What makes you a better partner

Power relations in partnerships

The term power is mostly associated with political influence: the power of employers over employees, the power of social interest groups, etc. At first glance, it seems unusual to examine power and influence in the context of intimate relationships, as it is often assumed that partners are in In a couple relationship or marriage, focus exclusively on the well-being of the partner or the common good instead of striving for or exercising power. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that power and influence are also and especially important in intimate relationships. As early as 1959, Thibaut and Kelley pointed out that the influence that people exert on one another makes a relationship possible in the first place. This means that one can only speak of a close relationship if the behavior of one partner has positive or negative consequences for the other partner.

Rewards and punishments

A basic assumption of learning psychology is that people predominantly display the behaviors that have been rewarded in the past and avoid those behaviors that were previously punished. In a somewhat simplified way, one can say that everyone strives to receive as many rewards as possible and as few punishments as possible. This is also the case in partnerships: You want to have many positive and few negative experiences in a relationship.

The term power comes into play once you begin to think about who will give you these rewards and punishments. For example, if a man gives his wife flowers and she is happy about them, his behavior has positive consequences for the woman. On the other hand, if the man criticizes his wife, it has negative effects on her. However, if the woman were to buy her own flowers or to criticize herself, she would achieve an equally good or bad “result”, but would be completely independent of the man's behavior. Thibaut and Kelley now believe that a close relationship only exists when the partners influence each other intensively, and not when the behavior of one partner is completely meaningless to the other.

So we can assume that power - and its opposite: dependence - is present in every partnership. One is dependent on the partner when important rewards can only be achieved through the partner. If, on the other hand, you can procure your own rewards, you are independent. In a traditional family with a male breadwinner and a housewife, the woman is financially dependent on her partner if she cannot earn money herself. The man, on the other hand, is dependent on the woman as soon as he cannot do the necessary housework himself.

Unilateral and mutual dependency

In the example above, man and woman are mutually dependent. Both partners are likely to be satisfied with their relationship if both feel they are equally dependent on each other. But there are enough examples of partnerships with an unequal distribution of power. If, for example, the man can do the housework himself with the help of technical devices, if he can financially afford to go out to eat every day or to employ a housekeeper, his wife's housework is less important to him. In this case the woman would be more dependent on the man than the other way around. Another example: If the man can only satisfy his need for personal conversations with his partner, while the woman can talk to good friends in addition to her husband, he is more dependent than she is under this aspect. The person who is particularly dependent on the partner for the fulfillment of his needs is always more dependent. When one partner has more power than the other, we speak of relative power.

Social influence

We have previously defined power in a relationship in such a way that one partner can influence the rewards and costs that the other partner experiences. Another definition is: A partner has power when he can influence the behavior, opinions, judgments or decisions of the other. This is known as social influence. This can also be distributed equally or unequally.

The same influence can, however, look different: Either the partners agree on every problem that affects both (they discuss planning vacation and buying a television, for example), or they divide areas of competence (one partner plans the vacation, the other buys the television) . Both models represent an equal partnership. The influence is only unevenly distributed if - summed up across all important areas - the same partner usually has the final say in decisions.

Power tactics

How does it come about that one partner can influence the other? In a well-known publication by French and Raven (1959), the following bases of power are distinguished:

  • Power through legitimation: You allow yourself to be influenced by your partner if you are of the opinion that he or she has a right to determine decisions or behavior - just as one can legitimize the state in relation to its citizens, the teacher in relation to its students or parents in relation to their children admits. In cultures where the man is considered the head of the family, power is granted to him from the outset.
  • Power through reward: A partner has power over the other when he is able to reward the other for behaviors that are desirable. There are many ways to do this, from attention, praise, sex and gifts to financial contributions.
  • Power through punishment: Similarly, you can influence your partner by punishing them for undesirable behavior. This includes criticism or withdrawal of love; in extreme cases, this punishment can also include physical violence.
  • Power through identification: When you feel very connected to your partner, it can happen that just because of this "oneness" you do and think what the partner does and think. This can lead to the more dependent partner giving in to differences of opinion very quickly or not starting discussions at all.
  • Power through knowledge: If a partner is well versed in an area, it stands to reason that he makes the decisions relating to this area. The partner who is good at cooking will determine the ingredients for the sauce if you are invited to a celebratory dinner; the partner who is familiar with financial investments will do the mutual banking, etc. In contrast to the other bases of power, this influence is area-specific, ie it only relates to the area in which one of the partners is an expert.
  • In a later publication by French and Raven, the Power through information described. According to this, a partner exerts influence if he can convince the other particularly well of his point of view and presents the better arguments.

Subtle exercise of power

It is often not easy to determine the balance of power in a partnership - not even for those affected. An example of this is power through identification: if a woman adapts to her partner from the outset, he or she is not aware of his or her power. Power through punishment does not have to show itself in daily interaction either. For example, if a man occasionally behaves violently, the woman will behave appropriately even if an actual “punishment” has not taken place for a very long time.

Many examples show that the powerful partner does not need to be aware of his own power. If a woman already takes her partner's taste into account when shopping for furniture and curtains and discards everything that he probably doesn't like, it only looks to the outside as if she has made the decision. However, the man had significant influence that is not revealed to him. It is the same when a woman refrains from buying a dress in order not to be exposed to possible criticism from the man.

Determining the balance of power becomes even more complicated when you consider that the partner who makes decisions does not always have power at the same time - namely when the powerful partner delegates decisions to him: a woman who takes the man along the route Letting go on vacation can do this on purpose to give the man the feeling of power, to have an advantage in the next important decision (because it's her “turn”) or because she simply doesn't feel like it take care of.

It is not primarily important who decides: what matters is who decides who decides! Since power is often exercised subtly and unnoticed, partners often have no idea who is more powerful in their relationship. Men and women often come to inconsistent statements, so that it is very difficult for outsiders to determine the balance of power.

Causes of Unevenly Distributed Power

In some relationships the woman has a greater influence on the man than the other way around, in other relationships the man has the greater influence. If you break up with your partner and start a new relationship, you can be inferior in the old partnership and superior in the new one - or vice versa.

How does a couple get into an unbalanced relationship?

Social psychology distinguishes three causes for this:

  1. Different interests in the relationship: If one partner loves and believes the other more, without being able to live without him, he can easily find himself in an inferior position. He believes he has to do everything to ensure that the relationship is not broken off and tries to please the partner as much as possible. A lot of love, especially when it is accompanied by insecurity and jealousy, makes you susceptible to influences from your partner.
  2. Different alternatives: The partner who has better alternatives to the existing relationship often also has greater power. Someone who thinks they can find a new partner without any problems, and maybe even has an affair, has little reason to be particularly adapted. This is true even when a better alternative is to live alone. A person who could get along very well without the partner is less likely to be influenced than the partner for whom life in the existing partnership is without alternative.
  3. Different resources: A partner who has many positive qualities (attractiveness, social competence, intelligence) often also has power. Among other things, this has to do with the fact that he believes he has better alternatives to the existing relationship. But he also has the necessary resources to reward changes in behavior of the partner and can therefore exercise “power through reward”. In addition to these subjective resources, objective resources such as income, professional status and education are considered important, especially in sociological writings. In terms of these resources, women are in most cases inferior to men - this explains the greater power of many men.

However, our own studies show that the objective resources are not related to the subjectively assessed power-relevant variables. This means that a man who is perhaps more educated and earns more than his wife does not automatically see himself as someone who also has particularly good qualities in other (personal) areas. Nor does he necessarily believe that he has better relationship alternatives, less interest, or more influence. The objective inequalities between men and women are not reflected in their subjective perception.

Other causes of unevenly distributed power arise from personality traits and from the upbringing experienced in childhood: some people are more likely to be brought up to be indulgent, others to be dominant. From a sociological point of view, there are social norms and structures; E.g. in patriarchal societies men are given greater power from the outset.

Consequences of unevenly distributed power

The most important consequence of an unbalanced relationship is partner dissatisfaction. An older American study shows that 95% of women and 87% of men want an equal relationship (Peplau, 1978). Therefore, people who see their partnership as equals are particularly satisfied, while it is worst for both partners when the woman is more powerful than the man. These couples not only violate the norm of equality, but also traditional gender role stereotypes, according to which a man's excess of power is more likely to be accepted than a dominant woman.

Our own studies have also shown that partners with equal rights show the greatest satisfaction. The least satisfied are those who consider themselves more dependent than their partner. Those who believe they have more power than the partner show a medium level of satisfaction. So it is still better to have power over your partner than to be dominated by them. The result from the USA, according to which dominance by women is less favorable than dominance by men, could not be determined in our surveys.

Whether equal partnerships are also more stable has not yet been investigated. However, since dissatisfied couples are more likely to separate than satisfied couples, one can assume that a lack of equality also has an indirect effect on the probability of separation.

It must be emphasized that these relationships depend on cultural factors. In cultures that attribute greater power to men than women and in which this dominance is taken for granted, a lack of equal rights does not give rise to dissatisfaction or even to a separation. But personal norms also play a role: For couples with a traditional attitude towards the desired behavior of men and women, male dominance is seen as less problematic than for couples who represent the norm of equality.

Power and money

Differences in power between partners can also exist when dealing with money. The answer to the question of who manages the money (i.e. manages the account (s)) does not say anything about the distribution of power. The more powerful partner can either take over the administration of the money himself or delegate it to the less powerful partner as a chore. The latter often happens when financial resources are very scarce: one partner entrusting the other with money management can remain in a position of relative power by controlling and, if necessary, correcting the partner's activities.

Often the partner who is more competent in this regard takes care of financial matters. The extent to which power differences arise from such a distribution of tasks depends on whether the other partner (in the “case of contradiction”) is included in the decisions.

Some indications of a lack of power in financial matters are:

  • You will not / have not been involved in deciding who will manage the money.
  • The distribution of expenses is regulated in such a way that you take care of your daily needs (e.g. groceries) yourself, while your partner invests “his” money in lasting assets and buys them in his name (e.g. a car).
  • You don't have your own account or a fixed amount of money that you don't have to account for to anyone.
  • You don't know how much your partner earns or how much wealth he has.
  • You have no power of attorney over the account (s).
  • You feel incompetent when it comes to money and finance.
  • You never have the last word on contentious purchasing decisions.
  • When you go shopping, you consider the needs of other household members much more than your own.

Often you refrain from buying because you expect strong criticism from your partner.

Literature cited

  • French, J.R.P. Jr. & Raven, B. (1959): The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in social power (pp. 150-167). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Peplau, L.A. (1978): Power in dating relationships. In J. Freeman (Ed.), Women: A feminist perspective (pp. 106-121). Palo Alto: Mayfield.
  • Thibaut, J.W. & Kelley, H.H. (1959): The social psychology of groups. New York: Wiley.

further reading

  • Grau, I., Penning, R. & Andreß, H.J. (2010). Equality and relationship satisfaction. In T. Beckers, K. Birkelbach, J. Hagenah & U. Rosar (eds.), Comparative empirical social research. Wiesbaden: VS publishing house for social sciences.
  • Held, T. (1978): Sociology of marital power relations. Darmstadt: Luchterhand.
  • Huston, T.L. (1983): Power. In H.H. Kelley et al. (Eds.), Close relationships (pp. 169-219). New York: W.H. Freeman and Co.
  • Kirchler, E. / Rodler, C. / Hölzl, E. & Meier, K. (2000): Love, Money and Everyday Life.Decisions in close relationships. Göttingen: Hogrefe
  • Pahl, J. (1989): Money and Marriage. London: Macmillan.
  • Stalb, H. (2000): Marital power relations. A comparison of theories. Herbolzheim: Centaurus.


Privatdozentin Dr. Ina Grau, social psychologist, research assistant in the department of social and legal psychology, University of Bonn


PD Dr. Ina gray
University of Bonn
Institute for Psychology
Social and Legal Psychology
Kaiser-Karl-Ring 9
D-53111 Bonn


Created on July 28th, 2004, last changed on September 6th, 2013