Power play in relationships

Last updated 13:29 01/02/2013
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STRONG NOT SATISFIED: According to new research, the person with the most power in a relationship is more likely to be unsatisfied with it.

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Three decades ago someone came up with a theory on intimate relationships called "the investment model".

This model suggests you only feel happy in your relationship if:

  • You're significantly "invested" in it.
  • The only alternatives available to you are "poor quality"
  • You perceive more rewards than costs within the bounds of the love affair

Interestingly, "quality alternatives" doesn't necessarily mean "hotter, younger model". The theory allows for alternatives to range from a different dating partner, to spending time with friends and family, or spending time alone.

But a recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships suggests all this ignores one important factor vital to relationship success: power.

Defined variously as the dominance or control over others, influence over others, or a means to meet survival needs, power might also be seen simply as the opposite of dependence (ie: doormats are walked on for a reason).

Now, is it possible to distribute power equally in a relationship? Or must someone always be more powerful, ultimately?

This is important because our American and Swiss researchers hypothesised that - in view of investment theory - the person with the most power is more likely to be unsatisfied with the relationship.

Sure, a couple might say they power-share. Certainly liberated, egalitarian, latte-sipping types like I might believe they can love on equal footing.

But when you consider the pervasive influence of broader *cough* gendered *cough* social norms, even I am forced to admit imbalance is a probable, though undesirable, reality. I'm certainly not saying this is right. I'm just saying this is the way it is-ish (it's changing, right?).

At least that's what our American and Swiss researchers found. From probes into a pool of 120 college couples, it was concluded males reported significantly higher levels of power than females overall.

This finding appeared to support the authors' hypothesis: more power equals less satisfaction.

However, females reported significantly higher levels of satisfaction and commitment than males.

And, contrary to the hypothesis, possessing a higher level of power was also associated with a lower level of satisfaction.

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This was thought to be because the power imbalance deviates from the egalitarian ideal held by many in intimate relationships. It also fits with investment theory; unequal power is perceived as a cost to the relationship, rather than as a benefit to the individual (so there's hope for us yet...).

But where does that leave us? Is power-balance possible, and is it good for long-lasting love? Do most people desire all things to be equal, or are we happier to walk uneven ground than we think?

You tell me - how do you like power to play out in your love life?

- Daily Life

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