E. M. Forster
In the days before cell phones, things like this incident would happen to Charles and me all the time. We were at Harvard Square. He was getting a new pair of glasses and I was doing some shopping. We’d agreed to meet at a certain time and place. Easy, right?
Not for us. The time would arrive and he wasn’t where he was supposed to be and I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. We’d both wait and wait. Then we’d scout around, missing each other of course. Finally, after an hour or so, we’d find each other, both of us saying, “Why weren’t you where you were supposed to be?”
Clearly, we were idiots. But just as clearly we were two cell phones away from never having another problem like that ever again.
And the first chunk of technology in Why Couples Fight is eliminating power moves from the conversations you have to solve problems and get your needs met. In principle, it’s easy as pie. If I say or do something that makes you feel bullied, pushed on, humiliated, frustrated, disempowered, you say, “That’s a power move. Do over.” And I do-over.
So if you said, “We need to get a new car,” and I said, “Oh, that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” you’d say, “That’s a power move,” and I’d say, “Okay, let me try again. Tell me why you think getting a new car is a good idea.”
Notice: With the power move, we disconnect. Without the power move, we connect. With the power move, we create ill will. Without the power move, we create goodwill.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that there’s one big problem with this new technology. It feels awkward and unfamiliar. Which means it feels wrong.
Why is that?
The reason is that a couple—even after living together for just a few months, and certainly after being together for a few years—will have developed a pattern for how they do things. They’ll have carved out grooves for how they function.
Take sex. After the age of exploration, comes the eternity of proven technology. After you’ve tried a whole bunch of stuff, you’ve sorted out what works and what doesn’t, thrown out what doesn’t work, and kept what does. That doesn’t mean your sex life is good necessarily. It just means you’ve made it the best you can on a let’s-see-what-works basis, and you’re stuck with the results.
The thing about those results—that sexual groove you’re in, for example—is that it’s familiar. It works. It’s good enough. If you try new things they may feel, well, awkward and unfamiliar. So back you go to Old Faithful.
And that’s a terrible trap. Not so terrible when it comes to Thursday night meatloaf, maybe, but really terrible when it comes to how you work out your issues.
So the price you pay for taking on the new technology of breaking out of the power-move trap is going through a period where your interactions feel slow and stilted. See! Now you know how your grandparents feel when they get a new iPhone or have to figure out how to Zoom! The shoe’s on the other foot now, isn’t it?
At least the technology here is simple as simple can be.
You agree to do this for the sake of your relationship.
Whenever you are working something out, an unmet need usually, you actually say, “Okay, we’re working something out now, so let’s do the no-power-move thing.”
Then whenever one of you feels the other has made a power move, you point it out and the other—probably a little shocked and confused—says, “Oh! Well, uh, let’s see...” and tries it another way.
Rinse and repeat. Keep doing this, awkward and unfamiliar as it may feel.
Beware of feeling that you’re bad at it. You’re not. You’re just beginners at not using power moves. Welcome to the club. You’re well on your way to getting good at it.
Congratulate yourselves on using the latest technology.
And what, you may ask, IS a power move? The real answer is that it’s up to your partner. If when you sigh and roll your eyes it makes your partner feel put down, insulted, humiliated, disempowered, then it’s a power move. It’s something from which your partner will have to recover by re-empowering himself. And when he does that, you’ll have to re-empower yourself. That’s the whole problem with this shit!!: the way it takes on a life of its own.
So it doesn’t matter what our partner’s intentions are. Sighing and eye-rolling may be involuntary! Your partner might well say, quite honestly, that he didn’t mean for you to feel any of the things you felt in response to what he did.
Doesn’t matter. If it makes a person feel like it’s a power move, it’s a power move. Period.
But just to show what the full range of power moves have been for people like you, here’s a mere sample (we have pages of examples in our book Why Couples Fight):
Nonverbal actions, like putting on an angry face or walking out of the room
Vocalizations, like sighing, groaning, referring to God (“Oh my God!”), or silence
Questions, like “Did your sister put you up to this?” or “What makes you think you’re entitled to that?”
Descriptions of you, like “You’re such a baby” or “That was so passive-aggressive.”
Threats, like “You think I need you? Get real. I don’t!”
Bullying comments, like “No, you listen to ME!” or screaming “You’re driving me crazy!!”
Emotional displays, like punching the wall or pounding on the couch or getting hysterical
Exaggeration, like “I can’t live with these awful green walls another day. Not another day!”
Displays of weakness, like “I’ve got such a headache from all of this” or playing stupid
Invalidating the other person’s feelings or needs, like “You know, you’re not the only person in this family” or “You only think you want this.”
Changing the subject, like “This comes straight from your therapist, doesn’t it” or “You always say that.”
Just plain making you crazy, like yessing you to death.
Now I’m not saying these ARE power moves. To you, they may not be. There are families where everyone yells and no one feels disempowered. I’m just offering these examples so you can be honest with yourself about what you actually experience as a power move.
Now the crucial, final piece. What are you left with when you strip your conversations bare of power moves?
What you wanted to have all along. A conversation about
what was important to you
why it was important to you, and
how important it was to you.
A conversation where you heard what each other had to say about this. A conversation not driven by fear of loss or humiliation but by the desire for connection. The one thing you’ve wanted from the beginning.
Why Couples Fight has tons more to say about this. But now you know the basic technology to prevent your ever having a bad connection ever again.