Power imbalances

This is about power imbalances and the controversial concept of ‘least interested’, so buckle up :).

“Do people really believe that the person that is the least interested in the relationship has the power?”

Yep. Absolutely yes. This is actually a real thing referred to in sociology, unimaginatively, as the ‘principle of least interest‘.

Power imbalances exist in relationships for any number of reasons, and I’d definitely say that the person who is the least interested has more power, whether they use it to control the relationship is a related, but slightly different question.

And I don’t think that somehow makes the person who is ‘least interested’ a bad person even though this is an assumption in many of these kinds of discussions, and is often implied whenever the question is asked. A kind of pearl-clutching horror of the idea as inherently abusive and terrible.

Someone can be kind and loving and sweet and fully invested in the relationship, and the other person can STILL be more invested, more interested, and there IS an inherent power imbalance in that. This can be a power dynamic that just… exists. Not because ‘manipulation’, just because… it does *shrug*.

Neither party has to say it out loud, nor does the one with the power need to use it in nefarious ways to non-consensually control or manipulate or coerce or threaten or abuse the other person. None of that is inherent in the premise. They both just know it to be true: It is what it is.

For me, I’m not all fearless emotion and raw love and I don’t joyfully swim in the depths of my own feelings, and I am very much drawn to those who ARE that and who DO that, so it’s almost inevitable that there will be that power imbalance between us. We operate at different levels of emotionality and, in a lot of ways, that’s exactly what makes the relationship work.

Mostly, I feel like I’m the rocky shore and he is all the turbulent and excitable waves that crash up against me over and over. In that sense our respective ‘levels of interest’ are inherently and clearly unbalanced. It looks like it, it feels like it. Because it is.

Most of my relationships (including vanilla ones) have had some of that kind of power disparity plus the power disparity of ‘force of will’, both of which put me in the ‘more powerful’ position in those relationships. It’s organic and happens before we make any agreements about it: The organic dynamic of the relationship exists whether we negotiate it or not because that’s about feelings.

You can’t negotiate feelings, you can only negotiate behaviours.

In a D/s context, by the time we explicitly agree how it will work, the feelings are already there, our power differential is already clear. Both because ‘this is who we are’ and because ‘this is how we fit’. The D/s part formalises what already exists in some form, and and what we are negotiating is agreed behaviours, not feelings.

All of that to say that yes, the person who is least invested does have more power in the relationship, and people can be perfectly happy in a relationship that has that imbalance :).

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20 comments

  1. Thank you! I get so tired of folks acting like either you can magically wish inherent power imbalances away with twue love or that they are inherently evil and should never be allowed to happen.

    My nesting partner is disabled and dependent on me for basic care. It’s a thing! it doesn’t make our relationship unhealthy or bad. We just need to work with it! And it isn’t static — I’m dependt on them financially since they got disability payments. And these two don’t cancel each other out!

    1. You’re so welcome.

      I do think that many (most?) vanilla relationships have an inherent imbalance of power for ‘whatever reasons’, and sometimes the balance tips in a different direction along different domains (as you explained for you and yours).

      ‘Least interest’ is just one area where that can happen.

      For me, inherent organic power imbalances between ethical people acting in good faith is not the red flag many people seem to think it is.

      Ferns

  2. The rocky shore and crashing waves metaphor explains a lot, to this one. It is a dynamic I’ve unconsciously sought all my life. We are all capable of being many things in a given moment, however and there is often a reason for one partner to feel hard. It’s important for the “wavy” partner to be trustworthy and responsible even when their nature is to be vulnerable and open. As always, nothing is possible without trust.

    1. Glad you could relate. I think there are a quite a lot of people looking for that kind of dynamic, and you are spot on: Nothing is possible without trust.

      Ferns

    1. Thank you!
      (I was JUST lamenting the fact that I have to find a relevant picture for every single blog post and it’s soooo hard, so that’s lovely to hear).

      Ferns

  3. Your post forced me to think about the wrangler and me. I need him and he doesn’t need me. He still worries about this sometimes, but I don’t, because he always meets my needs. I don’t have any power to make him do it, but it’s become clear that he’s committed to it.

    But I used to have a play partner who didn’t need me, and therefore took it for granted that he wouldn’t meet my needs. I think that goes together all too often, and that’s why this power dynamic has a bad name. I guess it’s like all power dynamics in that the person on top has to work extra hard to be ethical, because the incentive structures aren’t going to push them into it.

    Thanks for making me think!

    1. I’m so glad that things with the wrangler are working for you :).

      I absolutely think there *can* be badness in it for sure if someone is unethical or just an arsehole, but I don’t think the general assumption that it must be is warranted.

      This is true of any inherent power mismatch (and there are many many ways in which this imbalance can happen).

      Ferns

  4. It is an accurate observation, and as usually very well formulated. Whether it is in business or in a personal relationship, not all parties come equally armed to the table.

    The central question is : do both parties feel that they themselves have more to gain by engaging and delivering their (unequal) part, or would they feel better off by bailing out?

  5. Well said. I find it fascinating what we chose to do with the perceived ‘power imbalance’, whether we feel more powerful – whatever that means to a person – or less. Separately, what does ‘interest’ and ‘investment’ look like? Might be simple and the colloquial understanding, but in my experience it often has contours and interesting twists.

    1. I agree: I think people and relationships are complicated and different power markers have different value to different people. So a lot of how it feels is about each individual’s perception. It’s fascinating.

      Ferns

  6. mark,

    I enjoyed reading your post. It does make sense, but it honestly kind of makes me a little depressed. In looking back on some of my vanilla relationships it makes sense that they had more power by being less interested and vice versa. By least interested, do you mean in the other person in general?

    1. I mean ‘least interested in the relationship’.

      There is nuance in this, and I also think that many (most?) relationships have some kind of power imbalance due to any number of reasons, and they can work just fine and be strong and positive, or they can be unhealthy and NOT positive. The latter is why people freak out about them whenever they’re mentioned.

      If you are feeling a little depressed about the relationships you’ve had, then I suspect you have struck those that veer more towards ‘not healthy’ more often than not.

      Click the link I included to the sociological ‘principle of least interest’ for more information and resources.

      Ferns

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