The goal of this exercise is to explore interpersonal power in dating, cohabiting, and married couples. Crosstabulation and comparison of means will be used.
Historically in the United States heterosexual relationships have followed a patriarchal model where men are the dominant partners. However over the past century changes to women's roles in the public and private spheres have altered gendered power dynamics, so much so that research shows that over 90% of both men and women now say they believe that partners should have an equal say in the relationship.
Interpersonal power in intimate relationships is multi-dimensional. It may mean one partner's ability to reward; coerce; have one's legitimate authority recognized; command reference (respect/love); claim expertise; or hold information. Partners may have different levels of power in different aspects of the relationship.
Perceived and real power dynamics in intimate relationships have important consequences ranging from relationship happiness to health and safety risks.
Examples of research questions about interpersonal power in intimate relationships:
This exercise uses the National Couples Survey (2005-2006), a study for which over 1,000 married and unmarried couples in four metropolitan areas (Baltimore, MD; Durham, NC; Seattle, WA; and St. Louis, MO) were interviewed. This study examines couples' contraceptive decision-making and contains parallel, separate partner reports about power relations, birth desires, method-related expectancies, values, perceptions, preferences, and behaviors of men and women making contraceptive and disease prevention choices within the context of an intimate heterosexual relationship.
This exercise will use the following variables from the Wave 1 data:
Direct Use of Power
Respondents were asked to indicate, on a scale of 1 ("never") to 9 ("always"), how often they bully their partner (BULLY), and how often they assert their authority (ASSERT). We combined these two variables to create a measure of respondents' use of direct power (also rated on a scale of 1-9) and named the new variable "DIRECT".
Examine the results of the comparison of means between
Another measure of the use of direct power is the occurrence of violence in the relationship.
Variable CR14 asked female respondents whether they have been harmed by their male partner. Consider
the results of the crosstab between
Indirect Use of Power
Respondents were asked to evaluate, on a scale of 1 ("never") to 9 ("always"), how often they manipulate (MANIPULATE), distance (DISTANCE), or beg their partner (BEG). We combined these variables to create a measure of respondents' use of indirect power, also rated on a scale of 1-9. The new variable is "INDIRECT".
Consider the results of the comparison of means between
Respondents were asked who makes the final decision in a number of areas ranging from what car to get and how much money to spend on food, to various aspects of the couple's sex life. They were offered 5 response categories: "I always decide", "I decide more than s/he does", "We decide about equally", "S/he decides more than I do", and "S/he always decides". To simplify the analysis we recoded each variable, collapsing the categories from 5 to 3 and excluding missing data. The new variables are named CAR (who makes the final decision about what car to get?), VACATION (where to go on vacation?), APT (what apartment to get?), FOOD (how much to spend on food?), WHENSEX (when to have sex?), SEXACTIVS (what to do when couple has sex?), BRTHCTRL (whether to use birth control?), and BCTYPE (what kind of birth control to use?).
Take a look at the results of the respective crosstabs of SEX and:
Do men and women's perceptions of the decision-making dynamics match?
Respondents were asked to rate on a scale of 1-9, where 1 means "extremely unhappy" and 9 means
"extremely happy", how happy they are in their relationship. We used this variable to run a
Think about your answers to the application questions before you click through to the interpretation guide for help in answering them.
Direct Use of Power
On average, are males or females more likely to use direct forms of power in the relationship? Which group (married, living together, or dating) shows the most use of direct power?
What percentage of married women reported being harmed by their male partner? What percentage of women in dating relationships were harmed?
Indirect Use of Power
Are there substantial differences between men and women in the use of indirect power? Does the nature of the relationship appear to make a difference?
In which areas do men tend to make the final decision? In which areas do women tend to make the final decision? Do the results surprise you?
Do men and women's perceptions of decision-making dynamics match?
What is the average happiness score for women? For men? Which of the three groups (married, cohabiting, dating) reports the highest levels of relationship happiness? Which has the lowest?
Reading the results:
The results show the following:
The goal of this exercise was to explore interpersonal power in dating, cohabiting, and married couples. Taken together, the results show that while men and women use a range of power dimensions, men are more likely than women to use forceful forms of power such as bullying and asserting authority. The majority of couples report making most decisions together, but (perhaps surprisingly) when this is not the case women appear to be the ones making final decisions in many areas. Further research might explore how much of this reflects a true reversal in gender power dynamics, and how much is an extension of traditional gender roles whereby women are viewed as caretakers. Finally it appears that power may be more problematic for cohabiting and dating couples than for married ones. It would be interesting to explore why this may be the case, and whether it could explain differences in reported relationship happiness.