A young angry misguided soul sat in one of our anger management classes dejected. The instructor asked why he was there. He said that his wife was angry over his not putting the toilet seat down after his use. Other class members looked at him incredulously and remarked: “you spent all this money on an anger management program for that? Why don’t you just put the toilet seat down? His answer: “because last week I asked for sex and she didn’t come through. So, this week why should I do what SHE wants?
Perfect example of a ridiculous angry power struggle that some couples seem to get into constantly.
What is a power struggle?
A power struggle occurs in a relationship when partners battle or conflict over who is going to win an argument, prove a point, accomplish a certain goal, or have things done in a certain way. Often in a power struggle one partner is attempting to force their will upon the other, or is trying to make the partner do something they don’t want to do. In retaliation, one partner will try and “even the score” or have a “win” even if it makes no logical sense. It is about winning, not about being rational or solving the problem at hand. In fact, partners gridlocked into this pattern often become angry if the other does not comply, tries to compromise or wants to discuss alternative solutions to the problem.
Why is this concept important to you and your relationship?
This concept is important because it underlies many angry arguments and conflicts you and your partner may be having. Think about it. Do you have angry arguments that often are more about the power one has over the other rather than about the issue itself? Some people just have to dominate others. It is their way or the highway. They are rigid and unbending. They know what is best, in their minds, and refuse to bend, ‘give in to the other” or admit they are wrong, mistaken or misguided.
Often angry power-struggle people are lost in a “get-even’ mentality or “everything has to be equal” mentally with their partner. It is tit-for-tat with them so a volcano vaporizer should relax your partner and you. It’s about the balance sheet and all behavior is ultimately motivated by that “score” on the sheet.
What are some other examples of it?
*one partner insists that the other is not allowed to smoke pot (for severe pain) or it will end the relationship. The pot-smoker refuses to give it up, although he agrees to not do it in the home, in front of the children, or in public and will also get a legal marijuana medical card.
*One partner insists that their 5 year old child will only be fed “healthy” food and has a fit when her partner feeds their child “normal” (like a McDonald’s hamburger)food, yet often does it herself when alone with the child.
*Partner argues for hours over a political point to convince partner that he/she is right about it and they are wrong. The righteous one keeps both of them up until 3:00 AM arguing over the point until the other concedes.
*Partner insists that other take a certain route to a friend’s house even though other wants to go another way that is equally distant. This leads to a fight they have had for years.
How do people get “power” in a relationship?
Some partners just bring this trait into the relationship with them and are often like that in other areas of their lives too. They just have to right, to be first, to have done it better, to know things you don’t know. Everything is a competition with these folks – it is part of their core personality.It makes them feel good to always be in the driver’ s seat, so to speak. Often they are very insecure underneath and being right feeds their ego and their sense of being adequate. Being wrong validates their feeling of inadequacy.
But in other relationships, the partners seem to trigger it in each other, even if they are not like that in other areas of their lives or even in other relationships. There are many other bases for power in relationships and it is quite a complex subject, when you really stop and think about it. Where does “power” come from? How can you get it? It is often thought among professionals that the person who loves the most (or is most needy) in an intimate relationship has the least power while the person who loves the least(is less needy) has more of the power (they have less to lose if it doesn’t work out).
Money and PowerBut, people gain (or lose power) power in relationships for many other reasons too. How about money? Does earning level bring power?
Example: Dave was recently divorced,and pretty much lost his business and most of his assets. Soon thereafter he met Martha who was quite well off through rental real estate properties. He started managing her properties but was also her lover. Soon, she controlled his whole life, ordering him around like he was an $8 per hour employee. She said “jump” and he asked, “how high”?
She literally would lie in bed while he popped grapes in her mouth as requested, while seething inside and then coming to his therapist exploding in anger. When asked why he put up with it, turns out that it was about the money. A “Yes, dear” response to her requests ensured that she would be willing to finance a new business venture he needed to get back on his feet.
Sex and Power. Many partners control their partners through sex (or lack of sex) which tends to generate anger and resentment in the sex-starved partner. This can go both ways, but more often than not, it is the man who feels sex-starved or experiences resentment because he has to “beg” for it.
Example: Dan was a 41 year old plumber and father of two children. Married for thirteen years, he said that he and his wife used to be like rabbits sexually before they had children. Now, “she has no interest, devoting almost 100% of her time to the kids and their needs. He is constantly angry due to sexual frustration but can do nothing about it. Yes, he has talked to her on many occasions. Her reply: “live with it.” He does not want to have an affair, but asks: “why should I have to give up something so important to me?” “It is like I am dying of thirst, she has the only well in town which is dry and she forbids me to visit other towns.”
Competency and Power:Sometimes partners sort of inherit power in certain areas of the relationship because they are clearly more competent in that area. For instance, if one partner is a better money handler, he or she should probably handle the budget and be in charge of financial management. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the financial handler will have more power in other aspects of the relationship such as parenting, vacation planning, or setting the emotional mood of the household.
Mood Setting and Power: 40 year old Peter told me that his wife of 12 years is extremely moody due to numerous medical problems as well as a core personality of many mood fluctuations. “The minute I walk in the door,” he says, I sense her mood.” “If it is bad or negative, I pour myself a glass of scotch, go to my room and hibernate for several hours, just to be alone.” If, on the other hand, his wife’s mood is positive, the family has a joyous evening with each other that night. In this case, his wife has all the power as a mood setter in the family.
Status and Power; Sometimes couples equate differences in perceived status as a basis for trying to dominate or control the other. Status might mean “social” status, occupational status, or gender status. In many cultures, men are seen as the head of household by default; these men get very angry if they do not receive “respect” from their women or children. They tend to use anger, authority, and bullying to get their way. Sometimes they are married to women who use sadness (tears) and appeals of helplessness to influence their mates. In the United States, most woman do not accept these stereotyped roles any longer as they have have gained much ‘power” through economic and occupational equality.Obviously this change can create mountains of conflict if they couple does not agree on role definition, and who does what around the house and in the relationship.
On the other hand, I have seen many couples wherein it is the woman who has most power and control in the relationship. These women emotionally abuse their mates through contempt,disrespect, guilt, chronic complaining and criticalness of their partner and sometimes even alienation of the children against their father. Upon occasion, these men finally “blow up” out of shear frustration of never being able to please their wife. Then these men are accused of having an “anger problem” and required by their wives to seek help.
How can it be fixed?In healthy relationships, power struggles are resolved naturally through a natural balance. You win today over finances; she wins tomorrow over parenting.
But, diffusing defusing power struggles in a troubled relationship can be tricky indeed. Sometimes it is best to just let it go..and give the power to your partner, especially if the power is based on superior competency or skill (like money handling or culinary expertise). Another case where it might be better to let it go is when it is part of your partner’s personality, as described above. Can’t change it. What else are you going to do? Acceptance of that which is not changeable in a relationship is a major tool of anger control.
A wise person comes to realize that being right isn’t always important – being happy or content or in peace may be much more important.
Why is it so hard sometimes to just let it go? Here are some reasons that I have observed and some solutions that should be of help to you:
1. Most conflicts between partners do not have a “right” and a “wrong” answer at all. In fact, most relationship conflicts are based on opinions, judgments, and attitudes – not facts that provide firm guidelines about what is the correct “answer” to a relationship dispute.Take the case above with the fight over what their child should eat. Will a McDonald’s hamburger once a week truly hurt a child? Will a vegetarian child be healthier in life than other children?
The Solution: Realize that just because you believe it, doesn’t make it absolute fact, or doesn’t make it the ONLY fact. Your partner has a right to their opinion too (even if you think it is wrong or misguided). So try to loosen up and be more reasonable instead of righteous and rigid.
2. Arguments that appear to be logically based often are emotionally based, so they can’t be solved logically. Prime example: the couple described above who fight in the car over which way to travel to a friend’s house. In this case, the point of the argument stops being about finding an objective solution and starts being about who is more entitled to be ‘right’. That is an emotional issue – not a logical one. The emotion is “Autonomy” -or the need to make one’s own decisions, to have free will, and not be dominated or controlled by the other one.
Take a time out to cool down before the argument gets out of hand. Before doing anything, take in a deep breath, talk to yourself and de-escalate that emotion inside of you that wants to be right. Do this before things get out of hand. In our system of anger management, this is one of the first tools we teach our clients, using the metaphor of the bullfighter needing to step out of the way of the charging bull. When calmer, try talking about it and compromising (Maybe go one way this time, and the other way the next time; or, establish a driving ritual or rule: the driver decides the route and othe must be quiet)
3. One partner has lost respect for the other and frankly doesn’t care anymore what the other thinks. Loss of respect is tough to recover from, if it is possible at all. If you are on the other end and he or she has lost respect for you, sometimes what really helps is for you to demand less disrespecting behavior from your partner. Stand up for yourself! Don’ t let yourself be emotionally abused. Even if they don’ t like you anymore, you deserve to be treated like a human being, especially in front of the children.
The Solution:One strategy to gain respect is to start acting and behaving in ways similar to other people who do indeed get respect from their partner. Put another way, be deserving of their respect.
On the other hand, if you want to respect your partner, but can’ t get past an issue that prevents it, you will need to find a way to shift your perspective of him or her and focus on other aspects of their behavior or personality.
This is not easy. Often, professional help professional intervention is needed to help you develop strategies and coping skills.