Healthy and happy romantic relationships are usually made up of two people who treat each other as equals. Even though partners in a couple may differ in age, wealth, or any other factor, it can be unhealthy for imbalances in power to be exploited in a relationship.
So how can you know if there is a power imbalance in your relationship? Here are nine signs to look out for.
1. One partner makes all of the decisions
If decisions for both of you are always made by the same person, this may be a sign that this partner is holding a dominant role over the other. If one partner constantly “decides” what you are both eating for dinner, which TV shows you are both watching, and whether the both of you are staying in or going out on a Friday night without discussing it or asking the other’s opinion, this is a red flag. A healthy relationship involves agreement and compromise.
2. There are “rules” in the relationship
Having some “rules” in a relationship is common and not necessarily unhealthy—for example, monogamous relationships tend to usually have the rule of not sleeping with other people! However, rules should always be agreed upon by both partners and be for the good of both. If one partner constantly sets “rules” for the other, who has no say in the matter, this is unhealthy behavior.
3. There are feelings of loneliness and isolation
Being in an unhealthy or even abusive relationship can feel extremely isolating—especially so if one partner is actually “forbidden” by the other to pursue the social life that they want. Sometimes this control is more subtle than directly forbidding things and can instead be carried out through emotional blackmail or manipulation. If you are feeling lonely and isolated despite being in a relationship, this could be because of a limitation caused by your partner.
4. One partner demands things they don’t give the other
One of the clearest signs of an imbalance in power is when expectations of each partner differ from each other. For example, I once dated a partner who insisted I answered text messages instantly otherwise an argument would start, yet when they went out with friends their phone would be switched off for the whole night until they came home.
5. Independence is discouraged or even prevented
It is extremely common for controlling partners to prevent or attempt to prevent their partner from having any independence, either through setting “rules” or through emotional manipulation. Often, this is due to jealousy and insecurity, and the fact that a dependent partner can be easier to control. In a healthy relationship, both partners are encouraged and supported to pursue their own interests and identities.
6. Only one partner ever apologizes for anything
Everybody makes mistakes sometimes, and at some point in a serious relationship each of you is bound to say or do something that requires an apology. However, if every disagreement you have results in the same person apologizing and the other refusing to, this is a sign that one of you is held to a different standard than the other.
7. Work is not shared fairly
Unfortunately, it is common for household chores such as cooking, cleaning, and raising children to be distributed unevenly in relationships. In some cases this may not be an issue—for example, if one partner goes to work a lot more than the other, the other may take on more household tasks. However, if both partners are working all day but only one is expected to do the chores, there is probably an imbalance of power.
8. The threat of physical intimidation is present
Although plenty of relationships occur between people of very different physical statures and strengths, in a healthy relationship there is never a threat of physical oppression or violence. One of the clearest signs of an unhealthy power imbalance is a feeling of physical intimidation around your partner. The implication of violence is unhealthy, even if this kind of abuse has never happened.
9. There is an atmosphere of tension and anxiety
It is not just physical threat that can cause tension and anxiety. Controlling people can often make their partners feel like they are “walking on eggshells” around them for fear of provoking resentment or an argument. Passive-aggressive behavior can be used as a form of power over a partner, and is an unhealthy component of a relationship.
Noticing any of these signs does not necessarily mean that your relationship has an unhealthy imbalance of power—sometimes these issues happen thoughtlessly rather than deliberately, and they can be fixed with communication. On the other hand, you do not need to have seen all of these signs for there to be a power imbalance in your relationship.
A healthy relationship should always be based on mutual respect. Noticing a potential power imbalance in your relationship does not necessarily mean the relationship is abusive or that it should end, but it means that whichever partner holds more power should take steps to redress that balance and restore equality.