Relationship Power Dynamics 101

relationship power dynamics

Relationship power dynamics follow a predictable pattern as the relationship progresses.

This post shows you how that progression looks like, from first saying “hi”, to eventually starting a family.

This post helps you to:

  1. Better understand intimate relationships
  2. Improve your relationship skills
  3. Better assess your partner (you best assess characters when they have more power)
couple evolving through the relationship stages

The Pattern of Power in Relationships

Power shifts in romantic relationships in predictable, recurrent patterns.

The obvious disclaimer here is that not all relationships are exactly the same and that exceptions abound.

That being said, the following pattern applies most of the time to most relationships.

1. Dating Before Sex: She has more power

On average, women are the choosers.
Women receive bids, and assess, while men field the bids.

As the choosers, before sex women screen and assess men, and that gives them power.

If this is not yet clear, read:

2. After Sex: Power starts shifting on his side

After sex, power either shifts or starts shifting on his side.

However, the very first time might or might not complete that shift.
A few notes:

  1. Contraception has changed the game: sure, our psychology hasn’t changed since, but culturally everyone knows that sex with protection won’t lead to childbirth. And two, the condom also makes it “less about full acceptance”, and more about “physical release”
  2. Sex is less of a watershed moment in libertine society: where everyone is having sex with everyone, then the first time having sex might only be part of a pattern of enjoying sexual activities, and not the sign of “having accepted someone”
  3. Sex is less of a watershed moment in quick dating: when you have sex upon first meeting someone, or after the first date, then the frame can still be about sexual release, and less about “full acceptance and “I want him as a lover/partner”

What does this all mean?
It means that in some cases it takes more than one sexual intercourse to fully shift the power on his side.

It takes sometimes a couple or more sessions of shared intimacy to go from “I’m not yet 100% sure about him” to “I accept him as a lover”.
And it might take yet a few more sexual encounters before she wants to lock him down for a relationship.

How much power sex grants him also depends on how she views the sex.
If she considers the sexual act as a roll in the hay for the fun of it, then it means little or nothing.
If she had already decided he was a strong boyfriend candidate, then the sex is a milestone to cement the decision in her mind. And, usually, the first time the two have sex will already shift the power on his side, because now she needs to make sure that he wants to be a boyfriend / serious partner.

This means that, usually, first-time sex awards more power to providers than lovers.
This is because the frame with lovers tends to be more “short-term” and “for the fun of it”. While with providers it tends to be more about “I’m choosing him for the longer-term”.

Also read:

3. After Several Sex Encounters: He has more power

Once sex becomes routine, the power shifts on his side.
Especially if sex is happening outside of a relationship.

If there is no relationship status fully in place yet, the tendency is for her to pursue the official status.
That’s the phase when the woman “nags” about going steady, making it official, and the good old “what are we” :).

Often, even women who had started having sex without liking him all that much will pursue him once sex becomes routine.
It’s a question of psychology and chemistry.
Repeated exposure tends to increase liking and attraction. And the sex, skin-to-skin contact, cuddling, and possibly orgasms, all release chemicals that increase bonding and attraction.
This is true for both men and women, but even truer for women.
Also, men who are good at bonding and connecting here can make a woman chase and want him even harder.

PRO Tip: choose your preferred partner without any sex, or while having sex with them all

Women who are choosing between a few men should make their choice either without having sex with any of them, or while having sex with all of them -and a similar amount of sex, too-.

Because if they start having sex with one but not the others, the decision will often become automatic -and not necessarily rational-.

Highest power for men: frequent sex, feelings develop, no hint of a relationship

The man has the most power when sex happens often, she (starts to) like him or develop feelings, and he is not making any overtures about a committed relationship.

Here is an example from Bridesmaids:

Him: this is awkward, I really want you to leave, but I don’t know how to say it without sounding like a dick
Her: (pretends to sleep, plays games to seem more appealing, pretends to be OK “hanging out”. All the while she stays -partially hooked- in a demeaning relationship, hoping against hoping to get commitment)

In more libertine cultures in the west, by this point, men and women aren’t in a committed relationship. And it’s best for men not to offer or pursue one, or they’d lose too much power -and attraction-.

However, this is not to say that he should purposefully try to have sex, string her along, and make her chase after a relationship.
Power for power’s sake is generally a poor mindset to have, and more likely to lead towards lose-lose, toxic relationships.

What women look for:
In this phase, she is worried about whether he will commit to her or not. She looks for signs that he cares and she tries to test for and secure his commitment.

4. After Commitment: She has more power

Once she gets an official relationship, there is a resurgence of power on her side.

And especially so if the relationship includes sexual exclusivity -as in most committed relationships-.

Why so?

When the two give commitment and exclusivity to each other, they both give up the opportunity for random sexual encounters. That has mating opportunity costs.
However, the mating opportunity costs are higher for him.
Strictly from a genetic point of view, exclusivity is costlier for a man than for a woman (men have more to gain from random sex than women).

What does it mean?

It means that when the two give exclusivity to each other, the man gives more than what he takes (and, conversely, she takes more than what she gives).
That’s a big win for her and it reflects on the power dynamics.

Once in a relationship, men also tend to lose personal drive and there can be a drop in testosterone -some researchers hypothesized it’s to help men switch from a “hunting for mate” to a “nurturing for the family” role-.

Note For Men: Note an invite to avoid committment. He can gain as well

This is not an encouragement not to “give” an official relationship, or exclusivity.

Men also gain from commitment, including genetically. Otherwise, commitment wouldn’t have evolved in men (more on it in Dating Power Dynamics).

And that’s without even considering the emotional point of view, with plenty of research showing that men in relationships are healthier, happier, and live longer.

The drop in testosterone can also be mitigated, and it doesn’t stay “stuck” at low levels.
Research showed that just a brief conversation with a young woman was enough to increase men’s T levels. So don’t worry too much about it.

Finally, the “win” for women when she commits to a high-value man also turns into a feeling of “how lucky I am”. If she’s a girlfriend-quality woman, that makes her value and appreciate him even more.

5. Early Relationship: Power re-negotiation

relationship power dynamics

Partners enter the relationship with a certain power structure already in place.

That power structure depends on different factors, including:

  • Who has higher SMV
  • Who needs the other the most
  • Who has more options
  • Who insisted the most in being together
  • Who sacrificed the most to be together
  • Who is more in love

But no matter with which level of power partners entered into the relationship, at the beginning of the relationship there is a “power negotiation phase”.

The couple starts deliberating and deciding on many more topics. From where to go on holidays, to personal boundaries, to cost-sharing, to potentially where to live, and family planning.

What usually happens is a division of “spheres of influences”, which often happen without even officially discussing.
But there usually is one partner who holds the most power, though, and he has outsized influence for decisions that involve both of them.
For example, where to move, which house to pick, when to go on holidays, etc.

What she looks for:
Women look for confirmation of continued interest and attraction.
Most women, for example, will take note of how often he makes love to her, and if it’s decreasing too abruptly, they can interpret it as a sign of danger to the relationship.
And they have good reasons for it: some men, and especially men with a short-term bias, tend to lose attraction over time

6. Long Term Relationship: She accrues more power

In many relationships, the man is the one with “official” power.

But the woman is the one who wields more influence.

In this website’s framework, women tend to take the judge role in the relationship (see: soft power).
Women dispense emotional rewards or punishments, and men act based on what provides her with those rewards -ie.: what she wants and what makes her happy-.

Women over time also tend to increase their control over men.
It’s possible women unconsciously seek to acquire more power to keep the man’s support over the long term. And there is indeed evidence that relationships where she is in charge last longer.

Also read:

SMV Fluctuations: The Power of Improvement

Power fluctuates also depending on how each partner develops.

As a general rule, the partner who improves the most is the partner who also increases his value the most.
And as per social exchange dynamics, he or she is can then “demand back” to make up for the value imbalance. 

Changes in personal value can take many forms.
If they married when they were both young, they married while she was near her sexual market value peak while he was still climbing.
And he will potentially keep climbing even as she goes past her peak.

But it’s also the woman who can acquire more power.

For example, they married students and he flunked or supported her studies while she now has a degree and mingles with other degree-holders.
Or he was older when they met, but now that she’s mature she doesn’t see him as a father figure but more as an equal.

Collaborate Or… Fight For Power & Suffer

Even if people don’t change their value much, there can still be changes in the power structure.

Relationship researcher John Gottman says that past the limerence phase, or the “puppy love phase”, strong relationships enter a new phase which feels more like a “partnership for life” -called “companionate love” by some other researchers-.

Couples who do not enter that phase are more liable to competition, power re-negotiations, and fluctuating levels of attraction. And that’s when the two can grow to be more like strangers under the same roof, and growing more intolerant of each other.

This is yet another reason why on this website we stress the importance of setting up collaborative relationships.

Often: Men Grow Complacent, Women Grow Disillusioned

Some people might think it’s mostly men who grow restless because of the sexual market value changes over time.

It’s instead more often women who grow past men who have become complacent -many men just sit on their assess, albeit it’s probably not the case for men reading here-.

In strong relationships, changes in personal value must not necessarily be negative. Strong couples welcome an improvement of their partner because they view it as a win for the team.
Troubles instead emerge when one or both partners are not fully committed to the relationship.
What happens then is that partners who are not 100% committed to their relationship re-assess their market value and consider whether they can get better.

Also read:

Pro Tip: For Strong Long-Term Relationships, Grow Companionate Love

If you want strong long-term relationships, you can’t rely on “love”.

The puppy love phase disappears after a couple of years (more or less, and often less).

And that’s when it’s crucial that you move into companionate love, which is a form of “partnership for life”. That’s what makes for a strong team -more details in the bonus ebook-.

Back to the fundamentals again: applying collaborative frames to relationships and seeking win-win are the foundations of what makes for better (interpersonal) lives.
That’s the goal of an enlightened collaborator, which in turn is an aspect of high-quality men.

Helping hand

Also read:

7. After Children: He has more power

This is darker.

But, usually, it’s the man who has more power after children.

Why?
Because he has walkaway power.

Remember that the woman is more invested in the child.
Since women invest more in children and can have fewer children in their lifespan, a child is worth more to the mother.

Furthermore, a child needs the mother to survive, but doesn’t need the father nearly as much.

It would be far easier for the man to walk away. And there would be far more pressure -and incentives- for the woman to stay.

That means that the father could walk away and the mother would still have to take care of the child… On her own.
So right after the child is born, women need male help and support more than the man needs the woman.

Ironically, it’s the mother’s greater commitment that allows the father to potentially neglect the children even more.
Breaking up right after birth is the ultimate game of chicken, and it’s usually the woman who swerves first because, if she didn’t, she’d be left alone with the child (Kanazawa & Miller, 2008).

A completely amoral man could abandon a woman when she needs him the most to seek another woman to impregnate, having his cake and eat it too -from a genetic point of view-.

Of course, that is not to say that there are not advantages for men to stay, including strictly genetic advantages (more on it in dating power dynamics).

8. Growing Old: Paper power for him, real power for her

Biologically, men retain more reproductive potential over the years than women.

And well, that can be true for a few attractive, high-resources men who are not committed to their relationship. but it’s not true for the majority of men.
Indeed, the opposite is true. Women initiate more than 65% of divorces after the age of 50.

The truth is that most men grow complacent in the belief their woman will always be there while they lose all drive and confidence they can find a new woman.

The woman might not have much power -or interest- in finding a new man, but she might simply prefer being alone.
Women, being more practical, will ask themselves what’s the point of being together.

Games of Chicken, Female Power

Men and women have very different approaches to relationships.

Once things have gotten sexual, men are content with things staying as they are. They rarely need a ring, marriage, or official status.
Women, on average, need that progression much more than men do.

In principle, that gives him more power.
And sometimes, that translates into real-world power.
But only with women who are afraid of asking for what they want and need or with women who truly have little options.

Indeed, because of their needs, women can be very assertive negotiators who can demand, and often obtain, male compliance.
This is especially true for women who are more assertive, and women who know how to find boyfriends.

Learn here how to handle breakup threats:

Women Have Walk Away Power

Women need progression.

And going from dating, to steady, to official, and to married, is all part of a progression that leads to children.

For women in reproductive age, time is an investment for which they seek a return.

That makes women much more practical and pragmatic than men.
They have a bigger sense of urgency and, contrary to most men, they are on a mission.
That gives them much more strength and power in pushing through their requests and demands and they are more prepared than men are to jet if they don’t get what they want.

Science indeed shows that, on average, men are more romantic than women, fall in love quicker and stay in love for longer after a breakup.
Women instead are eminently more practical.

Here is one example of a progression that many women are after:

  1. Start dating
  2. Sex
  3. Serious relationship
  4. Children-tests (“look how cute those babies”, “do you like babies”… )
  5. Engagement
  6. Children planning
  7. Marriage 
  8. Children (or children / marriage)

The more a man remains stuck at one level, the more she gets antsy.
The antsier she gets, the more she’s ready to threaten the end of the relationship and, eventually, preparing her exit plan.
This is why that great sex and/or high personal values gives him initial leverage, but it’s not everlasting. Because (most) women still need to see the progression.
And the more that progression delays, the more it becomes her main focus -while all the rest becomes comparatively less important-.

Because women operate on a shorter time frame, that also makes them more ruthless when it comes to ending things.
And once she’s gone, she will rarely take him back if he doesn’t provide what he failed to provide.

That, of course, is on average.
There are plenty of women who take him back on verbal promises and then delude themselves when he fails to deliver.

9. After the Breakup: First he’s up, then she’s up

Right after a breakup, men and have women have very different modes:

1. Women hope he will get back in touch and provide what they wanted, but if he doesn’t, she will move on
2. Men go through an initial burst of joy phase, only to realize that being single sucks, and then he wants her back

In the immediate period right after the break up, men have more power.
But as time passes by, the power shifts on the woman’s side.

Women, being on a shorter timeline than him, have a stronger resolve to go through the pain and move on.
If they are talking about getting back together again, she usually negotiates from a power position, and she demands that it’s either on her terms, or it’s goodbye forever.

And that’s why many marriages quickly follow suit after a breakup: it was the woman’s demand, and the man complied.

She’s Empowered By the Nature of Dating (& Biology)

We’ve already explored how biology and evolutionary psychology impact dating.

In a nutshell: women on average have more power.
They are the demand, and men are the offer.

For most men dating is hard.
It’s up to them to make the move and make things happen.

Having a girlfriend is comfortable for most men. They can finally stop looking for a mate, facing their approach anxiety, getting rejected, and getting their egos kicked in the sand.
With a girlfriend, they can get (semi)regular sex, barbeques, movies, and beer and games. For most men, that’s a better alternative.

Thus, going back to dating is, on average, easier for women than for men.
Some men love being single, and some others relish the challenges of finding new mates. But we’re dealing with the rule here, not the exceptions.

Changing Power Rules: Game

Most of the dating advice for either men or women seek to shift the most common patterns of power described above.

Dating Advice for Women

Women dating advice tells women to get as much investment as possible in the beginning to ensure he will stick around after sex.
Some go as far as telling women to get official relationship status before sex.

That serves to give her more power.

However, when that power imbalance turns too skewed, or she demands too much, then men with options will walk away.
That’s why I recommend women to avoid nasty and manipulative games.

Dating Advice for Men

Dating advice for men is often centered on not over-investing early and pretending he has lots of options to force her to drop her demands.

What ensues are games of chicken.
Games of chicken can work or backfire, depending on the situation.

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