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Inside CSULB
Vol 57 No. 9 : May 2005
Vol 57 No. 9 | May 2005
Balance of Power is Key in Relationships

Norah Dunbar

Communication Studies' Norah Dunbar believes a balance of power is as important face-to-face as it is nation-to-nation.

Co-chair of her department and member of the university since 2000, she is interested in how couples perceive their balance of power. Together with Communication Studies' colleagues Amy Bippus and Stacy Young, she interviews volunteer couples on videotape in search of clues to dominance and conflict in relationships.    

She believes many conflicts in a relationship are really about control.

"The way you feel about control affects the way you act," said the Lakewood resident. "I call it 'dyadic power theory' because power is a dance. Both participants vie for position in a relationship. Almost every couple I have interviewed for my research, 50-plus couples, believes they are equally in control. Power is shared. But when I watch videotapes of these couples, I have to ask myself, 'Really? It doesn't look equal to me.' Is this perception a matter of political correctness? Or is it that the couples are not in touch with what is going on in their relationship? Or maybe you can't tell what is happening under the surface as an outsider."

Couples view their videotaped conversation in what experts call "stimulated recall." The researchers ask the couples to tell her whenever they see a message that is hurtful.

"It is really important to get the insider perspective," she said. "What is hurtful is defined by the relationship. What the couples told me was hurtful didn't seem that way." 

The participants' perception does not always match the researchers' perception so it is important to hear what the couples themselves have to say. For instance, one couple discussed punctuality. Showing up on time was a demonstration of power. Who showed up second had the power.

"Of course, the truth is in the middle somewhere," Dunbar explained. "Whose time is more valuable? By being late, you're sending a non-verbal message that the other person is not very important. They are not a priority. But some couples don't want to admit that is the message they're sending. To get back at the first person to be late, the other person will be late the next time. That ends up with a couple that is never on time because to be punctual would send a message of weakness to their partner."

Power is dynamic. It changes from moment to moment. Action and reaction are revealed when viewing the tapes in 10-second bursts. In one example, one partner tells the other he doesn't argue because he believes she will run off and cry. The woman told us later that she perceives this as hurtful but she does not tell her partner this. Instead, her reaction was small but pointed. She laughed and brushed her hair in a dismissive gesture. "We call that 'an adaptive gesture,'" Dunbar said. She is saying, 'you just embarrassed me but I won't admit it.' If she says so, it will be perceived as a sign of weakness."

Power exists in different contexts. She was surprised to find how many couples, especially the younger ones, saw power in cleaning.

"What they're really talking about is the division of labor in the household," she said. "Some couples resent having to clean up after the other. One may have different ideas of what clean is than the other. It's amazing but it's a very common topic. It's territoriality. It's about dominance."It is very important to yield power from time to time, citing a theory called "the chilling effect."

We don't say things when we're worried about the repercussions from our partners. When we fear our partner will leave, then we are reluctant to speak out and express grievances. "We are not willing to say things are wrong if it will cause conflict," she said. "We are reluctant to express grievance if it opens old wounds. We are reluctant to speak if it makes us look less powerful."

When she discusses her research with her CSULB students, Dunbar says her students are surprised to discover gender inequality exists. "For the most part, the students are idealistic they don't think inequality exists anymore. But when I ask the women if they would ask out a man on a date, they say no," she said. "Research shows that even college-educated women do not initiate first dates. 'I'm not going to ask,' they say. 'He'll think I'm easy.' And they're right. Men interviewed saw an invitation as promising sex. They have very strong norms for what is appropriate." Even something as simple as asking for a date becomes a message about power.

Dunbar earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Nevada, Reno, her master's from Chico State, and her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona. This June she will attend the International Society of Gesture Studies conference to be held in Paris.

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