The Balance of Power in Lesbian Relationships

A questionnaire study investigated the balance of power in lesbian relationships
and factors that affect it. Seventy-seven lesbian women currently in a romantic/
sexual relationship participated. Although lesbians strongly endorsed an egalitarian ideal of equal power in love relationships, nearly 40% reported an unequal
balance of power in their relationship. As social exchange theory predicts, the
partner who was relatively less dependent on the relationship and who had
greater personal resources tended to have greater power. Compared to women
in equal power relationships, women in unequal power relationships reported
less satisfaction and anticipated more problems in their relationships. No evidence
of butch-femme role playing was found. It is suggested that the determinants of
the balance of power go beyond attitudes and reflect processes of social exchange
that can occur regardless of ideology or sexual orientation.

Despite the American ideal of equality, women in heterosexual relationships
often have less power than their boyfriend or husband. In a study of college
dating couples (Peplau, 1979), less than half the students reported that both
dating partners shared equally in power, and 40% said that the boyfriend had
greater power than the girlfriend. Research on married couples also indicates
that male-dominant relationships are common (Bernard, 1972; Centers, Raven,
& Rodrigues, 1971; Gillespie, 1971; Poloma & Garland, 1971). Explanations
for the male power advantage have emphasized the impact of traditional sexrole ideology, which legitimates male superiority (Bernard, 1972; Millet, 1970),
and the importance of men’s greater personal resources (Gitlespie, 1971; SafiliosRothschild, 1976).

The present study extends research on interpersonal power to lesbian
romantic/sexual relationships. Although social scientists have speculated about
power in lesbian couples, empirical evidence on it is lacking. Chafetz (1974)
suggested that lesbians reject traditional sex roles and that “real equality between partners is easier between two females than between a male and a female
or two males” (p. 189). Similarly, Kelly (1972) argued that love relationships
between women are more likely to be free of factors that cause inequality.
Others (Barnhart, 1975, Peplau, Cochran, Rook, & Padesky, 1978) have emphasized that lesbians strongly value equality in personal relationships. The
present study investigated empirically the nature of power in lesbian relationships.

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