Power struggle and control in relationships

It is widely recognised that there are two distinct stages during the first few years of a new relationship.

The first of these stages is the attraction, lust and romance stage, which develops from when a couple first start dating and can last anywhere from a few months to several years. This continues to develop as a couple discover each other fully and build intimate rapport together.

The second of these stages is the commitment, management and awareness stage, which continues thereafter. This stage usually develops around the time there is a prominent gesture of commitment, such as deciding to live together, or simply the period where a couple become deeply and emotionally close to each other.

The power shifts that develop across these two stages are unavoidable, but the degree to which we let a power struggle affect our relationship can most certainly be managed…

How the power struggle develops:

Everyone wants to feel in control in their relationship, although that is not to say that everyone wants to purposefully control their partner.

Even people in controlling relationships or perpetrators of domestic abuse do so because of learnt behaviours and an inability to effectively get what they really want and fulfil their own needs.

When we feel comfortable with someone, we naturally feel more inclined to pick up on previously insignificant things that may irritate us. We also gain a superior need to expect unconditional love and receive constant validation and reassurance from a romantic partner. These are both instances of things that can escalate to an obvious power struggle.

The interesting thing about these two examples is that they have opposing effects on a relationship, depending on how mutual the power struggle symptoms are. The following graph will help to illustrate what I mean:

power struggle

If the need for validation and expressions of love is completely one-sided, the relationship becomes imbalanced and arguments will arise due to the inciter not feeling appreciated enough. This easily leads to the manifestation of a clear power struggle.

If the need for validation and expressions of love is equal then a couple can usually share those feelings to each other’s satisfaction and enjoy a fulfilling relationship, as long as that balance is maintained. [related article: Managing the most powerful emotion in the world – The love equilibrium]

On the contrary, behavioural retorts such as criticising your partner have a more severe effect the more mutual they are. By definition, an argument has already started:

“I hate it when you do x. You ALWAYS do x

“Yes, well I hate it when you do y and z” etc.

A recurring exchange such as this dilutes the dominant/submissive roles in the relationship and leads to a power struggle faster than any other method.

How to avoid the power struggle completely:

What it ultimately comes down to is learning to notice, understand and fulfil each other’s needs, which will undoubtedly differ between the two of you. Alternatively, where appropriate, you can help your partner to develop or overcome those needs.

Certain behavioural acts such as criticism are intensified if they are fuelled from both sides, yet it is instinctual to sometimes want to “give as good as you get” in a relationship. Pain or a lack of validation on both sides doesn’t balance out a relationship; it just doubles the amount of pain and lack of validation! I hint about some remedies to this particular example in the latter part of the article Connecting in a relationship and interacting using frame theory.

The only way to solve any feelings of resentment that can arise from the power struggle is to help your partner get what they want without supplicating! The last part is crucial because it keeps intact the attraction, respect and trust within the relationship.

I will go into more depth with the intricacies of how to spot and avoid the power struggle in a future article but remember that you ALLOW people to control or antagonise you by conveying what you will accept and by reacting to certain things in a certain way!

Also keep in mind that hate – which can be an observational side-effect of the power struggle – is not the opposite of love; indifference is! As long as both people in a relationship seem like they care, any negativity or power struggle can be flipped without too much difficulty. 🙂

Much love,


20 replies
  1. pyrax
    pyrax says:

    Good to see a new post popup in my inbox, espec as I was just twiddling my thumbs at work lol.
    I’m not sure I’m fit to comment because so far the longest relationship I’ve been in was only 7 months but even then I could already see the stuff your talking about. It seemed to me that in that particular relationship we quickly became took each other for granted. Its easy to seem like you don’t care in a relationship because they take 24 hour attention I think. I’m lovin the single life at the moment but ultimately I know I want to be able to have a relationship that doesn’t have to worry about these power games at all. I guess experience helps in that respect.
    Really looking forward to the followup article you mention, that will really help me out when I find a woman worth dating. Peace

    • Samuel McCrohan
      Samuel McCrohan says:


      There’s no strict timeframe for these power shifts. Seven months is by no means a modest representation of a serious relationship these days… People can become ‘serious’ a lot quicker than that even!

      The time it takes for a power struggle to fully develop generally correlates with how often a couple see each other in the first few months. This is why when moving in together a power struggle can develop rapidly, as you’re in each other’s company all the time.

      Even though a relationship may seem like a round the clock commitment, it’s usually whilst physically together that a power struggle properly surfaces. Taking each other for granted and becoming complacent in the relationship is one way that can develop.

      Experience most certainly will help, for example you’ve acknowledged how easy it is to take things for granted in a relationship from your previous experience. By learning about the psychology behind it all though, you will still be able to recognise the intricacies when they arise, regardless of if you have been in the exact situation before.

      Thanks for commenting, 🙂


  2. G
    G says:

    Took me a lonnnng time to get my head round that chart. Good stuff but a bit confusing unless thats just me. The rest of the article was good and worth reading again. -G

    • Samuel McCrohan
      Samuel McCrohan says:


      Originally I just had written text explaining the whole theory and believe me, the chart is far easier to understand than that was! 🙂 Hopefully the follow-up article I write will tie together a lot of the loose ends and make the topic more succinct.

      Thanks for reading,


  3. Elena
    Elena says:

    I really enjoyed this. I especially agreed with the part about the opposite of love is indifference. I’ve always thought of indifference as being a mask for anger. It’s interesting to see your take on the power struggle. Just those two words alone make me think that’s the best term to realize you need to take a step back when a power struggle is happening in the relationship. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    • Samuel McCrohan
      Samuel McCrohan says:

      Hi Elena,

      That’s an interesting thought about anger and indifference being linked. Anger usually suggests an outward display of negative emotions but personal anger with a particular situation can relate. What the indifference ultimately shows is a lack of desire to rectify something that may cause symptoms of anger: a dissatisfying relationship in this case.

      That’s a good point about the phrasing of the term “power struggle” and if the latter word in that phrase is emphasised it is clear that your advice is useful. When someone actively resists or forces any kind of ‘struggle’, it usually has the adverse effect from what they actually want to achieve.

      Thanks for commenting and I hope everything is grand with you, 🙂


  4. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    Hi Sam,

    I wanted to thank you for this article. It really hits home with me right now. I’m in a relationship and we’re about to make 3 years. We becamse engaged last year and we were planning on getting married in April, buy a house at the end of the year, we talked about her changing her last name to mine and joining bank accounts. Well up until last week everything seemed great, i had no insecurities about the relationship…it seemed strong and solid. Last week my fiance confessed that she’s scared about the whole marriage thing and changing her last name. Well i reacted horribly, i took it very personal and became extremely insecure about the relationship. After a few days i calmed down and told her i was ok with not getting married for now that i’m happy just being with her but she seems distant, i feel like we’re in the ” POWER STRUGGLE STAGE” of our relationship. I went through this myself last year for quite a few months but i hung in there and now i’m more in love with her than ever. I was hoping you could give me some advice on how to help her through this time.


    • Samuel McCrohan
      Samuel McCrohan says:

      Hi, I’m glad you like the article! 🙂

      The catalyst for a power struggle always boils down to the same process: reacting to something in the relationship (be it something emotional or logical) and there being a resulting change in behaviour.

      It sounds like your fiancé isn’t opposing marriage and a future with you at all but more that she has standard concerns about taking such a leap of commitment. The fact that you have been together for three years suggests that you already have as much emotional investment and commitment as a married couple anyway.

      The way to come through a power struggle even stronger is to not modify your behaviour to supplicate any anxieties your fiancé might have about marriage. Like I said, she has probably never changed her subconscious desire to get married. By reacting badly and now both having a perceived change of behaviour, a power struggle could develop.

      The way to prevent this is to simply put the issue behind you and go back to engaging the relationship the way it was before this happened. Try not to put any pressure on her getting married but reassure her that you still feel the same way about her. It shouldn’t make any difference to the relationship how soon you get married, whilst on the other hand, if marriage becomes a really big deal it could forcibly make or break the relationship.

      Thanks for writing, 🙂


    • anonymous
      anonymous says:

      Thank you for your reply Sam, I really appreciate it. Your insight on relationships is so helpful. I wish i would have written to you last week when this first happened instead of allowing my self to react badly. Things have been a little ackward between us because of my reaction. I see that she wants to do things more on her own these days and seems a bit distant but i suppose that has alot to do with the way i reacted, she says i’m treating the relationship like it’s already over, i guess that has alot to do with my fears. I’m learning how to back off and not push her to try and go back to her “old self” but alow us to grow and evolve has a couple. Thanks for your advice on the matter, any help that i can receive on making this work i am eternally grateful for.

    • Samuel McCrohan
      Samuel McCrohan says:

      Hi again,

      It sounds like you’re on the right track with the mindset you describe and trying not to impose any fears you might have onto your fiancé.

      The first thing to do, like you suggest, is to not take any of these recent developments personally, or as a sign that she loves or values you any less.

      One thing I like to do when feelings like that arise is to reframe it and think “how would my most attractive self act in this situation?” On a basic level, the resulting attitude involves learning to accept each piece of emotional input from your partner without a shred of negative emotion or reaction. This includes her seeming to want more alone time at the moment.

      If you can make a conscious effort not to convey or act like the “relationship is already over” like your fiancé implies and you can prevent it from being a cause for any future arguments, then the relationship can very easily readjust back to how it was before too long.

      Let me know how things work out,


  5. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    Hi Sam,

    Just wanted to give you an update. Unfortuntaley we broke up about 3 weeks ago. I tried to talk to her about the stage we were going through but she just couldn’t get past the fact that she felt confused about our relationship all of a sudden after 3 years. She has said repeatedly that she knows she’s in love with me but doesn’t want this relationship right now. We’re still living together until she finds an apartment. I told her last week that she has to move out as quickly as possible because living together is too painful for me. She understands so she’s trying to find something as quickly as possible. I appreciate all the advice you have given me.

    • Samuel McCrohan
      Samuel McCrohan says:


      That’s a shame to hear that things didn’t end well. Now the pressure is off, it can sometimes be a good opportunity to try and put any emotional baggage aside and connect with each other on a more fun, social level. That said, I’d definitely recommend keeping yourself busy and taking your mind off the emotional aspect of the situation as much as possible, especially whilst she is still living with you.

      All the best,


  6. dkecik
    dkecik says:

    mmm .. thnks for the article .. in this 2 years i had ths problem … now , he left me .. i hope he may come back to me one day .. mm may u gve me 5 points to avoid this power struggle and explaination with evry points ? Thnks Sam .. rEally hope u may help me ….. =(

    • Samuel McCrohan
      Samuel McCrohan says:


      To answer your question, some attitudes that will help avoid a power struggle are: empathy, rationality, composure, understanding and positivity. Whilst I could explain each point in detail, the main thing to note is that these are all attributes of someone who makes an effort to remain calm and happy with their partner as often as possible.

      The power struggle is only really relevant whilst the relationship status is mutual. If you are looking for ways to rekindle a past relationship then there will now be added factors. If that is the case then if you browse around the website you will probably find several articles that are more specific to your situation.

      I hope that helps and thanks for writing,


  7. Noemi Chipley
    Noemi Chipley says:

    I thought this quote was extremely accurate “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” – Thomas Jefferson

    • shakir
      shakir says:

      wow, did you know that this elitist white supremacist that you quoted fathered several slaves, his children were his slaves and many of them were by his dead wifes sister, who was 14 yrs old, did you realize that this man had over 200 slaves ” if slevery were to end today, i would find myself destitute” thomas jefferson, really!

    • Samuel McCrohan
      Samuel McCrohan says:

      Hi Shakir,

      I am no expert on American history but I am not sure how Thomas Jefferson’s slavery ethics are relevant to an unrelated and very mindful quote that is attributed to him. As with any role model or notorious figure, people should use their own judgment to discern what useful things can be learnt from them, whilst disregarding any thoughts, actions or beliefs that are disagreeable.

      Take care,


  8. Bazo
    Bazo says:

    Hi Sam,
    Thanks for your good articles. Am in a relationship for about 3years now. The relationship is a distant one but we love eachother. I think I love her more and this develop jealosy in me and I dont want to loose her. This made her to say I dont trust her and as a result of that I always want to show that Im incharge-power struggle set in. I started to notice that she’s drawing away from me gradually two months ago. Last week she celebrated her birthday and her friend(guy) took her out without she informing me;only for her to tell me after the whole thing that a friend took her out and that was the best birthday she has ever had. Sam, I need your advice on how I can make her take me “100%” as before because I truely love her.

    • Samuel McCrohan
      Samuel McCrohan says:


      Maintaining a power struggle over distance is difficult as it is sometimes hard to know how your partner truly feels. A great default attitude is to always assume the best until notified otherwise. This will help improve how you think about and treat each other.

      Concentrate on keeping your relationship positive and fun and put any worries such as who is expressing the most love to the back of your mind. You will find that by not focusing on the specific dynamics of love and instead concentrating on enjoying each other’s presence again, you will naturally find a balance. If you can think of ways to get your girlfriend reinvested in the relationship (planning some new experiences together for example) this will be even more powerful.

      As for the birthday incident, unless there are any hidden details there doesn’t seem too much wrong. Letting your girlfriend enjoy times away from you is a great way to take some of the pressure off the relationship. Be pleased that she is enjoying herself… just ensure that she is also enjoying herself as much as possible with you! 🙂

      Thanks for reading the website,


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