Balance of Power
Sure, we like flowers and jewelry just fine, but you know what would be really romantic this Valentine’s Day? A truly equal partnership.
You know, where each person does his or her fair share of housework and parenting duties, and receives the same degree of consideration when it comes to making decisions and pursuing career goals.
“Research shows that equality, measured as the ability to influence your partner and get them to respond to something that matters to you, is related to lower levels of depression and anxiety, and greater well-being and relationship satisfaction,” says Carmen Knudson-Martin, PhD, director of the Marriage, Couple, and Family Therapy program at Lewis & Clark College. Just try to get results like that from a box of chocolates.
So we quizzed experts who live and breathe relationship power dynamics about how to get on even footing. Here’s how to create a balance of power.
Do You Get Left Out of Decision Making?
If your main squeeze has the final word on everything from where to go on vacation to whether to see Whiplash or Birdman, you can end up feeling like your POV isn’t respected. The issue might be communication: Men tend to be more direct than women and might not pick up on a woman’s subtler approach.
For example, when Knudson-Martin and her husband were remodeling their house, she wanted a hot tub, so she asked, “What would you think about a hot tub?” He replied that he had no interest. “I felt so wounded that he didn’t care about something that was important to me,” she remembers. “I took a big breath and said, ‘Well, I would like a hot tub.’ He simply said, ‘Okay, let’s get one.’ He just needed me to be clear.”
Speak your mind assertively. “And don’t shy away from conflict,” adds Knudson-Martin. “The person with less power is always going to be more attuned to the person with greater power. If you automatically take a one-down position, there is little incentive for others to pay attention to your wants.” When opinions differ, sit with that discord instead of immediately trying to smooth things over.
In addition to taking a more blunt approach, boosting your bond helps. The more in sync you are, the better he will understand you — despite divergent communication styles. Have a weekly check-in. If your partner’s sensitivity level doesn’t rise, consider a couple’s therapist.
Do You Ever Feel Like a Single Parent?
Fifty-fifty parenting should be the norm … but it can be an uphill battle. “In our society, there is a deeply ingrained cultural message that a stronger bond exists between a mother and child than between a father and child,” says Knudson-Martin.
“Our studies found that couples who share child-care duties most equitably were better able to overcome this social conditioning.” So how do you reverse that deep-seated thought pattern?
Build up the dad-kid connection. You can encourage your partner’s involvement by taking a few steps back.
“Many women automatically assume control of most of the child-care duties, which can leave men feeling incompetent and then they simply won’t try,” says Knudson-Martin. “In my practice, I repeatedly hear guys say things like, ‘I could change the diaper, but it would take me 10 minutes and she can do it in two.’ Let him struggle a little bit and make mistakes. Let him take the 10 minutes.” If you have trouble letting go, try leaving the house so you won’t be able to interject.
The truth is, it’s like any skill — the more practice he gets, the more adept he’ll become. Soon he’ll be able to snot-suck a two-year-old with his eyes closed. “As he starts to feel more confident, he’ll naturally take over more of tasks,” Knudson-Martin promises.
Plus, engaging nurturing behavior “creates a natural positive feedback loop,” says Knudson-Martin. Caretaking triggers the release of oxytocin (a.k.a. the body’s “happiness hormone”), and that feel-good, bonding rush will encourage him to connect even more.
Who Does All the Housework?
Feel like you’re the only washing the dishes and scrubbing the toilet and vacuuming?
Working as a team appeals to the male brain, and you can bring that collaborative vibe to housework. Dr. Michael Kimmel, professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University and author of Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, suggests that you “approach household tasks with an attitude of: Here’s what needs to get done, we’re all in this together, let’s divide things up fairly.”
Get in the habit of doing a quick debrief about what needs to get done — e.g., I’ll drop off Sarah at soccer practice tomorrow, you pick her up; I’ll go grocery shopping, you get dinner started.
If you have kids, involve the whole family. You want to emphasize that feeling of group participation toward the shared goal of making the household run smoothly.
It can also help to designate some household tasks that belong solely to your partner, whether that’s cleaning the garage, taking out the trash, doing dishes, whatever. That way there’s no gray area about who’s responsible for what. “Then, ask if he needs help,” Kimmel says. “It’s always a good idea to offer to help others if you want them to help you.”
When Someone Makes More Money
It’s imperative to get to the bottom of a financial imbalance, or your relationship could be in peril: A Kansas State University study found that arguments about money are by far the top predictor of divorce.
It’s key to institute ground rules about money. One biggie: If you want to purchase something that exceeds a certain price, you have to talk to your partner first. (This goes both ways.) Another: Be specific about who pays for what. For example, maybe you each have a personal account, plus a joint account for household expenses, where a proportional amount of each person’s salary is funneled. Finally, devise a game plan for big-picture goals, like paying off debt and retirement.
“Unless you have a conversation that establishes a shared agreement, you will keep running into misunderstandings,” says Dolan-Delvecchio. The more rules you have, the fewer gray areas you’ll encounter, and the lower your chances of conflict.
When the Sex Isn’t Great
Your significant other is fully satisfied every time, while you’re left high and dry. Unacceptable.
To help you get there, Knudson-Martin recommends this sex-ercise: Take turns giving each other satisfaction — without actually having intercourse. So he can do anything to get you going, as long as you’re not knocking boots. Throughout the session, relax and give him specific feedback on what’s working. The idea is to be honest without being critical (touch me here, now there, a bit softer, a little slower, etc.). Then switch roles.
The benefits are twofold: First, you’ll be able to completely focus on your own enjoyment, without worrying about whether he’s into it. Second, he’ll learn what turns you on and get more in tune with you — thus upping your shot at future satisfaction.
There’s Not Enough TLC
Imagine this: You get home from work and your spouse greets you at the door, hands you a glass of wine, and offers a foot rub. Sound like an alternate reality?
If you’re doing the bulk of the caretaking, try some good old-fashioned positive reinforcement. The next time your spouse goes out of his way — even if it’s something as small as getting you a glass of water — give him plenty of props. “Point out why what he did was so valuable,” says Knudson-Martin. “A day or two later, you can mention it again.”
Also, remember that it’s probably not the case that your partner is selfish or doesn’t care. “People fall into traditional gender patterns without realizing it,” says Knudson-Martin. “Men are socialized to be independent, and we value independence in our culture. Focusing on someone else’s needs can make them feel like they’re giving up their autonomy.” Even in the most modern, enlightened relationships, women tend to take on the role of nurturer.
In order to get closer to gender parity, have a weekly date during which you each share one thing that you appreciated, one that frustrated you, and one that made you feel super in love.
“Not only will this help you treat each other more thoughtfully, but you’ll also be intentional about clarifying what a mutual partnership would look like,” says Knudson-Martin.
That way, you’re less likely to default to Mad Men–style stereotypes.