Power Struggle In Relationships – The Right Way To Deal With It

New-Age Couples
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In the harsh but revealing glow of hindsight, one relationship stands out as a poignant reminder of the intricate web of power struggle in relationships that can silently permeate the most intimate connections. Sarah and I, swept up in the fervor of newfound love, were seemingly invincible. Yet, beneath the surface, an unspoken battle for control brewed, threatening the delicate equilibrium we so desperately sought.

As emotions clashed and egos clashed even more fiercely, it became a hard-learned lesson in the intricate dynamics that unfold when two hearts attempt to harmonize. Our battlegrounds ranged from trivial decisions about what movie to watch to weightier matters like the direction of our future together. I found myself unwittingly caught in the undertow of Sarah’s strong personality, her assertiveness often drowning out my desires. The more I felt my autonomy slipping away, the tighter I clung to the fraying threads of what we once had.

It occurred to me that I possibly can’t be the only one to have experienced this tug and pull of power dynamics. And so, I decided to delve into the nuances of power struggle in relationships and uncover the pathways to navigate them with grace and understanding. With some valuable insights from Dhriti Bhavsar (MA Clinical Psychology), a relationship counselor, we’ll navigate the labyrinth of emotions, drawing from personal experiences and research studies to unveil the right way to deal with the inevitable power tussles that can shape the very core of our connections, hurting our well-being.

What Is Power Struggle In Relationships?

A power struggle in a relationship refers to a situation in which two partners in a romantic relationship vie for control, influence, or dominance within the partnership. This struggle can manifest in various aspects of the relationship, such as decision-making, communication, and the distribution of responsibilities. It often emerges when there’s a perceived imbalance in power, leading one or both partners to assert their needs, opinions, or desires in an attempt to gain control or maintain a sense of autonomy.

Dhriti explains, “Every relationship is a power struggle on some level. Relationships inherently carry a power dynamic. This dynamic is seldom evenly distributed; instead, it tends to fluctuate based on various factors. Interestingly, in heterosexual relationships, this dynamic often takes on a more rigid structure, with implications that are particularly relevant when viewed from the perspective of the male partner. It’s crucial to recognize that insecurity can play a significant role in shaping and intensifying these dynamics, highlighting the importance of open communication, empathy, and mutual understanding in fostering healthy relationships.”

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Addressing the question of what is a relationship power struggle, this Reddit user says, “When we met, he would put in more effort than me and I loved it. Eventually, he became more relaxed. Now it feels like I put in more effort and he doesn’t understand why I get upset when he slacks off a little. I don’t want to make it seem like he’s a bad boyfriend because he does do concrete things to show me he loves me.

“There’s this idea called the Principle of Least Interest. It just means that the person who cares the least in the relationship has the upper hand. I just learned about this today and it’s exactly how I feel. I’ve become so desperate, and he never has to be because he knows I’ll always care more.

“I never thought the relationship would end up being a power struggle. I try to tell myself to stop caring so much so he would eventually become more desperate, but I feel bad about being manipulative and I’m naturally a giving person so it’s hard to stop caring.”

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It’s important to recognize that some level of power dynamic is inherent in any relationship, and achieving perfect equality is often unrealistic. Butting heads with your loved one is inevitable. However, unhealthy power struggles can erode the foundation of a relationship if left unaddressed, leading to resentment, communication breakdowns, and a general sense of dissatisfaction. This happens when a couple goes through the 5 stages of relationship power struggle:

  • Initial discomfort and tension: In the early stages of power play in relationships, immediately after the honeymoon phase is over, there’s a growing sense of discomfort and tension. Differences in opinions, values, or expectations may surface, not to mention annoying habits, leading to a subtle but palpable unease between partners
  • Escalation of conflict: As the power struggle intensifies, conflicts may escalate. Disagreements become more frequent, and attempts to assert control or dominance may heighten. Communication breakdowns become apparent, with partners struggling to find common ground
  • Defensive posturing and control tactics: In this stage, partners may adopt defensive postures, seeking to protect their interests or perspectives. Control tactics, such as manipulation, blaming, or attempts to influence decision-making unilaterally, may become more pronounced
  • Emotional distance and resentment: The ongoing power struggle can lead to emotional detachment and a sense of growing resentment. Partners may withdraw emotionally to protect themselves from the perceived threat or stress, creating a divide that further complicates the relationship. This can adversely impact their well-being.
  • Crossroads — resolution or continued struggle: At this juncture, the relationship reaches a crossroads. Couples may either choose to actively address and resolve the power struggle or continue the cycle of conflict. If addressed constructively, this stage can be a turning point toward a healthier, more balanced dynamic with both partners on the same page. However, if left unattended, the power struggle may persist, and you get stuck in a never-ending cycle of one-upmanship.

Now that you know the 5 stages of relationship power struggle, let’s see why they happen.

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Why is there a power struggle in relationships?

Power struggles in relationships can stem from various underlying factors, reflecting the complex interplay of individual personalities, values, and dynamics. Even people who seem well-adjusted as individuals can fall into this trap in their intimate relationships. Dhriti lists the following aspects in which power struggle psychology is typically rooted:

  • Differences in values and goals: When partners have divergent values, life goals, or priorities, they may find themselves in conflict as they navigate decision-making that impacts the trajectory of the relationship
  • Communication styles: Varied communication styles can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. If one partner is more assertive and the other more passive, it can create a power imbalance in discussions and decision-making
  • Insecurity: Insecurity, whether stemming from past experiences or circumstantial issues, such as one partner making more money than the other can contribute to a need for control or validation in a relationship. This can manifest as a power struggle as individuals seek reassurance or attempt to protect themselves emotionally
  • Unresolved issues: Past grievances or unresolved conflicts can resurface, creating an ongoing power struggle as partners navigate lingering resentments and unaddressed concerns
  • Role expectations: Societal or cultural expectations regarding gender roles can contribute to power struggles, especially in heterosexual relationships. Traditional expectations may shape perceptions of authority and influence
  • External stressors: External factors such as financial pressures, work-related stress, or family issues can exacerbate tensions and trigger power struggles
  • Fear of vulnerability: Opening up and being vulnerable can be challenging. Some individuals may engage in power struggles as a defense mechanism to avoid exposing their true feelings or insecurities
  • Lack of boundaries: Unclear or violated boundaries can lead to discomfort and resentment. Establishing and respecting boundaries is crucial for a healthy power dynamic in a relationship
  • Personal development: As individuals evolve and grow, the power dynamic within a relationship may shift. If one partner resists or fears this change, it can lead to tension and conflict

Understanding these underlying factors of power struggle psychology is essential for addressing and resolving power struggles constructively. Open communication, empathy, and a willingness to work together to find common ground are key components in navigating and overcoming power struggles in relationships.

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Additionally, Dhriti attributes the concept of the locus of control to the existence of an unhealthy power play in relationships. She says, “Individuals often operate from either an internal or external locus of control. Those with an internal locus believe they can influence and change their circumstances through personal actions, fostering a sense of agency and responsibility. On the flip side, individuals with an external locus tend to seek control outside of themselves, attempting to manage others and manipulate external situations. This external locus of control can become a breeding ground for power struggles within relationships, particularly when faced with differences between partners.

“The challenge arises when those with an external locus perceive these differences as threats to the relationship, triggering a cascade of insecurity. This insecurity often manifests in a power imbalance in a relationship, marked by behaviors such as gaslighting in relationships, manipulation, and an overarching need for control over even the most trivial decision-making — a turbulent cycle that hinders the establishment of mutual understanding and collaboration. Recognizing and addressing the locus of control within oneself and a partner can be a pivotal step in breaking free from the destructive patterns of power struggles, fostering healthier dynamics built on acceptance and cooperation.”

Healthy vs unhealthy power struggle in relationships

Every relationship is a power struggle — power struggles in relationships are a natural part of navigating differences and establishing a balance of influence. However, how these power struggles manifest and are handled can determine whether they contribute to a healthy or unhealthy dynamic in the relationship.

Healthy power struggle

The power struggle can be considered healthy when there is:

  • Effective communication: In healthy power struggles, partners communicate openly and honestly about their needs, desires, and concerns. They actively listen to each other, seek to understand differing perspectives, and ensure they’re both on the same page in decision-making
  • Mutual respect: Both partners in a healthy power struggle respect each other’s autonomy and acknowledge the validity of their feelings and opinions. There is a commitment to finding a compromise that honors each person’s needs and well-being
  • Constructive conflict resolution: Rather than resorting to romantic manipulation or control tactics, couples in healthy power struggles work together to find solutions. They approach conflicts as opportunities for growth and understanding, learning from each other in the process
  • Empathy: Empathy plays a crucial role in the positive use of power in relationships. Partners try to understand each other’s emotions and experiences, fostering a deeper connection and reducing the potential for one-sided dominance, seeing each other on a more personal level

Related Reading: The Top 10 Causes Of Relationship Problems – And Why They Fail

Unhealthy power struggle

On the other hand, struggle stemming from an unhealthy power imbalance in a relationship is characterized by:

  • Manipulation and control: In unhealthy power struggles, one or both partners may resort to manipulation, control, or coercion to get their way. This can manifest as emotional manipulation, gaslighting, or attempts to undermine the other person
  • Lack of communication: Unhealthy power dynamics often involve a communication breakdown. Partners may avoid discussing issues, leading to unresolved conflicts that fester and contribute to a toxic environment
  • Disregard for boundaries: In unhealthy power struggles, there may be a lack of respect for each other’s boundaries in relationships. One partner may overstep boundaries, leading to feelings of resentment and a sense of violation
  • Win-lose mentality: Instead of seeking compromises, unhealthy power struggles may be characterized by a win-lose mentality. One partner’s victory is the other’s defeat, creating a divisive and adversarial dynamic
  • Escalation of conflict: Unhealthy power struggles often escalate rather than de-escalate, leading to a cycle of negativity and resentment

Recognizing the signs of unhealthy power dynamics is crucial for addressing and transforming them into healthier patterns. Couples therapy or relationship counseling can be valuable tools for learning effective communication strategies and building a more positive and balanced dynamic.

power imbalance in a relationship
Power struggle in a relationship is when one partner feels the need to dominate the other

4 Types Of Power Struggle In Relationships

What is a relationship power struggle? Is power struggle a negative trait to have in a relationship? Can there be a positive use of power in relationships? When you begin to see that you and your partner are caught in a tug-of-war for power, such worrying thoughts and the implied uncertainty of your relationship can begin to weigh on your mind. Understanding the 4 types of power struggle in relationships will give you clarity on whether what you’re dealing with qualifies as healthy and positive or toxic and negative:

1. Demand-withdrawal power struggle

This power struggle dynamic occurs when one partner craves and tries to establish a certain degree of intimacy, but the other considers it ‘smothering’ and runs away. The pursuer feels that their partner is cold or maybe withholding affection on purpose. On the other hand, the distancer finds their partner to be too needy.

One of the examples of power struggles in relationships is the silent treatment that follows arguments between couples. In the demand-withdrawal power struggle, one partner gives the other time and space to cool off, while the other doesn’t shut them down when they finally attempt to resolve the issue.

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2. Distancer-pursuer power struggle

This power struggle dynamic occurs when one partner craves and tries to establish a certain degree of intimacy, but the other considers it ‘smothering’ and runs away. The pursuer feels that their partner is cold or maybe withholding affection on purpose. On the other hand, the distancer finds their partner to be too needy.

One of the distancer-pursuer power struggle examples in relationships is push-pull dynamics. In such relationships, both partners are caught in an unhealthy hot-and-cold dance, unable to agree on an acceptable extent of intimacy. A classic example is someone who switches off their phone after a fight in a long-distance relationship, while the pursuer anxiously and frantically tries to reach out through a friend or family.

3. Fear-shame power struggle

The fear-shame power struggle means that one partner’s fear triggers shame in the other. This is often a result of one’s fears and insecurities that bring out feelings of avoidance and shame in the other. And vice versa. For instance, in a relationship with financial stress, if one partner is worried about not having enough money, the other may feel ashamed that they’re not earning enough. As a result, when one person feels stressed or worried about certain situations, the other becomes withdrawn to hide the shame they’re feeling.

The more withdrawn one partner becomes due to shame, the partner experiencing fear tends to overshare as they think they are not being heard. This creates a negative downward spiral. Since fear and shame are often called the most debilitating negative emotions, the stages of relationship power struggle can quickly escalate to unhealthy and toxic levels in this dynamic, taking a toll on the mental health and self-esteem of both partners.

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4. Punishment-avoidance struggle

This form of a power struggle in romantic relationships is rooted in one partner’s need to punish the other. This partner will lash out at the other with criticism, anger, and demands. They also try to hold back love, letting it flow in trickles, treating love as a manipulative tool to exercise reward and punishment. To avoid being punished, the other partner retreats into a shell and becomes emotionally unavailable.

Such power struggle in marriage or relationships is the most toxic and is marked by ultimatums and threats. As a defense mechanism, the person at the receiving end of such contemptuous behavior often resorts to silent treatment, which only augments the negative emotions in the partner who seeks to punish.

How To Spot The Signs Of Power Struggle In Relationships?

Understanding the power struggle meaning in psychological terms is one thing, learning to spot this tendency in your relationship is quite another. Often, the transition from one to the other isn’t easy. That’s because often we’re in denial about our underlying relationship issues.

If you feel that both you and your partner tend to resort to constant one-upmanship but aren’t sure whether it qualifies as an indicator of a power struggle in intimate relationships, pay attention to these surefire signs of power struggle in relationships:

infographic on signs of power struggle in relationship
Signs of power struggle in relationships

1. You play mind games

One of the most telling power struggle examples in relationships is the tendency to play mind games to manipulate one another. Whether it is constantly bringing up an ex or deliberately not texting first but always responding, these behaviors are tools for controlling your partner’s mind, instincts, and actions.

When either of you has an issue with the other, you fall back on a passive-aggressive approach to convey your displeasure. Honest, open communication is too difficult in your relationship. These are some of the early signs of a power struggle phase in relationships. “The person playing the mind games loses track of what is important in the relationship, prioritizing their own ‘victory’ over the health of the relationship,” says Dhriti.

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2. A feeling of superiority

What does power struggle in relationships look like? A telling indicator is that yours is not a partnership of equals. Far from it, in fact. One or both of you live with an unshakeable feeling of being superior to the other. Be it owing to the nature of your profession, your family background, education, or financial status, at least one partner feels like the other is always falling short.

As a result, the ‘settler’ feels a constant need to patronize and dominate the ‘reacher’, resulting in an unhealthy power struggle. The ‘reacher’ faces debilitating low self-esteem issues. Such examples of power struggles in relationships are common in the fear-shame dynamic, where one partner constantly makes the other feel like they’re not enough, pushing them into a cocoon of emotional withdrawal.

3. You compete with each other

Rather than operate as a team, couples with a strong power struggle in marriage or a relationship feel a need to compete with each other on a personal level. Whether it is on the professional front or petty things like who looks better for a party, you’re constantly trying to outdo each other. If, for example, news of your partner getting a raise leaves you with a pit in your stomach or your promotion leaves them feeling visibly jealous, you can count these among the early signs of power struggle in romantic relationships.

“On the other hand, through a healthy power struggle, a couple would learn their emotional triggers and what evoked the sense of jealousy in them. They would acquaint themselves with the various types of insecurities in a relationship, recognize theirs, find ways to heal, and communicate effectively what each of them needs, to ensure that their relationship is not plagued by envy,” explains Dhriti.

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4. You pull each other down

Another classic sign that you’re stuck in the power struggle stage in a relationship is that either your partner pulls you down or you do the same to them. Perhaps you both have a go at it from time to time. Do you notice a tone of derision in your partner’s opinions of your actions, accomplishments, and shortcomings? Or find yourself overcome with contempt toward theirs? Does it feel like you’re always justifying yourself to your partner? Or they to you?

Dhriti says, “Look out for overt signs of disrespect, such as derogatory comments disguised as jokes (For example, referring to your partner as “ the ol’ ball and chain”). Negging or disparaging your partner’s preferences or belittling what they care about can be indicative of an underlying power struggle.”

Constant criticism is the bane of a healthy relationship

5. The romance has gone out of your life

Can’t remember when you did anything special for each other? Or went out for a date night? Or just spent a cozy evening together, wrapped in a blanket, talking and laughing? Instead, do you and your partner end up bickering over chores, errands, and responsibilities?

You have reached this stage of power struggle in your relationship through constant withdrawal, avoidance, distancing, and silent treatments. You, your partner, or you both have become comfortable in not communicating or interacting to avoid hurt and anger and so, the level of intimacy in your relationship has taken a hit. These patterns are the hallmarks of the power struggle phase in relationships having been drawn out for far too long. Unless you take conscious steps to snap out of it by mindfully breaking problematic patterns and working on improving communication, your relationship will continue to suffer.

6. You cannot accept even the smallest differences

When a relationship reaches a point where even the smallest differences are challenging to accept, it often signals deeper issues that may contribute to a power struggle. This might stem from a desire for control, fear of change, or a need for things to conform to a specific expectation.

Dhriti says, “If there’s a persistent lack of acceptance for your partner’s differences, and an expectation for them to conform to your preferences, it may signal a power struggle. If even the smallest differences of opinion set off alarm bells about the possibility of a breakup, you’re dealing with a power struggle. Healthy relationships thrive on acknowledging and respecting each other’s individuality.”

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7. You cannot compromise on anything

A pattern of being unable to compromise on anything — even the most mundane decision-making within a relationship can be a significant red flag, signaling potential challenges in the dynamics between partners. It reflects a rigid mindset, suggesting a power struggle within the relationship. This rigidity can stem from a desire for control, a lack of empathy in the relationship, or an unwillingness to consider alternative perspectives.

“In a power struggle, compromise may seem impossible because both partners feel like they’re giving up something fundamentally important. Watch for signs of absolutist thinking, where one or both individuals adopt an all-or-nothing approach, hindering the ability to find common ground,” says Dhriti.

8. Healthy communication has become a distant memory

Communication breakdown is a significant sign of a power struggle in a relationship, indicating a breakdown in the exchange of information, emotions, and understanding between partners. Partners avoid discussing important issues or retreat into silence. Avoidance can be a mechanism to prevent conflict, but in the context of a power struggle, lack of communication signifies a reluctance to engage in open communication and face the underlying issues.

More on Unhealthy Relationship

9. You frequently disregard each other’s boundaries

In the context of a power struggle in relationships, a disregard for boundaries can significantly impact the dynamics between partners. It suggests a fundamental lack of respect within the relationship. Frequent boundary violations may also be linked to a breakdown in communication. Partners may struggle to express their needs and expectations clearly, leading to misunderstandings and repeated breaches.

Mutual boundary violations can reinforce a power struggle dynamic within the relationship. Each partner’s actions may be driven by a desire for control or a reluctance to acknowledge the autonomy of the other. Over time, the continuous disregard for boundaries may lead to growing resentment. There may be contempt in your relationship where both partners may harbor negative feelings, contributing to a toxic emotional atmosphere that hinders the overall health of the relationship.

How To Overcome Power Struggle In Relationships

Trying to stop a power struggle in a relationship is not easy. It requires conscious work from both partners to break unhealthy relationship patterns and replace them with healthy practices. But if you’re committed to doing the work, you can learn about the positive use of power in relationships. Dhriti recommends these 5 steps on how to end power struggle in a relationship and build a holistic connection:

Related Reading: Recognizing The 13 Red Flags Of A Controlling Relationship

1. Acknowledge the power struggle in the relationship

A power struggle at the beginning of a relationship is inevitable. New triggers may reintroduce power struggles in a relationship. As with any relationship issue, the first step toward healing and moving past power struggle is to acknowledge that you’re grappling with it. This requires spelling out the problem.

Dhriti advises, “Start by introspecting and asking yourself why your partner having some power or influence makes you uncomfortable. Identifying and understanding your fears or why you feel insecure is crucial for addressing the root causes of the power struggle.”

2. Overcome communication problems

You need to overcome communication barriers to get past the power struggle phase in your relationship. The key to any healthy and balanced partnership is open and honest communication. This essentially means learning the art of intuitive communication that allows you to lay your heart bare to each other without touching any raw nerves. This can help partners to renew the strong connection that they felt at the beginning of the relationship. Building on this connection paves the way forward for healthy intimacy sans any power struggle.

Related Reading: What Are The Examples Of Narcissistic Behavior In A Relationship?

3. Put an end to chronic conflicts

Having the same fights over and over again can leave you trapped in destructive patterns. These patterns then fuel the inherent insecurities, fears, or apprehensions that trigger a power struggle in the relationship. That’s why ending recurring conflicts and preventing the escalation of issues is crucial.

When every conversation turns into an argument, it’s essential to recognize when emotions are escalating to an unproductive level. If needed, take some time away to cool down and gain perspective. Use this time for introspection, evaluating your own emotions and expectations. After taking a step back, resume discussions when both partners are calm. Approach the conversation with a focus on understanding each other’s viewpoints rather than winning the argument. Effective communication involves active listening and a willingness to find common ground,” says Dhriti on how to move past the power struggle stage in a relationship.

4. Don’t play the victim card

When you feel smothered, shamed, or punished by your partner, it’s natural for a sense of victimhood to creep in. You’re the one whose freedom is being taken away. The one who is made to feel guilty for all that’s not right in the relationship. The one who has to bear the brunt of angry outbursts. Before you demonize your partner in your mind, take a step back and evaluate whether it’s really the case.

Have you been unwittingly playing a part in the power struggle phase creating a toxic relationship? Are you somehow projecting your fears onto your partner? Does that make the relationship dynamics more complex? To overcome the power struggle stage in your relationship, you need to look at your equation from a fresh perspective.

power play in relationships,
A sense of one-upmanship dominates the relationship

5. Accept and embrace your differences

No two people are alike. Nor are their life experiences, outlooks, and perspectives. However, when these differences become a source of clashes, neither partner can be their authentic self in the relationship. Then, as a self-defense mechanism, both start working toward consolidating power. In the hope that the ability to apply emotional manipulation against the other will give them a chance to be who they want to be.

This approach often proves counter-productive, leaving both partners caught in a deeply entrenched power struggle stage in a relationship. A seemingly simple – even though it’s easier said than done – way to counter this is by actively working to accept and embrace each other’s differences.

Dhriti says, “Understand that your partner’s disagreement with you is not a threat to the relationship. Embrace the diversity of opinions and perspectives within the relationship, recognizing that differences can lead to growth and a more resilient connection.”

Key Pointers

  • A power struggle in a relationship happens when partners vie for control, influence, or dominance within the partnership
  • It is not the same as a power dynamic which occurs naturally and can even be healthy if managed correctly
  • A power struggle involves mind games, manipulative behavior, or an inability to compromise, among other things
  • Acknowledging the existence of a power struggle is the first step to overcoming it, followed by healthy communication and acceptance of each other’s differences

Overcoming power struggle in marriage or relationships is not easy. It doesn’t happen overnight. Nor is there a magic button that can reset couple dynamics to an ideal mode. You have to be committed to making conscientious efforts, day after day, to get past the power struggle phase in a relationship.

If that’s something you’ve been struggling with, consider talking to an expert on Bonobology’s panel or a licensed therapist near you. Working with a trained professional can give you clarity about your behavior patterns and the underlying triggers and ultimately stop a power struggle in a relationship. The John Gottman method is also an excellent resource for dealing with power struggles.


1. How long does the power struggle stage last?

There is no concrete timeline for how long a power struggle can last in a relationship. It all depends on the nature of the power struggle, awareness between both partners about its existence, and a willingness to break the pattern. The quicker an emotionally mature couple can learn effective ways to set healthy relationship boundaries, communicate well, and resolve the power struggle, the shorter the stage will be.

2. What is positive power in relationships?

Positive power in relationships results in the growth of your relationship. In this type of struggle, you establish or reinforce the rules of engagement when it comes to arguments and common issues. Through positive power, couples come to a common ground of being who they are while accommodating their partner’s needs as well.

3. How to win the power struggle in your relationship?

You shouldn’t look to win the power struggle in your relationship but seek to end it altogether, to resolve it. That is how the power struggle in a relationship may be of value and considered healthy. As long as either partner is caught in the pursuit of gaining the upper hand, a partnership of equals cannot be achieved.

4. Are relationships a power struggle?

While a power struggle phase in relationships is not uncommon, not all romantic partnerships are defined by it. The power struggle is a phase or stage of a relationship that is inevitable when two unique individuals come together. Some couples are quick to recognize this tendency and find a way to overcome it. Whereas others may stay trapped in this phase for years or even the entire duration of the relationship. So, it all boils down to your outlooks and perspectives as a couple.

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