The factors that contribute to an imbalance of power are often hard to notice on a day-to-day basis, but over time they contribute to an unhealthy dynamic if they are not addressed. Imbalances of power can be found in every relationship that we engage in as humans, from our most vulnerable and trusted relationships with partners and best friends to workplaces or even in government. Many times, when we discuss power imbalances, we focus on how to identify and address them, which is helpful in our everyday lives. However, it is also important to examine the factors in a relationship, whether romantic or professional, that could contribute to the exaggeration or manipulation of the power balance. Understanding how these factors contribute to how we identify and address imbalances is key to determining how we can move forward.
This article will examine the factors that can create an imbalance of power in different relationships and how they can contribute to the ways that we see power imbalances in the world. It will examine the ideas of power and control before creating a definition for a power imbalance. After this, it will look at relationships that frequently experience power dynamics to help provide a frame of reference for the relationships that will continue to be discussed in the article. With this framework, we will look at the factors that contribute to imbalance in these relationships, highlighting when one factor is particularly present in certain relationships and the issues that it may cause if not addressed promptly.
After discussing the factors, the article will look at the ways that imbalances can fester if left unattended and answer the question of whether there are instances where imbalances may be a good thing. Finally, the article will look at identifying and addressing power imbalances in relationships to heal wither with each other or apart The goal of this article is to identify factors that commonly influence the imbalance and how these factors can be used to identify and address any imbalances that we find.
Power and Control:
Power exists in all relationships. It allows us to use our influence over others to achieve what we want or need. It is healthy for humans to use their power to achieve their goals and get what they need. When humans are exercising a healthy amount of power, we feel the ability to control the outcome of our choices and that our power matters. It enables healthy decision-making and action overreaction. Power is a necessary aspect of the human experience, and empowered people are equipped to affect change in their lives and the people around them. However, when a person is using their power to control another human in some way, it becomes unhealthy, especially when the control diminishes the other person’s power.
Control is the other aspect of power that needs to be discussed. Control, as mentioned above, is the ability to affect change in circumstances and achieve goals. Control, to some extent, is a healthy human need as well. It comes in the balance of understanding what we can and cannot control in our lives and living with power over the things we can and accepting the things we cannot. Control allows us to feel like we are capable of big things in the world and can encourage us to achieve our goals and purpose. However, control is unhealthy when we attempt to assert it over another person in a way that interferes with their control. Doing so impairs their power and creates a situation where power is out of balance.
Power Imbalance Defined:
Taking power dynamics and control into a relationship, an imbalance of power results when one person or group of people exerts power and control over another. The power of the dominant party will control the decision-making and other aspects of the other’s lives in ways that disadvantage them. It also includes not taking the person with less power’s best interests into account and forcing only what is good or best for one of the parties over the other. A power imbalance, in simple terms, results when the decision-making and other aspects of the relationship are shared equally among the parties. One party is often in control and the other is being controlled. This is more common than we realize because humans have flaws, and there are often things that rob us of our power. When power is robbed or neglected, it leaves a vacuum for someone to fill, either consciously or unconsciously.
Common Relationships with Imbalances:
Any relationship between two or more people may have a power imbalance. As long as there is power that will be shared between the parties in some way, there may be issues with how that power is shared. Some examples of relationships where imbalances of power are common include:
- Romantic: The most commonly discussed relationship with a power imbalance is a romantic partnership. This is the most studied type because it often leads to abuse and other unhealthy habits in the relationship, and often creates the most sinister results. Because romantic partners spend much of their time together and have to make many decisions about their lives together, it is often the most noticeable by people who know the partners, yet it can often fly under the radar because people tend to miss the signs or not be intimately involved in the decision-making process for the partners. Imbalance commonly occurs in codependent relationships or abusive relationships.
- Friends: Occasionally, friends will have a relationship where one friend can make decisions and control the other friend to the point that it becomes an imbalance of power and does not allow the other friend to take charge and grow. This is commonly seen when friends live together or when one friend is allowed to have a large influence over the other’s life. Friends should support each other and encourage each other to make good decisions, but they should not have the power to make decisions for another friend.
- Work: Another common relationship for imbalance is a working relationship. While there are often imbalances that exist with the positional hierarchy in the company, the more difficult imbalances come when peers find themselves out of balance with one another. Workplaces are common breeding grounds for imbalance because many industries tend to favor the person who asserts and controls the power, even in a group of employees at the same level. This can create cultures where employees are grabbing for power and can create a hierarchy within the group of peers.
- Societal: While this is a topic unto itself, society as a whole may have a power imbalance among the groups that make up the society. In many countries, some groups have seized power and used it to control others. This one is less easily identifiable because it is so large and often integrated into the culture, but when it surfaces, it is often far-reaching and difficult to overcome. This is what many social movements and civil rights movements are based on.
Any relationship between people can have a power imbalance, but the most commonly addressed relationships are listed above. Understanding these common relationships with imbalances will help identify and address the imbalances later on.
Factors Contributing to an Imbalance:
Now that we understand what a power imbalance is and the common relationships where power imbalance may need to be addressed, it is time to turn to the bulk of this article—the factors that contribute to power imbalances. These factors influence how power is given and received in a relationship and how the partners make choices that affect their lives. While the presence of these factors is not necessarily an indicator that power will be unequally shared, it does indicate that power could easily shift to one partner if care and consideration are not made for the others.
An important note before we discuss some of the factors that play a role in imbalance—some of these factors are dependent on traits of the person whose power is overcome or stolen. This is not intended to place blame on the person with these traits, but to instead demonstrate some risks associated with these traits and encourage individuals and partners to be aware of how these traits may be exploited. Abuse and manipulation are never the faults of the person they are directed toward.
Many of these factors are personality traits in one or both partners. When discussing each factor, we will discuss both the personality that could potentially be controlled and the one that could end up controlling the other, whether consciously or unconsciously. Identifying these factors early in a relationship, especially if both sides are present, can indicate that power can easily be controlled if not consciously addressed.
One’s ability to assert themselves and their opinions or preference to another or a group may determine the balance of power in a relationship. If someone lacks assertiveness and does not voice their concerns or opinions, they will often be overlooked or ignored when decisions are made and may end up under the control of another. On the opposite end of the spectrum, someone who is overly assertive and unable to consider others’ needs or opinions may easily control someone who is not in a position to assert themselves in defiance of this person.
A person’s sense of control over themselves, particularly over their body, can be indicative of the ways that they will respond in situations where another attempts to exert control over them. Autonomy is the ability to make decisions for oneself and the independence that comes with that. When a person is over-dependent on another to make decisions for them, they lose some of their autonomy and can be more easily controlled. Conversely, if a person is so independent to the point where they do not consider the people around them before making decisions, they may have the ability to control others easily.
View of Power:
Another factor that can influence how partners share power in a relationship is the way that each person views power. Someone who views power as important and feels the need to have the power will likely control much of the power in a relationship. However, someone who is uncomfortable with power and uneasy with the way that asserting power may affect a relationship may refrain from using their power and allow the other person to exert more power than they would otherwise. The ways that we view power can have a profound impact on our relationship with another person and how we respond to power.
Healthy self-esteem recognizes the value that one holds but does not use this value to belittle or demean others. It understands worth and will not accept less than what they deserve. However, when self-esteem is low and often coupled with shame, it can be easy for a person to be controlled by another. When someone does not see their worth, they may accept less out of a partnership and give up their power. On the flip side, when a person has an inflated sense of self-worth or overconfidence, they may take more than they should from another person and may easily exert control over others, especially if they are paired with someone with low self-esteem.
A person’s view of rejection will often have an impact on how they use the power within a relationship. A healthy view of rejection sees it for what it is—an acknowledgment that the relationship or partnership is not working or will not work and allows the parties to move forward separately. However, if a person sees rejection as the value of the other person and does not evaluate their own role in the rejection, they may abuse this power in the relationship because they have little fear of rejection. On the other hand, a person who is terrified of rejection and abandonment may shrink themselves to fit the mold of the other person in the relationship and fail to let anyone see them for who they truly are. This allows the other person to have all the power in the relationship.
We all have expectations for a relationship, no matter what the goal of the relationship is. We expect our partners to contribute in certain ways or act in a way that we have in our heads. However, when these expectations are not communicated clearly or are unrealistic, they can cause an imbalance in power. Unrealistic expectations will often set a partner up for failure and end up with both parties frustrated. It can either allow the person with the expectations to give up control, hoping that the other person will see the expectations that they have for them, or they may take more control to try and force the other to conform to their expectations. Additionally, expectations that are not communicated well may have the same effect and can cause one party to try and push the other into those expectations.
People tend to focus on both themselves and others when making both big and small decisions throughout the day. A person who is consistently focusing on other people, or externally focused, will often ignore their own needs or opinions and choose what is best for others. While this is healthy in certain situations, a constant or habitual external focus can result in a person who is controlled by another. The opposite side of this is a person who is habitually internally focused and does not account for the needs of others when making decisions. This type of person can easily force their way onto others and control the situation.
Other factors may influence the way that control and power are shared within a relationship, but one of the key factors to watch for is when one party may put less emphasis or stock in their own feelings or opinions and another person that may have the ability and desire to exploit that in some way. When one person gives up some of the control and another person exercises control to take or fill that void, there will be an imbalance of power that will need to be addressed. Again, the presence of one or more of these factors does not necessarily mean that there will be an imbalance, but the longer these factors go unacknowledged and unaddressed, the higher the chances that a power imbalance may be present in the relationship. Also important to state a second time is that abuse and control are never the faults of the person experiencing them. Abuse is solely the responsibility of the abuser.
The Issue with Imbalances:
A common question when speaking about power imbalances is whether or not they are always a bad thing. We spoke before of hierarchies in the workplace and the need for bosses to have a certain level of power over employees, yet even in that context, the power cannot be unbalanced to the point of a boss exercising full control over a person, especially when it extends beyond the job. While there may be room for imbalance in certain situations, such as one partner handles decisions on a certain subject and the other handles decisions in another area of the relationship, an imbalance in the relationship as a whole is an issue that needs to be identified and addressed. Power imbalances are situations that need to be addressed because they may often lead to other forms of abuse and control, such as:
- Lack of Boundaries: This is particularly common in workplace power struggles. If a superior exercises complete control over an employee’s schedule and life to the point that they are controlling other aspects of the person’s life through work, there is a massive imbalance and breakdown of boundaries around work. This may also be the case in other relationships. When boundaries are set and others break them, this is a huge consequence of power imbalance.
- Abuse: When one party has most of the power in a relationship, it becomes easier for them to exercise full control over the other person, whether that be physically, emotionally, or mentally. Abuse is founded in the ability to control the other person, so it is common for power imbalances to bleed into abuse.
- Manipulation: Control can also allow the person in control to manipulate the person, not in control, and harm them through these decisions. People who use manipulation use it to consolidate the remaining power in the relationship and exercise complete control over the other person. Manipulation is itself abuse and should not be taken lightly.
Because imbalances can quickly become harmful for the parties involved, it is important to identify and address them as quickly as possible.
Identifying Power Imbalance:
When people are in a relationship where power is unequally shared, it may be difficult to acknowledge or see the imbalance. Knowing the signs of a power imbalance is the first step in identifying and addressing the issues surrounding control in a relationship. Watching for the following signs can help identify a relationship where the power is not shared equally among the partners. These signs include:
- Rules: Rules between partners are can be healthy when they are agreed on by all parties. However, if one person is setting rules for the others without their consent, they may need to address the power in the relationship.
- Apologies: Again, apologies are necessary for a healthy relationship when the partners are addressing wrongs to each other and acknowledging the role they all played in the situation. However, if one of the partners never apologies and refuses to accept blame, they are likely exercising control over the other.
- Decisions: Who makes the decisions in the relationship? If the answer is that one person makes the majority of the decisions, especially if the concerns of the other parties are not considered, there is likely an issue with the balance of power.
- Isolation: If one person in a relationship is lonely or isolated by another, this is a form of abuse and is likely the result of an imbalance of power.
- Communication: When the partners are not able to communicate openly because the concerns and feelings of one or more partners are not addressed or given the space they should be given, that is a sign of an issue within the control of the relationship. This is especially true if one party feels a lack of respect from their partner.
- Change: While most people will change during a long-term relationship, if one of the partners’ forces change upon the other to accommodate their tastes or desires, that can indicate that one party has unhealthy power over the other.
There are a variety of other signs that can indicate an imbalance of power. When considering whether there is an issue, the main goal is to identify if one party is exercising control over the other or removing their agency.
Dealing with Power Imbalances in Daily Life:
Once you have identified that there is an imbalance in the relationship, it is important to consider the implication of this imbalance. Some relationships will be able to be repaired, especially if it seems that one party is exercising control unconsciously and the parties can communicate. However, there are instances in which the parties cannot have a healthy relationship with the current status of their control and power. If the relationship cannot be repaired, then it is time to find an exit strategy. If the relationship can be repaired, the most important next step is to open the lines of communication between the parties. If either party is ready to address the issue, they can bring it up with their partner and discuss how the imbalance has affected them. Doing so can illustrate how the power and control in the relationship are shared and encourage the parties to stay in communication as well. The parties can also consider putting boundaries around their relationship and finding ways to make sure that they are considering each other when making decisions that impact them both.
Power imbalances may ruin a relationship; however, if the partners identify factors that may lead to imbalance or that they are already out of balance early on, they may avoid or heal the imbalance and continue in a healthy relationship moving forward. Understanding what leads to an imbalance is important to keeping a relationship healthy and avoiding future issues. However, knowing how to address a power imbalance is important to restoring a relationship if it can be healed. Power is present in all relationships, but how we share it is important to the ways that we function in the relationship.