11 Signs There's An Unhealthy Power Dynamic In Your Relationship, According To An Expert
If one of your goals is to lead a happy, fulfilling love life, learning to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationship dynamics is a crucial first step — because no one deserves to be trapped in a toxic relationship. A trademark of healthy relationships? There's a balance of power, meaning one person doesn't have total control of the relationship or call all the shots; rather, both partners are able to contribute their thoughts, opinions, and feelings equally.
"Our power in relationships comes from the ability to make empowered choices about them, and feel like our advocacy for those choices is listened to, trusted, respected, and valued by our partners," Adam Maynard, a relationship coach who specializes in helping people navigate relationship challenges, tells Bustle. "When a relationship’s power balance is out of whack, we lose our ability to affect these desired changes with one another in good faith — and feel mutually loved and supported along the way. This typically leads to feelings of neglect, resentment, anger, sadness, and disappointment, and conflict ensues."
So how can you tell if your relationship dynamic needs work? Here are 11 signs that there's an unhealthy power dynamic in your relationship — if any of these sound familiar, it might be time to take a step back and examine your relationship more closely.
1. You Don't Feel Comfortable Speaking Up For Yourself
In a healthy partnership, both people should feel comfortable expressing their opinions and, when necessary, speaking up for themselves. So what might it mean if you feel uncomfortable doing that?
"A big reason you don’t speak up for yourself is because you fear your partner will reject that part of you, or that they’ll retaliate against you in some way," Maynard says. "They have outsized control over you — you can’t get your core needs met or advocate for aspects of the relationship that are important to you."
2. They Always Have The Last Word In An Argument
All couples argue from time to time, but healthy couples fight fair — and it's a serious red flag if your partner always has to be 'right' or 'win' an argument.
"They’ve shown they don’t really care about resolving the underlying issue," Maynard says. "They care about being right and ending the conflict in a way that gives them the upper hand — even if it means you don’t feel like you’ve been heard, or that your position has equal merit."
3. They Don't Take Your Feelings Into Account When They Make Decisions
One of the responsibilities of being in a relationship is taking your partner's feelings into account, not just your own — and if your partner makes decisions without getting your input, that's unhealthy.
"If your partner regularly makes relationship decisions without consulting you or incorporating your needs, desires, and preferences into the decision making process, they care more about getting their way than they do about creating harmony in the relationship," Maynard says. "They also hold more of the power because their needs are regularly being prioritized."
4. They Don't Respect You
A relationship can't survive if there isn't a foundation of mutual respect, and if your partner doesn't seem to have the same respect for you that you have for them, that's likely to become a serious problem.
"If your partner regularly expresses contempt for you — your ideas, feelings, needs, desires, or way of being in the world — they think they’re better than you in some way," Maynard says. "They’re putting you down as a way of building themselves up, and they exert power over you in the process."
5. You Feel Alone
When you're in a healthy relationship, even when times are tough, you should always feel connected to your partner — so if you feel alone in your relationship, that doesn't bode well.
"Unhealthy power dynamics erase your agency in the relationship — your ability to affect the change you need and want," Maynard says. "This erasure eventually manifests as a feeling of isolation because of the way it undermines your sense of yourself as an autonomous actor in your own life."
6. They Physically Intimidate You
It should go without saying, but physical violence or threats of physical violence are never acceptable in a relationship, and if you're being physically intimated or abused by your partner, you should make a plan to safely exit the relationship immediately.
"Physical violence or the threat thereof is a control tactic meant to silence you so your partner can get what they want," Maynard says. "It’s the epitome of an unhealthy power dynamic — one we typically refer to as abuse."
Editor's note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
7. They Require You To Meet Their Needs, But Don't Care About *Yours*
In a relationship with a healthy power dynamic, both partners strive to meet each other's needs, and it should go without saying that it's unfair if your partner expects you to cater to them without returning the favor back to you.
"Demanding that your partner attend to your needs without showing the same care and consideration for theirs is a classic relationship power play," Maynard says. "You get what you want and leave them to fend for themselves."
8. You're Regularly Disappointed, And They're Regularly Content
No one is going to feel happy 100 percent of the time in their relationship, but if there seems to be an imbalance in how often you feel content compared to your partner, that could be a red flag that there's an unhealthy power dynamic at play.
"If you often feel disappointed about the relationship, especially after important exchanges, arguments, and conversations, but your partner is perfectly happy with how things are going, their needs are being met while yours are being neglected," Maynard says.
9. You Take Responsibility For Parts Of The Relationship That Belong To Them
It's important to know when and how to say "I'm sorry" in a relationship, and to be able to take accountability for your actions — but it's equally important to know when you should not apologize to your partner, too.
"Whether your partner expects you to or whether you do so voluntarily, if you regularly take personal responsibility for the issues that are a direct result of your partner’s thoughts, words, or actions, you give a tremendous amount of your power away," Maynard says. "You reinforce the notion that no matter what they do, they can pin it on you — and get away with it. It goes without saying that this dynamic is unfair to you."
10. You Do More Of The Work In The Relationship
To keep a relationship happy and healthy, it's not enough for just one person to make an effort: both partners need to put in the work and be willing to improve the relationship (even if it's already great).
"Maintaining a relationship takes time, energy, attention, and effort," Maynard says. "If one partner habitually does less than the other across the board, it may be because they feel entitled to not doing their fair share."
11. They Only Care About Their Experience During Sex
Nothing screams "selfish" like a partner who only cares about their own pleasure — and that kind of behavior can also be a sign of a power imbalance in the relationship.
"Whether it’s a simple lack of awareness or outright selfishness, not making an effort to satisfy you in the bedroom is proof that your partner thinks you’re only there to serve their needs," Maynard says. "This tendency is the epitome of a power imbalance, even if it’s subconscious on their part."
Spotting toxic behavior and recognizing an imbalance of power in a relationship is almost always easier said than done, but if you want to make sure that your relationship is a healthy one, it's imperative to be able to look objectively at your partner's behavior — and be honest with yourself about what you see. If that means moving on and finding a partner who's healthier for you, then more power to you.