7 Subtle Signs of Unhealthy Power Dynamics in a Marriage

You and your partner are head over heels for each other—but when’s the last time you thought about the power dynamics in your union? It’s actually something worth paying attention to, mainly because a truly healthy relationship can’t thrive without a balanced split. In other words, if one person has the final word on everything—thoughts, opinions, finances—feelings of love will quickly be replaced by resentment, anger and conflict. So, what are the subtle signs of a problem? We asked William Schroeder and Kelly Edwards at Just Mind Counseling to weigh in.

1. Their actions leave you feeling isolated and alone.

Does your husband reject all plans with other couples? Does your wife make fun of you when you call your mom for advice? Per Edwards, some people in unhealthy relationships feel isolated from friends and family because their partner finds an excuse not to go or will sulk or not have a good time while there. This has the potential to shift your sense of self and cut you off from the support systems that exist outside your relationship—a serious red flag. It is OK if your partner is less social than you. You just need to find ways to feed your own social needs without them getting upset with you for doing that.

2. They don’t respect your privacy.

If your partner regularly goes through your personal things—think email, text messages, social media accounts—that’s a sign that the power dynamic is off. “If you have a relationship culture where you think this is OK or believe this promotes transparency, you need to make sure you have a very explicit agreement about this and don’t just assume,” Edwards explains. Likewise, if you’re the snooper, it’s worth thinking about your own role in facilitating an unhealthy power balance. Instead, try to target exactly what’s making you feel insecure (say, your worry that your sister-in-law is a better sounding board for your spouse than you) and addressing that matter head-on, so you can still respect each other’s privacy and not need to know the details of every exchange.

3. They don’t care about your interests.

One of the biggest signs of a healthy power dynamic is when you both have separate hobbies or interests, says Edwards. But if your partner changes the way they treat you because of the things you do on your own, that shows an unhealthy attachment or insecurity that’s a form of distrust. For example, maybe you’ve recently picked up tennis, but your partner doesn’t know—or have any interest—in playing. If they guilt you about the time you’re spending at the courts, or berate you for skipping the occasional dinner to head to your lesson, that’s a sign that something is amiss.

4. They rely on shaming as a tool for change.

When one partner is over-performing and the other doesn’t step up, it’s common to feel frustrated. But if you or your spouse resorts to shaming the other one, that’s a red flag. For instance, if your husband passive aggressively proclaims, “Gosh, it must be nice to never have to worry about meal planning” while juggling multiple pots and pans on the burner, that’s an indication that he expects you to change, without actually having a conversation about what you need from each other. A more productive approach would be to sit down and say, ‘Hey, do you think we could find a way to divvy up the cooking? I’m really drowning trying to think ahead on it every night.’

5. They regularly threaten to end the relationship as a way to stop certain behaviors.

Maybe you have to work late nights. Or you’re frustrated that your spouse always prioritizes going out with friends. If the “fix” to this issue is to threaten a breakup or divorce, you’re dangling the outcome of your relationship as punishment—a sign the power dynamic is off.

6. They shift a focus on a problem to a focus on their hurt feelings.

You ask your husband why he let your toddler roam the yard unattended. He starts moaning (or screaming with rage) about how you never trust him, or think he’s a bad dad. It’s a problem, says Edwards. “Temper and hurt feelings can be used as a form of control when it shifts the conversation away from a problematic behavior or a difficult conversation so that all the energy is instead on the caretaking of those feelings.”

7. They refuse to discuss or avoid matters that are important to you.

You’re desperate to create a budget. They keep punting it down the line or flat out saying it’s not a priority. “Unnecessary avoidance or unwillingness to have conversations around things [that matter] are more red flags about power imbalances in a relationship,” adds Edwards. A thoughtful spouse will come together to create an action plan for how the two of you can divide and conquer to achieve your goal. This may involve putting the bulk of the responsibility on you (for example, ‘why don’t you do the research on what your ideal budget looks like, then we can sit down and fill in the numbers?’) but what matters is that they support your efforts and are willing to at least attempt to try things your way.

The Solution May Require Outside Help

Edwards explains that, generally, these types of unhealthy behaviors—or power imbalances—have been modeled to individuals in their childhood or early adolescence. “They come from a deep fear of feeling like they were not worthy of love and protection,” he says. You can try to talk things out together, but it may be worth enlisting the help of a couples’ therapist who can help you understand and appreciate each other’s differences. After all, you don’t have to react to life in exactly the same way, but you do need to respect where the other person is coming from, and work to find a middle ground.