Recently, a friend of mine (that we’ll call “Chad”) talked to me about the abrupt end to his decades long relationship. He was devastated. Blindsided. Shocked. Bereft. His partner (the breaker-upper that we’ll call “Simon”) stated that he felt the relationship was no longer on “equal footing.” Chad said he wanted a divorce, and he wanted it fast.
The lack of “equal footing” Simon was referring to is called a “power differential.” Power in a relationship is typically determined by factors like gender, age, money, status, and attractiveness - all those elements that society takes into consideration when assessing someone’s level of “desirability.”
We all have different levels of power in our romantic relationships. One partner may have more power because he or she is considered better-looking. The other may have power from a high-profile job. An unequal balance of power; however, can sows seeds of resentment.
Let’s examine the power dynamic in Simon and Chad’s relationship. Simon, a celebrated trial attorney, earned significantly more money than his artist - husband Chad. Simon also had a dense social circle of equally successful individuals that included fellow attorneys, business executives, and entrepreneurs. They both enjoyed the perks of Simon’s social network – keys to beach-front vacation homes, complimentary theater tickets, and box seats to professional sporting events.
Since Simon was on much better financial footing, he paid the mortgage, utilities, and car expenses while Chad covered most of the groceries and incidentals. For years, Simon seemed content with this arrangement.
According to Chad; however, Simon seemed to become more and more withdrawn over the last two years. He seemed to have a shorter fuse about things that would have otherwise been trivial; and a shorter supply of time to devote to their relationship.
Attributing his change in behavior to work stress, at the time Chad wasn’t particularly alarmed by Simon’s distancing. Chad also reported that the sex had also fallen off. In fact, it had been months since the two had been intimate. He blamed the sexless-ness on declining testosterone levels, common to many men in their late forties. Chad’s face fell as he spoke of these telltale signs. As if the pain of reality was suddely coming into focus.
Another couple I know (two women) also have a power imbalance. One has a lucrative career as a software engineer and the other works as a substitute teacher at a Montessori school. The latter; however, acts as the “frontline parent” raising their seven-year-old son. Though the software engineer contributes more money into their collective money-pot, the frontline parent contributes most of the time, energy, and attention required for home-keeping and child-rearing.
Their roles work for them.
Maintaining a balance that works for both parties is key.
The best protection for any relationship with an imbalance of power is communication. Review the power differential in your relationship from time to time. Discuss whether the current roles are still working. Resentment, defensiveness, and distancing behaviors like Simon’s ̶ typically indicates that a deeper issue is brewing. If you notice such changes in your partner or detect a resentment stirring inside of you, lovingly discuss possible ways you’d like to right the balance. If a large power discrepancy is present, then check in regularly to ensure that one partner isn’t feeling exploited or taken for granted.
Though discussing deep, emotional issues can create unease, it may protect the longevity of your relationship and prevent an outcome like the one that Chad and Simon experienced.
Mary Delaney is a writer, licensed psychotherapist, and Relationship Coach. Her areas of interest include Healing Childhood Emotional Neglect, Finding True Purpose, Relationships, and the Creative Personality. For more information visit www.creativecorecounseling.com