Text +17203360240 to schedule your consultation today!

DCST News!

The Role of Therapy in Resolving Relationship Power Imbalances

In any relationship, it’s essential to feel heard, valued, and equal. But what happens when the scales tip?

Understanding Relationship Power Imbalances

Relationships are intricate dynamics, often likened to delicate dances or complex musical harmonies. When everything aligns, there’s harmony. But sometimes, the balance tips, leading to power imbalances. It’s crucial to understand the nuances of these imbalances to ensure the relationship thrives.

Nature of Power Imbalances

At its core, a power imbalance means that one partner holds a disproportionate amount of control or influence over decisions, actions, or the emotional climate of the relationship. It’s not just about who gets to choose the restaurant for date night; it permeates deeper layers, affecting how partners communicate, make decisions, or even how they perceive their self-worth in the relationship.

The Spectrum of Imbalance

Power imbalances aren’t always glaringly obvious. They exist on a spectrum:

  • Subtle Imbalances: These might be occasional occurrences, like one partner always determining weekend plans or having the final say in choices that affect both. While they might not immediately sound alarms, a buildup can lead to resentment.
  • Moderate Imbalances: Here, one partner might consistently prioritize their needs or feelings over the other. It can manifest as frequently talking over one’s partner, making unilateral decisions, or subtly undermining the other’s opinions.
  • Severe Imbalances: This is where one partner overtly controls or manipulates the other. It can range from emotional manipulation, financial control, to, in extreme cases, emotional or physical abuse.

Layers of Imbalances

It’s not always about dominance; sometimes, it’s about withdrawal or avoidance:

  • Active vs. Passive Imbalances: While an active imbalance involves overt dominance or control, a passive imbalance might mean one partner consistently avoids conflicts or decisions, placing the onus on the other.
  • Decision-making vs. Emotional Imbalances: Some imbalances might be centered around decision-making, while others are more emotional. For instance, one partner might always decide on financial matters, while the other might dominate the emotional climate, determining when, how, or if feelings are discussed.

Triggers for Imbalances

Understanding what triggers these imbalances can be pivotal. Factors can range from individual past traumas, societal conditioning about gender roles, cultural influences, to even patterns inherited from observing parental dynamics.

What are Power Imbalances?

Imagine a seesaw on a playground. When both sides are evenly weighted, it maintains a balance. However, when one side is heavier than the other, it tips. Similarly, in relationships, power should be distributed evenly for harmony. When it’s not, we encounter what’s termed as ‘power imbalances’.

Defining Power in Relationships

Power, in the context of relationships, refers to the ability or capacity of one partner to influence decisions, dictate dynamics, or control resources. It’s not just about who decides what’s for dinner; it’s about who feels heard, valued, and has an equal say in the relationship.

Different Types of Power Imbalances

Power imbalances can manifest in various forms:

  • Emotional Power Imbalance: One partner holds emotional control, often manipulating, guilt-tripping, or invalidating the other’s feelings. For instance, using phrases like “You’re too emotional” to dismiss a partner’s valid concerns.
  • Financial Power Imbalance: This occurs when one partner controls the financial resources, making the other financially dependent. It can lead to one partner making all the financial decisions, or even using money as a tool for control.
  • Decision-making Power Imbalance: From where to live, how to raise kids, to which social events to attend, if one partner consistently makes decisions without consulting the other, it indicates an imbalance.
  • Social Power Imbalance: Sometimes, one partner might dominate the couple’s social life, determining who they socialize with or isolating the other from friends and family.

The Roots of Power Imbalances

Why do these imbalances occur? Often, they stem from:

  • Past Traumas: Past experiences, like a history of abuse or controlling relationships, can influence how power is perceived and exercised in current relationships.
  • Cultural and Societal Conditioning: Many cultures have historical gender norms and societal expectations that can lead to inherent imbalances in relationships.
  • Self-esteem Issues: A partner with low self-esteem might either relinquish power easily or, conversely, try to control the relationship as a defense mechanism.
  • Fear of Conflict: Some individuals avoid conflicts at all costs, leading to a passive role in the relationship and inadvertently granting more power to their partner.

Implications of Power Imbalances

While mild imbalances can sometimes be navigated with communication, significant imbalances can lead to feelings of being trapped, undervalued, or disrespected. Over time, these feelings can erode trust, intimacy, and mutual respect – the very pillars of a healthy relationship.

Signs of a Power Imbalance in Relationships

In the intricate dance of relationships, harmony is maintained when both partners lead and follow in equal measure. However, when one consistently overshadows the other, it can indicate a power imbalance. Identifying these signs is crucial in preserving the health and longevity of a relationship.

1. Unilateral Decision Making One of the most glaring signs is when one partner consistently makes decisions—big or small—without consulting the other. Whether it’s about finances, where to live, or even daily activities, consistently excluding a partner from decisions can signal an imbalance.

2. Emotional Manipulation Have you ever felt like your emotions are being used against you? Emotional manipulation can range from guilt trips, gaslighting (making one doubt their reality), to using affection as a reward and withholding it as punishment.

3. Financial Control When one partner has complete control over the finances, dictating how money is spent, or keeping the other in the dark about financial matters, it’s a red flag. Financial dependency can be a tool for control in imbalanced relationships.

4. Constant Need for Validation If one partner consistently seeks validation from the other, it might indicate an imbalance. This can manifest as a need for constant reassurance or, conversely, the need to always be right.

5. Social Isolation One partner might control who the couple interacts with, or discourage the other from seeing friends or family. Social isolation is a tactic to ensure one partner is dependent on the other for social connections.

6. Disregard for Boundaries Repeatedly overstepping or ignoring established personal boundaries, be it emotional, physical, or otherwise, can be a sign that one partner holds too much power.

7. Frequent Criticism While constructive feedback is a part of any relationship, constant, unwarranted criticism aimed at undermining a partner’s confidence indicates an imbalance.

8. Lack of Personal Freedom Feeling like you need permission for basic things, be it going out with friends or pursuing a hobby, shows that one partner is exerting excessive control.

9. Imbalanced Domestic Responsibilities If one partner is solely responsible for all household duties, childcare, and other domestic responsibilities without mutual agreement, it can hint at an imbalance.

10. Silence or Avoidance Regularly feeling silenced, or one partner consistently avoiding serious conversations, can mean they’re holding the power to dictate communication dynamics.

11. Feeling “Walking on Eggshells” A pervasive feeling of needing to be extra cautious with what you say or do, to avoid upsetting the other, is a classic symptom of a power-skewed relationship.

Why Resolving Power Imbalances is Crucial

Imagine building a house on a tilted foundation. No matter how beautiful the design, over time, cracks will appear, and the structure may even collapse. Similarly, power imbalances can severely undermine the foundation of a relationship. Resolving these imbalances isn’t just beneficial—it’s absolutely crucial.

1. Ensuring Emotional Well-being Chronic power imbalances can lead to feelings of resentment, inadequacy, and emotional exhaustion. Over time, these negative emotions can erode self-esteem and lead to mental health issues like anxiety or depression. By resolving imbalances, both partners can feel emotionally safe and valued.

2. Strengthening Mutual Respect A relationship thrives on mutual respect. When one partner wields disproportionate power, it can breed disrespect or even contempt. By restoring balance, both partners can view and treat each other as equals, bolstering the relationship’s foundation.

3. Enhancing Trust and Intimacy Imbalances can create walls between partners. One may feel controlled, while the other might feel the constant burden of responsibility. Rebalancing power allows for vulnerability, trust-building, and deepened intimacy, essential ingredients for a loving relationship.

4. Facilitating Open Communication Open communication is the lifeblood of a relationship. Power imbalances often stifle voices, leading to unexpressed feelings or concerns. Addressing these imbalances can pave the way for transparent conversations, fostering understanding and empathy.

5. Encouraging Personal Growth A balanced relationship provides a platform for both partners to grow individually. When power dynamics are skewed, one partner may feel stifled, unable to pursue personal passions or growth opportunities. Restoring balance ensures that both individuals can flourish.

6. Reducing Conflict and Tension Unchecked power imbalances can lead to recurring conflicts. By addressing the root cause, couples can significantly reduce unnecessary arguments and enjoy a more harmonious relationship.

7. Safeguarding the Relationship’s Future If power imbalances remain unresolved, the relationship might head towards an eventual breakdown. Addressing and correcting these imbalances can not only salvage the relationship but also set it on a trajectory for long-term success.

8. Cultivating a Healthy Model for Others Children, family members, or even friends often look to relationships as models for their own. A balanced relationship sets a positive example for others, teaching them the values of mutual respect, equality, and love.

How Therapy Can Help

Navigating the murky waters of a relationship with power imbalances can be daunting. Like a compass guiding a ship through a storm, therapy offers direction, tools, and insights that can help restore balance and harmony.

1. Offering a Neutral Ground A therapeutic setting provides a neutral space where both partners can express their feelings without fear of judgment or further imbalances. This unbiased environment is conducive to open dialogue and understanding.

2. Identifying the Root Cause Often, power imbalances stem from deeper issues or past traumas. A therapist can help uncover these underlying causes, be it personal histories, childhood experiences, or past relationship dynamics.

3. Improving Communication Skills Miscommunication can exacerbate power imbalances. Couples therapy equips partners with effective communication techniques, ensuring feelings and concerns are articulated clearly and empathetically.

4. Establishing Boundaries Healthy boundaries are essential for any relationship. A therapist can guide couples in establishing and respecting boundaries, ensuring both partners feel secure and valued.

5. Teaching Conflict Resolution Strategies Disagreements are natural in any relationship, but resolving them constructively is crucial. Therapy introduces strategies to manage and resolve conflicts without further tilting power dynamics.

6. Fostering Self-awareness Therapists can help individuals recognize their own behaviors contributing to imbalances. Through self-awareness, partners can work towards changing detrimental patterns and cultivating healthier interactions.

7. Encouraging Empathy and Understanding Therapy isn’t just about talking; it’s also about listening. By hearing each other out in a therapeutic setting, partners can cultivate deeper empathy and understanding, essential components in rebalancing power.

8. Providing Tools for Empowerment For those feeling overpowered, therapy can offer tools and strategies to regain a sense of control and agency in the relationship.

9. Creating Accountability Therapy can hold both partners accountable for their roles in power dynamics, ensuring that both are actively working towards a more balanced relationship.

10. Offering Continued Support and Guidance Power imbalances don’t resolve overnight. Continued therapy sessions provide ongoing support, guidance, and adjustments as the relationship evolves.

The Process of Therapy in Addressing Power Imbalances

Therapy, especially relationship or couples therapy, is a journey. It’s a structured process that aims to uncover, address, and heal the dynamics causing an imbalance. Here’s a breakdown of the typical stages and methods involved:

1. Initial Assessment Before diving into solutions, therapists first seek to understand the relationship’s landscape.

  • Gathering History: Therapists will explore the relationship’s history, individual backgrounds, and any traumatic experiences.
  • Identifying Dynamics: Understanding the relationship’s current dynamics helps pinpoint areas of imbalance.

2. Setting Mutual Goals It’s essential that both partners are on the same page regarding what they hope to achieve. This could range from improved communication to a more equitable division of responsibilities.

3. Fostering Open Communication One of the first practical skills often taught is effective communication.

  • Active Listening: This technique ensures that both partners truly hear and understand each other’s perspective.
  • I-statements: Encouraging the use of phrases like “I feel” reduces blame and fosters understanding.

4. Unpacking Individual Baggage Power imbalances often have roots in individual histories. Therapists work with each partner to:

  • Explore Past Traumas: Recognizing how past experiences shape current behaviors can be enlightening.
  • Address Personal Insecurities: These often feed into the power dynamics at play.

5. Teaching Conflict Resolution Techniques Conflict is inevitable. The key is managing it constructively.

  • Avoiding the ‘Blame Game’: Therapists steer couples away from blaming and towards understanding.
  • Seeking Compromise: Finding middle ground is often the way forward.

6. Re-establishing Trust A fundamental pillar of any relationship, trust might need rebuilding.

  • Trust-building Exercises: Therapists may suggest activities or exercises designed to foster trust.
  • Addressing Breaches: Any past breaches of trust, such as infidelity, are tackled head-on.

7. Introducing Equal Decision-Making To address imbalances, therapists promote equality in decisions.

  • Joint Decision-making Exercises: Couples may be tasked with making decisions together, ensuring both voices are heard.
  • Role Reversal Scenarios: These can help partners understand each other’s perspectives better.

8. Encouraging Independence While unity is vital, so is individual autonomy.

  • Personal Growth Activities: Each partner might be encouraged to pursue personal growth activities to foster independence.
  • Establishing Personal Boundaries: Ensuring both partners have space and autonomy can balance power dynamics.

9. Regular Check-ins and Progress Assessment To monitor the journey and make necessary adjustments, regular evaluations are key.

  • Discussing Progress: Therapists will review improvements and challenges with the couple.
  • Setting New Goals: As the relationship evolves, new objectives may be set to guide the therapy.

10. Providing Tools for Continued Growth Therapy is not just about the sessions but also about providing tools for the couple to use in their everyday life.

  • Homework Assignments: These can range from journaling emotions to practicing specific communication techniques.
  • Recommending Resources: Therapists might suggest books, workshops, or support groups to further aid the couple.

Conclusion: The Path Forward with Therapy

In the grand tapestry of relationships, threads might tangle or stretch. But with therapy, these can be realigned and rewoven, ensuring a picture of love, respect, and balance. Ready to embark on this journey?


How long does therapy usually take to resolve power imbalances?

Therapy is subjective and varies from couple to couple. Some might see improvements within a few sessions, while others might take longer.

Can power imbalances truly be resolved?

Absolutely! With commitment, understanding, and the right tools, couples can navigate and overcome imbalances.

Is therapy only for severe power imbalances?

Not at all. Therapy can be beneficial even if you feel a slight imbalance. It’s about prevention and enhancement.

Can individual therapy help in addressing relationship power imbalances?

Individual therapy can certainly help in understanding one’s behavior and feelings, which can then contribute to resolving relationship dynamics.

Is there any stigma attached to seeking therapy for relationship issues?

While societal perceptions vary, mental health and relationships are gaining importance, and seeking help showcases strength, not weakness.

Angelica Jackson a therapist at Denver Couples and Sex Therapy

I’m Angelica Jackson, From Denver Couples & Sex Therapy PLLC. I graduated with a Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and I am a Licensed Professional Counselor Candidate also involved at the local and national level of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. I have dedicated myself to building a practice committed to providing extraordinary, expert client care.