power struggles in intimate relationships - 'the elephant in the room'

Many couples come to counselling believing that their problem is that they don't communicate well or that they need better skills to resolve conflict in a more constructive way. On the surface, this may well seem to be the case - they've noticed that they listen poorly, or struggle to express themselves in a way that their partner can hear without feeling judged or attacked.

However, more often than not, couples will report that they are able to communicate skillfully and resolve differences effectively in other situations where power dynamics either don't exist or beliefs about how power should be used are less contentious - with friends, at work etc etc. Or - they struggle with power and control issues in a range of situations (e.g. one partner struggles to be assertive at work and is constantly responding to unreasonable demands on his personal time, and also struggles to express what they need in their relationship).

It can be more difficult to talk about and grapple honestly with the fact that many couples believe that the need to have power and influence over their partner is either bad or wrong ("in a healthy relationship power battles should not exist") or that power struggles can only be resolved in a 'win/lose' way - that is, if I am powerful or get my own way, then my partner loses out, or if my partner is powerful and wants his/her own way, then I am left feeling powerless and controlled in the relationship. These ideas and beliefs about power effectively drive the issue underground, making it difficult if not impossible to talk about how the need for power and control can be managed successfully in a relationship without having to be at someone's expense. If I believe this, I will make sure that I am the winner at all costs - after all, no-one wants to be the loser in this scenario - and one of the ways I may try to hold on to the 'one-up' position is to pretend power is not an issue at all.

We all have a legitimate need to exert power and have influence in our world. To do this in a healthy and constructive way requires we make a shift toward 'win/win' thinking - this means negotiating solutions that don't privilege one person's wishes or needs at the expense of the other's. This takes skill, sure - but more than that it requires a shift in what we believe. We need to be willing to change our thinking, to embrace the idea that it's OK for my partner to be powerful and inluential in my life (in other words, it's OK for s/he to expect me to change and modify my position about things that matter to her/him). We also need to embrace the idea that it's OK to BE powerful and have influence - as long as this is done in a way that is respectful and inclusive of our partner's needs and wishes.

Easier said than done! We do need to communicate well - to be willing not only to really hear our partner's perspective, but to allow it to influence our decision making. Crafting win-win solutions means entering a world where power is shared, where a range of needs can be expressed and met in our relationship, and where we are prepared to re-visit issues just because one of us is not feeling OK about the solutions we crafted earlier.

Consider the following scenario:-

* Angela is angry and exhausted from working in a full-time job and coming home to do all of the housework and parenting of their two-year-old son at the end of the day. When she talks to Robert about her frustration and tells him she needs him to do more at home, he says very little. In the following days and weeks he starts getting home later and later from work, telling Angela that his boss has required him to put in longer hours on the company's latest project. In fact, he is going to the gym or the pub to get some exercise and social down-time. When they are able to understand this as a power struggle (Angela feels Robert has more power because he is withholding the support she needs; Robert is afraid that agreeing to do more housework and parenting will mean he is handing over the power of who manages his small amount of free week-day time to Angela) then they can move to generating a power-sharing solution - for example, Robert agrees to do more at home, and both he and Angela commit to giving each other the space to unwind, by alternating nights of looking after their little one while the other goes out. to the gym or to catch up with friends.

A simple solution! But this shift may involve a change of paradigm in how we view power and control. Fears of becoming powerless and controlled can be grounded in experiences from earlier in life, or from messages we received from our own families and/or culture about how power should be thought about and used (for example, many of us were children in families where Dad was the most powerful member of the family, and Mum had power and control over the children when Dad was not home.) Doing this differently may be scary as well as liberating! It involves being willing to revisit old fears and challenge them - can I make a place for my partner's (or child's!) need to influence my decisions and actions without losing my need to feel powerful and in control?

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