Marriage problems: Are power struggles destroying your relationship?
In the past you were single…
…and you could make decisions without having to check in with anyone.
Your favorite color was red and you liked small, fast cars (as in Cherry Red Sports Car, beloved even though you wrenched your back getting in and out);
The one bedroom apartment felt “cozy” and “just right,” so you signed the longest lease you could get;
You decided to get a tattoo … a few Margaritas later, “I love Hank” was scrawled across your shoulder. (Unfortunately, you don’t know any Hanks.)
Then “you” became a “we”…
…when you fell head over heels in love and made a commitment to another person (and a commitment to the relationship). And suddenly the two-seater is inadequate because it can’t hold groceries; the apartment is woefully too small for the visiting in-laws; and your significant other gives you a gift certificate for the newest boutique in town: “Tats: You Get ‘Em, We Strip ‘Em.”
You probably wouldn’t argue with the fact that certain responsibilities come with being part of an intimate, committed relationship (you now exist as part of an “us,” in addition to being a “me”). You could even make the argument that these responsibilities are part of what make being in love so rewarding.
One such responsibility includes consulting with your partner whenever you’re faced with an important decision. The thinking here is that big decisions impact both of you, so it only makes sense to ask about your partner’s opinions and feelings regarding any potentially important decision.
Major problems can arise when…
…you equate consulting with your partner with a loss of freedom and control in your life. Relationship problems arise when you fail to learn the give-and-take two-step, the relationship dance all couples must become skilled at in order to create a harmonious relationship.
Here’s the basic premise of the give-and-take two-step (don’t worry if you have two left feet, it’s pretty simple, at least on paper):
Step 1: You give to your partner by acknowledging and meeting her/his wishes and needs.
Step 2: You take (receive) when your partner acknowledges and meets your wishes and needs.
Step 3: Repeat steps 1 and 2 often.
Here’s the great thing about the give-and-take two-step: there will be moments when there is no difference between giving and receiving. If it’s meaningful to see your partner happy and content, you will experience the gift of receiving every time you give to your partner. No one loses in this dance!
Unfortunately, many fail to learn to do the give-and-take, and there’s another dance that many couples start doing instead.
Enter the power-struggle shuffle
The power-struggle shuffle feeds off a destructive “I’m right, you’re wrong” energy. In this dance, your ego fights for top billing and equates the idea of “giving to” your partner with “giving in” or losing.
Rather than experience the joys of “giving to,” the ego runs on the treadmill of illusion, seeking areas of the relationship where it can feel in control and claim victory. Needing to win or feel in control is the death-knell to compromise and intimacy. When one of you loses, so does the relationship. As long as the “win-lose” tempo keeps the power-struggle shuffle alive, the gifts of intimacy will never be realized.
The playing field of power struggles: Making decisions
Power struggles often emerge when couples have to make decisions. It doesn’t matter if you and your partner are butting heads over how much to tip the wait-staff, what school to send Junior to, or where to buy a new house, power struggles reflect the need to feel in control.
Mutuality and compromise: the antidote to power struggles
Many factors contribute to a successful marriage. A major contributor to success is learning how to become a team player, replacing the selfishness of the ego with an “us” and “we” mentality. Becoming a team player doesn’t mean you abandon your identity and forgo opportunities to get your own needs met. What it does mean, however, is that you’ve made a commitment to another person and to something bigger than each of you—the relationship.
3 steps to compromise:
The first step in learning to compromise is to acknowledge (to yourself and your partner) that the person you fell in love with is a unique individual with his/her own wishes, needs, preferences, and experiences.
The second step in learning to compromise is to accept your partner’s uniqueness. Needing to be in control of decisions is a major block to accepting that your partner’s perspective is both different from your own and valid.
The third step in learning to compromise is to create enough space so that each of you has a voice in the decision-making process. This space is created when judgment is suspended and you and your partner take the time and effort to understand each other’s perspective—even when you disagree with him/her.
Why can’t I compromise?
If you find that you’re having trouble compromising, it’s important to understand your own struggle and resistance (rather than focusing your energies on what you perceive to be your partner’s unreasonableness). A period of self-reflection in these moments can lead you down a path of self-discovery. When you find yourself resisting and unable to compromise, reflect on the following questions:
Why is this so difficult for me? What is fueling my resistance (e.g. fear, anger, resentment, etc.)?
What would happen if I give in a little?
What would I have to let go of in order to compromise?
One surefire way to drive a wedge between you and your partner is to begin making decisions as if you were single again. This is guaranteed to make your partner or spouse feel marginalized and before you know it, you’ll be single again and you won’t have to consult with anyone except your lonely self.
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