What do power issues have to do with a relationship being in trouble?
It all starts so innocently! When they met—besides the fact that they found the other adorable—Michael thought Jessica was awesome because of her quirky, intense personality, and the way she’d get so wrapped up in her graphic design business, and the way she was there for all her friends. Jessica was so impressed with Michael as a starting-out tech guy, something to do with Artificial Intelligence, and people were offering him money for his startup, plus he could be so sweet.
But! There’s a power side to everything. Before either of them knew it, certainly before the actual honeymoon was even over, Michael’s business and his attachment to it started to move in on them. “Not now, honey,” became the words most frequently popping out of Michael’s mouth, along with “urgent,” “crisis,” and “you wouldn’t understand.” Power? Michael and his work were a steamroller!
And power is the enemy of love.
And as for quirky, intense, adorable Jessica, well, when she was thwarted (and Michael was starting to think, “God, when isn’t she feeling thwarted about something or other?”) she could put on quite a show. Of course, Jessica was just having her feelings. Being real. Not like the “shut-down freakin’ machine” she was starting to accuse Michael of being. But to Michael, dealing with upset Jessica was like dealing with a tornado tanked up on Red Bull. Leaving him no choice but to cave in or walk away.
The point is that every feature of a person or their life can be a source of power in a relationship: having a demanding or important job, being emotional, being very smart, having health issues (“Oy! Don’t tell me your back is acting up again!”), being anxious, having issues with your family, having a lot of money, needing a lot of money...the list is endless.
So what are signs that these features of you and your lives are having cancerous effects on your relationship? Here are the six most important ones:
1. Go-nowhere arguments. There’s Jess wanting more time with Michael, and Michael wanting her to leave him alone so he can get his ginormously important work done. If you’re in a situation like this, you get into an argument you’re not proud of, like most of us. But most importantly, you don’t resolve anything. There’s no actual sense of a good outcome as a result of all the smoke and fire. Yeah, maybe one of you ends by saying, “Fine, whatever, I’ll just...” in a seeming cave in, but it’s a concession no one believes in. It’s really just a way to get the other to STFU.
2. Feeling disempowered. Your biggest feeling, in general, and in trying to work things out, is frustration and helplessness. Note!: power imbalances always end in mutual disempowerment! Yeah, Jessica can’t get Michael to shut his laptop, but he can’t get her to shut her mouth. Disempowered people always find ways to re-empower themselves. That’s what keeps the whole thing snowballing to a disastrous ending!
3. Not getting needs met. The practical side of feeling disempowered is that people in relationships driven by power dynamics can’t get their most important needs met. In all my clinical experience, I’ve never seen a case of power imbalance where one person is happy and the other isn’t. Instead, no one actually feels like a winner.
4. Experiencing yourself being put down or devalued. This unproductive stuff doesn’t happen because people are nice to each other! Oh, no. All this happens as people walk down a pavement of put-downs and insults that range from the merely piercing to the totally devastating. So in addition to not getting your needs met you have the experience of seeing yourself as a horrible monster in the eyes of your beloved. And how painful is that!
5. Feeling your partner is a stranger. In a sense, love is that sense that “You know me so well and yet you like me!” But here the opposite happens. You come to your beloved with a need. What could be more appropriate to love? But now the fear of disempowerment leads the two of you down the road to feeling the other doesn’t understand, doesn’t care, and doesn’t want to do what to you looks like a small thing to meet your needs. Who but a stranger would treat you that way?
6. Growing distance in your relationship. So why doesn’t this lousy process cause relationships to just blow up? Well, that happens often enough. But plenty of times, a much easier solution is distance—you just step back from the issue. Withdraw this or that need from the relationship and maybe get it met elsewhere or maybe it just doesn’t get met at all. So what if Michael can’t make time for Jessica? Screw him! She has friends, activities, who knows what else! Slowly, perhaps without realizing what she’s doing, Jessica withdraws her needs for Michael from their relationship. And if Jessica is always “upset” when he has to deal with her, Michael thinks, why deal with her? Why not just get...busier?
The good news is that as destructive as this relationship cancer is, it is highly curable. How? There the 1, 2, 3 Method we offer in our brand-new book all about power in relationships: Why Couples Fight. But until you get a chance to read our book, do these things:
Don’t make power moves. Okay, there are already built-in power imbalances. Fine. So don’t make them worse! Don’t say or do anything that to your partner will seem like an assertion of power. If interrupting feels like a power move to your partner, don’t interrupt. Raising your voice feels like a power move? Don’t raise your voice. Saying, “That’s a stupid idea”? Don’t phrase your disagreement in those words. Work together to edit out everything that to the other person feels like a power move.
Talk about your power imbalances. Do so without any arguing. No implying anyone has any intent. It’s just, like, “Your [whatever] makes me feel helpless, like I’ve lost before I’ve even begun. What can we do about it?”
To work out needs, begin by listening. And I mean really listening. Hearing. No arguing. Not even reacting. Just try to understand. If I suddenly come to you with my need for you to bring me home bananas every day on your way home from work—once the pandemic is over!—give me a chance to talk to you about it so I feel you TOTALLY understand what I want, why I want it, and what it means to me. Before you say a single word about how you feel about it. Once I feel you’ve heard me down to my toes, I’ll be able to hear you.
Generate options, not opposition. Okay, so I want you to bring me home bananas every day, silly me, and you—busy, busy you—don’t want to do that. Well, then, what we talk about is OPTIONS. What abouts. “What about if I...?” Instead of acting like toddlers in a sandbox hitting each other over the head with shovels, we problem solve!
Here’s the crazy thing. This calm sensible approach works. And it takes waaaay less time than arguing and struggling.
But you gotta do it. If you have an 800-pound gorilla in your room—in this case, a gorilla of power imbalances and power struggles—you have to step up and make dealing with it a priority. Just the way you would if you came home and found an actual 800-pound gorilla in your room. The first step is just understanding the problem and taking it seriously. Then doing what works to solve it. I’ve just given you a short recipe for what you need to do that.