A study published in the Journal of Human Sexuality says young women feel lasting impacts from being in heterosexual relationships where men hold the balance of power.
“When men are subordinate in a relationship, it doesn’t bother them very much. They don’t see those relationships as less intimate or stable than relationships in which they are dominant,” said Laina Bay-Cheng, associate professor at the University of Buffalo and 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.”
The qualitative study of 114 young adults who described a total of 395 heterosexual relationships is a reminder on International Women’s Day that women haven’t achieved equality with men in many relationships. And that imbalance exacts a toll on many of them.
Self-examination and self-reportingTo analyze the power imbalances, feelings of stability, feelings of intimacy and other features of relationships, Bay-Cheng and her colleagues asked participants to fill in an online calendar with thoughts and feelings about their sexual relationships from adolescence to early adulthood. Participants were encouraged to fill out the calendars any way they wished, from words to emojis. They were encouraged to make notes at their own pace, reflecting on the ways relationships echoed in their lives.
After a month, the researchers analyzed the calendars.
“Participants have told us how meaningful that chance to reflect can be,” Bay-Cheng said. “It’s important for researchers to care as much about the quality of participants’ experiences in our studies as the quality of our data.”
When a partner was subordinate in a relationship, he or she found the relationship to be less intimate or stable. And that was especially true for young women.
Researchers concluded that women enter many relationships at an emotional disadvantage.
“For young women,” Bay-Cheng said, “relationships are where all different forms of vulnerability and injustice converge.”
Young women and abuse
A troubling finding from the study illustrates the imbalance identified by Bay-Cheng: Of the 17 relationships involving an abusive or controlling partner, 15 were reported by women.
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. In a discussion of healthy vs. unhealthy relationships, the office suggests these tests:
Signs of an unhealthy relationship include:
- Focusing all your energy on your partner
- Dropping friends and family or activities you enjoy
- Feeling pressured or controlled a lot
- Having more bad times in the relationship than good
- Feeling sad or scared when with your partner
Signs of a healthy relationship include:
- Having more good times in the relationship than bad
- Having a life outside the relationship, with your own friends and activities
- Making decisions together, with each partner compromising at times
- Dealing with conflicts by talking honestly
- Feeling comfortable and able to be yourself
- Feeling able to take care of yourself
- Feeling like your partner supports you
Women who want help dealing with abusive situations can 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.