Power is a concept that is very common in popular culture. Often we think of power as something that is structural (such as when one is a supervisor over others) or physical (when one person is stronger or faster than another). But in close relationships, another sort of power—relational psychological power can be an even greater influence on how we relate to friends, romantic partners, and spouses.
Relational psychological power takes many forms, but the focus of this article is on how perceptions of our power relative to a romantic partner influences our decisions to talk about relationship problems. In intimate relationships, a major, but little talked about, source of relational power is dependence power. Dependence power is purely perceptual—it reflects our thoughts about how much control or influence we have relative to a close partner. In other words, dependence power is a relational judgment that may or not be grounded in what others see about our relationships—it is about what we think about how we align with a close friend, partners, or spouse.
Dependence power is a composite judgment based on three relational perceptions: how committed we think we are to our relationship, how committed we think our partner is to our relationship, and the degree to which we think our partners or we have alternatives to our relationship. The judgment of alternatives is one to think about—sometimes an alternative to being in a relationship is to get in a relationship with someone else. But sometimes, an equally good alternative is to not be in a relationship. The careful balance of weighing thoughts about commitment and alternatives can define a relational psychological power, even if outsiders may not see it. When a person thinks he or she is less committed to the relationship, thinks that a partner is more committed partner, and has equivalent or better alternatives to current romantic partners, that individual gains dependence power over his or her more dependent partner. In contrast, a person perceives less dependence power if he or she is highly committed to a relationship but has a less committed partner who has significant relational alternatives.
Research by myself and others has found that judgments of our dependence power impact how we deal with conflict. When a person is more committed and believes there are only poor alternatives to the current relationship, he or she will likely perceive the costs of leaving the current relationship as higher than the potential benefits of other relationships. Therefore, the potential cost encourages people to want to stay in the relationship. A fear of losing a relationship partner makes people endure a powerful partner’s bad behaviors, including minor things like disrespect to major behaviors such as aggression and violence.
Also, when people perceive that a partner is more powerful, they are less likely to complain about their relationship concerns or their dislike of their partner’s actions. Therefore, perceptions of a partner’s power promotes avoidance, and perpetuates the cycles of negative conflict management.
The idea of how we experience dependence power highlights that our perceptions define our relational dynamics. Perception resides in us. Sometimes we are too afraid to talk about our concerns or problems in our relationships. But sometimes sitting back and thinking about how we think about ourselves and our partners need a reality check. Because in reality, we all have our own power. We just need to find it.