Power Imbalances in Marriage

Written by: Meredith C. MooreArtisan Financial Strategies

Tackling the "some animals are more equal than others" phenomenon

Even in the most egalitarian partnerships, there is a power dynamic that percolates throughout the couple’s day-to-day life and decision-making processes. It’s simply the nature of human behavior; we are attuned to relative differences in power, detecting and responding to the subtlest cues that distinguish higher-ranking members of a group from others with less status.

Our awareness of power isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. Decisions must be made, and leadership is a necessity in groups of any size – even where respecting the autonomy and dignity of all group members is a prime focus. The presence of power in no way implies that its holder abuses their leverage or harbors hints of “evil overlord” deep within their psyche. Still, an imbalance of power affects individual behavior and shapes the boundaries of what is and isn’t ethical.

Power dynamics within personal relationships frequently go unrecognized, unaddressed or even denied. Because these patterns exist in the delicate landscape of interpersonal intimacy and a shared household, they’re harder to see. It also makes the ramifications of any power differential hard to untangle without stumbling into psychological landmines that can threaten the relationship itself. But rather than trying to untangle that messiness, let’s try to answer a more basic question: where does the power come from?

Money talks, but does it vacuum?

Money is an easy cue for power in personal relationships as well as society at large, and there’s evidence supporting the notion that the partner with higher income wields more power. Dr. Sasha Killewald, professor of sociology at Harvard and a global leader in gender research, explains the popular theory of money and bargaining power: “Nobody wants to do the housework, but the person who's less financially dependent on the marriage has more power and can bargain out of their share of the housework.” 

Though the partner with higher earnings may do less housework, Dr. Killewald doesn’t believe earnings fully control the domestic power structure. “More compelling to me is the fact that when women earn more, they just don't do as much housework,” she says. “It doesn't really appear that their husbands do any more housework. So I think that casts a little doubt on the bargaining process as the most important thing.”

Dr. Ronni Tichenor of SUNY Polytechnic Institute agrees that housework is a valuable but incomplete measure of power in relationships. “We really should think about domestic labor as a power issue,” she says, “because if I can get out of doing chores ... as I say to my students, most of us will.” 

She wondered what determines power dynamics in couples where women make a lot more money than their husbands and conducted research to answer the question. “I did see some handfuls of couples where they were more equal,” Dr. Tichenor reports, “but not where men were taking on the lion's share of the domestic labor.” 

The results surprised her a bit. “What I found that I didn't really anticipate was the power that exists in the identities of mother / wife and father / husband, and the homemaker / breadwinner distinctions that still exist,” says Dr. Tichenor. “Because even though the majority of couples don't conform to the ‘male as the sole breadwinner, female is the mother and keeper of the home,’ those ideas are still with us.”

The hotness factor

Bargaining power clearly isn’t everything when it comes to which partner holds the reins, nor is earning more income. Less tangible factors also hold real significance in defining the unique balance of power a couple experiences. For example, who’s the hot one? 

Wit, intelligence, kindness… the list of attributes that make your partner so desirable to you is endless, and vice versa. But in the most objective sense, one of you is better-looking than the other, or more physically fit, or just somehow more attractive. In a word, hotter. And in a visual world where sex appeal drives the ability to attract desirable partners, the hotness factor equates to power within any relationship.

Say you’ve kept yourself trim and always paid attention to little things like moisturizer, nails and the rest. You look fine and you know it! Your husband is a dreamboat – kind, funny, loving, attentive, responsible – in short, a fantastic guy you’re so glad you married. He’s good at his job too, spending a ton of hours at his desk, so naturally he’s put on weight over the years. Like his dad, he lost his hair around 45 and bless his heart he’s never really had a clue whether his clothes match or not. Luckily, you’re there to keep him presentable in public.

And if you weren’t? In that situation you’d be far more likely to find a new partner than he would, because you are a more valuable social commodity. Not that he couldn’t remarry; he certainly might, given his many fine traits. But you look good and he doesn’t. That means you can choose from multiple, high-status potential dating partners and he most likely cannot.

More vulnerability means less power

Even for younger partners who are better matched in the hotness department, there’s going to be a disparity. And the hotter one will always have an extra bit of power within the relationship, because that partner is in a better position should the relationship end. Looking good reduces the vulnerability associated with the end of a relationship, and that vulnerability is an important determinant of power.

Increased vulnerability isn’t always based on looks. It can stem from potential earning power, as opposed to current earnings. Suppose you’ve worked at the library for ten years to support yourself and your wife while she completed medical school. Now that she’s a resident, your incomes are about equal. But if she decides she’s ready to move on, only one of you is realistically able to afford the children and lifestyle you’ve both looked forward to for so long.

Quite often, vulnerability comes from the basic logistical challenges of family life, such as having to juggle a job and home while caring for multiple children or family members with special needs – or simply the fact that one partner is breast-feeding a baby and taking care of a toddler while temporarily out of the workforce.

Vulnerability can also come from physical or emotional dependency, if one partner provides care that the other relies on to survive and thrive. Or if one partner is uninsurable on their own after a cancer diagnosis, and the other brings access to family coverage through a job.

In the end it doesn’t really matter whether the cause is financial, logistical, physical or emotional, temporary or permanent. Any time the end of the relationship would have a disproportionate negative impact on one partner’s life, there is a significant power imbalance stemming from vulnerability.

A healthy approach to power imbalance

So what should you do about all this? Power between partners isn’t equal and we can’t wish it into reality. What we can do is to be aware of it, and to admit that, for the moment anyway, one partner is in a more vulnerable position. We can address our fears (what if he never finds another job?) and our resentments (her debt is holding me back!).

Most importantly, we can examine the way we approach financial decisions. It’s critical for couples to look at their entire financial picture together, and often. Once a week is ideal; once a month is a minimum. Regular financial meetings help you manage resources wisely and achieve shared goals more effectively, but they also help you stay connected and counteract the unavoidable power imbalances.

Remember to look at the big picture, not just current income and expenses. Consider the full balance sheet and how the things you’re doing together today (budgeting household expenses, saving for specific goals, etc.) work for the benefit of both partners.

And finally, remember that power can shift. In many households right now, the stay-home partner who carried a whiff of “dead weight” stigma six months ago is suddenly the one doing all the heavy lifting. COVID-19 created disruptions to the economy and supply chain that brought his or her talents for creative cooking, educating homebound children and finding ways to keep everyone happily occupied into sharp focus. This partner’s skills are suddenly of far more immediate value than the other’s professional skill set for a job that’s as likely as not to have vanished.

Today’s situation is dramatic and unusual, but the domestic balance of power naturally shifts over time even without a pandemic. Don’t see today’s power dynamic as immutable, and definitely don’t let it become core to either partner’s identity within the relationship.

Meredith C. Moore is Founder and CEO of Artisan Financial Strategies (https://www.artisanfsonline.com). As someone who’s not only beaten cancer but kicked its ass, Meredith has a growth mindset and firmly believes that perseverance and a methodical approach allow individuals to achieve any goal. 

Related: You, Me, and We: How To Navigate a Financial Threesome