Exploring Power Dynamics in Intimate Relationships
Content Notes: This piece has mentions of racism, classism, ableism and other forms of oppression.
Intersectionality is an important approach to life and its social structures. We should always be aware of the multiplicities of human identities and how they intersect with different layers of oppressions, including in our intimate relationships. Especially in our intimate relationships. Even in our closest relationships — romantic, sexual, or platonic — we can’t ignore the ways different facets of our identity interacts. It’s unlikely that any two people will share the exact same blend of privilege or oppression. Between race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and citizenship, to name a few, there are a lot of different ways our experiences can diverge. This also means that there’s always different power dynamics at play and that there’s always the potential to abuse that power.
Take for example a cisgender, heterosexual couple. There’s the power dynamic of the patriarchy at play, the man holds a position of power over the woman. But if the man in this relationship was, say, a dark-skinned man of colour from a working class immigrant family and the woman was white, Canadian-born, and middle class, the power dynamics shift considerably. The man in this relationship still benefits from the patriarchy, but the woman also benefits from white supremacy. There won’t always be a clear-cut distinction in every relationship, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t power imbalances there. It’s important to identify and acknowledge the different positions of power we hold when interacting with another person, especially someone that we are vulnerable with and who trusts us enough to be vulnerable with us.
These power imbalances can be expressed in subtle but insidious ways. Even if it’s unintentional. As we have access to different amounts of social privilege, we are programmed to make certain assumptions, and perceive the world based on our own experiences. It can be a white woman feeling safe in the assumption that police will deem her worthy of protection and not someone to be protected from. It can be a middle class partner’s expectation of equal financial contribution despite the other partner working minimum wage. It can be asking a neurodivergent person to learn how to communicate in a typical way without learning how to communicate in atypical ways in reciprocation.
Being in an intimate relationship with someone doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to understand the different experiences they’ve had or are having. Being in a relationship with a person of colour doesn’t give a white person the knowledge of moving through the world as a person of colour, nor does being in a relationship with a trans person mean a cisgender person can understand transness. Similarly, caring for a disabled person doesn’t mean a nondisabled person understands ableism. These experiences need to be considered when negotiating boundaries and expectations in a relationship.
Innocuous behaviours, like forgetting to check for accessible bathrooms at date night or making comments about a racialized woman’s hair, can quickly become toxic to a relationship if you aren’t checking yourself and your partner. So how can you build a healthy relationship that balances out power dynamics?
Start a conversation. You need to be able to name and identify the differences in power in a relationship to each other. If either of you are uncomfortable talking about these different positions you hold, that’s usually a sign that there’s work to be done there. It’s okay for the conversation to be uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t happen anyways. If either of you are uncomfortable discussing it, it may point to power imbalances already at work. Is it discomfort in acknowledging a position of power? Or is it fear in having to point out power? These conversations don’t have to happen all at once: they are difficult and usually intense. But knowing if you can have them at all is important.
Learn when to listen. Acknowledging positions of privilege means learning when to step back and listen. When it comes to different conversations, learn where you need to step back and where your voice needs to be heard. Two people of colour can have discussions on racism, but if one of them isn’t black, they need to step back when it comes to anti-blackness, and listen and learn. If I was discussing transphobia with a trans woman, as a transmasculine person, I would need to step back and listen since I don’t experience transmisogyny compounded with transphobia. In the moment, taking that step back can feel like taking responsibility for oppression as a whole: it makes us feel guilty, like we haven’t been trying hard enough to be good people. But we can’t be good people if we take up space that doesn’t belong to us, and say that we care about the people that space does belong to. We may not have bad intentions and we may not control structures of power, but our actions can uphold systems of oppression and they can be informed by systems of oppression.
Negotiate labour and boundaries. Every relationship requires emotional labour, boundaries, and expectations for other sorts of labour. But with power imbalances, the distribution of that labour isn’t just doled out equally. The distribution would be based on who is able to perform labour and how much pleasure (or discomfort) it causes. When it comes to emotional labour, it’s especially tricky. There might be certain conversations that are off-limits. I’m in a relationship with a white person and one of the ways we navigate the imbalance of racialized experiences is that he’s not supposed to argue with me on matters of race. These conversations are often exhausting for me and chances are I’ve already had this exact argument with someone else already. My partner has seen the emotional toll that it has had on me and typically sits back and allows me to speak my mind. We’re more able to see eye-to-eye when we work towards understanding each other than proving each other wrong. Which brings me to my last point.
Own your own space. While I firmly believe that people in positions of power are the ones responsible to check their privilege and to take charge of their education, I also want people with marginalized identities to know that it is within their right to be angry and take up space when they need to. If a partner, a friend, a family member is being problematic, we are allowed to be upset about it, point it out, and take up space. If the power is balanced in your favour, you have to allow that person to be angry about it and to impose their boundaries around it.
Every relationship is work, but that work allows us to form healthy and balanced relationships. Without putting in that work, we can hurt people we care about without even realizing it. And if we want to show the people we care about that their issues matter to us, we need to practice that in every aspect of our lives. We need to make our lives spaces for our loved ones to feel safe and heard.
Neurodivergence: A term used to describe the various configurations of the brain that may make an individual to communicate and express themselves differently. Autism and learning disabilities are examples of different types of neurodivergence.