Power in relationships and why it's a thing

Power In Relationships

This piece explains why there is often a difference of power in relationships, why it might affect you and what you can do about it.

There’s lots of advice here about how to use condoms. Different kinds of sex you might want. How to get a date. What you want and need from relationships. And whether you are in a ‘good’ relationship. ‘So far so good Bish, but it’s not always easy to do that is it?’

Exactly, but why? It’s often because of a difference in power. This is really difficult to explain, so give me a minute yeah? I’m going to try and explain it using examples.

Obvious examples of power in relationships

Say one person has much more money than the other and is always paying for stuff, like: food, drink, rent, bills, holidays, hotels. Say this person was taking the other person for granted. Not really letting them have as much say in the relationship. Not letting them be who they want to be. Why might that be hard for the person with less money? How might that affect you?

An obvious example of power in relationships is when people use money and fame to abuse people

Say someone famous asked a not famous person out on a date. How easy would it be for the other person to say ‘no’? Or, during the date, the famous person asked them to do something they weren’t sure about. Why might it be harder for the non famous person to say no? How might that affect you?

These are kinds of obvious ones, but how about some less obvious ones.

Less obvious examples of power

Here are some less obvious examples — I’ve made the quotes up but they are loosely based on the kinds of things people talk to me about.

There are obvious examples of power differences in relationships but also less obvious. How do you manage them?

“I’ve been seeing this girl for about a year. She’s been wanting it to be ‘friends with benefits’ so that we can both see other people. I’m like ‘yeah sure’ but actually I feel like I want to be her girlfriend. She’s the first person I’ve ever had sex with and I’m not that confident about my sexuality at the moment. I worry if I ask her for more I might lose her.”

“I mean the sex is great, but he won’t use condoms. I keep insisting on it but sometimes we go bareback. I feel like he could just turn around and find someone else if I keep nagging him. Will I ever have such great sex with someone else though?”

“We have this really close friendship. Kinda like a bromance right? I used to get bullied a lot and found it difficult to trust people. He’s never had that kind of problem but has always been really kind to me. I can’t talk to anyone like I can talk to him. He’s introduced me to so many great experiences and things – like bands and drinking and stuff – and I always go along with it. I worry that he’s going to find other friends because he thinks I’m boring and bring nothing to the party.”

“He just won’t stop pestering to see my tits. He keeps sending me pictures of his dick, which I don’t want to see and he’s just saying now that I owe him. I don’t even fancy him, but I do want to feel fancied by at least someone. I feel like I’m not as hot as the other girls.”

“My lover (ugh hate that word) Al is well hot. They came out to everyone in the first week of Uni and they are such a super confident queer. I’m not really there yet about my own gender stuff. Thing is, I also think I’m quite asexual. Al says that I just haven’t had much experience yet. I end up going along with sex because I think I should, but I feel shit about it afterwards.”

“We have such a great time together, but in bed he keeps asking me to tell him what I like. I find that really hard to do so I just do everything he wants to do. I guess I worry about what he might think about me if I told him what I was into. I don’t want him to think I’m a slag basically.”

Like in the more obvious examples, there is a difference in power here. It’s not necessarily deliberate, and the person with power might not know, but it’s there. One person feels the other person is more popular, sexy, or confident. Or they might feel that no-one else is going to find them interesting or attractive.

So they feel like they’ve got a lot more to lose – there’s more at stake for them. Maybe they want to do more to keep the other person happy, rather than think about what might make them happy. Does that make sense? Is this something you’ve experienced?

How we get and don’t get power

We get and don’t get power for loads of different reasons. It could be our early childhood experiences. Our family backgrounds. How confident we are. How we communicate. What kind of personality we are. What we value. How popular we seem to be. What society says is attractive. Etc etc.

But also we get or don’t get power because of who we are and what society says about us.

Think about the different words or phrases used to describe sexually active men “___”
And now think about the words used to describe sexually active women “____”

Now think about the kinds of people you see having sex in TV, Film, in porn and sex advice. What colour are they? Are they disabled? What kind of gender are they? What class are they? Who in society get status for having sex? Who gets stigma? Go back to my examples above: how would you describe each of the people in those scenarios?

We might get and not get power because of our background but also because of what society says about us.

This kind of societal power (or privilege) has different effects on different people. Someone with a lot of power (e.g. cis, white, middle class, able bodied men) might be pretty aware of this and work to make sure that they can even this out with other people. Other folk with less privilege (e.g. everyone else) might have found other ways to give themselves some power and rights.

Point is, for all of these reasons, there is often a difference in power in sex and relationships. Sometimes we might have more power, sometimes less. Being aware of it is the first step in being able to deal with it and all the potential problems that might come from it. This doesn’t mean directly pointing it out – this might actually reinforce the power imbalance – but just allowing for it and trying to communicate really well.

How communication can help

When we have power, it’s not really possible to turn it off – but it is possible to turn it down a bit. We can do this by really good communication. Giving people more of an opportunity to feel they can do what they want. Remember that different people prefer different kinds of communication. You might even need to talk about how you want to talk #meta.

Some prefer face to face, others prefer text, or email. It’s a good idea to try to ask open questions like “how would you feel about ________?” rather than “do you want to do _____ ?” You could also try asking “what can I do to make this a bit easier?”

How we can deal with power in relationships by effective consensual communication

Try to be patient and give people time and space to work out what they want. Also pay attention to how people communicate non-verbally: their body language, eye contact, facial expressions. Always try to give people a way out of a situation and also a way back in.

All of this is really hard and complicated to do. The following links might also help.

Big Ups – to help you to feel more confident about yourself
How do you feel about you – more about self-esteem and how you feel about yourself
How to communicate about sex – the different ways to do sex talk
Consent, Innit – more about consent and what makes it harder
Relationship graph – check out how your relationship is going with this graph
Disability and sex – disabled folk are often told they can’t have sex and relationships *Grrrrr*
Sexualities – some sexual identities get more status than others. Find out more here.
Genders – also some genders get more status than others

Slut vs Stud – why are women who have sex called sluts when men are called studs?

© Justin Hancock, 2017


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