Power and Decision-Making in Family

There are few things that prove more intoxicating than power. A thrill comes from dominating, controlling and affecting the life of others. Frederick Nietzsche, German philosopher, said that human beings are hungry for power. He declared that “will to power” is the basic human drive and the essence of our humanity. Every action towards another person stems from a deep-down desire to bring that person under one’s power.

Power politics may also be seen in families. There are wives and husbands who think that it is their right to exercise power over what goes on in each other’s life. Men, in particular, are socially prescribed to be dominant over their wives. In a traditional family husband is in charge making all the decisions and wife complying with those decisions with little resistance and questioning. However, this dominant-submissive family model is slowly changing due to cultural changes taking place in India. Women are becoming more and more assertive due to better access to education, employment and income. However, men are not as willing to adapt to the new situation and demands. Marital problems persist as Indian family moves from dominant-submissive model to an egalitarian model. The root cause of many marital problems is an unequal relationship or struggle over who has control in the relationship. When power balance is not mutually acceptable, serious problems may arise.

Power struggle in a family may lead to a cycle of violence. This cycle of violence often begins with a pattern of verbal denigration and emotional abuse, and intensifies until it manifests itself as a form of physical abuse. Verbal abuse is probably more sinister than physical abuse. Even after the healing of bruises and broken bones from physical abuse, verbal abuse continues to silently erode its victim’s self-worth. Because the abusive spouse conveys to the other that he/she is responsible for his/her abusive behaviour; he/she is a failure in most or all of the roles he/she is performing; and he/she is helpless without the abuser. Victim of abuse eventually come to believe that he/she is powerless and object of shame.

Spousal abuse may be the result of various factors. It may be a learned behavior that a child observes occurring between parents and later repeats in his/her adult relationships. Abusers are often motivated by feelings of powerlessness and insecurity. Spouse abuse inflates the ego and provides a false sense of power and control. It may also be due to a misguided sense of love that results in unhealthy possessiveness and jealousy.

Power struggles often emerge at the time of decision-making.

There are four major types of decision-making:

  1. A spouse habitually makes decisions and implements those decisions or announces the decisions in the family with the expectation that these decisions will be accepted and carried out without challenge. Here communication is mostly unidirectional, from the dominant spouse to the submissive one, as there will be no room for discussion or interaction.

However, questions of clarification or how the decision is to be carried out are allowed. Questioning the appropriateness of the decision is discouraged or even not tolerated. Other spouse’s perspective, needs and satisfaction are not at all considered while making a decision.

  1. A spouse makes decisions and tries to persuade the other to implement them by explaining the advantages. In this style, communication is mostly unidirectional, from decision-making spouse to the other. At times it is bidirectional and interactive.
  2. A spouse, before making a decision, presents the problem to the other spouse and his/her input is sought in order to make a better decision. Interaction or discussion is encouraged. Needs, wellbeing and satisfaction of both spouses are considered.
  3. A spouse presents the problem and both discuss the problem taking into consideration the needs, wellbeing and satisfaction of both. Decision is based on consensus after open and frank discussion. Spouses communicate with each other as equals.

Couples get into power struggles because they fail to properly consult with each other when faced with important decisions. One sure way to drive a wedge between you and your partner is to begin making decisions as if you were single. This makes your spouse feel marginalized.


Consulting with your partner is a responsibility of being part of an intimate, committed relationship. You now exist as part of an “us”, in addition to being “me”. Major decisions impact the entire family. So it is wise to consult your partner, discuss the problem and take a joint decision.

A major contributor to successful marriage is learning how to become a team player, replacing the selfishness of the ego with an “us” and “we” mentality. For this to happen one has to

  1. acknowledge that your spouse is a unique individual with his/her own wishes, needs, preferences and experiences;
  2. accept your spouse’s uniqueness of perspective which is both different and valid;
  3. create enough space so that each of you has a voice in decision-making process. This is possible when judgment is suspended and you and your partner take time and make an effort to understand each other’s perspective—even when you disagree with him/her.

As it is said, “Joint decision making, sharing marital powers, perceptions of both self and partner, doing a fair share of family work, and a feeling of equity appear to be positively related to marital and relationship satisfaction. In the marriage companionship there is neither inferiority nor superiority. Marriage, in its truest form, is a partnership of equals, with neither exercising dominion over the other, but rather, with each encouraging and assisting the other whatever responsibilities and aspirations he or she might have.”



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2 Responses to “Power and Decision-Making in Family”

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