When men control relationships, women feel effects

November 8, 2020 Providence Body & Mind Team

This article was updated on November 8, 2020 to reflect recent research.

Sharing the power in a relationship can lead to deeper intimacy and satisfaction. But when one person dominates, the relationship suffers and the risk for abuse rises— especially for women. 

  • Power imbalances can damage intimate relationships over time.
  • Every situation is different, but it's important to know the common signs of an abusive relationship.
  • We offer an extensive list of red flags, as well as resources that can help.


In a healthy relationship, partners make decisions together about how to spend money, where to go on vacation and how to raise children. Striking a balance can be challenging, and no relationship is perfect. But when one partner dominates in a relationship, the situation isn’t just unfair or frustrating for the other person. It can have short- and long-term negative consequences. And that is especially true for young women, according to a study published in the Journal of Human Sexuality.

The researchers studied 114 young adults who described a total of 395 heterosexual relationships. Men and women can feel subordinate to their partner, but the consequences seem to be more negative for women when men hold the balance of power. “When men are subordinate in a relationship, it doesn’t bother them very much,” said Laina Bay-Cheng, lead author of the study. “But for young women, having less power in a relationship is associated with diminished intimacy and stability and comes with greater risk of abuse.”

When a power imbalance leads to abuse

Abuse can take many forms, including physical, emotional, sexual and psychological. In many ways, the pandemic has created a perfect storm for abusive relationships to intensify between intimate partners. Lost income, school closures, lack of social interaction and fears about catching the virus can contribute to stress, more arguing and violence. It's unlikely that a person who is usually nonviolent will suddenly start acting that way. But someone who was abusive before may become more so in these challenging times when stress is at an all-time high.

The first step is knowing you need help

Sometimes it's obvious that an intimate relationship is abusive, but that isn't always the case. It can be confusing when an abusive partner says they love you, gives you plenty of attention, or covers many (or all) household expenses. But even when a partner sometimes seems loving and supportive, that doesn't make the abuse OK.

The U.S. Office on Women's Health, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, offers guidance for women in abusive situations. According to the organization, signs of abuse include:

  • Keeping track of everything you do

o   Monitoring what you're doing all the time or asking where you are and who you're with every second of the day

o   Demanding your passwords to social media sites and email accounts

o   Demanding that you reply right away to texts, emails, or calls

o   Preventing or discouraging you from seeing friends or family

o   Preventing or discouraging you from going to work or school

  • Being jealous, controlling or angry

o   Acting very jealous, including constantly accusing you of cheating

o   Having a quick temper, so you never know what you will do or say that may cause a problem

o   Controlling how you spend your money

o   Controlling your use of medicines

o   Making everyday decisions for you that you normally decide for yourself (like what to wear or eat)

  • Demeaning you

o   Putting you down, such as insulting your appearance, intelligence or activities

o   Humiliating you in front of others

o   Destroying your property or things that you care about

o   Blaming you for his or her violent outbursts

  • Physically hurting  or threatening to hurt  you or loved ones

o   Threatening to hurt you, the children, or other people or pets in your household

o   Hurting you physically (such as hitting, beating, pushing, shoving, punching, slapping, kicking, or biting)

o   Using (or threatening to use) a weapon against you

o   Threatening to harm himself or herself when upset with you

o   Threatening to turn you in to authorities for illegal activity if you report physical abuse

  • Forcing you to have sex or other intimate activity

o   Forcing you to have sex when you don't want to through physical force or threats

o   Assuming that consent for a sex act in the past means that you must participate in the same acts in the future

o   Assuming that consent for one activity means consent for future activity or increased levels of intimacy (for example, assuming that kissing should lead to sex every time)

Women who want help dealing with abusive situations can confidentially speak to or chat online with workers at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233. The site emphasizes you can chat without speaking a word aloud.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Body & Mind Team is dedicated to providing medically-sound, data-backed insights and advice on how to reach and maintain your optimal health through a mixture of exercise, mindfulness, preventative care and healthy living in general.

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