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Power Struggles - 7/9/2012

The beginning of every relationship involves love, care and concern, but it also includes a continuing tug of war. She likes it hot, he likes it cold.  He gets up early, she gets up late.  He loves football, she likes ballet.  He prefers a bright room, she likes it dark. He prefers spicy food, she likes plain. She sets the thermostat at 68º and covers herself with a wool blanket.  He says, “Pull up a sheet and set it to 74º.  We’ll save energy and money.”

I suspect some of you are now smiling, because you can relate, or are still struggling with the same issues.  

The truth, however, is that no matter what you argue about, the root of the problem is really control.  It’s normal for individuals to initially engage in power struggles in order to establish limits and boundaries.  That’s healthy.  But, when the degree and frequency is excessive, the behavior can become pathological.  Generally, the way you resolve control issues is determined by your culture, early experiences and the role models you had. Each contributes to the type of boundaries and limits you’ll accept. But, when the resolution is inequitable, the feelings of resentment, anger and hurt that result, whether overt or covert, last a lifetime and destroy what could have been a healthy relationship.  

Note, however, who controls isn’t always apparent on the surface.  He who shouts or pontificates the most, controls through physical force, or holds the purse strings doesn’t necessarily come out the winner, if winning means dominating.  I have seen relationships between seemingly weak, compliant women and authoritative, inflexible men who appeared to run the show, but who were totally controlled by an iron hand in a silk glove.  For example, many of you know someone who is passive-aggressive, who says the right words in exactly the right tone, but who’s “okay” says, “You’ll pay later.” In those instances, the consequences can be foot-dragging, monosyllabic conversations, restriction of emotional and/or physical involvement or sniping that is invisible to others, but deadly to a partner.

It doesn’t matter whether your arguments are over the thermostat, the light switches, the time you get up, or keeping things compulsively clean. They are only the outward manifestations of the primary issue, which is, who is in control? In any relationship where one person is totally in control, the other typically feels dominated and in a subservient role. The emotions that accompany these feelings can range from resentment to hatred.

One of my patients described her marriage as a ten-year tug of war, which usually ended with her standing there, shoulders slumping, hands, chin and eyes cast downward, with her husband ranting and raving over her behavior and his wanting a divorce, but staying because of their children.  When he finished, she would turn, walk off and, under her breath, shout, “F— you”.  I don’t believe she’s alone.  Nor, do I believe that any relationship which consistently involves one winner and one loser can ever be considered healthy.  Accordingly, I ask that you think about the possibility that you can build a relationship in which there are  two winners; two individuals who have equal rights to their own opinions, feelings and decisions; who can be alone or together and still feel whole.  As a result, they live with one another without animosity, anger or a need for reprisal.  

For example, imagine a spouse who is habitually late.  No matter how her husband reacts, her actionsr never change. As a result, his frustration grows so intense he threatens divorce, but even that doesn’t alter her behavior.  Finally, he reaches a point where he decides to consult an attorney, who says, “Before divorcing, please see a therapist. After you do, I will be glad to represent you.”  I saw him the following day and asked the following questions:

“Are you happy with her in other areas?  Do you love her, enjoy being alone with her and interacting on a daily basis?  Is your sex life enjoyable?”

He responded positively to all of those inquiries.  

“Then your only problem is the difference between the attitude each of you have concerning promptness and being at an event early or late?”  

“That’s pretty close to the truth”, he said.   

“There is a simple solution.  Continue to agree to go everywhere together, with one stipulation,‘If you’re not able to leave within five or ten minutes of a designated time, I’m going to go alone and you can meet me there later. But, know I love you and really would prefer we go together.’”

“No way”, he said.  “If I’m married to her, I want her to be with me.  If she really loves me, she’ll change her behavior.”

“Do you really feel that her never being on time is directly reflective of her love for you?”

“Sure.  She knows how I feel, but doesn’t care.”  

“But her behavior existed before she met you and there is a myriad of reasons that could explain it.  It could be rebellious behavior, her way of making a grand entrance in order to be noticed, or the result of extremely poor time management, etc..  I doubt that her behavior is indicative of whether or not she loves you.  It may also be her attempt to get your attention.  If so, she’s doing an admirable job, but she’s paying a tremendous price for it, since you wind up exploding. However, you now have a wonderful opportunity to sever your umbilical cord, stop exploding, reaffirm your love for her, and give her space. It would circumvent a tremendous amount of emotional upset for both of you. On the other hand, if what you really want is to be reassured of her love, her being on time and acquiescing to your demands won’t necessarily prove that.  What you have to do is talk to her about what you need, rather than about her behavior?”  (Let me note that he did not file for divorce and that, later, he and his wife come for marital therapy.)

Please think about their story and ask yourself how many upsets, arguments and confrontations you could avoid if you were better able to, first, recognize your own needs and desires and, second, to express them directly, rather than engaging in a power struggle.

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