Sexual and reproductive health interventions in sub-Saharan Africa will be most effective if grounded in emic (insider) perspectives of gender and power in intimate relationships. We conducted eight focus group discussions with 62 young adults in Malawi to explore conceptions of gender and power relations and areas of tension between different perspectives. We framed our enquiry according to the three social structures of the Theory of Gender and Power: the sexual division of labour, the sexual division of power, and social norms and affective attachments around femininity and masculinity. Young adults drew on interrelated and competing narratives to describe the state of gender relations, which we named tradition, unity, and rights. Participants used tradition narratives most frequently to describe patriarchal gender roles, norms and ideals. Some participants challenged this predominant discourse using unity and rights narratives. Unity narratives illustrated how love and couple reciprocity were essential sources of 'power with' as opposed to 'power over'. Rights narratives were more contested than other narratives, with some participants acknowledging that women's rights were important to the family's survival and others viewing women's rights as problematic for gender relations. Gender-responsive interventions should consider the tensions and intersections between multiple narratives on gender and power, including unity as a gender-equitable form of power.