Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
The signs of unhealthy power dynamics in a relationship—and how to even them out
Is there a power imbalance in your relationship? You can find out by answering 28 simple questions.
- The balance of power in relationships is an ever-changing status that deserves to be carefully monitored and cared for.
- Negative balances of power can be defined by three different relationship dynamics: demand/withdrawal, distancer/pursuer and the fear/shame dynamic.
- Researchers have conducted several studies and come up with a list of questions that can help you determine if your relationship has a negative power imbalance.
What is a “power imbalance” in a relationship?
Thinking about where "power" comes from - it's not just from one person. Power can be defined as the ability or capacity to direct or influence the behavior of others in a particular way. Power is not limited to domination and submission. Instead, power in relationships is understood to be the respective abilities of each person in the relationship to influence each other and direct the relationship - and this is a very complex element of romantic partnerships.
Possession of power changes the human psyche, usually in ways that we aren't aware of - one of which is the activation of the behavioral approach system that's based in our left frontal cortex.
This system is fueled by the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is considered a "feel-good" chemical. Being in control or having power feels good - this surge of dopamine that comes from feeling empowered or powerful is automatic, it's not something we can control.
According to Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, having power makes people more likely to act like sociopaths, putting the human drive for rewards above the intimacy and connection we have with our partners. This is why the power imbalances of relationships are ever-changing.
How a negative struggle for power could be damaging your relationship (and your mental health)
Couples who are stuck in power-hungry relationship dynamics are more likely to get divorced, research says.
Photo by New Africa on Shutterstock
There are three types of relationship dynamics that can result from negative power imbalances within the relationship: demand/withdrawal, distancer/pursuer, and fear/shame.
The demand-withdrawal dynamic occurs when one partner is the "demander" who seeks change, discussion, and is in constant search of a resolution to issues within the relationship - while the other partner is withdrawn, seeking to avoid the issues.
According to a study conducted by Lauren Papp (Department of Human Development and Family Studies, University of Wisconsin), Chrystyna Kouros and E. Mark Cummings (both with the Department of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame), the demand/withdrawal dynamic has been linked with spousal depression and is a powerful predictor of dissatisfaction in the marriage and divorce.
Their findings also established a pattern of gender-bias within relationships that had the demand/withdrawal dynamic, with women predominantly being the "demanders" and men predominantly being "withdrawn".
The distancer-pursuer dynamic is explained as such: one person (known as the pursuer) tries to achieve and maintain a certain degree of intimacy with their partner (the distancer), who considers this affection to be "smothering".
In this unhealthy dynamic, the closer the pursuer wants to be, the more resistant, defiant and withdrawn the distancer can be. This is considered to be very similar to the "demand/withdrawal" dynamic, however, with distancer/pursuer relationships the struggle is over a deeper connection and less about who has more power.
The distancer would imagine the issue in the relationship to be the "neediness" of their partner, and the pursuer would feel their partner has been cold and potentially even purposefully destructive by withholding affection.
The fear-shame dynamic is often an "unconscious" culprit of relationship troubles, as the fear and insecurity of one partner would bring out the shame and avoidance in the other - and vice versa.
According to Dr. Steven Stosny, the vulnerability of fear and shame is influenced by many different variables (such as hormone levels and traumatic experiences), which can make this dynamic particularly difficult to get out of.
Two separate researchers of negative power imbalances in relationships, Dr. John Gottman and E. Mavis Hetherington, have both concluded that couples who are seemingly stuck in one of these three negative power dynamics were at a very high risk for divorce.
Is there such a thing as a positive power struggle?
While the idea of a power struggle or imbalance indicates something negative, not all power struggles are destructive. While the beginning stages of love might have you feeling as though you've found your "other half", relationships consist of two unique people who have different opinions, beliefs and viewpoints.
Naturally, there will be times that there is an imbalance in your relationship, however - there are some types of power struggles that allow growth within the relationship and encourage a deeper understanding and respect for each other.
According to psychiatrist Kurt Smith, a positive power struggle is one that ultimately results in the growth of the relationship. While the struggle is still a struggle, by the end of it, you will have reached an understanding of which lines can be crossed, which cannot and how much each partner is able to compromise.
This set of questions will help you determine if there is a negative power imbalance in your relationship.
There is a list of questions put forth by researchers that will help you determine if your relationship has a negative power imbalance...
Photo by Red Confidential on Shutterstock
Psychology researchers Allison Farrell, Jeffry Simpson, and Alexander Rothman conducted three separate studies* on the balance of power in relationships and from the results, were able to come up with a self-report style "test" (called the Relationship Power Inventory) for romantic partners to be able to assess the balance of power between them.
The questions provided in this inventory target important aspects of power within romantic relationships and can help you and your partner assess if you have a negative or positive imbalance of power.
- I have more say than my partner does when we make decisions in our relationship.
- I have more control over decision making than my partner does in our relationship.
- When we make decisions in our relationship, I get the final say.
- I have more influence than my partner does on decisions in our relationship.
- I have more power than my partner when deciding about issues in our relationship.
- I am more likely than my partner to get my way when we disagree about issues in our relationship.
- My partner typically accepts what I want when we make decisions in this domain.
- My partner tends to give in to my preferences when we disagree about decisions in this domain.
- My partner has more say than I do when we make decisions in our relationship.
- My partner has more control over decision making than I do in our relationship.
- When we make decisions in our relationship, my partner gets the final say.
- My partner has more influence than I do on decisions in our relationship.
- My partner has more power than me when deciding about issues in our relationship.
- My partner is more likely to get his/her way than me when we disagree about issues in our relationship.
- I typically accept what my partner wants when we make decisions in this domain.
- I tend to give in to my partner's preferences when we disagree about decisions in this domain.
- I am more likely than my partner to start discussions about issues in our relationship.
- When my partner and I make decisions in our relationship, I tend to structure and lead the discussion.
- I lay out the options more than my partner does when we discuss decisions in our relationship.
- I tend to bring up issues in our relationship more often than my partner does.
- I generally steer the discussions my partner and I have about decisions in this domain.
- I can make my partner come around to what I want when making decisions in this domain without him/her noticing what I am doing.
- My partner is more likely than me to start discussions about issues in our relationship.
- When my partner and I make decisions in our relationship, my partner tends to structure and lead the discussion.
- My partner lays out the options more than I do when we discuss decisions in this domain.
- My partner tends to bring up issues in this domain more often than I do.
- My partner generally steers the discussions we have about decisions in this domain.
- After the fact, I sometimes realize my partner influenced me without my noticing when making decisions in this domain.
You can find more on the Relationship Power Inventory here [PDF download].
*A note on the parameters of these studies: the studies mentioned above were limited to couples who were involved in monogamous heterosexual relationships, as much of the past research about power dynamics in romantic couples also focused on heterosexual relationships.
Shared power and continuously balancing the scales…
The balance of power within your relationship is a fascinating and extremely important thing to be aware of, as it can play a key role in the positive (or negative) direction of your romantic life together.
Reaching a balance in power can be explained as "shared power", where both partners take responsibility for themselves and the health of the relationship. In this ideal balance of power, ideas and decisions are shared jointly and points of view are respected and valued. There is an open line of communication and where issues arise, there is space for vulnerability and compassion.
The key elements that produce a healthy balance of power in a relationship are:
- Attention: when both partners feel their emotional needs are being met
- Influence: when both partners have the ability to engage with and emotionally affect the other.
- Accommodation: while there may be times where one partner's need must be put above the others (in a time of tragedy, for example), most decisions are made jointly.
- Respect: when each partner has positive regard, respect, and admiration for the humanity of the other person.
- Selfhood: when each partner maintains a positive value of self and is able to be their own person both within and outside of the relationship.
- Vulnerability: each partner is willing to admit fault, weakness or uncertainties in themselves.
- Fairness: when both partners feel that the responsibilities and duties in their lives are divided in a way that supports each person.
According to Theresa e DiDonato, a social psychiatrist and associate professor at Loyola University in Maryland, one of the keys to a successful long-term relationship is a consistent reassessment of the balance of power - because in healthy relationships, the power structure will inevitably shift and change as both people involved change and as you tackle new life challenges together.
"There a widely held belief that to be loved you have to abandon power and vice versa - and then you choose a partner who is able to provide the missing function."
- Adam Kahane, Power and Love
- Power and Dependency - Big Think ›
- The Power Struggle of Love - Big Think ›
- More couples are choosing to live apart: Here's why - Big Think ›
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.
- The recent passing of the great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg brought back memories of how his book got me into the study of cosmology.
- Going back in time, toward the cosmic infancy, is a spectacular effort that combines experimental and theoretical ingenuity. Modern cosmology is an experimental science.
- The cosmic story is, ultimately, our own. Our roots reach down to the earliest moments after creation.
When I was a junior in college, my electromagnetism professor had an awesome idea. Apart from the usual homework and exams, we were to give a seminar to the class on a topic of our choosing. The idea was to gauge which area of physics we would be interested in following professionally.
Professor Gilson Carneiro knew I was interested in cosmology and suggested a book by Nobel Prize Laureate Steven Weinberg: The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. I still have my original copy in Portuguese, from 1979, that emanates a musty tropical smell, sitting on my bookshelf side-by-side with the American version, a Bantam edition from 1979.
Inspired by Steven Weinberg
Books can change lives. They can illuminate the path ahead. In my case, there is no question that Weinberg's book blew my teenage mind. I decided, then and there, that I would become a cosmologist working on the physics of the early universe. The first three minutes of cosmic existence — what could be more exciting for a young physicist than trying to uncover the mystery of creation itself and the origin of the universe, matter, and stars? Weinberg quickly became my modern physics hero, the one I wanted to emulate professionally. Sadly, he passed away July 23rd, leaving a huge void for a generation of physicists.
What excited my young imagination was that science could actually make sense of the very early universe, meaning that theories could be validated and ideas could be tested against real data. Cosmology, as a science, only really took off after Einstein published his paper on the shape of the universe in 1917, two years after his groundbreaking paper on the theory of general relativity, the one explaining how we can interpret gravity as the curvature of spacetime. Matter doesn't "bend" time, but it affects how quickly it flows. (See last week's essay on what happens when you fall into a black hole).
The Big Bang Theory
For most of the 20th century, cosmology lived in the realm of theoretical speculation. One model proposed that the universe started from a small, hot, dense plasma billions of years ago and has been expanding ever since — the Big Bang model; another suggested that the cosmos stands still and that the changes astronomers see are mostly local — the steady state model.
Competing models are essential to science but so is data to help us discriminate among them. In the mid 1960s, a decisive discovery changed the game forever. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a fossil from the early universe predicted to exist by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman in their Big Bang model. (Alpher and Herman published a lovely account of the history here.) The CMB is a bath of microwave photons that permeates the whole of space, a remnant from the epoch when the first hydrogen atoms were forged, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The existence of the CMB was the smoking gun confirming the Big Bang model. From that moment on, a series of spectacular observatories and detectors, both on land and in space, have extracted huge amounts of information from the properties of the CMB, a bit like paleontologists that excavate the remains of dinosaurs and dig for more bones to get details of a past long gone.
How far back can we go?
Confirming the general outline of the Big Bang model changed our cosmic view. The universe, like you and me, has a history, a past waiting to be explored. How far back in time could we dig? Was there some ultimate wall we cannot pass?
Because matter gets hot as it gets squeezed, going back in time meant looking at matter and radiation at higher and higher temperatures. There is a simple relation that connects the age of the universe and its temperature, measured in terms of the temperature of photons (the particles of visible light and other forms of invisible radiation). The fun thing is that matter breaks down as the temperature increases. So, going back in time means looking at matter at more and more primitive states of organization. After the CMB formed 400,000 years after the bang, there were hydrogen atoms. Before, there weren't. The universe was filled with a primordial soup of particles: protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos, the ghostly particles that cross planets and people unscathed. Also, there were very light atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium (both heavier cousins of hydrogen), helium, and lithium.
So, to study the universe after 400,000 years, we need to use atomic physics, at least until large clumps of matter aggregate due to gravity and start to collapse to form the first stars, a few millions of years after. What about earlier on? The cosmic history is broken down into chunks of time, each the realm of different kinds of physics. Before atoms form, all the way to about a second after the Big Bang, it's nuclear physics time. That's why Weinberg brilliantly titled his book The First Three Minutes. It is during the interval between one-hundredth of a second and three minutes that the light atomic nuclei (made of protons and neutrons) formed, a process called, with poetic flair, primordial nucleosynthesis. Protons collided with neutrons and, sometimes, stuck together due to the attractive strong nuclear force. Why did only a few light nuclei form then? Because the expansion of the universe made it hard for the particles to find each other.
What about the nuclei of heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, calcium, gold? The answer is beautiful: all the elements of the periodic table after lithium were made and continue to be made in stars, the true cosmic alchemists. Hydrogen eventually becomes people if you wait long enough. At least in this universe.
In this article, we got all the way up to nucleosynthesis, the forging of the first atomic nuclei when the universe was a minute old. What about earlier on? How close to the beginning, to t = 0, can science get? Stay tuned, and we will continue next week.
To Steven Weinberg, with gratitude, for all that you taught us about the universe.
Long before Alexandria became the center of Egyptian trade, there was Thônis-Heracleion. But then it sank.