Marital equity refers to the degree of balance of authority, power, or influence between spouses. There are multiple domains related to marital power, including, for example, each partner’s education background and economic contribution; each spouse’s ability to use communication skills to influence the other partner; and how much each partner has a say in decision making. In all of these areas, there can be equity or there can be imbalances in power. Marital equity also can be seen as the extent to which each partner has status in the relationship and whether that status is equal between partners.
Marital equity has been studied in many ways. Researchers have learned valuable information through several methods. First, spouses can be asked about their own background and their perceptions of their own and their spouse’s power and influence in the relationship. They can also be asked about who makes the final decisions in the relationship and whether there are differences in who has the final say across different areas, such as how to spend money or raise children.
Second, couples can be observed while discussing important issues in their marriages, such as how to solve problems. Observing these problem discussions has revealed that there are different types of power distribution across couple relationships. There are “egalitarian” couples, where both partners share equally in decision making and appear to have the same levels of influence on one another. Some couples have a female partner who is more forceful, may talk more than a male partner, and may appear more influential. These couples have been labeled as “female dominant,” while “male dominant” couples show the opposite pattern. A fourth group of couples has been labeled “imbalanced” or “power struggle,” in which partners appear to be struggling with each other for control or the upper hand in the interaction.
By asking spouses about their relationships and by observing couples in problem discussions, researchers have learned that the health of a marriage can be affected by the balance of power or equity in the relationship. For example, if one partner feels bullied by the other, it can lead to dissatisfaction in the marriage and high levels of conflict. On the other hand, if both partners feel they have equal status and are listened to by each other, they may report higher levels of satisfaction in the marriage. It may also be the case that with certain types of decisions, one partner has the final say, while with other types of issues, the other partner may make final decisions.
The distribution of power in a relationship may vary by culture and ethnicity. Some evidence suggests that Anglo-American couples tend to value egalitarianism highly, and if there is an imbalance in power, it may lead to relationship dissatisfaction. There is also some evidence in some other cultural groups that egalitarianism may not be as highly valued, and therefore partners may have separate spheres of influence, or varying levels of influence, which may not lead to dissatisfaction.
One important research finding about marital equity is that it can be related to one of the most significant disruptions in a couple relationship: domestic violence. Evidence exists that domestic violence in a relationship can coincide with high levels of power imbalances. Violent spouses sometimes report that they feel powerless in relationships, and some researchers have suggested that because they feel powerless, partners who are violent toward their spouses may do so in order to regain power in the relationship. It is therefore very important to address issues of marital equity with couples, since they may be dealing with varying levels of happiness or, in some cases, dangerous behavior associated with the balance of power within the relationship.
- Blanton, P. W., & Vandergriff-Avery, (2001). Marital therapy and marital power: Constructing narratives of sharing relational and positional power. Contemporary Family Therapy, 23, 295–308.
- Frisco, L., & Williams, K. (2003). Perceived housework equity, marital happiness, and divorce in dual earner households. Journal of Family Issues, 24, 51–73.
- The Gottman Institute, http://www.gottman.com
- Sagrestano, M., Heavy, C. L., & Christensen, A. (1999).Perceived power and physical violence in marital conflict. Journal of Social Issues, 55, 65–79.
- Smart Marriages, http://www.smartmarriages.com