Power Imbalance: How Factoring in Power Works

Imbalance of Power

The factors that contribute to power imbalance are often complex and difficult to notice daily, but over time, they contribute to an unhealthy dynamic if they are not addressed.  Imbalances of power can be found in every relationship, from our most vulnerable and trusted relationships with partners and best friends to workplaces or even in government.  When discussing power imbalances, we focus on identifying and addressing them, which is helpful in our everyday lives.  However, it is also essential to examine the factors in a relationship, whether romantic or professional, that could contribute to exaggerating or manipulating the power balance.  Understanding how these factors contribute to identifying and addressing imbalances is critical to determining how to move forward.

This article will examine the factors that can create an imbalance of power in different relationships and how they can contribute to how we see power imbalances in the world.  It will examine the ideas of power and control before defining 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 contributing to an imbalance in these relationships, highlighting when one factor is mainly present in certain relationships and the issues it may cause if not addressed promptly.

After discussing the factors, the article will look at how imbalances can rot if left unattended and answer whether there are instances where imbalances may be a good thing.  Finally, the article will identify and address power imbalance in relationships to heal, whether with each other or apart. This article aims 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 influence 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 exercise a healthy amount of power, we can manipulate the outcome of our choices, and 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 those around them.  However, it becomes unhealthy when a person uses their power to manipulate another human somehow.

Control is the other aspect of power that needs to be discussed.  As mentioned above, it is the ability to change circumstances and achieve goals. Control, to some extent, is a healthy human need as well. However, it 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 into a relationship, an imbalance of power results when one person or group exerts power over another.  The power of the dominant party makes decisions.  It also includes not considering the best interests of the person with less power and forcing only what is good or best for one of the parties over the other.  In simple terms, a power imbalance results when the parties share the decision-making and other aspects of the relationship equally.  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, consciously or unconsciously.

Common Relationships with Imbalances: 

Any relationship between two or more people may have a power imbalance.  As long as power is shared between the parties, there may be issues with how that power is shared.  Some examples of relationships where imbalances of energy are common include:

  • Romantic: A romantic partnership is the most commonly discussed relationship with a power imbalance. This is the most studied type because it often leads to abuse and other unhealthy habits in the relationship and usually creates the most sinister results.   Because romantic partners spend much of their time together and have to make many decisions about their lives, it is often the most noticeable by people who know the partners. Yet, it can usually 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 makes decisions and controls 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 influence significantly the other’s life. Friends should support and encourage each other to make good decisions, but they should not have the power to make decisions for another friend.
  • Work: Another typical relationship for imbalance is a working relationship.  While imbalances often exist with the positional hierarchy in the company, the more difficult ones come when peers find themselves out of balance with one another.  Workplaces are common breeding grounds for imbalance because many industries 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 usually 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 shared relationships where it may need to be addressed, it is time to turn to the bulk of this article. These factors contribute to power imbalance.  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 quickly shift to one partner if care and consideration are not made for the others.

Before we discuss some factors that contribute to imbalance, an important note is that some of these factors depend on the traits of the person whose power is overcome or stolen. This is not intended to blame the person with these traits but to demonstrate some associated risks and encourage individuals and partners to be aware of how these traits may be exploited. Abuse and manipulation are never the fault 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 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 oneself and one’s opinions or preferences 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 cannot assert themselves in defiance of this person.


A person’s sense of control over themselves, particularly their body, can indicate how 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 someone is over-dependent on another to make decisions, they lose some of their autonomy and can be more easily controlled.  Conversely, suppose a person is so independent that they do not consider the people around them before making decisions. In that case, they may have the ability to control others easily.

View of Power:

Another factor influencing how partners share power is how each person views power.  Someone who views power as necessary and feels the need to have the power will likely control much of the power in a relationship.  However, someone uncomfortable with power and uneasy with how 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 from 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 easily exert control over others, especially if they are paired with someone with low self-esteem.


A person’s view of rejection often impacts their use of power within a relationship.  A healthy view of rejection sees it for what it is—acknowledging that the relationship or partnership is not working or will not work and allows the parties to move forward separately.  However, suppose a person sees rejection as the other person’s value and does not evaluate their role in the rejection. In that case, they may abuse this power in the relationship because they have little fear of rejection.  On the other hand, a person terrified of rejection and abandonment may shrink themselves to fit the other person’s mold in the relationship and fail to let anyone see them for who they 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 specific 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 make 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 themselves and others when making big and small decisions throughout the day.  A partner who consistently focuses on other people or is 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 chronic external focus can result in a partner 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.

Other factors may influence the way that control and power are shared within a relationship. Still, one of the key factors to watch for is when one may put less emphasis or stock in their feelings or opinions, and another person may have the ability and desire to exploit that in some way.  When one partner gives up some of the control and another partner exercises to take or fill that void, an imbalance of power 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 is never the fault of the person experiencing it.  Abuse is solely the responsibility of the abuser.

The Issue with Imbalances: 

A common question when speaking about power imbalance is whether or not they are always a bad thing.  We said 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 creating complete control over a person, significantly when it extends beyond the job.  While there may be room for imbalance in certain situations, such as when one partner handles decisions on a particular subject and the other handles decisions in another area of the relationship, an imbalance in the relationship as a whole must be identified and addressed.  Power imbalance needs to be addressed because they may often lead to other forms of abuse, such as:

  • Lack of Boundaries: This is particularly common in workplace power struggles.  If a superior exercises complete power 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 different relationships.  When boundaries are set, and others break them, this is an enormous consequence of power imbalance.
  • Abuse: When one person has most of the power in a relationship, it becomes easier for them to exercise complete control over the other, whether physically, emotionally, or mentally.  Abuse is founded on the ability to control the other, so it is common for power imbalance to bleed into abuse.
  • Manipulation: Control can also allow the person to manipulate the partner and harm their mental health through these decisions. People who manipulate to consolidate the remaining power in the relationship and exercise complete control over the other. Manipulation is itself abuse and should not be taken lightly as it has a harsh effect on mental health.

Because imbalances can quickly harm the parties involved, it is essential to identify and address them as soon 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 issue.  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 can be healthy when all parties agree upon them. However, if one person sets rules for the others without their consent, they may need to address the power imbalance in the relationship.
  • Apologies: Again, apologies are necessary for a healthy relationship when the partners address wrongs to each other and acknowledge the role they all played in the situation. However, if one partner never apologizes and refuses to accept blame, they are likely exercising control over the other.
  • Decisions: Who makes the decisions in the relationship? If 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 cannot 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 feels a lack of respect from their partner.
  • Change: While most people will change during a long-term relationship, if one partner forces the other to change to accommodate their tastes or desires, that can indicate that one person has unhealthy power over the other.

There are various other signs that can indicate an imbalance of power. When considering whether there is an issue, the main goal is to identify and remove it.

Dealing with Power Imbalance in Daily Life: 

Once you have identified that there is an imbalance in the relationship, it is essential to consider the implications of this imbalance.  Some relationships can be repaired, especially if one abuses power 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 power.  If the relationship cannot be repaired, it is time to find an exit strategy. If the relationship can be repaired, the most critical next step is to open the lines of communication between the parties.  If either party feels 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 in the relationship is 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 they feel each other when making decisions that impact them.

Power imbalance may ruin a relationship; however, if the partners identify factors that may lead to imbalance or 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 essential to keeping a relationship healthy and preventing future issues.  However, knowing how to address a power imbalance is important to restoring a problematic relationship if it can be healed.

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