The Meaning and Measurement of Marital Power: a Review

Cynthia Webster, Mississippi State University
ABSTRACT - The measurement of spousal power and its manifestations has proven to be an enigma to researchers. This paper reviews the consumer behavior, psychology, and sociology literatures regarding the dimensionality and measurement of marital power. A summary of the conceptual and methodological problems is also presented. Finally, suggestions are given for future research in the family or spousal power arena.
[ to cite ]:
Cynthia Webster (1998) ,"The Meaning and Measurement of Marital Power: a Review", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 395-399.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 395-399


Cynthia Webster, Mississippi State University


The measurement of spousal power and its manifestations has proven to be an enigma to researchers. This paper reviews the consumer behavior, psychology, and sociology literatures regarding the dimensionality and measurement of marital power. A summary of the conceptual and methodological problems is also presented. Finally, suggestions are given for future research in the family or spousal power arena.

For decades, spousal influence or power in decision making has been of considerable interest to researchers representing the consumer behavior, psychology, sociology, and economics fields of study. Although the marital power topic is clearly important, it remains one of the most under-researched and difficult areas to study within all of consumer behavior (e.g., Wilkie, Moore-Shay, and Assar 1992). This is partly due to the fact that power is a notoriously difficult concept to define (e.g., Scanzoni 1979). In fact, the literature suggests that there are almost as many definitions of power in intimate relationships as there are people who have studied it (e.g., Murphy and Meyer 1991).

Research on marital power has been impeded further by methodological problems. Many studies of marital power have focused exclusively on the power outcome domain (e.g., Cromwell and Olson 1975), commonly assessed by self-reports of who makes major decisions, such as which car to buy or how to spend vacation time. A few studies have assessed spousal influence through direct observation behavioral indicants of dyadic power However, studies comparing self-reports of decision-making power with direct observation of behavior have shown little correspondence (Gray-Little and Burks 1983). Even studies comparing power measures of the same method (e.g., two questionnaire measures) have failed to correlate significantly (Cromwell and Olson 1975; Gray-Little and Burks 1983). A major issue that remains is whether to view power as a potential, for example, by the amount of resources available for distribution or exchange, as the actual control over outcomes, or as the capacity to produce intended effects. In other words, there is conceptual controversy about what the construct really means. The clarification of the meaning and measurement of marital power is particularly important to consumer behaviorists who focus on the family decision-making issue.

One purpose of this paper is to review the consumer behavior, psychological, and sociological literatures regarding the dimensionality and measurement of marital power. An overview will be presented first, followed by a detailed review section. Further, a summary of the conceptual and methodological problems will be presented. A second purpose is to offer suggestions for future research in the family or spousal power arena.


There are two primary multidimensional views of marital power. In the first, Lukes (1974) made a theoretical distinction among latent, invisible, and manifest types of power.

As conceptualized by Lukes, the first type of power, latent, pertains to the hidden discrepancy of interests of those exercising power and those subject to this power. The conflict is latent in the sense that it would arise if subordinates would express their wants and desires. Latent power can be at stake when no changes or conflicts are reported. It can be identified when the needs and wishes of the more powerful person are anticipated, or when the reasons for not desiring or attempting change or refraining from conflict produce resignation in anticipation of a negative reaction or fear of harming the marital relationship.

Lukes’ second power dimension focuses on nondecisions. A nondecision neutralizes or eliminates any latent or overt threat to the vested interests of the powerful. Nondecisions do not necessarily manifest themselves in overt behavior and do not relate only to recognized issues. This view of power focuses on potential issues, which remain invisible. In this view, the exercise of power is not necessarily based on observable conflict, but may also ensue from covert-albeit in principle, observable-conflict.

The third dimension Lukes adds is manifest power, which surfaces in visible outcomes such as attempts at change, conflicts, and strategies.

Although two of the power domains Lukes proposed, latent conflict and nondecisions, have not been empirically researched, his manifest domain has received considerable research attention. On the other hand, each aspect of the second multidimensional perspective of marital power has received empirical investigation.

Within the marital power literature, Cromwell and Olson (1975) offer what is viewed as one of the most sophisticated and useful multidimensional conceptualizations, dividing power into three domains: power bases, processes, and outcomes (the two latter power aspects include Lukes’s manifest power). Because each domain has received research attention, Cromwell and Olson classified existing research on family power into these three domains (Gray-Little and Burks 1983). The domain of power bases relates to resources possessed by family members that form the basis of their control over one another. Power process research refers to the direct observation and measurement of family interaction. Power outcome studies include those asking who makes decisions, as well as those examining the similarity betweena couple’s joint response to an item and previously obtained individual responses. The latter type of outcome measure differs from the former in that it is based on couple interaction rather than individual self-report, and both differ from process measures in having a primary focus on outcome, that is, on which spouse is more influential in the final decision. Outcome power has been divided into two parts, orchestration and implementation (Safilios-Rothschild 1976). Orchestration power refers to the power of individuals to make only the important and infrequent decisions. The spouse derives implementation power from setting these decisions into motion.


Following is an overview of the research that has focused on power bases, processes, and outcomes.


Power bases are the personal assets that form the basis of one partner’s control over another. They are synonymous with resources, as discussed by Blood and Wolfe (1960), but are not solely economic. Power bases might include such factors as a partner’s knowledge, skill, or rewards (Gray-Little and Burks 1983). However, most of the research investigating the effects of power bases has focused on income or occupational status, and this research has been criticized for the varying and somewhat inconsistent proxies of power bases that have been used. Furthermore, as can be seen in the following summary, the studies yield contradictory findings.

Studies using income as the predictor have focused on either family income or each partner’s income. When using family income as the predictor, a significant negative relationship has been found between family income and the power of the wife in decision making (e.g., Blood and Wolfe 1960). In their investigation of each partner’s relative economic power on decision making regarding surplus allocation, Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) found that a positive relationship exists between the two variables. Another study found that while a positive relationship was found between the husband’s income and his decision-making power, a wife’s earnings had no significant impact on her influence (Mirowsky 1985).

According to Blumberg and Coleman (1989), the effect of the wife’s earnings on her power depends on her husband’s perception of need for the wife’s income. Particularly in situations in which the husband perceives that the wife’s salary is not necessary to maintain what he considers their minimally acceptable standard of living, she will get less leverage than in cases in which he perceives it as essential. The husband is likely to regard the wife’s economic power suddenly rising relative to his as a threat.

One of the recent studies concentrating on the effects of a wife’s employment status on her power in decision making found that a professional/managerial occupation on the part of the wife is associated with a lower probability of the presence of a male-dominated structure (Gauthier, Forsyth, and Bankston 1993). However, contrary to expectations, the occupational status of the wife was not found to promote the emergence of either a female-centered or egalitarian pattern. Rather, the study reported that in these families a more prestigious occupational status of the wife is more likely to engender persistent conflict situations regarding the nature of authority in the family.

Using a novel research design, Sexton and Perlman (1989) investigated whether dual-career and single-career couples differed in marital power. Results indicated that the two types of couples did not differ in perceived power nor in self-reported strategies for influencing spouses. During a conflict task, however, dual-career partners made significantly more attempts to influence their partners than did single-career partners. While single-career wives perceived themselve as more feminine, gender role orientation did not affect marital power. Both types of couples demonstrated an ideology of gender equality in marriage, although resource exchanges differed by gender rather than by career orientation.


Family or spousal decisions have been categorized into two general groups, consensual and accommodative (Davis 1976). In consensual decisions, family members tend to agree about the various elements (i.e., the goal) of the purchase process. In accommodative decisions, there is disagreement about purchase priorities, resulting in the need to use more extreme decision strategies to reach a single decision. A central point made by Davis was that differences in goals and perceptions about relevant alternatives result in accommodative decision-making among family members. Since underlying conflict in spousal decision making appears to be a pervasive phenomenon (e.g., Spiro 1983), it is important to examine the interactional techniques the partners use when making accommodation decisions.

Manifest or power processes are the interactional techniques such as assertiveness, persuasion, problem-solving, or demandingness that individuals use in their attempts to gain control (Cromwell and Olson 1975; McDonald 1980). The person with process power is the one whose decision prevails when there is a disagreement (Olson and Rabunsky (1972). To date, much of the research concerned with family decision processes has attempted to explain how the partners balance and compromise as they weld their way toward a final decision. More specifically, research has focused on assessing the degree of conflict typical in family decision-making, strategies of conflict management, and spousal use of influence strategies within the home. While some researchers have utilized the self-report method of asking spouses about the strategies they use to influence one another (i.e., Spiro 1983), power process research generally refers to the direct observation and measurement of family interaction.

In perhaps the first major study to examine information strategies, Spiro (1983) investigated both the level of influence as well as the mix or combination of strategies that spouses use to affect one another’s decisions. She found five distinct segments among the husbands and wives who participated. The majority (60% of the sample) were low-level influencers, followed by subtle (20%), combination (10%), emotional (7%), and heavy (7%). She found that a given husband-wife pair was likely to have both partners using the same type of influence strategy. Her results suggest that there are several socioeconomic and lifecycle variables that discriminate among groups of individuals who vary not only in the intensity of influence used, but also in the particular combination or mixes of influence strategies used.


This one-dimensional view of power holds that marital power is the ability of one spouse to impose his or her will on the other, particularly in those major decisions that affect both of them, as well as any others who might be part of their household (Blood and Wolfe 1960; Scanzoni 1982). Studies carried out from the outcome perspective focus on the question of who ultimately makes decisions and controls participation in decision making. The assumption is that power is exercised in a direct, observable conflict over issues recognized as relevant (Lukes 1974).

Following the lead of Blood and Wolfe (1960), most studies of marital power in the fields of sociology, psychology, and consumer behavior have focused exclusively on the power outcome or final say domain (see, for example, Babcock et al. 1993). These studies have assumed that the powerful spouse makes most of the decisions for the couples in a diverse set of situations (e.g., Blood and Wolfe 1960; Gray-Little 1982). This domain has been commonly assessed by attempting to ascertain who makes major decisions, "who has more say," or "who has the fina say," such as which car to buy or how to spend time with friends.

Although it is by far the predominant method for assessing marital power, the power outcome measure of marital power has been subject to considerable criticism. In her review of marital power research, Safilios-Rothschild (1970) strongly criticized this approach and her criticisms sparked a flurry of studies. Unfortunately, results from these studies have been inclusive. According to McDonald (1980), who reviewed the marital power research of the decade following Safilios-Rothschild’s report, no significant improvements were made in the study of marital power.

The conceptualization problem in past research partially pertains, as Safilios Rothschild (1970) has suggested, to the researchers’ interchangeable use of terms. Cromwell and Olson (1975) refer to actually having control or making decisions as "power outcomes." According to Olson and Rabunsky (1972), the one who actually makes the decision has "retrospective" power. Safilios-Rothschild (1976) claimed that the one who makes the important decisions has "orchestration" power. Further, while some researchers (e.g., Buric and Zecevic 1967) equate decision-making with marital authority pattern, other researchers (e.g., Safilios-Rothschild 1967) make no distinctions among decision-making power, power structure, decision authority, and authority, even though they all primarily attempt to measure spousal decision-making power. Thus, such terms as "relative influence" and "authority" have been used interchangeably for "power" even though they attempt to measure those concepts formally by the items of conjugal decision-making at the household level. This issue, therefore, appears to be not only persistent but also pervasive.

A second major impediment to research on power outcomes has been the lack of valid, reliable data collection techniques. The issue as to which technique of data collection, observation or survey, yields more valid data on marital power has been investigated since the early 1960s. Most studies have used self-reports of decision making to assess the balance of power between the spouses. Although some studies found no significant differences in the responses of husbands and wives regarding who made the decisions (e.g., Heer 1962), others reported either social desirability (Turk and Bell 1972) or perception biases in the responses of the couples. While some researchers have found that husbands often overestimate and wives often underestimate their actual power in conjugal life, others have noted that a person tends to underreport his or her own power and overreport his/her spouse’s power (Heer 1962; Turk and Bell 1972). Studies comparing power measures of the same method (e.g., two questionnaire measures) have failed to correlate significantly (Cromwell and Olson 1975; Gray-Little and Burks 1983). Olson and Rabunsky (1972) concluded that individual self-report of family power is more valid as the "subjective reality."

Methodological problems also relate to the respondents from whom the study data are collected. Past research shows that spousal decision-making studies most frequently rely on a wive’s responses for measuring husband’s and wife’s relative status in marriage. This is why Safilios-Rothschild (1967) maintained that "family sociology" should actually be called "wives family sociology". However, if both husband and wife are included as respondents in the same study, it does not substantially improve precision or validity of measurements. Scanzoni (1965) found that husbands’ and wives’ responses were identical on 50 percent of the items. In terms of general direction of responses, couples were found to be in agreement on 75 percent of the items.

A few studies have taken a quite different approach by using observational procedures, usually taking the form of various performance tasks or structured discussions carried out by the couple and rated by the investigator for behavioral indicants of power (Gray-Little and Burks 1983). These researchers assume the simultaneous occurrence of power and conflit and declare the person responsible for the final decision in conflict resolution as the one with outcome power (Olson and Ryder 1970; Mashal 1985). However, one must consider whether conflict is necessary for power. Further, family power studies have found a significant discrepancy between the reports of outside observers and self-report measures of influence (e.g., Safilios-Rothschild 1970).

A third major criticism of the power outcome measure pertains to internal consistency, implying the relative influence or "final say" measure may lack reliability. This criticism has been tackled in several previous research projects. With respect to the internal consistency of the "final say" measure, Bahr (1973) reported that the measure has a high level of reliability. Unfortunately, he then concluded that the internal consistency levels indicated that the Blood and Wolfe measure is also unidimensional. He was immediately taken to task by Cromwell and Wieting (1975) for confusing internal consistency (an issue of reliability) with unidimensionality (an issue of validity). They reported in their study that the measure shows two or three major factors in some of their samples and no major factor in others, indicating the measure was not valid.

Relatedly, the power outcome measure has been criticized for lacking validity (e.g., Safilios-Rothschild’s 1970). Some studies have responded to the criticism of the validity of the "final say" measure by comparing this measure with other measures of marital power (e.g., Turk and Bell 1972). However, none of these studies included external criterion variables to serve as anchors against which the relative validity of the "final say" measure could be assessed. This left no reference background against which the meaning of the low levels of associations typically obtained among these measures could be determined. The question of which measure, if any, was more (or less) valid could not be answered. Miscalculations and improper use of analytical techniques in these studies (see Allen and Straus 1984) cast further doubt on the validity of these relative validity studies.

A fourth criticism pertains to the averaging or summing and the weighting of the items. While some researchers sum scores across the items (e.g., Madden 1987), most average the responses (particularly in the consumer behavior field). In both cases, however, there is no distinction between syncratic and autonomous decision making.

The weighting issue regards whether or not to weight items according to importance. The overwhelming majority of studies have given equal weight to all decisions. But, according to Allen and Straus (1984), giving all decisions equal weight "is methodologically questionable" since some decisions are more important than others. The studies that have explicitly addressed this issue yield inconsistent results. For instance, Price-Bonham (1976) found little difference between spouses’ unweighted, "final say" scores, but found a tendency for spouses’ scores to differ slightly when weighted by importance. On the other hand, Allen and Straus (1984) found that the unweighted decision power measure to be more valid than either of the weighted versions. They found that the unweighted decision items differentiated spouses, but not importance-weighted items.


Although the importance of understanding marital power in decision making is well documented, the summary of the meaning and measurement of the construct presented here indicates that studies in this area have been hampered by both theoretical and methodological problems. Thus, there is a need to rethink our approaches to the study of spousal influence-and possibly family influence-in decision making. Following are several issues that might be considered in future research.

The first issue pertains to Lukes’s (1974 conceptualization of marital power. In addition to manifest, or visible, power, Lukes viewed the construct as also having latent and invisible components. As mentioned previously, however, research has not focused on either of these components. According to Lukes, the attribution of an exercise of power involves the claim that A acts (or fails to act) in such a way that B does (or fails to do) what he or she would not do otherwise (the term "do" includes think, feel, or want). To empirically identify power, there are two guidelines that might be followed. First, the relevant counterfactual needs to be identified, that is, what B would have done (or failed to do) in the absence of A’s power. In order to trace this counteractually, we must explore those alternatives that are not realized. How would B react to a hypothetical or real opportunity to act differently from the way A had wanted him or her to? In the case of overt conflict, the relevant counterfactual is easily identified: if A and B are in conflict, A wanting x and B wanting y, then, if A prevails over B, we can assume that B would otherwise have done y. Where there is no overt conflict, we must provide other grounds for asserting that if A had not acted in a certain way, B would have acted differently from the way he or she did in reality.

Future studies might also investigate conditions associated with a spouse’s tendency toward latent power. Perhaps the least-interested partner concept may help in explaining why a spouse might anticipate the needs of his or her partner and why one would refrain from engaging in conflict. Other factors that might contribute to latency might be low involvement and an attitude that expressing wants and desires would be fruitless and thus not worthwhile. Similarly, future research efforts might investigate underlying reasons for family members using nondecisions and the manner in which they are used.

When investigating the effect of resources on marital power, research in the sociology and consumer behavior fields has focused on economic factors, such as income and occupational status. Although Gray-Little and Burks (1983) contend that resources might include a partner’s knowledge, skill, or rewards, research has not focused on these factors. Further, the conceptualization of resources has not been broad enough to include personality characteristics. Although androgynous women have been found to be more assertive, forceful, competent, adaptive, and effective in interpersonal situations (e.g., Shukla 1990), androgyny has not been included in the studies on family power and has never been referred to as a resource variable. This indicates the need for a rethinking of just what constitutes valued resources while explaining variation in conjugal power structures.

As mentioned previously, resource studies have found that certain power bases, such as occupational status, interact with sex in their impact on decision making. Since no explanations have been advanced for such findings, future research might focus on the dynamics involved in the association between a husband’s occupational status and the tendency toward a patriarchal household and the lack of an association between a wife’s occupational status and a matriarchal power structure.

Although some researchers contend that underlying conflict in family decisions appears to be a pervasive phenomenon (Bahr et al. 1974; Rollins and Bahr 1976), power relationships have important implications in marriage and families even when conflict does not surface or exist. For example, power differentials may function directly to suppress potentially conflictual situations and power hierarchies may help to shape the family system. Thus, another fruitful area for investigation regards relationship between conflict and decision-making power.

Another research issue pertains to the commonly used decision-making scales for assessing outcome power. As mentioned previously, the summing or averaging such scales results in no distinction between syncratic and autonomous decision making. One might counter this problem by deriving three scores from data stemming from multiple-tem scales. First, a relative power score can be computed by summing the items. Second, a shared power score can be computed by using a weighting technique where "wife always" and "husband always" are weighted 0; "wife more than husband" and "husband more than wife," 1; and "husband and wife exactly the same." The scores, if summed across the items, could potentially range from 0 (low shared power) to high shared power (30 if there are 15 items). Next, the relative power scores and shared power scores can be used to classify couples into four types: husband-dominant, wife-dominant, autonomic, and syncratic.

Another variation of the Blood and Wolfe scale can be used to assess husbands’ and wives’ ideals and perceptions of relative influence. For each item, individuals might indicate "how it is now" and "how I would like it to be," on a scale ranging from 1 ("she does it all"), through 5 ("we both do this about equally"), to 9 ("he does it all"). For each of the three domain areas, three scores could be provided: (a) role arrangement, found by averaging the responses to "how it is now" (range: 1-9, with higher scores indicating greater husband involvement); (b) egalitarianism task sharing, found by averaging the absolute differences between "how it is now" and 5 (we both do this about equally), (range 0-4, with higher scores indicating greater inequality); and (c) role strain/satisfaction, found by averaging the absolute differences between "how I would like to be " and "how it is now" (range 0-8, with higher scores indicating greater dissatisfaction). Attention to such theoretical and methodological issues will illuminate the marital power construct and the manner in which it should be studied, thereby enhancing our knowledge of family decision making.


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