It would be nice if every relationship had a straight 50/50 power dynamic split…but those in relationships will tell you that’s probably not the case in their partnership. Relationships should be about a shared, equal bond, where partners are teammates who make compromises and share power, rather than a coach versus team member dynamic. Right?
Think about this common question couples get asked: “So, who wears the pants in this relationship?” Usually, pop culture tells us the man in a heterosexual couple should “wear the pants.” If the woman “wears the pants” the man is looked at as “whipped” and sometimes even teased for it. By talking about and asking who’s wearing the pants, we’re perpetuating the idea that one person should be in charge.
It’s like society demands one person hold more power in the relationship. What happened to equality?
Why Dominant Roles Exist in Relationships
There are multiple reasons why one person may exert more power in a relationship.
“[Roles in relationships] depend on experiences in our lives,” Kimberly Leitch, LCSW-R and Talkspace therapist, says, “Someone may have been in a controlling relationship previously and now they tend to be in control of their present relationship in fear of repeating the same mistakes. The importance of balance varies with each person.”
Of course, there are other life events that can cause someone to be the controlling partner in a relationship — even events from childhood. For example, if somebody had very controlling parents, it’s common that they too might desire control, even in a romantic relationship. Or, if someone experienced lots of rejection as they were growing up, they might take extreme measures in relationships to make sure they aren’t rejected or abandoned again.
When it’s Okay to Defer to Your Partner
In certain cases, taking ownership of the power dynamic is okay, if it’s in a healthy way, and makes sense for each partner.
“There are some personality types that like to relinquish the control onto their partner because they cannot handle the stress of the responsibilities or being in control elicits anxiety.” Leitch says. “I have a client whose husband works and therefore she is in charge of everything else [at home] and it works in their relationship. He also tends to be a passive person whereas she is a big personality and tends to be more assertive. He follows her lead and he doesn’t have to be bothered making decisions.”
In this case, the skewed power dynamic makes sense, so long as the passive partner continues to feel okay with the arrangement, and speaks up if they want more say in decisions around the house.
Even in situations like the one Leitch described, an imbalance of power can definitely turn unhealthy.
“It becomes an issue when you feel like you are not being heard and there is no sense of you in the relationship. It can lead you to feel uncomfortable and insecure.” Leitch explains, “You may feel like you are submitting to your partner’s likes or interests, which is not being reciprocated. It is important to communicate these feelings with your partner to avoid any negative feelings or behaviors.”
If you land in a place like this, where you feel like you don’t have a voice in your relationship, it’s definitely time to reevaluate your partnership and roles. Allowing an unhealthy power dynamic to persist can take a toll on even the strongest relationship.
What to Do When You’ve Lost Control in a Relationship
Here are some things you can do if you feel like your partner is being too controlling, or the power dynamic has shifted in an unfavorable way.
Look inside yourself and ask why you’re putting up with being bossed around. Do you feel worthy of healthy love? Are you scared of losing your partner? Are you feeling stuck because you’re scared your partner might physically hurt you if you try to leave? Are controlling relationships all you know?
Journal about your feelings, speak to a loved one, or bring it up in therapy.
Communicate with your partner
It’s possible your partner might not even realize how controlling they’re being. Speak up about your feelings, and explain the situation from your point of view in a non-confrontational manner. Spell out scenarios where your partner made you feel poorly about yourself or controlled.
Try to stay calm and level headed. As with any conflict in a relationship, communication is key. While it can be awkward to start a difficult conversation with a partner, learning to do so is crucial.
Be confident and stand strong
All too often, people lose themselves when they are in a controlling relationship. Stand your ground and try to take back some of your power in subtle ways by remaining confident and aware. It may also help to be more independent than usual, which helps you prove to yourself that you can be independent and take care of yourself. Keep your guard up so you can’t be so easily manipulated.
Give couples therapy a try
Couples therapy is great for couples who are struggling with any problem. A couple’s therapist can provide a safe space for each person to voice their concerns, and the therapist can help facilitate the conversation as well as help the couple understand each other. It can also help ease your nerves if you’re scared of confronting your partner one on one.
Recognize signs of abuse
Sadly, domestic abuse is common. Controlling behavior can sometimes be a sign or predictor of abusive behavior. Educate yourself on the signs of domestic abuse so you can be aware of what’s going on in your relationship and if things are on the road to getting dangerous.
If you believe you are being abused, tell a loved one and get in touch with an organization like The National Domestic Abuse Hotline for help. This step also goes along with knowing when it’s time to walk away from the relationship and leave before it gets any worse.
No Relationship is Perfect, but it Should Be Healthy
While no relationship is perfect, and you shouldn’t necessarily strive for “perfect,” everybody deserves a safe, healthy relationship. A super controlling partner definitely does not equate to a healthy and happy relationship.
It’s okay to share duties and give up control of some areas or aspects of a relationship, but always be aware of your feelings, recognize controlling partners, and look out for the signs of abuse. Nobody deserves to feel powerless or unsafe in a relationship.
Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.
Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.
Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.