Two caveats before beginning:
First, I’m only going to speak to male-female romantic relationships from courtship through to old age. The power dynamics of single-gender relationships are undoubtedly different and I have no understanding of them.
Second, though I’m speaking in a positive tone, my opinions are based on casual observation of myself and what I have been told by others. They are not supported by proper scientific evidence. I am presenting hypotheses, not facts. But I do believe that what I am saying is true.
Here we go:
It’s a little misleading to talk about a balance of power in a romantic relationship. The power dynamic between a man and a woman shifts as the relationship develops. The balance is between the power held by one person and the ability of the lesser-powered person to tolerate it. If power of one is not balanced by an equal tolerance by the other, the relationship will break.
Romantic relationships begin shortly after puberty. On occasion, a romantic relationship may be an extension of a childhood friendship, but this is relatively rare.
At puberty, boys begin to be interested in girls. At first, the rule is look (discreetly) but don’t touch. This is imposed by cultural conventions in almost all societies. At some point, courtship begins. Men decide which women to court. Women decide whether to accept. Desirable women and men hold power over the less desirable. Less desirable men, rather than pursuing the less desirable women, are likely to wait for the field to start clearing out and see what choices remain to them.
Though the roles are different for men and women, each comes to the table with about the same power. This is the last time that the power will be balanced.
When young men and women pair off, the women have a slight power advantage. His sex drive is stronger than hers. She does wants sex, too, but she will decide whether to accomodate him or not because she is the partner who is risking the most, biologically. She is the one who could get impregnated and then dumped. And teenaged single mothers are not the most desirable commodity on the romance market.
The man’s only choices are to dance to her tune or dump her and keep looking. But the possibility of being dumped limits the woman’s power. The man has not invested much in the relationship at this stage. The cost of dumping her and moving on is relatively low.
After kissing comes marriage. Whether formalized legally or simply winging it common-law style, the marriage comes with a commitment by both partners to be faithful to each other. This increases the woman’s power over the man considerably. She now controls his entire sex life. But she better give him some satisfaction or he will leave. Few men will allow their wives to turn his vow of marriage into a vow of celibacy for long.
There is an old saw that a married couple will make love more often in the first year of their marriage than in all the remaining years of their married life combined. I doubt that that is true, but I don’t doubt that it is commonplace that the ardor in a great many marriages wanes as the anniversaries accumulate.
After marriage comes the baby carriage. A baby changes everything. The woman’s power in the relationship increases by an order of magnitude.
Now, if the man leaves the marriage, he will have to leave his children, too. Joint custody is fine in theory, but never works for long in practice. It’s a hopeless attempt to delay the inevitable and only serves to make a man feel better about abandoning his children. The mother will take the children. The father will get visitation. The mother will find another man. The new man will be the defacto father of the children. The biological father will be further and further marginalized.
Most men stay in their marriage while their children are young.
During this time, the mother not only has far more power than the man, she has an obvious way to wield it. She has children. Whatever she wants to do is “for the children.” New furniture? “The children have to grow up in a nice house.” Vacation in Hawaii? “The children will have a great experience.” New house? “The children should live close to a good school.” Mother-in-law wants to move in for a couple of months? “She’ll be helping with the children.”
But the woman who uses this power too much is sowing seeds that will yield bitter fruit in a few years because the children grow up.
At some point, the man will decide that his youngest child is independent. Maybe when it starts school, maybe when it reaches puberty, maybe when it celebrates sweet sixteen, or maybe when it moves out of the house. Different men have a different threshold.
But when that point is reached, the balance of power swings back to him hard, taking the women by surprise. The children are no longer holding the man in his marriage. The only reason to stay is if he wants to keep living with the woman who is now too old to be a mother.
Many men leave their wives at that point. Often they have been planning to leave for a long time, waiting until the youngest child reached some milestone. But they haven’t told their wives that they were counting down the years. As long as a man wants to remain the father of his children and is dependent on his wife for sex, he would be foolish to tell his wife that the day is coming when he walks out.
When the day comes, she is shocked.
He finds another woman and the rift is irreversible.
She is devastated.
In the minority of marriages where that does not happen – less than half of marriages in America survive till death does them part – the woman finds herself in an unfamiliar situation. For the first time since before her wedding, her man has the upper hand. She has to be nice to him again.
Real nice. Being single isn’t so bad for a fifty-year-old man but it’s hell for a fifty-year-old woman. And it gets worse every year. The pool of men who want to marry is small and shrinks fast.
First, men tend to mate with women who are younger than them. Second, older men die off faster than women. Third, older men are likely to not want to marry.
A surprising number of single men over the age of fifty become players. They don’t have to marry to have children because they’re no longer interested in becoming a father. Been there, done that. They have a large pool of women competing for their attention. They have more resources than when they were teenagers. Life is good.
The only reason that a man over the age of sixty would want to marry is to have a woman to look after him. Someone to nurse him in his old age. Not such an appealing life for a woman, but the competition for men is so intense among older women that it won’t be hard for him to find one who will take on the burden.
If the younger wife and mother is wise, she will anticipate the seismic power shift that is coming. Before her children reach the age when her husband considers them independent, she will start treating her husband good again.
She will watch for signs of her husband’s growing independence.
When a man who has been married for twenty years suddenly learns to cook and starts to do the laundry, that doesn’t mean that his wife has finally bullied him into submission, it means that he’s preparing to take care of himself without her.
When a man takes every opportunity to get out of the house – from volunteering to do the grocery shopping alone, to taking extra business trips, to spending time out of town taking care of his aging parents – he is giving a clear signal that he is trying on independence for size.
A woman may not mind. Some women have enjoyed their high-power motherhood years, have husbands who are not such a joy to have around, and don’t mind the prospect of being free of him. Some women find all the emotional support that they need from solidarity with other women who are in the same situation.
But such a woman has to accept being alone most of the time. Going out with her friends every few days is not the same as having someone around all the time. No matter how poor a man their husband was, it is likely that the only full-time replacement that they will find is a cat. Or two. Or a dozen.
But they can take consolation in the fact that it’s easier to take care of a dozen cats than a seventy-year-old man with failing health.
It’s in the retirement years that feminist theories break on the hard shoals of reality. When you’re a young woman, it’s easy to talk about women’s power because you have plenty. When you’re a mother, it’s easy to bully your husband into agreeing with your feminist whims. Hopefully, when you’re retired and divorced, you’ll be a celebrity feminist who receives endless invitations to appear on television talk shows. Otherwise, you may find yourself regretting that you didn’t consider your husband’s feelings a little more sympathetically when you were married to him.
Women have choices as they grow older. But they should know what they face and understand the consequences of their choices over the long term. Then they can make the choices that will serve them best.
The shock of losing most of your power to your husband at the age of fifty can be devastating if you are not prepared for it.