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“I don’t like the word power”

I know how you feel. I felt that way myself! The word “power,” talk about power, just doesn’t feel as though it belongs in the same place as love and relationships. Power is about dictators, greasy politicians, mob bosses, controlling a**holes. Pretty much everything that’s the opposite of the dream of love. And also the opposite of our everyday experience of a good-enough relationship.

So why drag power into it?

Well, to quote the Elephant Man, I am not a monster.

If I’m talking about power, it’s only because I’m talking about something real, and important, and disgracefully neglected from the point of view of understanding how relationships get into trouble and how to save them from unnecessary collapse.

Let’s step back and take a broad view. Power is a part of the natural world, of which we are a part, including our relationships.

Suppose you are walking through a forest glade. How lovely! Trees, flowers, underbrush, mushrooms—all the lovely green growing things of nature.

Well, an ecologist would advise you to put away your violin music. Below this pretty painting is...a power struggle! I’m sorry!! But don’t shoot the messenger. All these sweet innocent living organisms are in a fight to the death—literally!—for two things: light and soil nutrients. Trees win the power struggle by growing tall and blocking out the light from other plant forms. Vines win—“Gotcha, tree!”—by climbing the tree, choking off its access to light and nutrients, and ultimately bringing the tree down. Down on the ground, low-lying plants compete among one another for access to whatever light does filter through the canopy and for access to the nutrients in the soil.

The lovely snapshot we see doesn’t capture this. It requires time and understanding to get what’s really going on.

I’m just saying that power struggles are part of nature whether we like it or not. And they’re part of human nature. And so they’re part of our lives together.

Now of course I don’t want you to think I’m some kind of a nut seeing all relationships mired in power struggles all the time. Plenty of couples escape this to one degree or another. You wanna be one of those couples? Here’s how!:

  1. Be incredibly well-matched when you start out, and stay that way throughout your relationship. If you both like the same things (cool temperatures, lots of socializing, saving your money, dishes piling up, and the Grateful Dead), then that’s going to cut WAY down on conflict.

  2. Be easy-going people. Go along to get along. Hey, it’s all good. Don’t worry about it. Be the kind of people for whom it’s not a big deal when stuff doesn’t go their way. And not in a stuff-it-down sort of way. You do prefer things neat but it really IS okay if things are a mess.

  3. Be people who don’t need to interact all that much. It’s kind of logical: there can’t be much friction if there isn’t much interaction. But for this to work it can’t be because you’ve been giving up on each other. It has to be because you both really prefer a more-or-less distant relationship.

But come on, let’s be honest. How many of us score high enough in these factors so that we can sail through married life without conflict? I’ll give you the scientific answer: NOT MANY!!

So because we’re not perfect fits for each other, and we’re not as easy going as we or our partners would like, and we need to (and have to) interact with our partners, our needs ARE going to come into conflict. I AM going to find your definition of “neat” is pretty close to my definition of “complete chaos,” and it IS going to bug me, and I’m going to bug you about it, and my bugging you will bug the hell out of you, and...what the HELL would you call that other than a power struggle?

If I’m a tree, I don’t want to be king of the forest. I just want as much light as I can get. Light is my food! I’m not interested in power for power’s sake. I just don’t want other trees to take my light away from me.

And so if I’m a person (and I AM a person and so are you!) I may not want power and I may not even want to talk about power because it doesn’t make me look good, but the struggle for power IS the thing that’s going on when you and I are having a problem getting our needs met.

Not power as in domination. Power as in “able to do.” This is such a modest claim. Few of my patients have ever been the kinds of people who want the power to dominate their partners. That would be the death of love, of mutuality. No, they just want to “be able to” bring up a need, have that need understood, receive a sympathetic hearing, have a fair and honest discussion of all the options, feel that their partner genuinely cares about whatever discomfort or pain they’re feeling in their unmet need, and work out a solution that feels fair to both people. That’s the heaven of love in the real world.

And that’s the kind of power people want who seek help from me, in most cases. They’re not bullies or control freaks. They are not what we called “power people” in Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay. You and I just want the power to help our children grow up healthy. We want the power to do our jobs the best way we know how. We want the power to be able to speak up and be heard on issues in our community.

The power dynamics we write about in Why Couples Fight come about because perfectly reasonable, natural, normal desires to get our needs met with each other get tangled up in utterly unproductive struggles. No needs get met, not sustainably anyway, and in the process, the relationship is degraded. Why Couples Fight shows you how to untangle these unproductive struggles so you can both have the power—the ability—to get your needs met so that it doesn’t get in the way of your ability to love and enjoy each other.


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