Anatomy of a fight
(Inside a couple’s power dynamics)
There’s always a history of disempowerment. Jason’s a very successful executive in a job where many of the people he works with are women. At the same time, his wife, Melissa, is also a woman, a fact that will be important in just a moment. Jason’s a friendly guy whose management style is all about collaboration. Melissa’s a stay-at-home mom who believes that a lot of the women Jason works with may have more than a purely professional interest in Jason.
Now from Jason’s point of view, management is an exercise in managing a volcano perched on top of a flimsy vessel in the midst of a storm at sea. His work life is a 24/7 struggle to stay afloat in face of forces trying to take him and his business down. Am I exaggerating? Only for emphasis. Fact is that when you take into account the competing interests and diverging opinions of his key team players alone—never mind competitors, board members, and so on!—everyone is trying to pull him off balance.
So a lot of his work involves getting people on board and keeping them on board, and when it comes to the women he works with that can mean pushing the edge where friendliness and consideration tips over into a place that freaks Melissa out...should she happen to stumble on an email exchange between Jason and one of these women.
And there’s a lot of stumbling going on.
On Melissa’s end, life is a nightmare of disempowerment. Jason’s schedule rules their life. “Honey, something came up and I have to fly to Chicago...,” and suddenly a weekend Melissa had carefully planned goes down the drain. And on top of this, she has to worry about bimbo eruptions! “These are not bimbos!!” Jason shouts. “These are high caliber professional women with whom I have a professional relationship. But I have to keep them on board with where we’re going!!!”
The latest fight. As always the fight started with Melissa coming across an email exchange between Jason and a woman who’s head of a company that’s a key customer. Now there’s nothing in there that would cause HR to blink an eye. Nothing sexual or sexually suggestive. But, alas!, the woman is going through a hard time in her marriage and she’s talked about it with Jason and Jason’s been very sympathetic and they’ve definitely gotten close around this, including emails late in the evening that aren’t exclusively about business.
Now this all looks very bad to Melissa—“Jason’s latest emotional affair, leading God knows where,” as she put it—and she lands on him like a ton of angry Amazons shitting bricks. Blitzkrieg! Her opening move is to threaten divorce, which is the very last thing Jason needs as he’s going through his latest business crisis and feeling kind of desperate (helpless!) and needing this woman (customer!) on his side all the more. But what else can Melissa do when she feels she has no control whatsoever over her husband?
Jason’s response is pretty much along the lines of “Them bitches be crazy.” Although he’s much more polite. His point—which she hears as “Fuck you!”—is that she’s a) overreacting and b) doesn’t know what the hell she’s talking about.
Ah, if only Melissa would respond along the lines Jason is outlining! “You’re right! I AM a hysterical idiot!! Listen, if you want to stay up all night talking to this woman about her personal problems, even though you never have time to talk to me, I’ll totally understand.” Now that would be a wife!
But of course already feeling demeaned and devalued, she doesn’t take his “insight” as intended. Not at all. She takes it as an attempt to make her look ridiculous. So she storms and rages, and up goes the anger and up go the threats. “How ridiculous am I now, now that you’re shitting your pants!”
Let’s do a power analysis of the situation at that very moment. Jason could hit Melissa, but in reality he’d simply never do that and they both know that. So that’s off the table. He could call her bluff on the divorce threat, but they both know he really doesn’t want a divorce.
But he has a great power move up his sleeve. Caving in! “Okay, fine, Melissa. I can’t deal with this shit now. So whatever you want. Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it. She’s an important customer so I can’t drop her like a hot potato, but beyond that I’ll do whatever you want.”
Sly bastard. Too easy! Melissa wins in a way, but she loses in a bigger way.
Power dynamics lead to bad solutions lead to bad marriages. So it’s checkmate for Melissa, but only for the moment. She knows—and let’s Jason know she knows!—that she can’t trust this major cave in on his part. Of course he acts like a wounded dove. “I’ve given you everything you want! What more can I do?!?!?” Beyond giving her access to all the secret, hidden email accounts they both know he might set up, of course. That’s the point! A better solution really is impossible, given the way they’re going about it.
Because this was a solution totally structured by their power dynamics—who can get whom to shut the fuck up fastest—the nominal winner is the loser. Jason has shown Melissa no understanding at all. He’s made no concession based on any idea at all of what any of this means to her.
And so Melissa walks away with mistrust and resentment. All she’s really gotten is promises. “That and a nickel...” Jason’s gets bragging rights to having given her everything but he’s given her nothing.
But it’s a lousy deal for Jason too. In the end we reap the fruit of what we deliver, not what we promise. The fruit for Jason here is bitter, a wife who feels unloved and helpless to feel more loved in any way that really counts.
In spite of all the fireworks, no one walked away with the slightest clue about how the other felt or the slightest reason to care. All of that was drowned in the sea of their power struggle.
The scary thing is that this is a 100 percent normal fight. Your fights may be crazier or more polite, but just take out the talk of power dynamics and this is more or less every fight every couple’s ever had.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s easy for it not to be this way. The answers are in Why Couples Fight.
[Note: Jason and Melissa are real, but tons of details have been changed to protect their privacy. If you recognize yourself in this story, it’s probably someone else.]