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Power Imbalance In Divorce Process: What You Can Do About It.

Very often, discord in the divorce process stems from power inequality, both real and perceived.

If there was a financial or emotional imbalance in your marriage, as a divorce attorney in Orlando, I can say with some certainty you can expect it to rear its head in the divorce process.

If you believe you are holding the short end of either (or both) of these sticks, you are not alone and you are not as powerless as you might think.

If you don’t believe me, let’s take a look at “Hannah” (not her real name and she was not my divorce client).

“Hannah” is smart, strong, and soft-spoken.

Hannah tearfully shared that her wife of seven years informed her three weeks earlier she wanted out of their marriage.  Simple as that.  No warning, no fights.  Just a vague musing that she was questioning whether she wanted to be in relationships with other people, including men.

Further deepening Hannah’s despair were her concerns over the couple’s three-year-old daughter.  Hannah’s wife carried the baby and Hannah adopted her at birth.  Hannah’s wife was posturing for a greater percentage. The wife of seven years informed her tage of time-sharing with their child because she is the biological mother, and Hannah is not.

I was moved by Hannah’s honesty

As well as her lack of anger about her pain.  She was past the denial and bargaining stages of the grief process, but justifiably a long way from acceptance.  She was in the depression phase of processing the loss of a ten-year union (they dated three years before marriage) and the family life she had enjoyed with her wife and beloved daughter.

It amazed me how well Hannah was outwardly holding up only three weeks post bomb-drop.  When I told her that, she gave me a mirthless laugh and replied, “it’s an act.”  She then explained to me that she was in the weak position in the divorce because “I have no choices in this.  Because she is leaving me.”  What?  (cue the oh-hell-no bells in my head).

Hannah went on to describe her wife as invincible.

Hannah was tip-toeing on eggshells at home and deferring without question to her wife’s decisions about how the divorce would be handled. As if it were forged in iron, Hannah told me her wife had already hired a family law mediator (without Hannah’s input), and had set the mediation date (without Hannah’s input), for only two months away.

As Hannah continued to unfold her story, I was surprised to learn that the balance of economic power in the marriage was on Hannah’s end.  She has a university education, is the higher wage earner, and the majority of her assets were acquired before the marriage.

Nevertheless, because her wife had the emotional power in the marriage, Hannah perceived herself to be the weak “leave-ee” while her wife was the powerful “leave-or.”  This also caused Hannah to believe she was without choices in the divorce.

Emotional Power:

Hannah’s perceived plight encouraged me to do a little research on the psychology of emotional power. Here’s what I learned.

Psychologists define emotional power as “having control over the things that other people need and want … and also over what they fear.” [1]

In case you need a reason to overcome your feelings of weakness in your divorce case, remember this: when one spouse knows they have considerable emotional power over the other, the so-called “powerful” spouse will feel contempt for the “non-powerful” spouse.  Why?

Research by Deborah Gruenfeld and colleagues at Stanford University suggests one possible reason: if we arouse power feelings in otherwise ordinary people, they begin to see others as objects instead of human beings. [2]

There is an interesting parallel

Between which spouse had the emotional power during the marriage and which spouse has it during the divorce.  Typically, it is the same spouse.  If you are reading this article, this behavioral hypothesis may also ring true to you:

The presence of contempt in the speech or demeanor of one marital partner is a sign that the relationship is doomed.”  This conclusion is based on a ton of research by Dr. John Gottman, the world-renowned expert on relationships and marital breakup. [3]

In Hannah’s situation, Hannah perceived her wife had power over her because her wife had control over the thing that Hannah wanted most – her affection. Her wife also had control over the thing Hannah feared most – abandonment by her.

Power is a Matter of Perception:

Hannah’s situation is an important reminder that the perception the spouse with the most assets or income is more “powerful” than the other spouse in a divorce is merely that, a perception.

Because Hannah’s wife temporarily had the upper hand over her emotions in the marriage, Hannah also believed she had no voice in the who, when, what, and how decisions about the divorce process. More importantly, she overlooked her own valuable input as to decisions about the healthy restructuring of her family.

If you perceive you are in a weaker position in your divorce, whether it is for financial or psychological reasons, promise me you will do one thing:  EDUCATE YOURSELF.

In the divorce process, as in every other facet of life, knowledge is power.

The internet gives us quick access to general facts and answers to broad questions.  As a seasoned divorce attorney, I encourage you to dig deeper, especially if there is a real or perceived power imbalance going into your divorce.

If left unchecked, your emotional state over this imbalance will negatively affect your divorce decisions, decisions that will permanently impact the emotional and financial welfare of you, your children, and your family.

As a Divorce Attorney in Orlando, my clients have a lot at stake:

Enlist the help of professionals at the earliest possible time.  A trusted mental health counselor who specializes in relationships and a trusted legal counselor who specializes in family law will put your skewed perceptions into a more realistic perspective, which will diminish your fears and anxiety.

These professionals will also help you direct and focus your energy on the permanent aspects of your family’s restructuring. The aspects that are temporary, such as feeling disadvantaged in your case, will only serve to cloud your judgment in what could be the most important business transaction of your life.

If you have questions about this article or would just like to discuss your situation, email me here or click the button below to call me.


  1. “The Power Struggle of Relationships,” Psychology Today, Ian H. Robinson, PhD (November 25, 2012).
  2. Gruenfeld DH et al (2008) Journal of Personalityand Social Psychology 95, 111-127.
  3. Gottman, John (2003). The Mathematics of Marriage. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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