How Couples Can Diffuse Power Struggles

Power struggles in relationships are damaging

A couple that I counseled recently, Tonia and Jack, both in their late forties, remarried for ten years and raising two children, have ghosts from their prior relationships that have an impact on their communication.

In fact, Tonia feels that issues she had in her first marriage sometimes clouded her view of Jack so much so that she has thought of ending their marriage.

Tonia reflects: “Jack is very loving and loyal but sometimes I worry he’s going to get tired of all of my complications and just leave. It’s as if I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop because my ex left me and I have a lot of anxiety about whether we will last.  We argue about stupid things and both try to prove we’re right. This leads to a vicious cycle of bickering and trying to show each other up.”

Power struggles

The unfinished business that Tonia describes can easily lead to hurt feelings and power struggles between her and Jack.

They are both deeply entrenched in believing they’re right and trying to prove a point. As a result, it’s essential to make sure they feel heard by each other and that they respond in a way that seems “acceptable” to both of them.

According to Drs. John and Julie Gottman, authors the Science of Couples and Family Therapy “Both partners must work for the other’s benefit in order to build the trust metric. The answer is not given to get, it’s just given to give.” For Tonia and Jack to feel safe enough to trust each other, participate in a true partnership where they are both getting some (but not all) of their needs met, they must stop trying to prove they’re right and end power struggles.

Tonia puts it like this: “If I can be vulnerable to Jack and not worry about being alone or rejected, things go a lot better. He knows that I have abandonment issues that stop me from being able to tell him what I need from him. Since his first wife left him for another man, he has his own issues with trust. We both fear intimacy for different reasons.”

In Making Marriage Simple, Dr. Harville Hendrix, and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt suggests that the tension of opposites is a vital aspect of couples healing childhood wounds. It can give them the energy to heal “raw spots” from prior relationships.

But if understood and dealt with in a healthy way, power struggles can give couples the energy to work on problems and can be a catalyst to building a strong connection and emotional resiliency as a couple.

Dr.’s Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt explain, “The power struggle always shows up after “Romantic Love” fades. And like “Romantic Love”, the “Power Struggle” has a purpose. Your compatibility is ultimately what will make your marriage exciting (once you get over the need for sameness that is).”

A partnership marriage

Partnership marriages diffuse couple power struggles

If your marriage is a true partnership that helps you grow as a couple and individually, it can help you put an end to power struggles. This type of marriage is only possible if you have compatibility with someone, make a commitment to accept each other’s differences and grow together.

To have chemistry and compatibility with one person is possible. Chemistry is a complex emotional or psychological interaction between two people and it may cause a couple to feel passionate and attracted to each other.

Compatibility can be defined as an authentic connection with a partner who you admire. You like and respect who they are and how they carry themselves through the world.

In the beginning of a relationship, we tend to present our best selves and only see the best in our partners. But that honeymoon stage always ends, and disillusionment can set in. A supportive partner helps you navigate the unpredictable, ever-changing aspects of life as your vulnerabilities are exposed and disagreements arise.

Chemistry can help you weather the storms of life, but compatibility enables you to set goals and find shared meaning in your relationship. Today, many couples strive to have a “Partnership Marriage” – a marriage that is greater than each person – characterized by couples helping each other grow and develop throughout adulthood.

According to Hendrix and LaKelly Hunt, the healing of each other’s childhood wounds is at the heart of the “Partnership Marriage.” Couples who are partners are able to resolve power struggles and avoid blaming each other when they have a difference of opinion.

In fact, when partners have a disagreement, they’re likely to look for deeper connection and support from each other. In this way, a couple will take each other’s side in times of trouble rather than pointing their fingers at each other or trying to gain power or control.

For instance, Jack would like to get a graduate degree in business and he knows that Tonia would eventually like to open a small private school specializing in supporting children with autism and other childhood disorders.

Achieving these goals will require that they work together as a team to support each other and their two children in reaching them.

Jack puts it like this: “I’ve made many mistakes in my marriage and I want to stop focusing on what is wrong with Tonia and work on our plans to have a great life together. All too often when we start bickering, it’s because we both have issues from our past which affect how we treat each other.”

Focusing on being especially compassionate when you’re going through a rough spot in your marriage or remarriage can go far to creating a safe emotional space where you can both thrive. This safety net can help to promote intimacy and understanding without winners and losers (no one wins). The relationship wins when you both generate a solution within the context of a loving relationship.

Let’s end with the amazing words of author Terrence Real: “Rule: A good relationship is not one in which the raw parts of ourselves are avoided. A good relationship is one in which they are handled. And a great relationship is one in which they are healed.”

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Terry Gaspard
Therapist, MSW, LICSW
Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW has been a therapist and relationship expert for over 30 years. Her work focuses on helping individuals, couples, and families become more resilient, build stronger relationships and marriages, and recover after break-up and divorce. She is a contributor to nine websites including The Gottman Institute Relationship Blog and the author of the award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy Long-lasting Relationship.

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