How to Handle an Imbalance of Power in Your Relationship

by: Clarisse Thorn

Note: This post was originally featured on Role/Reboot and was republished with permission. You can find the original here.

Have you ever been involved with someone you were totally into, who seemed much less interested than you did? Or have you ever been with someone who was way more into you than you were into them? These situations happen to almost everyone eventually, and as a culture, we’ve devised a few ways to discuss them. For example, we have lingo like “friend zone” to indicate a person who’s pining after a friend. What’s hard is finding good advice on how to deal with those relationships—from either position.

Values like “equality” and “egalitarianism” are deeply embedded in U.S. culture. This, among other factors, makes it difficult to talk about power differentials in relationships. A lot of the time, the instinct seems to be to ignore a given power differential, because it’s uncomfortable to think about it. And I guess that for some couples, that works. At least, it works inasmuch as they can make the relationship function without talking about it…sometimes only barely, but it functions. In my experience, though, it’s best to have some mutual awareness and communication of what’s going on within a power differential, because in that case, it’s easier to be gentle and responsible with our partners.

Lots of relationship formations are relevant to a discussion about power differentials: S&M play is the most obvious example, but there are also examples like cross-generational relationships, relationships where one partner has way more money than the other, etc. The important questions become: How does the partner in the more powerful position avoid abusing the other partner? How often is power a one-way street, anyway? Again, since S&M plays with power so blatantly, these questions are most often out in the open with S&Mers. For example, S&Mers are fond of saying that “the submissive has all the real power,” what with safewords and all. But if a rich older man falls for and marries a beautiful but poor young woman, then is it always obvious that he has far more power? Does she, sometimes, merely wield a different kind of power?

Outsiders are often quick to condemn such relationships. But these arrangements have always struck me as incredibly contextual; they’re dependent on how much genuine respect the partners have for each other, and the depth of their communication…as with any relationship.

I see “mixed-investment” relationships, where one partner is way more into the other, as part of this tapestry. For one thing, there’s the one-way street question: Does the person who’s less invested always have more power? Sometimes, the partner who’s less invested will spend so much time feeling anxious about hurting the other partner that they strongly limit their own actions.

In all relationships containing a strong power differential, there’s a question of when (if ever) the “powerful” partner has a responsibility to end things with the “less powerful” partner. In the case of mixed-investment relationships, I think there often comes a point where the more “powerful” partner can too easily abuse the other partner’s affections, and thus has a responsibility to end it. Detecting that point can be difficult, though.

Often, this is complicated by the fact that a more-invested partner can tell that the other partner is less invested—and will become anxious about “scaring them off.” Being in love with someone means wanting to spend time with them, and wanting to spare them pain. Say I’m totally in love with some guy who is Not That Into Me. If it’s obvious to me that showing a guy how much I like him could make him feel uncomfortable and cause him to limit his time with me, then my natural instinct will be to hide my investment.

It’s easy to say that I “should” be open about my feelings with him…but most of us have faced this choice before, and know how hard it is.

Another complication is that sometimes, the relationship mismatch will change or flip over time. I chased my first boyfriend for years before he committed to me, but a few years after that, I was the one who dumped him and he was the one who was devastated.

I’ve known people who felt that every time a relationship is uneven, it’s the more invested partner’s responsibility to end it. But again, if we place these relationships within a wider context, it becomes clear that they’re just another kind of relationship with a power differential. Like the others, it’s a question of communication and respect. If both partners respect and value each other, then a mixed-investment relationship doesn’t have to be a problem. The problems come in when partners aren’t transparent about their expectations, and don’t stay aware of what they need.

So perhaps the best advice to give people in a mixed-investment relationship would be thoughts like:

  • Know what you want, and what you are willing to give.
  • If you want the relationship to develop further, and your partner makes it clear that it won’t, then perhaps it’s time to evaluate walking away.
  • If you don’t want the relationship to develop further, and your partner does, then making that clear is very important.
  • Relationships like these can often feel like a “waste of time” to the more-invested partner. Are they? It’s a question each person should ask themselves.
  • Relationships like these can also be stressful on the less-invested partner. Are you worrying a lot about whether your partner’s feelings are too strong? That’s another question people can ask themselves.

More thoughts are always welcome. How would you advise a person in a mixed-investment relationship?

Clarisse Thorn is a feminist, sex-positive educator who has delivered sexuality workshops to museums and universities across the USA. Her new book, Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser: Long Interviews With Hideous Men, is now available for Amazon Kindle as well as every other ebook format at Smashwords; you can even buy an actual paperback. In 2009, Clarisse created and curated the original, ongoing Sex+++ sex-positive documentary film series at Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. She has also volunteered as an archivist, curator and fundraiser for that venerable S&M institution, the Leather Archives & Museum. In 2010, Clarisse returned from working on HIV mitigation in southern Africa. Clarisse’s writing has appeared all over the Internet. She blogs at clarissethorn.com, and she tweets @clarissethorn. Download a free sample of her next book: The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn.

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