Behind every powerful man is a more powerful woman.
New research gives this old adage a boost. A study published by a group of researchers from Iowa State University found that women were more likely to flex their figurative muscle during arguments — and men were more likely to give in.
"The surprising finding was that women were exhibiting more power, and men were responding in positive ways," said David Vogel, associate professor of psychology at ISU and lead author of the research study. "It wasn't a power struggle for these couples."
Vogel and his colleagues looked at 72 couples from Iowa who volunteered for the study. The spouses were about 33 years old and had been married, on average, for seven years.
Unlike previous studies, this one measured power at home on three fronts: professional life and finances, attempts to gain control in the relationship and ultimately getting one's way.
As it turns out, even with a nearly even balance of socioeconomic power between both partners, wives made more attempts to gain control during arguments. Moreover, they were often better at getting their husbands to give in than vice versa.
"The person with more power was the one who did the more demanding, was more likely to talk about the problem and push for a change to happen," Vogel said. "The other person was responding to this in a positive way."
Restructuring Social Theories
The ISU study shatters an idea that has become popular in the last decade, known as the social structure theory.
This hypothesis asserts that the power in a marriage is shifted in favor of the husband.
Because of this imbalance, the theory suggests that wives are more demanding — they seek change more often because they need their husbands to cooperate. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to withdraw — they have more power, and therefore, can get what they need without the help of their wives.
In the new study, however, researchers found that almost half of the couples were equal in status — and in those that weren't, the difference between husband and wife was too small to be meaningful.
"In the past, the presumption was that men are more demanding," said Barbara Risman, head of the sociology department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "And women would acquiesce because they had less power."
"The complication here is men and women's resources," Risman added. "It isn't always the men who had more in socioeconomic status than the women, and that's important."
Even with a mostly equal balance of socioeconomic position between both partners, wives still came out on top. Thus, the theory that wives seek change because they have less power to go it alone does not fit with the findings of the study.
But others suggest that the theory may still hold water, depending on the culture under scrutiny and conversations between the couple.
Amy Holtzworth-Munroe, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University in Bloomington, pointed to a study — comparing white American couples, Pakistani couples in Pakistan and Pakistani couples who had immigrated to the United States — conducted by researchers at Queens University in Canada.
"Wives showed more lower-level behavior, like somebody without power might do — whining and complaining," Holtzworth-Munroe said of the study's findings.
"That data did support the social structure hypothesis, and the jury may still be out," she said.
Marriage counselor Susan Heitler points out that power in relationships is complicated, and that there are many factors at play.
"A man is likely to be happy if his wife is happy," said Heitler. "So, if saying yes to what his wife wants makes her happy, the husband is finding win-win solutions."
She suggested that husbands may think to themselves, "She's happy with the solution, and I'm happy that she's happy."