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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 ›
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A machine learning system lets visitors at a Kandinsky exhibition hear the artwork.
Have you ever heard colors?
As part of a new exhibition, the worlds of culture and technology collide, bringing sound to the colors of abstract art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky had synesthesia, where looking at colors and shapes causes some with the condition to hear associated sounds. With the help of machine learning, virtual visitors to the Sounds Like Kandinsky exhibition, a partnership project by Centre Pompidou in Paris and Google Arts & Culture, can have an aural experience of his art.
An eye for music
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his painting. Seeing yellow summoned up trumpets, evoking emotions like cheekiness; reds produced violins portraying restlessness; while organs representing heavenliness he associated with blues, according to the exhibition notes.
Virtual visitors are invited to take part in an experiment called Play a Kandinsky, which allows them to see and hear the world through the artist's eyes.
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his 1925 painting Yellow, Red, Blue.Image: Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons
In 1925, the artist's masterpiece, "Yellow, Red, Blue", broke new ground in the world of abstract art, guiding the viewer from left to right with shifting shapes and shades. Almost a century after it was painted, Google's interactive tool lets visitors click different parts of the artwork to journey through the artist's description of the colors, associated sounds and moods that inspired the work.
But Google's new toy is not the only tool developed to enhance the artistic experience.
Artist Neil Harbisson has developed an artificial way to emulate Kandinsky by turning colors into sounds. He has a rare form of color blindness and sees the world in greyscale. But a smart antenna attached to his head translates dominant colors into musical notes, creating a real-world soundtrack of what's in front of him. The invention could open up a new world for people who are color blind.
A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.
- Private prisons in Mississippi tend to hold prisoners 90 days longer than public ones.
- The extra days eat up half of the expected cost savings of a private prison.
- The study leaves several open questions, such as what affect these extra days have on recidivism rates.
The United States of America, land of the free, is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. The cost of having so many people in the penal system adds up to $80 billion per year, more than three times the budget for NASA. This massive system exploded in size relatively recently, with the prison population increasing by six-fold in the last four decades.
Ten percent of these prisoners are kept in private prisons, which are owned and operated for the sake of profit by contractors. In theory, these operations cost less than public prisons and jails, and states can save money by contracting them to incarcerate people. They have a long history in the United States and are used in many other countries as well.
However, despite the pervasiveness of private contractors in the American prison system, there is not much research into how well they live up to their promise to provide similar services at a lower cost to the state. The little research that is available often encounters difficulties in trying to compare the costs and benefits of facilities with vastly different operations and occasionally produces results suggesting there are few benefits to privatization.
A new study by Dr. Anita Mukherjee and published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy joins the debate with a robust consideration of the costs and benefits of private prisons. Its findings suggest that some private prisons keep people incarcerated longer and save less money than advertised.
The study focuses on prisons in Mississippi. Despite its comparatively high rate of incarceration, Mississippi's prison system is very similar to that of other states that also use private prisons. Demographically, its system is representative of the rest of the U.S. prison system, and its inmates are sentenced for similar amounts of time.
The state attempts to get the most out of its privatization efforts, as a 1994 law requires all contracts for private prisons in Mississippi to provide at least a 10 percent cost savings over public prisons while providing similar services. As a result, the state seeks to maximize its savings by sending prisoners to private institutions first if space if available.
While public and private prisons in Mississippi are quite similar, there are a few differences that allow for the possibility of cost savings by private operators — not the least of which is that the guards are paid 30 percent less and have fewer benefits than their publicly employed counterparts.
The results of privatization
The graph depicts the likelihood of release for public (dotted line) vs. private (solid line) prison inmates. At every level of time served, public prisoners were more likely to be released than private prisoners.Dr. Anita Mukherjee
The study relied on administrative records of the Mississippi prison system between 1996 and 2013. The data included information on prisoner demographics, the crimes committed, sentence lengths, time served, infractions while incarcerated, and prisoner relocation while in the system, including between public and private jails. For this study, the sample examined was limited to those serving between one and six years and those who served at least a quarter of their sentence. This created a primary sample of 26,563 bookings.
Analysis revealed that prisoners in private prisons were behind bars for four to seven percent longer than those in public prisons, which translates to roughly 85 to 90 extra days per prisoner. This is, in part, because those in private prison serve a greater portion of their sentences (73 percent) than those in public institutions (70 percent).
This in turn might be due to the much higher infraction rate in private prisons compared to public ones. While only 18 percent of prisoners in a public prison commit an infraction, such as disobeying a guard or possessing contraband, the number jumps to 46 percent in a private prison. Infractions can reduce the probability of early release or cause time to be added to a sentence.
It's unclear why there are so many more infractions in private prisons. Dr. Mukherjee suggests it could be the result of "harsher prison conditions in private prisons," better monitoring techniques, incentives to report more of them to the state before contract renewals, or even a lackadaisical attitude on the part of public prison employees.
What does all this cost Mississippi?
The extra time served eats 48 percent of the cost savings of keeping prisoners in a private facility. For example, it costs about $135,000 to house a prisoner in a private prison for three years and $150,000 in the public system. But longer stays in private prisons reduce the savings from $15,000 to only $7,800.
As Dr. Mukherjee remarks, this cost is also just the finance. Some things are a little harder to measure:
"There are, of course, other costs that are difficult to quantify — e.g., the cost of injustice to society (if private prison inmates systematically serve more time), the inmate's individual value of freedom, and impacts of the additional incarceration on future employment. Abrams and Rohlfs (2011) estimates a prisoner's value of freedom for 90 days at about $1,100 using experimental variation in bail setting. Mueller-Smith (2017) estimates that 90 days of marginal incarceration costs about $15,000 in reduced wages and increased reliance on welfare. If these social costs were to exceed $7,800 in the example stated, private prisons would no longer offer a bargain in terms of welfare-adjusted cost savings."
It is possible that the extra time in jail provides benefits that counter these costs, such as a reduced recidivism rate, but this proved difficult to determine. Though it was not statistically significant, there was some evidence that the added time actually increased the rate of recidivism. If that's true, then private prisons could be counterproductive.