40 minute read





Family power is important to those who want to understand how families function as a unit to make decisions about how to manage money, about where to live, about occupational and educational choices, about parenting practices, about where to go on a vacation, and so on. Family scientists define power in terms of who is able to influence others to get their way in the family, and who is able to block others from getting their way. In most cases, family power is a property of the family system, not of a single individual, because it is almost impossible for one individual to have their way all of the time. Although the rules that govern power in a particular family may evolve as children are born, grow up, and move out, as the marital relationship changes or dissolves, or as the circumstances of the family changes, power is deemed to be fairly predictable within these stages. This predictability can be a comfort to those family members who are happy with the power arrangements or a matter of disdain, perhaps even a matter of personal health and safety, for those who find themselves dominated by others.

Ronald Cromwell and David Olson (1975) classified family power into three areas: power bases, power processes, and power outcomes.

Power Bases

J. R. P. French and Bertran Raven (1959) took a microsystemic view of family power. That is, they examined power strictly from inside the family and suggested that there are six bases of family power. Legitimate power is sanctioned by the belief system within the family, such as the belief that the husband should be the head of the household, that parents should have control over raising small children, or that adolescents should have control over what they wear. In the United States, an uncle who tries to impose his will on his nieces and nephews might be viewed as a meddler who is trying to exercise illegitimate power. In other cultures uncles are accorded legitimate power over nieces and nephews and might be respected for this kind of guidance.

Informational power has its foundation in specific knowledge that is not available or is unknown to others in the family and in one's ability to verbally present the pertinent information in a persuasive way. For example, if the man in the household is the only one who knows his income, or if he is viewed as knowledgeable about money, then he is likely to make decisions about how money is spent in the family. Alternatively, if a wife can assemble pertinent information about the benefits of purchasing a new car, she may be able to convince her reluctant husband.

Referential power is based on affection, mutual attraction, friendship, and likeability within the family. Positive feelings can be a powerful force in making alliances with others, if others want to make those they care about happy and, conversely, not to disappoint them. A parent's desire to please a favored child, a husband's desire to please his wife, a child's desire to please a grandparent are examples of referential power.

Coercive power involves the use of physical or psychological force in imposing one's way on others in the family, assuming that others are resistant or opposed. Parental discipline, threats, aggression, conflict, and competition are inherent in the use of coercive power because getting one's way is usually realized at the expense of others getting theirs. An example of coercive power: a parent forces a child to attend a school or college he or she does not wish to attend by threatening to withdraw the child's support.

Expert power is based on education, training, or experience that is relevant to the issue at hand. For example, if the woman of the household is a licensed real estate agent, she may have the most influence on where the family lives. If a child has studied the attractions of Florida, he or she may use the expert power accumulated to wield influence on decisions about a Florida vacation. Expert power can also be derived from the specific knowledge and experience of one individual in dealing with a specific issue. For example, if the husband was raised in Mexico, he is likely to be considered the expert about what relatives to visit in Mexico and where to stay on a visit there. Although he may not be considered an expert on Mexico outside the family, within the family he is.

Reward power is the ability to influence others by providing physical and psychological benefits to those who comply with one's wishes. With small children, parents often influence behavior with candy or sweets. With older children and adolescents, the price of power might be more expensive—a new outfit or bicycle. Adults in families often strike bargains, exchange pleasing behaviors, and "sweet talk" others to get their way.

The power bases articulated by French and Raven are often unclear in actual families. For example, if one family member has used coercion in the past, others may have learned that it is best to give in and keep their opinions to themselves. Although it may not be apparent to outsiders, those inside the family may feel coerced even though they do not signal their resistance in visible ways.

Robert Blood and Donald Wolfe (1960) took a macrosystemic view when they presented their resource theory of family power. That is, they looked for associations between power inside the family and power outside the family, and argued that power was apportioned between husbands and wives based on the relative resources that each contributed to the family. Blood and Wolfe specifically focused on the resources of income, occupational prestige, and educational attainment and, based on interviews with hundreds of white, middle-class wives in Detroit, Michigan, demonstrated that the greater the men's resources in these three areas, the greater the men's perceived power within the family.

The resource theory of family power was influential because the idea suggested that men do not become heads of households by divine right or natural biological processes, but because they have more and easier access to educational, financial, and occupational resources in society. The idea suggested that opening up women's access to resources outside the family could result in a more evenly balanced distribution of power within the family.

There has been considerable research support for resource theory in the United States and in Third World countries. Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz (1983) conducted a study in the United States and found that when men made substantially more income than their wives, they were more likely to exert greater power in financial decision-making when compared with husbands that made about the same income as their wives. A study conducted in Mexico by R. S. Oropesa (1997) found that wives with higher education were equal to their husbands in family power, felt more satisfaction with their influence in the family, and were less likely to be a victim of domestic violence. A study of 113 nonindustrialized nations conducted by Gary Lee and Larry Petersen (1983) found that the more wives contributed to food production, the more power they exerted in marriage.

There has also been substantial criticism of resource theory. It has been pointed out that income, occupation, and education are only three among many resources that influence family power. Edna Foa and U. G. Foa (1980) suggested that in addition to tangible resources such as money, education, and occupation, intangible resources such as intelligence, physical attractiveness, likeability, love, and comfort impact family power. Actually, any trait or behavior that is valued by others in the family can be a resource that is exchanged for influence and power. For example, in immigrant families it has been observed that the ability to speak the host language can increase one's power if other family members depend on that ability to translate and interpret messages (Alvarez 1995). Among the Fulani tribes of West Africa, who primarily practice the religion of Islam, family members, especially women, can increase their power in the family by practicing traditional Fulani customs of conjuring the spirits of dead ancestors and others who have passed on to the other world ( Johnson 2000).

Most family scientists take a macrosystemic view, first articulated by Constantina Safilios-Rothschild (1967), that the bases of family power are a reflection of culturally defined gender ideologies and gender-segregated resources in the wider society in which a family is embedded. In practically all societies, this means that males have more power in families because of patriarchal beliefs about male authority. For example, a 1996 Gallup Poll conducted in twenty-two countries found that women are almost universally perceived as more emotional, talkative, and patient than men, whereas men are perceived as more aggressive, ambitious, and courageous than women. Even though there may be little scientific justification for these perceptions, they exert a strong influence in favor of male dominance in families that might be diminished through women's resources, but not completely muted.

Power Processes

An examination of power processes reveals that getting one's way in the dynamic interaction of families entails an ongoing set of complex and subtle maneuvers involving communication, commitment, bargaining and negotiation, coalition formation, conflict and conflict resolution, and parenting styles. Moreover, an examination of power processes reveals that in virtually all cultures, variables like the number of children and where the family lives make family power processes more complex.

Willard Waller (1938) is credited with first articulating the idea that family power is sometimes affected by commitment: The principle of least interest states that in disputes involving power, the individual who is least interested in continuing the relationship usually has more power than the one who is more interested in continuing the relationship. In dating relationships, the threat to break up can level the playing field of relative power. In some cases, an individual who feels "one-down" can make the threat and gain an equal footing if the other wants to stay together. In worse cases, an individual who is already "one-up" can threaten to break up and gain an even stronger hand in future disputes. In marriage, the principle of least interest can involve threatening to divorce, or in parent-child relationships, by parents threatening to send a child to foster care, to boarding school, or to live with a relative. Children and adolescents sometimes invoke the principle of least interest by threatening to run away or, in cases where parents are divorced, by threatening to go live with the noncustodial parent. In order to increase power, however, threats to leave must be feared by those one is threatening. Otherwise, they may say, "Go ahead and leave." If this happens, the tables of power could be turned against the one making the threat.

The principle of least interest applies mostly in societies where marriage is a free choice rather than arranged, and where it is possible for men and women to dissolve marriage through divorce. In many cultures, divorce is restricted by social and religious tyranny that makes personal selectivity in one's partner irrelevant to the establishment or continuation of marriage (Swidler 1990). For example, in societies that are ruled by intolerant legalists or religionists, the courts might allow a husband to obtain a divorce simply because he has lost emotional interest in his wife or because she has done something of which he disapproves. In the same society, a wife might not be granted a divorce even if she has legitimate reasons, such as her husband's abuse, desertion, criminal behavior, or, in polygamous societies, if he were to take another wife without the permission of the wife or wives he already has. In these societies, family power processes are so structured along gender and generational lines that selectivity has little to do with the establishment and maintenance of marital and family relationships. Alternatively, selectivity may be applied unfairly, allowing men to make choices that are not accorded to women or children. As previously discussed, family power processes reflect power bases in society: Without power in society, it is difficult to get power in the family.

Anthropologist Janice Stockard (2002) analyzed the power processes of married couples in four cultures and found that parent-child alliances had a strong impact on family power. For example, girls of the !Kung San tribe of South Africa were traditionally married around age 10, usually to men who were much older. Marriages were arranged by the girls' parents, who expected the bridegroom to live with them for a few years following the marriage and help out by hunting for food. Although one might think that these young girls would be powerless in relation to their older husbands, the fact that brides and grooms lived with the girls' parents permitted the girls to maintain strong alliances with their parents. These strong alliances tended to equalize power between husbands and wives, to the degree that !Kung San girls had strong veto powers over the marriage arrangement, which they often exercised.

In sharp contrast, girls in traditional Chinese societies were required to abandon alliances with their parents, grandparents, and siblings following marriage. On her wedding day, a traditional Chinese girl would be transported to live with her husband's family, where her mother-in-law would hold authority over her. The restriction of Chinese girls, who seemingly were not permitted to make many personal choices about their lives, was rationalized with the understanding that they would be compensated in later years by gaining rule over their own daughters-in-law. Because young girls were temporary participants in their families as they were growing up, it was difficult for Chinese girls to form deep, lasting alliances with their parents, grandparents, and siblings.

In Western culture, Theodore Caplow (1968) hypothesized that powerful male heads of households might find themselves at a power disadvantage in families with older children and adolescents because mothers and children might form coalitions to neutralize and override the fathers' power. A study conducted by Brian Jory and his colleagues (1996) found substantial support for coalition theory by observing the power processes of middle class families in the midwestern United States in moderately stressful problem-solving situations. In these families mothers were five times more likely to form power alliances with adolescent sons and daughters than with their husbands. These fathers, who were mostly in high power occupations, were at a clear disadvantage in family power negotiations. The importance of gender in family power processes was evident in another way: The study found that adolescent boys were more active in communication and bargaining than adolescent girls, and mothers offered more supportive communication to adolescent sons than daughters.

Diana Baumrind (1971) studied the balance between power and support in the childrearing behavior of parents in the United States and identified three parenting styles. The authoritarian style of parenting emphasizes obedience, giving orders, and discipline. Parents who exercise this style relate to their children with little emotional warmth because they view the child as a subordinate whose primary need is discipline. Children raised by authoritarian parents often feel rejected because their ideas are not welcomed, and these children may have trouble in tasks that demand autonomy, creativity, and reflection.

The permissive parenting style de-emphasizes parental control of children in favor of absolute acceptance and approval of the child. Permissive parents encourage children to make decisions on their own and to exercise creativity and independence in whatever they do. In the absence of parental guidance and limits, children raised by permissive parents may feel neglected and may struggle with tasks where focus, self-control, and perseverance are required.

The authoritative style of parenting combines a balance of parental control and parental warmth and support. Authoritative parents set limits on acceptable behavior in children, yet do so in an affectionate environment that encourages autonomy, values expression of opinions, and encourages participation in family decision-making. In reviewing a number of studies, Lawrence Steinberg and his colleagues (1991) demonstrated that children raised by authoritative parents—whatever their race, social class, or family type—develop better moral reasoning, do better academically, have less anxiety and depression, feel that their families are happier, are more self-confident, and are less likely to become delinquent.

A study by Brian Jory and his colleagues (1997) discovered that, in families with adolescents, power is not limited strictly to parental behavior, but is a property that affects the family system as a whole in terms of communication, bargaining, how affect is expressed, and how solutions to problems are generated. The study found four types of family locus of control. In families with individualistic locus of control, power resided in individuals who looked out for themselves. In these families, communication was egocentric and calculated, affect could turn negative or aggressive, and individuals sought solutions that benefited themselves at the expense of others.

In families with authoritarian locus of control, power was located in the parents, particularly the father whose role as head of household was pronounced. Communication in these families was directed one-way from fathers to mothers and mothers to children, affect was stilted, and bargaining was nonexistent as solutions to problems took the form of parental pronouncements, exclusively by fathers.

In families with external locus of control, nobody in the family was viewed as having power, and control seemed to be located in circumstances, fate, or the control of others. Communication in these families was chaotic, affect was directed towards others outside the family, and solutions to problems were sought from authority figures and others who were viewed as having control.

In families with collaborative locus of control, communication was systematically elicited from each family member, ideas were valued, affection was warm, supportive, and caring, and great effort was dedicated to find solutions to problems that had the least negative impact on individuals and would benefit the group as a whole.

As each of these studies shows, power processes in families involve a large number of complex cultural and family-related variables, many of which are yet to be discovered by family scientists. Making matters more complex, those variables that have been discovered are subtle and difficult to measure. For example, keeping secrets—an intentional withholding of information—is a form of communication that affects power in families. Withholding information takes away the power of others to make reasonable decisions because they lack pertinent information. How does a scientist measure secrets? This reveals the scientific challenge of studying power in families, but also the importance.

Power Outcomes

Power is an underlying dimension of every family relationship and virtually every family activity, and its importance lies in the fact that having a sense of control over one's life is necessary for the health and happiness of humans, including children, adults, and the elderly. In the studies already discussed, it is evident that power should be fairly apportioned to every family member, from the youngest infant to the most elderly person. If every member of a family has a sense of personal control, balanced with family control, the family can be a source of power and strength through its guidance, support, and care. When someone in the family abuses power, however, the damage to trust, loyalty, and freedom can have long-term negative effects for everyone in the family.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, Western society began paying attention to the dark side of family power. A new set of concepts developed that are common in the language of the twenty-first century: child abuse and neglect, child sexual abuse, elder abuse, marital rape, date rape, psychological abuse, wife abuse, and domestic violence. In a volume entitled, The Public Nature of Private Violence (1994), editors Martha Fineman and Roxanne Mykitiuk assembled a number of articles by scholars who suggest that our discovery of family abuse has created a new conception of the nature of family life for the twenty-first century. The old conception that families are guided by a higher moral law or a natural order of compassion has been replaced by a more realistic conception that, for many, the family is a place of anguish, worry, pain, and trauma. These scholars argue that the abuse of family power is not simply a private matter, but is a public matter that needs to be part of the public agenda to be addressed by policy-makers, police officers, judges, social workers, clergy, teachers, physicians, and counselors.

The abuse of power in families is not strictly a Western idea. Judy DeLoache and Alma Gottlieb (2000) compiled imagined childcare guides for seven societies. The variation in parental practices—the do's and don'ts of raising children—from society to society is astounding. For example, it may be difficult to understand why Turkish mothers keep their babies restrictively swaddled for several months following birth (to show that the baby is covered with care). It may seem odd, if enticing, that Beng mothers paint pretty designs on the faces of their infants every day (to protect the baby against sickness). Should parents clean and bathe children? That, according to the childcare guides, depends on what society the child is born into. Although parenting practices vary around the world, one principle underlies all cultural variations. In no extant culture are mothers or fathers legitimately granted absolute power to mistreat their children. There is a general ethical principle that is universal: the abuse of power in families is not socially condoned.

Building on the idea that family power should be subjected to the same ethical principles as other forms of social power, Brian Jory and his colleagues have conducted a number of studies exploring how the abuse of power in families is rooted in ethical beliefs about power ( Jory, Anderson, and Greer 1997; Jory and Anderson 1999; Jory and Anderson 2000). In studies of abusive men (and their women partners) conducted in the United States, Jory concluded that interventions that change the ethical beliefs of those who abuse power in their families can result in a positive transformation of their values and behavior. The abuse of power in families is a challenge for those who shape all societies to transcend the bounds of culture and custom and work towards balancing the scales of intimate justice in all societies by fostering ethical beliefs about equality, freedom, respect, fairness, and caring in families, and by showing compassion for those who are suffering the anguish of victimization, whatever their cultural heritage.


Alvarez, L. (1995). "Pint-size Interpreters of World for Parents." New York Times, October 1: A16.

Baumrind, D. (1971). "Current Patterns of Parental Authority." Developmental Psychology Monographs 4:1–102.

Blumstein, P., and Schwartz, P. (1983). American Couples: Money, Work, and Sex. New York: Morrow.

Blood, R., and Wolfe, D. (1960). Husbands and Wives: The Dynamics of Married Living. New York: Free Press.

Caplow, T. (1968). Two against One: Coalitions in Triads. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cromwell, R., and Olson, D., eds. (1975). Power in Families. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

DeLoache, J., and Gottlieb, A., eds. (2000). A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Fineman, M., and Mykitiuk, R. (1994). The Public Nature of Private Violence: The Discovery of Domestic Abuse. New York: Routledge.

French, J., and Raven, B. (1959). "The Basis of Power." In Studies in Social Power, ed. D. Cartwright. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Foa, E., and Foa, U. (1980). "Resource Theory: Interpersonal Behavior as Exchange." In Social Exchange: Advances in Theory and Research, ed. K. Gergen, M. Greenberg, and R. Willis. New York: Plenum Press.

Gallup Poll. (1996). Gender and Society: Status and Stereotypes. Princeton, NJ: Gallup Organization.

Johnson, M. (2000). "The View from the Wuro: A Guide to Child Rearing for Fulani Parents." In A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies, ed. J. DeLoache and A. Gottlieb. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Jory, B., and Anderson, D. (1999). "Intimate Justice II: Fostering Mutuality, Reciprocity, and Accommodation in Therapy for Psychological Abuse." Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 25:349–363.

Jory, B., and Anderson, D. (2000). "Intimate Justice III: Healing the Anguish of Abuse and Embracing the Anguish of Accountability." Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 26:329–340.

Jory, B.; Anderson, D.; and Greer, C. (1997). "Intimate Justice: Confronting Issues of Accountability, Respect, and Freedom in Therapy for Abuse and Violence." Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 23:399–420.

Jory, B.; Rainbolt, E.; Xia, Y.; Karns, J.; Freeborn, A.; and Greer, C. (1996). "Communication Patterns and Alliances between Parents and Adolescents during a Structured Problem Solving Task." Journal of Adolescence 19:339–346.

Jory, B.; Xia, Y.; Freeborn, A.; and Greer, C. (1997). "Locus of Control and Problem Solving Interaction in Families with Adolescents." Journal of Adolescence 20:489–504.

Lee, G., and Petersen, L. (1983). "Conjugal Power and Spousal Resources in Patriarchal Cultures." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 14:23–28.

Oropesa, R. S. (1997). "Development and Marital Power in Mexico." Social Forces 75:1291–1317.

Safilios-Rothschild, C. (1967). "A Comparison of Power Structure in Marital Satisfaction in Urban Greek and French Families." Journal of Marriage and the Family 29:345–352.

Steinberg, L.; Mounts, N.; Lamborn, S.; and Dornbusch, S. (1991). "Authoritative Parenting and Adolescent Adjustment across Varied Ecological Niches." Journal of Research on Adolescence 1:19–36.

Stockard, J. (2002). Marriage in Culture: Practice and Meaning across Diverse Societies. New York: Harcourt.

Swidler, A. (1990). Marriage among the Religions of the World. Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press.

Waller, W. (1938, revised 1951). The Family: A Dynamic Interpretation. New York: Dryden.


Power is a fundamental aspect of all human relationships, including family and marital relationships. Since 1960, there has been a continuing dialogue among social scientists seeking to define, measure, explain, and understand the consequences of power differentials in marriage relationships.

Definitions and Measurement

Power in marriage has been defined and measured in various ways. The first and most common definition of power is the ability of one person to get another to do what she or he wants even in the face of resistance. Based on this definition, Robert Blood and Donald Wolfe (1960) developed the Decision Power Index. To measure power, respondents are asked to report whether wives, husbands, or both have the final-say on a number of decisions within the marriage, including selecting a car, home or apartment, vacation, doctor, husband's job, and whether or not the wife should work. Who has power in the relationship is measured based on who has the final-say.

This index has remained at the core of the dialogue on marital power. Being a short and easily administered instrument, this index continues to be included in surveys worldwide, although occasionally with adaptations. It has also been critiqued, developed, and improved. Nearly once a decade since its development, a review is written that raises methodological questions and concerns about the final-say decision-making measures (Mizan 1994). Many of these problems have been tested empirically.

One problem cited is the discrepancy between the answers given by husbands and wives. However, data from such countries as the United States, India, and Panama have tested this issue and found that wife and husband answers tend to be parallel (Allen and Straus 1984; Danes, Oswald, and De Esnaola 1998).

Another set of problems involves the types of decisions and assumptions about decisions that are included in measures. Merlin Brinkerhoff and Eugen Lupri (1978) and Vanaja Dhruvarajan (1992) present data from Canada to show that decisions are of varying importance and frequency and are made according to gender roles. Women tend to have final-say in some areas, particularly those decisions relating to care work—children, food, entertaining friends, and calling the doctor—which tend to be defined by both men and women as not very important. Thus, it is argued that a measure that gives each decision equal weight results in a flawed power score.

Furthermore, measures of power tend to be outcomes or consequences of power. The outcome serves as a proxy measure of power. For example, the individual with the most power in a relationship may or may not be most likely to make the decisions. Similarly, the division of household labor is an outcome of power differentials but is used in some studies as a measure of power.

It has been argued that it is important to define and measure power as a dynamic process, examining such issues as influence strategies and attempts (Aida and Fablo 1991; Zvonkovic, Schmiege, and Hall 1994). Using a multidimensional definition of power, Aafke Komter (1989) defines power as "the ability to affect consciously or unconsciously the emotions, attitudes, cognitions, or behaviors of someone else" (p. 192) and distinguishes between manifest power, latent power, and invisible power. As the usual conceptualization of marital power, manifest power refers to decision-making and associated conflict and influence strategies. Latent power refers to a lack of decision-making, conflict, or influence strategies as a result of one partner anticipating and deferring to the position of the other. This can result from the less powerful partner believing that they are unable to have influence or fearing negative reprisal. Finally, invisible power refers to an unconscious process in which social and psychological systems of inequality result in one partner being unable to even conceive of the possibility of having input in decision making, engaging in conflict, or using power strategies. In her study of Dutch couples, Komter found that although the couples share equally in decision making, there were uncovered hidden power mechanisms and strategies that result in women wanting more change in the relationship but being less successful in gaining it. As a result, an ideology of husbands' power over their wives was confirmed and justified.


Resources. Like their measure of power, Blood and Wolfe's (1960) resource theory has had a prominent role in explanations of marital power. According to their theory, power in marriage results from the contribution of resources—particularly education, income, and occupational status—to the relationship. The spouse who contributes the most will have the greater decisionmaking power. As with the measurement of power, theoretical and empirical work on explanations of marital power has often emanated from a critique and extension of Blood and Wolfe's theory.

Considerable work has been done within the realm of resources. Some researchers have added additional dimensions to the concept of resources. In a study of marital power in Israel, Liat Kulik (1999) found that not only material resources but also health and energy resources, psychological resources (problem-solving and social skills), and social resources (access to social networks) are directly or indirectly related to power in marriage. Particular attention has been paid to the impact of extended families and kin support resources on power in marriage. In Turkey and Mexico, a wife's ties to her family of origin can translate into power in marriage (Bolak 1995; Oropesa 1997). On the other hand, living in a joint residence with the family of the husband, as in India, has been found to be associated with higher levels of power for husbands (Conklin 1988). In a study of over a hundred nonindustrial societies, in general women have somewhat more power in nuclear than extended families. Nevertheless, in societies where extended families are the norm, women have substantially more power when residence practices are matrilocal and descent is matrilineal rather than patrilocal and patrilineal (Warner, Lee, and Lee 1986).

Greater attention has been paid to the meaning tied to the resources, and not just the amount of resources contributed. A spouse may contribute resources but if this contribution is not recognized as significant and valuable within the couple, the contribution is not likely to result in greater power (Bolak 1995; Blaisure and Allen 1995). From this perspective, unpaid family work can also be a valued contribution to the relationship and not working for pay may reflect women's power rather than lack of power (Pyke 1994).

Resources can also be thought of as alternatives to the relationship. Adding to Blood and Wolfe's theory, David Heer (1963) developed an exchange theory of marital power, arguing that the individual who has the greatest access to alternative resources outside of the marriage relationship will have the most power. In a related argument, Willard Waller's (1951) principle of least interest theory proposes that the spouse who is least interested in maintaining the relationship will have the greater power. Karen Pyke (1994) found that women's reluctance to marry after divorce is associated with their greater power in remarriage. Based on a study in the United Kingdom, Pat O'Conner (1991) argues for the need to also consider a principle of high mutual interest. Results show that women are powerful in relationships where dependence is high and balanced for both women and men. Using data from Israel, Liat Kulik (1999) developed the concept of anticipated dependence, defined as the extent to which one spouse expects to need the other at later points in life, and found greater anticipated dependence to be related to reduced power in the current relationship.

Culture. One of the most significant developments of Blood and Wolfe's resource theory came from Hyman Rodman (1967, 1972). Trying to understand cross-cultural inconsistency in the relationship between resources and marital power in Germany, United States, France, Denmark, Belgium, Greece, and Yugoslavia, Rodman developed the theory of resources in cultural context. This theory explains that the distribution of marital power results not only from an unequal contribution of resources, but also from the larger cultural context within which the marital relationship exists. Cultural gender norms affect the impact that resource contribution has on the distribution of power. In particular, he predicted that in patriarchal and egalitarian societies, the dominant norms would outweigh the influence of resources on marital power. So regardless of wife and husband's contribution, marriages will be male-dominated in patriarchal societies and equal in egalitarian societies. He predicted that the contribution of resources has the most significant impact on the balance of marital power in transitional egalitarianism, societies that are moving from patriarchal toward egalitarian norms, and among the upper classes in modified patriarchal societies, societies in which egalitarian values are new and common only among the upper strata.

The theory of resources in cultural context has been applied and tested in countries throughout the world. Some studies have focused on Scandinavian countries, which are considered egalitarian societies. A comparison of Danish and U.S. couples revealed that although couples in both countries often report equality in decision making, Danish marriages were even more likely to be described as equal. Within this egalitarian society, the resource contribution of spouses still has an impact on the balance of power (Kandel and Lesser 1972). Studies in Sweden and Norway show that even within these relatively egalitarian societies, male power may not be blatant but is widespread in marital relations (Calasanti and Bailey 1991; Thagaard 1997).

Latin American countries are often assumed to be characterized by machismo cultures and families. However, data from Chile, Mexico, and Panama show that although husbands may have somewhat greater power in marriage, many marriages tend toward egalitarianism and the contribution of resources is related to power (Alvarez 1979; Cromwell, Corrales, and Torsiello 1973; Oropesa 1997; Danes, Oswald, and De Esnaola 1998). This tendency toward egalitarianism has been discussed in terms of wider societal change, resulting from social movements, including the women's movement, and economic development.

The connection between culture and resources in the balance of marital power has been examined in a wide range of societies, including Turkey, India, Israel, Romania, Russia, and China. As Turkey and other Muslim countries combine modernity and traditionalism and become modified patriarchies, women are better able to negotiate power, with their contribution of resources having an impact on their success (Fox 1973; Bolak 1995). In Eastern Europe under communist regimes, both spouses worked outside of the home and tended to be egalitarian in decision making, but women remained primarily responsible for household work (Lapidus 1978; Elliot and Moskoff 1983). Today in some Eastern European countries, such as Russia, the woman's role as head of household and breadwinner does not necessarily result in greater power but is a result of necessity and lack of alternatives (Kiblitskaya 2000). In China, where the influence of Western ideology has increased the acceptance of egalitarian relationships, education and occupation are related to the distribution of marital power (Tang 1999).

Structure. The patriarchal and egalitarian differences between societies described above can be considered as not only cultural but also structural differences. Gender inequality is not merely found in norms and ideologies but characterizes the structure and practices of a society's political, legal, religious, educational, and economic institutions. Discrimination and male domination of these institutions result in women's lower access to resources, including income, occupational status, and education; condone and reinforce patriarchal ideology; and thereby contribute to the maintenance of gender inequality in marriage. As Dair Gillespie (1971) argued, marital power can be described as a caste/class system because husbands as a class have power over wives as a class as a result of male-dominated societal structures rather than any specific resources they contribute to the marriage.

Interaction. Researchers have looked beyond resources and culture to examine how marital power is part of the unconscious construction of gender categories and identity during interaction. Veronica Jaris Tichenor (1999) studied couples in which wives had higher income and occupational status than their husbands and found that wives did not tend to have greater marital power. Rather, women and men in these couples act to ignore or minimize the status and income differences and construct the husband in a powerful position, through such acts as upholding male veto power and redefining the provider role to fit the activities of the husband. Examining conversations of women and men, Caroline Dryden (1999) found that wives act to construct their marriage as equal and blamed themselves for aspects of the relationship that were not equal. Husbands, on the other hand, act to construct the marriage as unequal and also blamed their wives for the existing inequality. The outcome of these constructions is the reinforcement of A couple sit at the Old City Bazaar in Turkey, a country where people may falsely present their egalitarian relationship as male-dominated to comply with dominant cultural norms. RICHARD T. NOWITZ/CORBIS the genders as unequal, with the man in the position of power. Tove Thagaard (1997) also found that power differences displayed during Norwegian couples' interactions served to confirm male and female identity, including gender inequality.

Another aspect of the growing interactionist perspective includes an examination of how couples publicly present marital power. The presentation may or may not correspond with the actual power dynamics in the relationship. In Turkey, couples who are equal in power may present their relationship as male-dominated to outsiders as a way to appear to be in compliance with dominant cultural norms (Bolak 1995). Another study found that couples who define themselves as feminist act to publicly present themselves as equal. Strategies used include maintaining different last names and putting the wife's name first on tax returns or car registration (Blaisure and Allen 1995). In a similar study, couples who claim to be egalitarian were found not to be in practice. However, they used language to create a "myth of equality" (Knudson-Martin and Mahony 1998).

Multivariate models. Attempts have been made to integrate many of these theories into comprehensive multivariate models. Rae Blumberg and Marion Tolbert Coleman's (1989) is one of the most complete. Starting with women's resource contribution, the model factors in societal and individual characteristics that can enhance or diminish women's ultimate economic power and then outlines the path through which women's net economic power translates into multiple dimensions of marital power.


Inequality in marriage is related to a number of consequences, many of which are interrelated and, in turn, reinforce gender inequality. This section focuses on two related categories of consequences: health and happiness.

Health. A lack of power in marriage is a threat to women's mental and physical health. Wives who have power in marriage report lower rates of depression (Mirowsky 1985) and less stress (Kaufman 1988). In India and Kenya, women's power in marriage is related to lower fertility rates and greater use of methods of family planning (Sud 1991; Gwako 1997).

Violence against women is also related to unequal power between women and men. Studies show that women are less likely to be victims of physical and verbal abuse in egalitarian relationships (Coleman and Straus 1986; Tang 1999). However, a loss of men's power relative to women's may also result in a greater likelihood for violence. According to Craig Allen and Murray Straus's (1980) ultimate resource theory, when husbands lack economic or interpersonal skill resources to maintain a dominant position in marriage, they may fall back on physical size and strength—resources that, on average, husbands tend to have more of than their wives.

Happiness. In addition to individual mental health and happiness, the distribution of power in marriage is also related to marital quality and satisfaction. Some older studies found that wives' satisfaction was highest in egalitarian marriages (Alvarez 1979), whereas others found that quality and satisfaction were highest in male-dominated marriages (Buric and Zecevic 1967). These findings may well reflect pressure to correspond with previously dominant gender ideologies. More recent studies in countries such as Norway and China are quite consistent in finding that marital satisfaction is highest in egalitarian marriages (Thagaard 1997; Tang 1999; Pimental 2000). Not only is equality directly related to increased satisfaction but also indirectly related through the development of closer emotional ties and perceptions of a spouse as fair and sympathetic. In addition, marital satisfaction is related not only to the distribution of power between spouses but also the types of power strategies and attempts used. Although the use of any influence strategy has been found to be related to lower marital satisfaction, indirect and emotional strategies, including negative affect and withdrawal, seem to have particularly negative effects (Aida and Falbo 1991; Zvonkovic, Schmiedge, and Hall 1994).


Marital power has been the topic of a dialogue among social scientists from diverse perspectives, cultures, and methodological approaches who build on the past and add to the future. The dialogue has been international, using cultural and societal differences to test and advance theory. The result of this dialogue is rich theoretical and empirical work on marital power. Still, participation in the dialogue waxes and wanes over time. Although since 1990 new insights and approaches have been brought to the debate, as Jetse Sprey (1999) outlines, there is still a need to revisit and rethink longstanding approaches and assumptions to studying and understanding power in marital relationships.


Aida, Y., and Falbo, T. (1991). "Relationships between Marital Satisfaction, Resources, and Power Strategies." Sex Roles 24:43–56.

Allen, C. A., and Straus, M. A. (1984). "'Final Say' Measures of Marital Power: Theoretical Critique and Empirical Findings from Five Studies in the United States and India." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 15:329–344.

Alvarez, M. D. L. (1979). "Family Power Structure in Chile: A Survey of Couples with Children in Primary Schools." International Journal of Sociology of the Family 9:123–131.

Blaisure, K. R., and Allen, K. R. (1995). "Feminists and the Ideology and Practice of Marital Equality." Journal of Marriage and the Family 57:5–19.

Blood, R. O., and Wolfe, D. M. (1960). Husbands and Wives: The Dynamics of Married Living. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Blumberg, R. L., and Coleman, M. T. (1989). "A Theoretical Look at the Gender Balance of Power in the American Couple." Journal of Family Issues 10:225–250.

Bolak, H. C. (1995). "Towards a Conceptualization of Marital Power Dynamics: Women Breadwinners and Working-Class Households in Turkey." In Women in Modern Turkish Society, ed. S. Tekeli. London: Zen Books.

Brinkerhoff, M., and Lupri, E. (1978). "Theoretical and Methodological Issues in the Use of Decision-Making as an Indicator of Conjugal Power: Some Canadian Observations." Canadian Journal of Sociology 3:1–20.

Buric, O., and Zecevic, A. (1967). "Family Authority, Marital Satisfaction, and the Social Network in Yugoslavia." Journal of Marriage and the Family 29:325–336.

Calasanti, T. M., and Baily, C. A. (1991). "Gender Inequality and the Division of Household Labor in the United States and Sweden: A Socialist-Feminist Approach." Social Problems 38:34–53.

Coleman, D. H., and Straus, M. A (1986). "Marital Power, Conflict, and Violence in a Nationally Representative Sample of American Couples." Violence and Victims 1:141–157.

Conklin, G. H. (1988). "The Influence of Economic Development on Patterns of Conjugal Power and Extended Family Residence in India." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 19:187–205.

Cromwell, R. E.; Corrales, R.; and Torsiello, P. M. (1973). "Normative Patterns of Marital Decision Making Power and Influence in Mexico and United States: A Partial Test of Resource and Ideology Theory." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 4:177–196.

Danes, S. M.; Oswald, R. F.; and De Esnaola, S. A. (1998). "Perceptions of Couple Decision Making in Panama." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 29:570–583.

Dhruvarajan, V. (1992). "Conjugal Power among First Generation Hindu Asian Indians in a Canadian City." International Journal of Sociology of the Family 22:1–34.

Dryden, C. (1999). Being Married, Doing Gender: A Critical Analysis of Gender Relationships in Marriage. London: Routledge.

Elliot, J. E., and Moskoff, W. (1983). "Decision-Making Power in Romanian Families." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 14:39–50.

Fox, G. L. (1973). "Another Look at the Comparative Resource Model: Assessing the Balance of Power in Turkish Marriages." Journal of Marriage and the Family 35:718–730.

Gillespie, D. L. (1971). "Who Has the Power? The Marital Struggle." Journal of Marriage and the Family 33:445–458.

Gwako, E. L. M. (1997). "Conjugal Power in Rural Kenya Families: Its Influence on Women's Decisions about Family Size and Family Planning Practices." Sex Roles 36:127–147.

Heer, D. M. (1963). "The Measurement and Bases of Family Power: An Overview." Marriage and Family Living 25:133–139.

Kandel, D. B., and Lesser, G. S. (1972). "Marital Decision- Making in American and Danish Urban Families: A Research Note." Journal of Marriage and the Family 34:134–138.

Kaufman, G. M. (1988). "Relationship between Marital Power and Symptoms of Stress among Husbands and Wives." Wisconsin Sociologist 25:35–44.

Kiblitskaya, M. (2000). "Russia's Female Breadwinners: The Changing Subjective Experience." In Gender, State and Society in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia, ed. S. Ashwin. London: Routledge.

Knudson-Martin, C., and Mahony, A. R. (1998), "Language and Processes in the Construction of Equality in New Marriages." Family Relations 47:81–91.

Komter, A. (1989). "Hidden Power in Marriage." Gender and Society 3:187–216.

Kulik, L. (1999). "Marital Power Relations, Resources and Gender Role Ideology: A Multivariate Model for Assessing Effect." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 30:189–206.

Lapidus, G. W. (1978). Women in Soviet Society: Equality, Development, and Social Change. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mirowsky, J. (1985). "Depression and Marital Power: An Equity Model." American Journal of Sociology 91:557–592.

Mizan, A. N. (1994). "Family Power Studies: Some Major Methodological Issues." International Journal of Sociology of the Family 24:85–91.

O'Conner, P. (1991). "Women's Experience of Power within Marriage: An Inexplicable Phenomenon?" Sociological Review 39:823–42.

Oropesa, R. S. (1997). "Development and Marital Power in Mexico." Social Forces 75:1291–1317.

Pimentel, E. E. (2000). "Just How Do I Love Thee?: Marital Relations in Urban China." Journal of Marriage and the Family 62:32–47.

Pyke, K. D. (1994). "Women's Employment as a Gift or Burden? Marital Power across Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage." Gender & Society 8:73–91.

Rodman, H. (1967). "Marital Power in France, Greece, Yugoslavia, and the United States: A Cross-National Discussion." Journal of Marriage and the Family 29:320–324.

Rodman, H. (1972). "Marital Power and the Theory of Resources in Cultural Context." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 3:50–69.

Sprey, J. (1999). "Family Dynamics: An Essay on Conflict and Power." In Handbook of Marriage and the Family, 2nd ed., ed. M. B. Sussman, S. K. Steinmetz, and
G. W. Peterson. New York: Plenum.

Sud, S. L. (1991). Marital Power Structure, Fertility, and Family Planning in India. New Delhi, India: Radiant.

Tang, C. S-K. (1999). "Marital Power and Aggression in a Community Sample of Hong-Kong Chinese Families." Journal of Interpersonal Violence 14:586–602.

Thagaard, T. (1997). "Gender, Power, and Love: A Study of Interaction between Spouses." Acta Sociologica 40:357–376.

Tichenor, V. J. (1999). "Status and Income as Gendered Resources: The Case of Marital Power." Journal of Marriage and the Family 61:638–650.

Waller, W. (1951). The Family: A Dynamic Interpretation. New York: Dryden.

Warner, R. L; Lee, G. R.; and Lee, J. (1986). "Social Organization, Spousal Resources, and Marital Power: A Cross-cultural Study." Journal of Marriage and the Family 48:121–128.

Zvonkovic, A. M.; Schmiege, C. J.; and Hall, L. D. (1994). "Influence Strategies Used when Couples Make Work-Family Decisions and Their Importance for Marital Satisfaction." Family Relations 43:182–188.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationships