Power Struggles in Relationships
Written By Beth Barta, LCSW, CAC III
How does a married couple get tied up in a power struggle?
In a power struggle you may feel your partner regularly finds fault with everything you say or do. You may start to believe “I can’t do or say anything right As a result, you may begin to dread seeing or talking to your partner, fearful of another discussion spiraling into yet another fight.” or you feel like if you say black, your partner will say white.
It is difficult to be in a relationship without engaging in a power struggle. It is normal for couples to fall into a pattern of arguing over who is wrong and who is right. Power struggles stem from growing up in families where we learned that being wrong or making a mistake is shameful. We began to believe that our worth depended on being perfect or right. On an unconscious level, we fear our partner may leave us or stop loving us if we appear fallible, vulnerable, or imperfect. Unfortunately, our efforts to prevent this abandonment actually sabotage the relationship.
What type of impact can power struggles have in a marriage?Power struggles are a way of saying: “What you say or feel doesn’t matter to me. You must agree with me and I am absolutely right.” This approach can lead to deep resentment, emotional and physical distancing, and eventually divorce. In extreme cases, people may find themselves in an emotional or physical abuse cycle. Once safety is gone in a relationship couples find themselves thinking we don’t have fun, we never laugh anymore, it always feels heavy, and there is no softness or warmth between us. Finally, people express low self-worth and low self-esteem which can lead to dysfunction in other areas of life.
How can a couple avoid power struggles in their marriage?When I work with couples who find themselves in regular power struggles, I often ask them "Do you want to be happy or do you want to be right?" I suggest a different perspective that allows for each person to be accepted and respected for being different and that being different is healthy and okay. There must be room in a marriage for two differing opinions, desires, or ideas. We need to experience trust and feel safe in order for our relationships to flourish. The best thing a person can do is listen, acknowledge their own fears and insecurities, and allow their loved one to have some impact on them.
Some questions to ask yourself when you find yourself in a power struggle are:
What if we are both right?
Why am I having such a difficult time?
What is contributing to my resistance (e.g. fear, anger, resentment, etc.)?
What would happen if I give in a little?
What am I willing to let go of in order to compromise?
What type of professional help is available for a couple who has trouble avoiding power struggles in their marriage?
There are several options for couples who find themselves in frequent power struggles. First, remember that conflict in a relationship is inevitable. Once we accept this idea, we can move forward to start learning how to “fight well.” Couples therapy can provide a space for people to slow down the conflict and begin paying attention to underlying emotions that develop as we interact with our partner. You can begin to practice talking to one another differently and listening in a way that doesn’t typically happen at home.
Couples often enter therapy 5-7 years after they start to realize there is a problem, sometimes after too much damage has been done. Don’t wait; regardless of whether you have been together 6 months, 6 years, or 16 years, your relationship is worth it. There are many great therapists who can assist you in creating new patterns to help you feel close and satisfied. Additionally, you may also find a local weekend workshop facilitated by a therapist or a book that describes the tools and skills to start practicing.
Beth Barta, LCSW, CAC III is owner and practice manager of Insight Counseling Center.where she facilitates women's empowerment