How to Navigate the Power Dynamics in Your Marriage

Couple arguing, wrestling with power dynamics in marriage

Who’s got the power in your marriage? Where does that power come from? Can you find more power? What if you feel powerless? Navigating power dynamics in your marriage can feel – and be – messy.

When he was growing up Brian’s mother seemed to have all the power in their home, running everyone’s life with criticism and strict rules. Her husband rarely lived up to her standards and had long ago given up the role of being the leader in the family. When Brian got married he found himself striving to be the husband his mother wished his father had been. That led to resentment and control issues with his wife and children, and very little love.

Jasmine’s father exercised his power through anger, excusing his outbursts as the fallout of his military career. Showing any emotion other than rage was a sign of weakness. Jasmine picked up her father’s ways of relating and fell into a pattern of raging at her husband and children. But after a few years she noticed that trying to exert power through anger drove everyone away and she was left lonely.

Nobody wants to feel powerless in your most intimate relationship, marriage. But perhaps you’ve learned that criticism, anger, or silence isn’t working. Let’s talk about the power dynamics in your marriage.

Where Power Comes From

As Dr. Diane Langberg says, everyone has power. A newborn has the “power” to wake an adult from sleep and get them to attend to her most basic needs. (Of course not all adults respond well.) And from then on everything you see and learn about power affects how you bring yourself to your marriage.

In the template labeled “power” in your mind, where does power come from? You might believe (perhaps unconsciously) that power accompanies the person with the strongest body or the largest size. Or power might come from whoever yells the loudest or threatens the most. It might come from psychological manipulation, sex appeal, money, or how one withholds or offers affection.

Mentally step back from your marriage and imagine looking at it from the outside. What are power dynamics in your relationship? Both of you have power; what kind of power do each of you display? If you feel you have more power, are you using your power for the good of your spouse, or are you wielding it without regard for their wellbeing? Are you perhaps abdicating some aspect of your role by not exercising your power? Have you fallen into a victim mentality, not recognizing the power you do have?

When we say power we must clarify that in the kingdom of God no person is to exert power over another, even in marriage. “But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-26).

Whether you feel as though you have a lot of power or no power at all, marriage becomes the laboratory in which to leverage godly power as you learn to love well.

A Lot of Power?

You may be used to getting your way much of the time. As a husband you may believe that’s your “right;” you “should” be in charge. You expect sex when you want it. The family schedule mostly bends to what’s most convenient for you. When your wife isn’t “measuring up” you see it as your job to correct her.

As a wife you may hold psychological rule over the household. “If mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.” Your husband pays if he doesn’t meet your expectations. Sex becomes a weapon or a demand. The people around you including your husband are expected to meet your needs and adjust to your moods.

You may not be doing any of this intentionally. And of course none of this is the way of Jesus. Your spouse Is not there for the purpose of meeting your needs. God has not promised you a happy marriage. News flash: the universe does not revolve around you.

So what do you do? What God would ask of you is to use your power for the benefit of others around you, especially your spouse. The power you have is for the purpose of giving, not getting. You don’t use your spouse; you exercise the power you have to lift them up. As Christ did for us, you expend yourself on their behalf.

Little Power?

Conversely, you may feel as if you have no power at all. Your requests to your spouse seem to fall on deaf ears. Their anger or criticism may have left you feeling worthless and deserving of their contempt. Any attempts you make to let your voice be heard get squelched. Your small attempts at trying to change things haven’t changed anything at all.

You too need a new view of your personal power in walking the way of Jesus. You don’t get your power because someone else, your spouse, “allows” you to have it. Your power comes from who God made you to be, a child of God made in His image with honor and responsibility.

Even when Jesus seemed to be the most powerless He displayed the demeanor of a King. Scourged, bound, and standing before Pilate about to be crucified He carried Himself as One who is Lord.

What does this mean if you’re married to someone who is exerting power badly? Choose to be in control of what you can control, which is your own responses. You may need to set some boundaries. You can be the invitation for your spouse to come closer. If you change the dance your relationship will change.

You will need to tend your own heart carefully. Be alert to resentment or a victim mindset. It may take some outside help for you to learn how to protect yourself where necessary and still keep your heart open to where God is working in you, your spouse, and your marriage.

Leverage your power in the service of loving well. 

Your Turn: How are the power dynamics in your marriage being displayed? What kind of power do you have? Have you been exerting your power in a healthy way? Leave a message below.

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Is Your Marriage Messy?  

You said “I do” expecting lasting connection, intimacy, and joy. But perhaps the reality has become more like loneliness, frustration, and deep misery.

Nobody ever taught you how to love well. But you can learn now! Our Fully Alive Marriage course can help you change direction. You’ll discover practical ways to overcome the issues in your relationship, learn to love well, and know you are doing what’s necessary to build a Fully Alive marriage that lasts.