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Abuse, Relationships

Power imbalances in relationships

Should I date someone older than me? What if my partner earns more money? Here are some things to consider around power imbalances in relationships  

What are power imbalances?

When one person in a relationship has more power than the other person, this is called a power imbalance.

Power imbalances can come in many different forms, including:

  • Age differences – if one partner is older/younger than the other.
  • Financial  – if one person earns more money than the other.
  • Authority –if one person has more authority than the other that’s given to them through their job. The people in the relationship might work together or one of them may have a job that gives them more power over the other outside of work for example, celebrities, civil servants.

Why can power imbalances be a problem?

Not all relationships with power imbalances are a cause for concern – they can be healthy depending on the nature of the imbalance, the age of people involved and their motives and personalities.

But sometimes they can be problematic and can lead to abuse.

There are lots of reasons why someone might look for this– for example they might lack self-esteem, control or power in other parts of their life. But often it comes down to wanting control over their partner.

For example, if someone is in a relationship with a power imbalance, they may:

  • Feel they have less experience than their partner
  • Be reliant on their partner for certain things
  • Feel that their partner knows best about relationships and sex because they have more experience
  • Feel the need to “prove” their maturity to them
  • Feel they can’t speak their mind because they have the ability to affect their job/career

By using these thoughts and feelings against the other person, they can coerce or manipulate them into doing things that they don’t think are right or that they don’t want to.

a white chess piece knocking over a black chess piece

Sometimes the abuse might be obvious, other times it might be subtle and happen in a series of small events, like criticising and undermining them, telling them to delete social media, or to not go out with friends or putting them down through negative comments.

The abuser might explain their abusive behaviour as acts of love or normal parts of a relationship. What they describe as being caring gestures can be more sinister methods of control.

This can make it really hard for the person to speak out and get help. Particularly, if abuse is being used to isolate them from sources of support like friends and family and money. This is known as coercive control. More about coercive control and abuse in relationships

When do age differences become a problem?

Age differences in relationships are common, though they are often more significant and noticeable when you’re younger compared to when you’re older. For example, a ten-year age gap when you’re in your 30s-40s is less significant than a two-year age gap when you’re in your teens.

Dating someone older or younger than you doesn’t automatically mean the relationship is, or might become, unhealthy, but there are some things that are important to think about:

  • How does the age difference impact the relationship?
  • Are you dating them because of the age difference?
  • Does one person seem to make all the decisions?
  • Do you both have the same maturity level?
  • Does it feel like you’re at the same place in life, and you want the same things?
  • Are there any signs of coercive control or abuse?

What does the law say?

The legal age of consent is 16 in the UK. This is the age in which you can legally consent to any type of sexual activity. The age of consent goes up to 18 if the other person is in a position of trust for example a teacher or social worker.

However, just because something isn’t illegal, doesn’t mean it’s okay. Regardless of age, it’s never okay to make someone do something that they’re not comfortable with.

More about consent

Things to look out for

It can be difficult to spot if you’re in a coercive or abusive relationship. They might defend their behaviour in terms of looking out for you or as acts of love, or you might explain their behaviour in the same way.  But abuse is never okay.

Here are some signs to look out for:

  • You feel that you can’t speak your mind
  • You modify your behaviour and actions because of them
  • You feel that you don’t have control over the relationship
  • You might feel uncomfortable telling family or friends because they “won’t understand”
  • They ask you to do things that you’re uncomfortable with
  • You feel reliant on them for your basic needs

More about the different types of abuse

If you experience anything that makes you uncomfortable, it’s really important you get help. The domestic abuse laws protect anyone over the age of 16 and not just people living together.

Your safety comes first – never confront your partner if it would make you unsafe.

More about getting help

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    Consent and sex in long-term relationships


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