This post is a primer and an overview of power dynamics in intimate relationships.
It will be useful to better understand intimate relationships, to become better at relationships and, finally, to better assess your partner -and the rule of thumb is that you best assess your partner when they have more power-.
- The Pattern of Power in Relationships
- 1. Dating Before Sex: She has more power
- 2. After Sex: Power shifts on his side -with a caveat-
- 3. After Several Sex Encounters: He has more power
- 4. After Commitment: She has more power
- 5. Early Relationship: Power re-negotiation
- 6. Long Term Relationship: She accrues more power
- 7. After Children: He has more power
- 8. Growing Old: Paper power for him, real power for her
- 9. After the Breakup: First he’s up, then she’s up
- Changing Power Rules: Game
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 shifts on his side -with a caveat-
After sex, he tends to have the upper hand.
A few caveats here.
First of all, 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.
Second, even before contraception, only a minority of sexual intercourses lead to pregnancy.
What does this all mean?
It means that often it takes more than one sexual intercourse to fully shift the power on his side.
It takes sometimes a couple of 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, then it means little or nothing.
If she had already decided he was a strong boyfriend candidate, then the sex is only the final confirmation and, unless it was truly terrible, then the first time the two have sex will already shift the power on his side.
This means that, usually, first-time sex awards more power to providers than lovers.
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” :).
Even who had started having sex without liking him all that much will often end up pursuing 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, they all release chemicals that increase bonding and attraction.
This is true for both men and women, but even truer for women.
And that’s why I always advise women who are still choosing between a few men to make their choice either without having sex with any of them, or while having sex with all of them.
The instances in which the man has the most power is when sex happens often, she likes him a lot and he is not making any overtures about a committed relationship.
Here is an example from Bridesmaids:
Of course, this is not to suggest that he should purposefully make her feel like he doesn’t want a relationship when he actually wants one, just to go on a power trip.
That’s unfair, puerile, and wholly unneeded.
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 official relationship status with exclusivity, there is a resurgence of power on her side.
We already mentioned why.
When the two give commitment and exclusivity to each other, they both give up the possibility of 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 (remember that men have much to gain from random sex than women?).
What does it mean?
It means that when the two give exclusivity to each other, the woman takes and the man 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 is often 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: This is not an encouragement to avoid commitment
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.
5. Early Relationship: Power re-negotiation
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 to 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 the parlance of this website, women tend to take the judge role in the relationship (see: soft power).
Women dispense emotional rewards or punishments, and men make decisions based on what makes her happy.
Women over time also tend to increase their control over men, in a process which we will explore in the next lessons.
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.
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 one who is liable to field demands of renegotiation on their current power structure.
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.
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.
On average, while some people might think it’s only men who get tired and intolerant of their wives because of the sexual market value mismatch, it’s instead more often women who grow past men who have become complacent -most men just sit on their assess-.
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.
Pro Tip: For Strong Long-Term Relationships, Grow Companionate Love
If you want strong long-term relationships, you can’t rely on “love”, which only lasts a couple of years (more or less).
You have to develop companionate love, which is a form of “strong friendship”. That’s what makes for a strong team.
And here we go, again, back to the fundamentals: applying collaborative frames to relationships and seeking win-win are the foundations of what makes for better (interpersonal) lives.
7. After Children: He has more power
And now… Who has more power after children?
Usually, it’s the man.
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.
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 power over the years than women.
That might lead some to believe that men are more likely to leave her for a younger woman.
And while that might be true for a few attractive, high-resources men, it’s certainly not true in the majority of cases.
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: She Dominates
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 type of progression much more than he does.
On paper, that gives him more power.
And it does. But only with women who are afraid of asking for what they want and need.
With more assertive women, those same needs can give women more power on the imaginary negotiation table.
Indeed, because of their needs, women also have more walk away power.
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:
- Start dating
- Serious relationship
- Children-tests (“look how cute those babies”, “do you like babies”… )
- Children planning
- Children (or children / marriage)
The more a man gets stuck in one level without getting to the next, the more she gets antsy.
The antsier she gets, the more she’s ready to start threatening and, eventually, preparing her exit plan.
This is why in the dating module we said that great sex gives him initial leverage, but it won’t last for long: because women still need to see the progression. And the more that progression delays, the more the need for that progression 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 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, there are two different approaches:
1. Women hope she 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 suck, and then will want 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.
She’s Empowered By the Nature of Dating (& Biology)
We’ve already explored how biology and evolutionary psycology impacts 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 getting rejected, and having to go out looking for a mate while getting their egos kicked in the sand.
Thus, going back to dating is, on average, easier for women than for men.
And that also contributes to giving women power after a breakup.
Changing Power Rules: Game
Most of the dating advice for either men or women seeks 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.
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.