Power Imbalance in Divorce (and How to Handle It)

Even the healthiest of marriages can have some power inequality between spouses. You may be better at navigating your financial life while your spouse has a better handle on the emotional aspect of your relationship. One of you may have a more dominant personality while the other is naturally more sensitive and compliant. 

When these differences work in harmony, it can benefit the relationship. But sometimes, one spouse obtains a disproportionate share of the power in the relationship, becoming dismissive and controlling. A significant power imbalance in a marriage can lead to manipulation, aggressive behavior, and bullying – and often, divorce. 

In most cases, this imbalance will even leak into the divorce process itself. If your marriage is imbalanced and you’re going through a divorce, here’s how to deal with it.

What is a power imbalance?

Power isn’t necessarily good or bad, and not all power is meant to be equal. For example, socially accepted power imbalances can look like a parent/child, teacher/student, or boss/employee relationship. Anytime people are in a relationship with each other, there can be some type of power dynamic. 

But in a romantic relationship, an unhealthy imbalance of power can hurt all aspects of a couple’s life, from how they make their financial decisions to their sex life. In these relationships, the less assertive spouse can feel drained, diminished, and victimized by the very person they should be able to trust and rely upon. 

In the workplace

Many of us have been in workplaces where the boss was a bully. Because this boss has hiring and firing power, subordinates may put up with a lot of uncomfortable behavior. Such an unhealthy power imbalance leaves employees feeling vulnerable and unhappy.

While an aggressive power imbalance in the workplace could amount to illegal discrimination, even a more subtle imbalance can result in employees losing their own self-respect and sometimes their livelihood.

Recently, the effects of this have played out in the national news with the #MeToo movement, forcing us to look at the gender-based power imbalances in our culture. 

In a relationship

In a romantic relationship and marriage, spouses with relatively equal of power can work within their roles with respect and cooperation. 

But sometimes, a significant power imbalance in a romantic relationship can lead to one partner dominating, dismissing, and manipulating the other. This kind of lopsided power in a relationship can be the result of poor communication, trust issues, or even a personality disorder rooted in childhood. 

If you’re in a marriage with an unhealthy balance of power, you may feel like you’re walking on eggshells, unable to express your own opinions or even make suggestions. Open communication is non-existent. Your spouse may make decisions unilaterally and dismiss or ignore you if you’re upset by it. You may feel constantly on edge and like you have no active role in the relationship. 

Unfortunately, controlling and dominating behavior can sometimes move into mental and physical abuse. A hallmark of domestic violence is when one partner tries to gain or maintain control over the other.  If this is the case for you, get help immediately

In divorce negotiations

During a divorce, a power imbalance can complicate your negotiations toward a fair settlement. 

When one spouse has had the upper hand throughout the marriage, they usually bring that stance to the divorce process. For instance, if one partner stayed home to care for the kids and is financially dependent on the other, the wage-earning spouse may try to use that status to control them. If the more dominant spouse has a closer relationship with the kids, they may assume they’ll get primary custody. 

Divorce laws are designed to dissolve a marriage fairly. But when one spouse is used to making all the decisions and controlling the relationship, it can leave the more compliant spouse feeling anxious and overwhelmed, often agreeing to things that aren’t in their best interest. 

Read: How to Slay Your Divorce Negotiations Like a Pro

How to power through a power imbalance

Is your soon-to-be ex-spouse domineering and controlling? While you may have existed for years in a marriage with this kind of imbalance, allowing your partner to continue to bulldoze you through your divorce process sets the stage for a future that won’t serve you.

It’s important to be honest with yourself about the dynamics in your relationship and advocate for yourself during the negotiation process. You don’t want to be bullied into accepting things that aren’t in your best interests. 

How do you do this? Consider the following steps. 

Understand your rights

Before you begin to negotiate a settlement with your spouse – especially one with whom you have power differences – it’s a good idea to fully understand your legal rights. 

You’re in a much better position to stand up for yourself in settlement talks if you understand your financial picture, your state’s divorce laws, and what you’re entitled to as a divorcing spouse. If you have questions or concerns about your rights, it’s helpful to get some skilled legal advice. 

Have a plan

Be clear about what you want and need from your negotiations. 

Understand what matters to you and what you’re willing to give up. If you have a focused plan and have considered all your spouse’s potential rebuttals, you have a better chance of staying calm and not backing down.

It may help to work with a divorce coach as you develop your plan. 

Read: Divorce Coach: Providing Support through a Divorce

Establish ground rules for communication

Your spouse is probably adept at manipulation and knows all the trigger points to get their way. Proactively go into the divorce process by first establishing the rules of engagement. Let your spouse know you won’t tolerate interruptions, name-calling, disrespect, or financial secrecy

Advocate for yourself

Negotiating with a bully spouse requires you to stand up for yourself. 

Chances are, your domineering spouse will come to the table ready to bulldoze you into submission. Take this moment to retrieve your power and be your own best advocate. They may have never had to deal with you as an assertive partner, and this could even throw off their dominating modus operandi.  

Don’t let your emotions hijack you

While divorce is a highly emotional time, a successful divorce settlement with a dominating spouse requires keeping your emotions in check. If they resort to their usual bullying, meet them with an unemotional demeanor, and close down communication until they can revisit your talks respectfully. Then, when you’re alone, do the needful to look after your own well-being and emotional health.

Do not rush into a settlement

Your marriage may have been a relationship in which you “gave in” just to stave off disagreements. But you don’t want to fall into that trap during your settlement talks. Quickly giving in to all your spouse’s demands won’t work well for you in the long run, especially when you’re talking about long-reaching issues like child custody and spousal support.

You’ll want to address every matter calmly and carefully to understand exactly how it will affect you. Take your time, and when you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a step back, and revisit it when you can take a more unemotional approach.

Limit your outside contact

Manipulation often takes place away from the watchful eyes of others. Limit contact with your spouse to when you formally meet with your attorney or mediator to help prevent conversations from becoming bullying and coercive. Limit any outside communication to text and emails. 

Consider mediation

When it feels like a matter of win or lose, a bully will come out with claws exposed. Working with a divorce mediator who understands power imbalances can help keep your mediation sessions productive without letting the bully take over.

A divorce mediator is a professional third party who doesn’t represent either spouse but helps facilitate a fair settlement for both. Discuss the power imbalance in your relationship with your mediator before the mediation process starts so they can formulate their strategy. Your mediator should be able to shift negotiations away from this power inequality and focus on the specific issues that need to be resolved. 

Divorce cases that don’t respond to mediation often have to get help from the court system. However, it may be worth a try. Divorcing couples can save a lot of money, time, and stress by working it out in a private room rather than a courtroom.

At Hello Divorce, our knowledgeable professionals are well-versed in the divorce process and offer many approaches for different needs. Our flat-rate mediation services are designed to help level the playing field between spouses so both can feel empowered, heard, and considered. Have questions? Schedule a free 15-minute phone call to learn how we can help. 

Suggested: Collaborative Divorce vs. Mediation: What’s Right for You?

Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.