Power dynamics often play an important role in romantic relationships. The most common ones are demand/withdrawal, distancer/pursuer, and fear/shame.
Power plays a role in relationships, but it isn’t always about dominance and submission. Often, it’s about roles each partner plays when faced with a specific challenge or situation.
“Power dynamics” in a relationship refers to those roles and to ways of interacting that influence a partner’s behavior. When there’s an imbalance of power, it can show up in many forms, including resentment, endless arguments, and emotional distance.
Understanding common power dynamics can help you resolve conflict and create a more balanced and emotionally secure relationship.
“What it comes down to is all partners want to feel seen and heard,” explains Lee Phillips, LCSW, a psychotherapist in New York and Virginia. “If they can validate and show empathy, this brings healing and balance to the relationship.”
Validating each other doesn’t mean agreeing on everything, but rather making sense of your partner’s reality, says Phillips.
According to Emily Heard, MFT, a marriage and family therapist in Menlo Park, California, power imbalances in relationships often arise around specific themes, including:
- sexual intimacy
- decision making
- duties and responsibility
When trying to handle these or other power imbalances, Heard explains three common dynamics can play out:
“By acknowledging the relationship power dynamic,” Heard says, “any of the themes can be addressed, whether it’s a major life decision or a simple disagreement.”
Demand/withdrawal dynamics refer to one person feeling their needs are not being met and that their partner is ignoring their requests, explains Heard.
The “demander” may feel they’re constantly asking for something, but never getting through to their partner. This can result in:
In contrast, the “withdrawer” handles their partner’s requests with avoidance. They may be trying to set a boundary in the relationship, but not making it clear.
“Some may feel as though their partner is demanding them to take on more responsibility, so they avoid it as an act of rebellion,” says Heard. “This often creates huge fights over small issues, such as doing the dishes.”
How to change the dynamic
At the core, the demand/withdrawal dynamic dissolves trust, one of the cornerstones of any relationship, notes Heard. “Ultimately, it comes down to keeping agreements and respectful communication,” she says.
It helps if your partner understands your needs. Try saying, “ I feel like I need more support with… what are you committed to taking on?” Or, “ I feel like I am disappointing you… can we be clear about our mutual expectations?”
A mutual commitment to listening to each other and avoiding doing things that may hurt each other is a first step.
The distancer/pursuer dynamic occurs in relationships when one partner is more invested than the other and may take the initiative more often. This power dynamic may be associated with your attachment style.
Attachment styles are associated with the bond you established with your primary caregivers when you were a child.
If a primary caregiver is validating and provides praise and support, Phillips explains a child has a greater sense of self.
If a caregiver is not emotionally supportive (for example, a dismissive parent), it may result in feelings of rejection, isolation, and fear, he adds.
“All of this carries into adulthood in seeking a partner to help heal childhood wounds,” says Phillips. “This creates power imbalances I see often. One partner becomes the maximizer (energy out — confronting), and the other partner becomes the minimizer (energy in — withdrawing).”
Different love languages (the way we give and receive love) can also come into play, according to Heard.
For example, one person’s way of showing love and interest may be to send 10 text messages to their partner throughout the day. A partner who doesn’t identify with these expressions of love may end up feeling smothered by all the attention.
How to change the dynamic
Heard suggests stepping out of your comfort zone. For example, the distancer might consider initiating planning a date or being intimate.
“This can be a bit awkward at first,” she notes, “but can actually create a healthy dynamic of transitioning power between you and your partner.”
When addressing this power dynamic, it may help for you to think about how the other person likes to be loved rather than how you want to be loved. If both think this way, each partner receives what they need and provides what the other person prefers.
The fear/shame power dynamic may play on one or both partners’ insecurities or emotional pain.
The dynamic often has to do with the fear or anxiety experienced by one partner and how it can elicit feelings of shame or avoidant behaviors in the other. This, in turn, may lead to withdrawal or aggressive behaviors.
These dynamics are often rooted in past unresolved trauma.
How to change the dynamic
Resolving the fear/shame power dynamic requires trust, vulnerability, and space to process, says Heard.
“Name your vulnerability, and trust your partner cares enough about you to honor it. If you know your partner has a trauma history from a previous relationship, help them to feel supported,” she says.
“If you feel that shame is arising around your appearance and body image, be vulnerable and honest with your partner about it,” Heard advises. “Trust that they love you and will not use it against you.”
An example of this could be, “I feel self-conscious when I’m in my swimsuit since I’ve recently gained weight. I’m afraid you are checking out other people and comparing them to me.”
An unloving response would be, “Why don’t you try working out if you want to feel more confident?” A loving response would sound more like, “I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m going to make sure to remind you how attractive I find you.”
Seeking the support of a mental health professional may also be key in addressing trauma and other emotional challenges one or both partners may be facing.
A balance of power involves trust, communication, and vulnerability from both partners. Here are some ways you can begin to balance your relationship dynamic:
- Being open and honest. Honesty builds trust and intimacy, and strengthens the relationship.
- Compromising.Being in a relationship means you won’t always get your way. Try to acknowledge different points of view, and be willing to give and take.
- Respecting boundaries. Try to listen and respect your partner’s needs and preferences.
- Supporting individual interests. Consider encouraging each other to pursue personal and professional goals, see friends and family, and do things you enjoy.
- Arguing fairly. Disagreements are a natural occurrence. When discussing those, try to stick to the current subject and avoid blame. You can take a short break if you need to cool off and then come back to the conversation.
- Trusting. Try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt and assume positive intent.
If you find it hard to balance the power dynamics in your relationship, getting support from a couples therapist may help.
Other signs it may be time for help include:
Power dynamics in a relationship refer to the different ways partners can behave to influence each other. Demand/withdrawal, distancer/pursuer, and fear/shame are three common power dynamics.
Changing the power dynamic in your relationship requires trust, vulnerability, and honest and respectful communication. It can also help to get the support of a good couples therapist.