6 Signs A Power Imbalance Is Wreaking Havoc In Your Relationship

Is there an imbalance of power in your relationship?

sad looking man and woman getty

Is there a power imbalance in your current relationship that's taking over and wreaking havoc?

It all starts so innocently! Take Michael and Jessica. When they met, they found each other adorable.

Michael thought Jessica was awesome because of her quirky, intense personality. He loved the way she’d get wrapped up in her graphic design business, and the way she was there for all her friends.

Meanwhile, Jessica was impressed with Michael as an entrepreneurial tech guy in Artificial Intelligence, who was being offered money for his startup. Plus, he could be so sweet.


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So, how does a power imbalance start out and wreak havoc in a relationship?

There’s a power side to everything, even relationships.

Before either Michael or Jessica knew it, before the honeymoon was even over, Michael’s business and his attachment to it started to move in on them.


"Not now, honey," became the words most frequently popping out of Michael’s mouth, along with, "urgent," "crisis," and, "You wouldn’t understand."

Power? Michael and his work were a steamroller! And power is the enemy of love.

And as for quirky, intense, adorable Jessica, when she was thwarted (and Michael thought, "God, when isn’t she feeling thwarted about something?"), she could put on quite a show.

Of course, Jessica was just feeling her feelings. Being real. Not like the "shutdown freakin’ machine" she was starting to accuse Michael of being.

But, to Michael, dealing with upset Jessica was like dealing with a tornado tanked up on Red Bull, leaving him no choice but to cave in or walk away.


The point is that every feature of a person or their life can be a source of power in a relationship — having a demanding or important job, being emotional, being very smart, having health issues... the list is endless.

Here are 6 signs a power imbalance is wreaking havoc in your relationship.

1. You have arguments that go nowhere.

Jess wants more time with Michael, and Michael wants her to leave him alone so he can get his ginormously important work done.

If you’re in a situation like this, you might get into an argument you’re not proud of. You don’t resolve anything. There’s no actual sense of a good outcome as a result of all the smoke and fire.

Yeah, maybe one of you ends up saying, "Fine, whatever, I’ll just..." But it’s a concession no one believes in. It’s really just a way to get the other person to shut up.


2. You feel disempowered.

Your biggest feeling, in general and in trying to work things out, is frustration and helplessness.

Power imbalances always end in mutual disempowerment.

Yeah, Jessica can’t get Michael to shut his laptop, but he can’t get her to shut her mouth. Disempowered people always find ways to re-empower themselves. That’s what keeps the whole thing snowballing to a disastrous ending.

3. Neither of you are getting your needs met.

The practical side of feeling disempowered is that people in relationships driven by power dynamics can’t get their most important needs met.

In all my clinical experience, I’ve never seen a case of power imbalance where one person is happy and the other isn’t.


Instead, no one actually feels like they're getting what they need.

4. You feel yourself being put down or devalued.

This unproductive stuff doesn’t happen because people are nice to each other. Oh, no!

All this happens as people walk down a pavement of put-downs and insults that range from the merely piercing to the totally devastating.

So, in addition to not getting your needs met, you have the experience of seeing yourself as a horrible monster in the eyes of your beloved — and how painful is that?

5. You feel like your partner is a stranger.

Love is the sense that "You know me so well and, yet, you like me!" But with power imbalances, the opposite happens.


You come to your beloved with a need. What could be more appropriate to love?

But now, fear of disempowerment leads the two of you down the road to feeling like the other doesn’t understand, doesn’t care, and doesn’t want to do what to you looks like a small thing to meet your needs.

Who, but a stranger, would treat you that way?

6. There's a growing distance in your relationship.

So, why doesn’t this lousy process cause relationships to just blow up? Well, that happens often enough.

But, plenty of times, a much easier solution is distance — you just step back from the issue. Withdraw this or that need from the relationship, and maybe get it met elsewhere or maybe it just doesn’t get met at all.


So, what if Michael can’t make time for Jessica? Screw him! She has friends, activities, and who knows what else!

Slowly, perhaps without even realizing what she’s doing, Jessica withdraws her needs for Michael from their relationship. And if Jessica is always "upset" when he has to deal with her, Michael thinks, why deal with her?

Why not just get... busier?

The good news is that as destructive as this relationship cancer is, power imbalances are highly curable.


In partnership with YourTango, there’s a "1, 2, 3 Method" I offer in my brand-new book all about power imbalances in relationships, WHY COUPLES FIGHT.

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Here are the 4 steps you need to take to fix this power imbalance.

1. Don’t make power moves.

OK, there are already built-in power imbalances. Fine. So don’t make them worse!

Don’t say or do anything that to your partner will seem like an assertion of power.

If interrupting feels like a power move to your partner, don’t interrupt. Raising your voice feels like a power move? Don’t raise your voice. Saying, "That’s a stupid idea"? Don’t phrase your disagreement in those words.

Work together to edit out everything that to the other person feels like a power move.

2. Talk about your power imbalances.

Do so without any arguing and without implying that anyone has any intent.


It’s just say something like, "Your [whatever] makes me feel helpless — like I’ve lost before I’ve even begun. What can we do about it?"

3. To work out needs, begin by listening — really listening.

No arguing. Not even reacting. Just try to understand.

For example, I suddenly come to you with my need for you to bring home bananas every day on your way home from work (once the pandemic is over).

Before you say a single word about how you feel about it, give me a chance to talk to you about it, so I feel that you totally understand what I want, why I want it, and what it means to me.


Once I feel you’ve heard me down to my toes, I’ll be able to hear you.

4. Generate options, not opposition.

OK, so I want you to bring me home bananas every day. Silly me. And you — busy, busy you — don’t want to do that. Well, then, we talk about options and "what abouts."

"What about if I...?"

Instead of acting like toddlers in a sandbox hitting each other over the head with shovels, we problem solve!

Here’s the crazy thing: This calm, sensible approach works. And it takes waaaay less time than arguing and struggling.

But you gotta do it.

If you have an 800-pound gorilla in your room — in this case, a gorilla of power imbalances and power struggles — you have to step up and make dealing with it a priority.


Just the way you would if you came home and found an actual 800-pound gorilla in your room., the first step is just understanding the problem and taking it seriously. Then, do what works to solve it.

This is just a short recipe for what you need in order to do to save your relationship.

— Created in partnership with Mira Kirshenbaum, author of WHY COUPLES FIGHT.

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Mira Kirshenbaum is the author of WHY COUPLES FIGHT, as well many books published in over 20 languages, including national and international bestsellers, like "Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay.” She has a worldwide reputation for working with individuals and couples. To find out more about her books, her work, or to check out her busy blog, visit her website: The Chestnut Hill Institute.