The Principle of Least Interest, or Who has the Power in Relationships

I’ve done two investigations about dating and relationships in the past for Thought Distiller. The first was about the “trading up” phenomenon and the FOMO that dating apps engender in users. The second was about latent preferences and how we might not consciously be aware of what we want. Today’s post is about the principle of least interest, which tells us about the distribution of power in relationships (note that this applies to any interpersonal relationship, not just dating).

The term was coined by sociologist Willard Waller in his 1938 book The Family: A Dynamic Interpretation. In his research, Willard found that power in a dating couple is seldom distributed equally; one participant for any variety of factors will have more power than the other. In one of these relationships, one of the partners gets more out than the other, whether emotionally, physically, or practically. The partner who gets less “value” has less incentive to continue the relationship and, at an extreme, can use the threat of termination to get the other person to bend to their will.

While least interest gives one party more power, it can create deep issues in the relationship. According to Thomas DeLong and Jevan Soo, “feelings of inequity in relationships cause us to act out in ways that only exacerbate the problem, and can create destructive cycles that are hard to break.” DeLong and Soo explain a downward spiral that occurs: someone perceives that another party has less interest in a relationship and then begins to act out in reaction to the imbalance. This might include getting unnecessarily angry over small things or becoming more critical of others, as his or her emotional fuse becomes short.

The upset person might fight fire with fire, growing distant in relationships as an attempt to regain power and control through expressing less interest. These tactics trigger a similar reaction from the other person, resulting in a self-reinforcing loop of distrust and misunderstanding.

Instead of continuing this cycle, we should have the difficult conversations needed to resolve the issues that create power imbalances. By investigating our own anxieties and insecurities as well as our wants and needs, we become more capable of entering into balanced, equitable relationships that are more sustainable over the long-term.

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