September 16

Power Differential in Relationships

Posted by William Berry | Filed under Articles, Blog | 5 Comments

Photo by Alexi Berry

It seems to be my goal lately to challenge standard assumptions in psychology. Recently I challenged the idea that sarcasm is always anger. In this article I will challenge the notion that when an older person dates a significantly younger partner, it has to do with control and power issues.
To begin it is important to understand I am not stating that this is never true. In fact it is likely true in the majority of cases. Many men or women date younger people partly because it gives them control in the relationship. They are older, presumably wiser, and generally are more established in their career and more financially secure. In these cases it is possible and perhaps even likely that part of the attraction to a younger partner is to have control or power in the relationship.
It is necessary to define power, as power or control in a relationship can be demonstrated in various ways. For this article’s purpose we will define power and control as the ability to get what one wants the majority of the time, and especially when there is a conflict. In other words, when the couple disagrees on something the one with the most power and control more often than not gets their way.
There is a great Seinfeld episode which I often use in regard to relationships. The episode centers on George and Susan’s relationship and how George no longer has “hand”. Hand, in this case, is a wonderful metaphor for power. It is my experience both personally and professionally that someone in a relationship usually has hand. It is also true that in some of the healthiest relationships the power is pretty evenly distributed.
This power that we discuss does not have to be blatant. It can be subtle. Much of this power may be unnoticed and rarely yielded. At times it might be necessary to have a third party determine who has the power, as the parties may be biased in their perception. In many of these cases the power is close to evenly distributed.
Part of the equation for power is a “who could do without the other more easily” dynamic, often expressed as “who loves who more”. In any romantic love relationship based in this culture there is a level of insecurity. We want to posses the other, we want to know they are ours. This is especially true in the early stages of the relationship. There is vulnerability in loving someone; one risks being hurt. This vulnerability is equivalent to insecurity. Generally speaking, as the relationship progresses security grows and the concern about vulnerability diminishes (as you might be aware from my other writing, this vulnerability is always present. This is because no one ever knows what the future brings, and thereby is still at risk of losing their partner and experiencing pain).
Now to move to the argument that the older person does not always possesses the power in a relationship. As I expressed above, a key element to the power differential is the consideration of who loves who more. Is it not possible that the older person loves the younger more? I can think of innumerable examples where this might be the case. Perhaps the younger person is looking for financial security and the older person is in love. Do you believe Anna Nicole Smith loved J. Howard Marshall, a man 63 years her senior, more than he did her? I am not basing the whole argument on cases of likely gold-digging, although examples like this are plentiful.
Men are attracted to youth. It is taught in every introduction to sociology class. Perhaps it is an evolutionary fact that these men are looking to spread their seed and want fertile ground to do so. Many say that what we experience as love in this culture is an infatuation, combined with aspects of possessiveness, attraction, sexual desire and the excitement of the new. (David Hawkins). With this in mind, who would have the upper “hand” in a relationship, an older male or a younger female? If an individual is very strongly attracted to another, who has the “hand”? It certainly would depend on other factors, and of course we have to account for the sociological assumption women are attracted to men who can protect them and provide for their off-spring, as this may play into a power differential. But this is the basis of my case, that although the older person may sometimes have the power, perhaps we need to look beyond these stereotypes and explore some of the other dynamics that take place in the power differential of a romantic relationship.
In order to more fully explore this topic it is important to look at the variables that lead to attraction: proximity is more important than most people think; there is the character traits we are attracted to such as sweetness, ruggedness, etc; there is unconscious phenomenon related to our upbringing; and there is the idea of the ideal mate, and how the individual we are attracted to measures up against that ideal. (For a little more thorough explanation of attraction please see my article on attraction). Let us just look at one of these aspects and its role in the development of a power differential in a relationship:
Let’s say a woman begins dating a man 13 years her junior. At first glance we might believe she has the power simply because she is older. But what if this young man, let’s say he’s 27, nearly perfectly meets her ideal of a man. He is rugged looking, strong, sensitive, tall, dark, and attractive; fill in any of the typically positive attributes we assign to attractive individuals. He is almost, if not seemingly perfectly, her ideal. Does she still have the power in the relationship? Maybe, despite his positive qualities, he is only looking for a fun and fulfilling relationship right now. But he knows in the future he’ll want his shot at the typical American dream: wife, kids, fence, the works. He believes he loves her (as much as anyone does in our predefined way of loving in this culture). Still, the fact remains she is not his ideal, not at this time. Weighing this out can we still honestly purport that she has the power? In this simple scenario he has the hand. She is more vulnerable than he is.
This idea could be replicated with example after example. But I believe the reader has the idea. I would propose one final blow to the age equals power argument: many people as they age learn a deeper, less selfish type of love. They grow and mature, have given and taken their lumps in previous relationships, and are closer to the unconditional love that most of us strive to have (although not necessarily give). So maybe the older individual in the relationship is more nurturing and less selfish. At the same time they are still human, and like others in relationships irrationally want the seeming security of knowing their partner will be there for them. But in this scenario the older partner is more vulnerable. The younger may want to move on at some point.
In conclusion I believe I have demonstrated that there are far more considerations to the power differential in relationships than the age difference. I would venture that education and socioeconomic status are important. In fact before I had a college education I was married to a woman within my age bracket (3 years younger). I would venture to say I had far more power in that relationship than I did in my second marriage, where there was a twelve year differential. (We were both more educated, although she more than I, and in a better socioeconomic place). There is far more at play in a relationship’s power differential than age. I purport and believe I have demonstrated the most important factor is who “loves” (wants to possess, feels tied to, has a stronger attraction for) the other.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, September 16th, 2010 at 9:46 AM and is filed under Articles, Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “Power Differential in Relationships”

  1. Ari on September 16th, 2010 at 10:12 AM

    I agree that older men in relationships don’t always have the ‘hand’ in the relationship. First, the person who loves the other more has the power, because they are less vulnerable. It would matter to them less if the other person leaves, while the person who loves more, it might destroy them. Second, in terms of socioeconomic status, one cannot assume that a young person might have no socioeconomic worth just because they are young-maybe for them it is enough to have money to pay the bills and have a job they like, while for the older person wealth signifies importance. But if they have no wealth, they end up with nothing, while the younger person still has whatever else they place value in, such as friends or family, which might make them more ‘powerful’ than the older person.

  2. William Berry on September 16th, 2010 at 10:42 AM

    Thank you for the comment, and of course for agreeing with me, lol.

  3. Ari on September 16th, 2010 at 3:18 PM

    Well you know, I know what I’m talking about.Haha.

  4. Love and Relationships Presentation - Blog - William Berry, MS, CAP on February 19th, 2012 at 12:33 PM

    [...] Berry, W.; (2010); Power Differential in Relationships; [...]

  5. Mary Delaney on July 6th, 2017 at 5:21 PM

    This gave me a lot to process. Out of the gate, I always assumed the “younger” person possessed the power. With our culture’s fixation on youth – I think the the more youthful of the two in the relationship has “hand.” Other qualities like income and attractiveness are also at play. I think body weight is also key. That may fall under the category of “attractiveness.” With all other power differentials variables equal, I think we want to partner with someone in our same basic body type/weight category (lean, average, a few extra pounds, etc.).

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