Power Play: What to Do About Inequality in Your Relationship
Some relationships reflect differences in expression, ability, or effort.
It’s possible to view these differences just as brief chapters in your larger, mutually loving story.
However, there are other relationships which remain unbalanced for too long and aren’t fair; ever.
In those unions, one person has the power, the influence, or the resources. Meanwhile, the other partner may anxiously succumb their will for fear of being alone, having low self-esteem, or because they’ve been promised peace and the good life.
Do you and a loved one wrestle with the impact of imbalances in income, relationship roles, expectations, the division of labor, or decision-making? Do you find yourself imposing your will on someone you care about? Or are you living under the thumb of your significant other?
However inequality manifests, power plays stifle communication, fuel distrust and brew resentment.
So what’s the solution? Is inequality a deal breaker? How can you address imbalances in your relationship before they erode your foundation of friendship and goodwill permanently?
Let’s consider the following strategies for dealing with areas of inequality that may be harming your relationship:
Define the “i” in your ‘relationship”
Inequality thrives on lost identity.
People who don’t know who they are or what matters to them are easily overwhelmed by the personalities, needs, and demands of other people. If your relationship squelches your sense of self, reevaluate your interactions and the concessions you make in the name of love.
Conversely, if your sense of strength and security hinges on your ability to control your partner in any way, you may be just as confused about how to thrive on your own and connect without domination or manipulation.
Your relationship is meant to be a place where you both belong to each other, encourage each other, and foster mutual growth as a team and as individuals. Demonstrate a commitment to equality by evening out resources and time. Talk about ways you can share the responsibilities of your life together and routinely take advantage of opportunities to develop as individuals.
Take time to pause, meditate or pray, and know your own mind again. Clarity may come as well through artistic expression, creating a journal, or working with a therapist.
• Deal with persistent disrespect
On a basic level, you should expect and require respect in your relationships. Whether you’re dealing with your partner, a family member, or a friend, you have the right to feel safe and valued.
If you notice overtly controlling behavior, ongoing passive aggression, hyper-critical commentary, emotional manipulation, or abuse of any sort, you are not on level relationship ground. Encouragement, honor, and consideration are not too much to ask. If you are in the habit of living without them, your relationship is unhealthy.
What should you do? Take steps to balance the scales. How? Set boundaries now.
Establish limits you will live by and require them for the relationship to progress.
Of course, if you’ve been living with inequality for a long time, you may need help recognizing where and how to construct solid boundaries. Consider individual counseling sessions to get help. When you are ready, share your need for respectful treatment and clearer boundaries with your relationship partner.
Their response will give you some indication of how committed they are to establishing mutual respect and learning to value each other going forward.
If they respond favorably, consider scheduling relationship therapy to promote deeper exploration of your connection.
However, it goes without saying, if your partner remains dismissive, disrespectful, or in any way abusive, you must decide whether or not you should step away from the relationship. Prioritize your own mental health and safety before attempting any sort of relationship work.
• Assess, accept, and reflect
Next, mindfully examine the origins and reasoning of the current state of inequality in your relationship.
How did you end up here?
Inequality recognized early and corrected fully is ideal. Unfortunately, however, many relationships simply start off imbalanced or devolve over time into unsatisfying, lopsided arrangements.
It’s important that you tell yourselves the truth about your relationship.
Do you need to admit that one of you values the relationship more than the other? If this is the case, the discrepancy in your feelings may make it difficult for both of you to feel equally loved and committed.
Or, do you both admit and accept that you’ve played a part in the inequality of care and commitment to each other? Are you willing to reconsider how you value each other for the sake of a relationship you both want?
If you agree with the latter, you can make a positive change. Proactively look at the course of your relationship and commit to repairing it one interaction at a time. Reflect on your own behavior first. Tune into your thoughts and emotions.
Then, ask yourself some questions:
1. How would you rate the level of fairness, equality, and empowerment in our relationship?
2. How long have you felt such an imbalance in this relationship?
3. What do you do to perpetuate the unequal status quo?
4. How would you like to see yourselves interact… what do you believe a fair and equitable relationship looks and sounds like?
5. Why aren’t you doing those things?
6. Are you communicating that you want a more equitable relationship? How can you do better?
Really reflect on your answers. Use your answers as a springboard for a conversation with your partner. Or discuss them in relationship therapy with an objective third party. Your counselor may be best able to initiate open, equal communication and guide you toward mutually satisfying solutions for a balanced relationship.
Disagree without promoting dismissal or domination
Finally, think about the way you handle conflict in your relationship. Inequality in interactions often supports a win-lose model of conflict. One partner’s ideas, thoughts, or process, etc. is always right. And the other person is continually on the defensive or forced to surrender.
In an equitable situation, conflict is viewed as a natural growth opportunity for you and your partner, not of a contest of wills or control tactics. How can you shift from unequal sparring to healthier, balanced sharing of perspectives?
1. Revisit and remain committed to your boundaries for respect.
2. If you tend to dominate your partner, resolve to ask more questions and really listen to the answers, even if it takes time for your partner to comfortably open up.
3. If you feel your views or voice aren’t considered, respectfully stop the conversation and say so. It’s okay to say; ”I don’t feel I’m being heard. I’m happy to talk when both of our viewpoints are on the table.”
4. If one person is lecturing the other, using passive-aggressive behavior to shut down the interaction, or threatens to pull their support, resources, or affection during conflict, inequality is the bigger issue. Don’t let it slide. Talk about it or share incidences with your counselor to work through why you resort to power plays when things are tense.
All in all, a strong sense of self- awareness, healthy communication, willingness to compromise, and shared decision-making are paramount to diminish inequality in relationships. When these things are prioritized, the relationship comes first. Not the superiority of one person over another.
About the Author
Dr. Stan Hyman is a licensed psychotherapist and life coach in private practice in Miami, Florida. He works with couples struggling with powerful issues such as infidelity, careers, intimacy, and communication. He also specializes in treating addictions, anger, anxiety, stress, depression and work-life balance.