.
Again, these are issues that you should bring up with your partner—and maybe they’ll listen. But if they don’t, it could be time to rethink your relationship.
Power imbalances in relationship can be overt and abusive or they can be subtle and even confusing. In fact, power imbalances can manifest in so many different ways that it can be difficult to recognize them. But if you feel uncomfortable, if you feel anxious, and if you don't feel in charge of your own choices or existence, it’s time to address the issue. Some power balances may be circumstantial, some may be the result of manipulation—but no matter how they arise, they need to be addressed as soon as possible. You deserve a partnership of equals.