Relationship Problems are Often Power Struggles

Power struggles in relationships are totally ordinary & daily. Things can work in a couple where power is somewhat lopsided, but it will be boring & predictable if one person has all the power to make decisions most of the time. Sharing power is a dance in the messiness that is worth it to reduce arguments & fighting.

Power struggles in relationships are totally ordinary & daily. They can be small about the most efficient way to drive somewhere to the more extreme giant deal breakers; “Do you want children, I don’t.” It’s not fair if one partner always goes along to get along. Things can work in a couple where power is somewhat lopsided, but it will be boring & predictable if one person has all the power to make decisions most of the time.

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I think sharing power is such an important topic that I’m devoting 2 episodes to it. The first was Episode #25.

Sharing power is a dance in the messiness. You have to be open to uncertainty & possibilities. That’s why there are so many relationships where one person decides most of the time; it’s more simple & certain. It’s what made the 1950’s easier. Note I said easier; not better.

I rarely mention what I do when flying. We were circling above LaGuardia & a CEO is rattling on about he really listens to the people under him, then he ended with the comment “Though of course our discussions always end up where I want them to go.” I decided to take him on & pointed out if he ended up where he planned to end up that he could not possibly be listening. He was perplexed & I explained if you really listen & share power then you are willing to be influenced by others which means you end up in a new place, not the same place. He was so used to having all the power & the certainty of being the boss, he really did not understand he was only giving lip service to listening. This is such a comforting attitude because we all love having the power & control.

The same thing happens in couples. It’s remarkably easy to appear to listen to your partner but not take it in or digest what they said because it’s something you just don’t want to do. You can easily pretend to yourself it’s not a power move when it is, of course.

There are so many ways to establish power; you can smile & be nice & very passive agressive, you can avoid having a sex life, you can scream & shout, you can deliver the silent treatment, you can withhold information & keep secrets, you can have an affair instead of dealing with your spouse about what’s missing or you can be in charge of the money (I’ve had more than one wife tell me she knows absolutely nothing about what money there is or isn’t). Power struggles have payoffs that need to be recognized.

There are HUGE pay offs if we don’t share power!!
#1. I Don’t Do Things I Don’t Want To Do
#2. I don’t have to struggle to meet someone else’s needs
#3. Your partner is in the audience clapping & you don’t have to share the stage
#4. We take the vacations I decide are acceptable, I spend money on my terms so I don’t have to be uncomfortable with you being frivolous
#5. If I make most of the decisions then I’m comfortable & then I’m not afraid of any new directions you would drag me

So sharing power means the opposites:
#1. I don’t get my way
#2. I do things I don’t want to do
#3. I have to accommodate someone else & make sacrifices
#4. I have to share the stage & also be in the audience clapping for someone else
#5. I have to take vacations that make me uncomfortable, I spend money in ways not important to me
#6. It scares me to let my partner decide things because I’m afraid of the values they have that are different & I don’t know where we’ll end up.

Vales Collisions are a huge source of Power Struggles. Some examples: I don’t believe in spending money on vacations vs. It’s great to get away somewhere new. I don’t care if we have sex vs. sex really matters to me. I enjoy swearing vs. Swearing is Wrong & Bothers Me. Being a Christian Matters vs. I’m an atheist. I’m a workaholic vs. I want more family time. Now I’m polyamorous VS. I’m not. I believe in children being spanked VS. I don’t. There are endless combinations of values collisions.

My own personal favorite: Reading VS. Time spent on Social Media. Reading is so important to me & several decades ago I was able to influence my husband to read more & it makes my heart ache that neither of my kids read very much. So I whisper in my grandson’s ear that he will take care of my library someday. Values collisions can be really hard on the soul. Again, power struggles are often about values collisions.

The inspiration for this episode was watching the movie The Phantom Thread, wow there is the most magnificent power struggle. Daniel Day-Lewis in his last role plays a fashion designer who is completely obsessive & perfectionistic. Before meeting Alma, he easily dumps love interests, which is established in the beginning of the movie. He holds all the power & control until she turns the tables & he ends up vulnerable. It is breathtaking & shocking, exactly how she turns the tables but to get a perfectionist to be vulnerable is an almost impossible task. She endures because she is able to embrace & share the role of sadistic power. It is an unforgettable relationship power struggle.

Any other power struggle will pale in comparison, however the exaggeration on the screen taps into our own willingness to get what we want by grabbing power from the people we love. We are reminded that often we can be just as ruthless. If you haven’t seen this movie I urge you to make the time.

Vulnerability is the Opposite of Hiding behind Power Struggles & taking Control. Power Struggles are about not being vulnerable. That’s why so many people believe that those who seek therapy are “crazy” because they ask for help & are vulnerable. Being authentic means being vulnerable & sharing the hard bits “I’m scared, I’m sad, I have doubts……” Being vulnerable means admitting you need somebody. Sharing power means being vulnerable which defuses power struggles.

The biggest sin of vulnerability is that it demands messiness & uncertainty.

In dating & marriage people avoid the truth tremendously. Partners don’t ask the hard questions: “Why aren’t we having sex?, Don’t things seem boring lately? I’m too lonely with you. or We are spending above our means.” People don’t talk about what bothers them because who knows where it will lead, it could expose too much uncertainty. Swallowing your truths & accepting the status quo creates a false facade of stability.

For real relationship survival these truths must risk being spoken & there must be more imagination & belief in the ability to problem solve together. The messiness is worth it because you can shape a better life together. I love the ads in the New York Times about how important it is to speak the truth. It’s scary, because it means being vulnerable & letting go of the power of certainty by pretending.

When power struggles change the relationship it’s worth it. “You’re right we deserve to have sex more often. Things do seem like we are in a rut. I’m sorry you feel lonely with me, what can we do to fix that? I am spending too much, even though I hate the idea of a budget maybe we need to look at the numbers.” Think about how rarely these kind of acknowledgements happen in life.

Ask yourself why is acknowledging hard truths difficult for you? Is taking the risk of being vulnerable by facing a hard truth really benefiting you in any way besides pretending you are comfortable? Trust me, it’s worth being uncomfortable to grow & have a more satisfying life.

Relationships are about stewing in the cauldron of difficult truths to evolve into being better people.

This is why relationships require so much work. Risk more uncertainty, don’t accept the established patterns of power & find your voice to address what’s missing. Once again: You can’t grow unless you are uncomfortable.

My challenge to you today: Think about all the ways there are to share power & your past power struggles; vacations, money, sex, entertainment (which covers sports, restaurants, movies & cultural events), driving, friends, decisions about kids etc.
& consider how fair you are to each other’s interests. As I’ve said on many episodes the one who wants sex the least has the most power. Ask yourself when is the last time you did something you didn’t want to do? When was the last time your partner did something they didn’t want to do? Do you tend to submit to one person or do you struggle to share power more fairly?

If you’re someone who has told someone else about What Healthy Couples Know That You Don’t, thank you SO much. It really means a lot that you would do that for me. You can follow me on twitter & instagram @rhodaoncouples.

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