Why relationship equality matters and how to build it

Jolene Chait

When we talk about equality, often we think of something being split, 50/50, and while this might be a definition of something being equal, when it comes to relationships, equality has a very different meaning. This is because equality means different things to different people and relationships are ever-changing.

So you might be wondering then, why equality in a relationship matters? The short answer is when an imbalance of power exists within a relationship, the person with more power might be inclined to abuse it and this can lead to abuse against women, especially in intimate relationships.

1st for Women spoke to Intimacy and Relationship Coach, Tracy Ziman Jacobs, about relationship equality and what happens when your partner may be using their position of power to cause abuse, what are the signs and what to do about it.

1st: Why do you believe relationships become unequal and where does this behaviour stem from?

TJ: There are two reasons why relationships become unequal. The first one is psychological. This is dependent on an individual’s upbringing and childhood when insecurities first develop. For example, if your mom criticised your weight, or if you grew up with a parent who was a bully and you were made to feel small and inferior. You enter into a relationship in adulthood, already on the back foot, and remember, it is most likely that your partner may also have their own childhood issues too.

The second reason is based on tradition, culture and religion. Again, these are experiences you have had in your childhood which shape you into the adult you are. In other words, if you grew up thinking that men and women have pre-defined roles, based on the way you were brought up, it can cause conflict.

Either you display the same behaviour you experienced while growing up and you turn into that critical, uncompromising bully, who uses their hands instead of words, or you become a people pleaser who would rather avoid conflict and continually put others’ needs before your own. Ultimately, relationships become unequal because there is an imbalance of power which can lead to abuse.

1st: What are some of the common prompts for inequality in a relationship?

TJ: Common sources of conflict include the difference between how much money each person is making compared to the other, designation of household chores, how much socialising the couple does, and parenting styles. These are daily issues which come up and if one person is trying to flex their power around these issues, it will tip the balance of power, and lessen the other person’s involvement in decision making and the expression of opinions and thoughts on these matters.

 1st: How can this inequality lead to abuse and what are the signs?

TJ: When there is a shift in the balance of power in a relationship, this manifests as controlling behaviour, which can lead to different forms of abuse. Emotional abuse happens frequently, when your partner makes you feel inferior. They might use a form of financial abuse, such as being stingy and demanding access to your financial statements. They can even use their physical power to threaten you and cause harm.

During the dating phase, there are RED FLAGS to watch out for. Here are a few:

Signs to look out for during marriage are;

Mood swings, social outbursts and constantly apologising for your partner, and you describing your partner’s behaviour as ‘not normal’, these are things that cannot be ignored.

1st: What steps can you take in your relationship to build more equality?  

TJ: Controlling behaviour is very important to address in the beginning of the relationship and especially before you get married. It’s about recognising the imbalance in the relationship and being aware of it. If these inequalities are something you can live with, then, that is a choice. For example, traditional roles. Some couples may begin with an imbalance of power as the woman may not understand she has other choices. As the relationship grows and changes, she may realise that her needs have changed and so the scales of balance have tipped. The spotlight then falls on each other’s differences. At this point the couple may find themselves in crisis as you question your own boundaries and what is acceptable behaviour from your partner. Therapeutic intervention is needed to find out what has caused this change in behaviour before it escalates, to get to the root of the issues, and what is triggering it.

On a final note, it is important to remember that equality does not mean uniformity. You and your partner need to define what equality looks like for your relationship, and come to terms with the fact you might not be able to find common ground. You both need the freedom to be your own person, while growing in your relationship together. Communicating about the balance of power in your relationship is the most important first step.