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Power and Role Shifts in Relationships

Power and Role Shifts in Relationships

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand that parties to a relationship may shift or exchange roles within the relationship in different contexts.

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Video Transcription

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I'd like to ask you think about relationships in terms of two elements, power and role. How do these two elements affect relationships, either positively or negatively? Well, I'm Marlene, and in this tutorial, I'd like to take up that question with you. So I mentioned power. I'd like to start by defining power so we're sure what that means.

Power is, literally, the ability to accomplish tasks or get tasks accomplished. Now regarding relationships, it's the ability or authority to direct actions or influence emotions. So that's power, and it's related to the roles we play, both at work and at home. So let's define role. Role is a sense of owning responsibility or the right to make meaningful contributions in a group or situation.

So we have power. We have role. Now sometimes, power and role is quite natural. We see that with parent and child. Obviously, the parent has more power than a small child. But as a child matures, that can change, and that does change. Often, older children are given a new role-- they might take care of smaller children-- and given other responsibilities in the home.

So we do see that kind of flexibility in a parent-child relationship. But what about between grownups, the relationships that we have with one another as adults? Power and role how does that affect our relationships with one another? I'd like to talk about what makes a constructive relationship and what makes a destructive relationship in terms of power and role.

Let's start with constructive. So it depends on context. In a constructive relationship, there's flexibility and shared responsibility. In a relationship, things can change depending on context. So what do we mean by context? Well, context is a specific situation in which a relationship is felt or acted within.

So you have this relationship. You have power and roles. And then you have a specific situation that might come up, that's context. In a constructive relationship, the parties can change based on what's best for that situation. For example, in a relationship between spouses, something could change in terms of who's the breadwinner. Perhaps one person loses their job, and the other person has an opportunity for a better paying job. That person might decide to take the job, and the other person will stay home with the children. And they'll be flexible about those roles depending on that context.

There could also be flexibility in terms of who cooks, who takes out the trash, who pays the bills. Depending on time and any number of elements, whatever the context is, there can be shared responsibility. There could be changes based on that context. Now, this could be true at work where perhaps somebody's out sick, and you are given more autonomy on your job. There's a willingness and ability to change and be flexible and share responsibilities. In a relationship that's constructive, in a work setting, because the context calls for it.

Now, when the power and role structures are more rigid, perhaps in flexible, it can create conflicts. And perhaps the relationships can become destructive because of the conflicts. So in a destructive relationship where things are more rigid and inflexible, there is not a change in the power and role structures depending on context, even if it would make sense to do so for the parties involved.

For example, there could be, in a marriage perhaps, they're comfortable with your roles. And this is the way you would like your roles to be, and it's working well. Something changes. Perhaps, one person loses their job, and they have to take a lower paying job. But the other partner feels that it's not there role to go out into the workforce. They must continue to stay at home. This could impact the financial stability of the home because there is a rigidity in terms of what each person here thinks their role is. So that could lead to conflict.

In a work setting, you might have some new project come in, and their need to be some actions taken, some decisions, and things aren't happening because the people at work do not feel that they can move ahead without somebody's authority, someone above them, even when the context changes. Perhaps, there are less people available. There have been some people out sick, and you need other people to step in and make some decisions to get things moving.

The attitude might be, well, it's not my job, we have to wait for the supervisor to sign off, because the power roles are very rigid and inflexible. That could lead to conflict in the workplace between individuals and on a wider level because of how it affects the overall productivity. So those are some examples of how power and role and the ability to make shifts and share responsibilities based on context can affect relationships and can even create or escalate conflicts.

So I've enjoyed being part of this tutorial, and I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know

A specific situation in which a relationship is felt or acted within.


Literally, the ability to accomplish tasks or get tasks accomplished. Regarding relationships, the ability or authority to direct actions or influence emotions.


A sense of "owning" responsibility or the right to make meaningful contributions in a group or situation.