How many types of power are there in a relationship?
Updated: Aug 9, 2019
In any relationship, there is a power dynamic. For some relationships, this is quite an equal balance, for other relationships it is much less even. Power can be used for mutual benefit, it can be something we gift and encourage in each other, or it can be used as a weapon to undermine the other. Power can come from surprising things, I love the metaphor of the butterfly effect, where the flutter of a butterfly's wings is said to be able to cause a tornado two continents away!
I was recently exploring the different kinds of power or influence we can have, and was surprised by how many kinds there were. I explore them here.
Traditionally we perhaps have thought of power as physical power, about who is stronger and has more physical ability to influence. This is however only one of many sources of power that are actually at play, however influential it can be.
One easily identified source of power is economic or financial power. Who earns the most money, or has the most capital? Who is it that is able to make decisions about the use or not of money?
Sexual power is another way of exerting influence in our relationship. Do we choose to be sexually intimate, or not? On what conditions? Withholding sex, or one person wanting sex more than the other can be a source of conflict and pain, and relationship issues often show up in our sex life. Some say in conflict sex is the first thing to go and the last to come back, it is an emotive subject.
Another important source of influence is the power that society ascribes to us. There are social norms and conventions that it is easy to just go along with, perhaps about gender roles or decision making power about children for example. Power can also be ascribed within a relationship by the norms we develop between ourselves.
We gain influence by how good we are at talking and articulating ourselves. Who in the relationship is better at putting across their point of view or persuading the other to their way of thinking? Who can think more quickly on their feet and articulate their thoughts?
It is easy to exert influence in a situation where we are an 'expert' and so informational power is another dynamic that comes to play in a relationship. Who is it who tends to know stuff, who is it who answers questions and brings in new information?
We can gain power by putting our partner down, this is called invalidational power. We might dismiss or discount their opinions, or use our knowledge of their weakspots and
vulnerabilities to get at them. You might make value judgements about the use of this power, but it is an often used strategy, particularly when things are not going well.
Other sources of power include relational power, which is about the strength of relationship with children, and family, and other groups we belong to, emotional power, which is about who loves the most. and who needs the other the least, legal power, about our rights, social power, reflecting how socially connected and confident we each are, and coping power, which is about who would cope best on their own so feels most at choice about the relationship.
Perhaps the ultimate power comes from being able to leave. If we are in a relationship of our own free choice, and know we can walk away and be OK, it is hard for power to be held over us against our will. Being in a position of want, rather than need, when we think of our relationship is a very empowering place to be.
Reviewing the different sources of power in a relationship, and how they are used, can be a very beneficial and bonding experience. For support to do this, you may want to work together with a couples counsellor.