Power we’ve talked about. People in a relationship don’t usually want power; they just don’t like feeling disempowered. Sadly, we all do and say things that turn out to make our partners feel disempowered. They do things to re-empower themselves, making us feel disempowered in turn.
And this goes on and on, escalating and chewing to bits the good stuff in the relationship over time.
Okay. Now that’s bad enough. But why, you might ask, don’t more people say, “Hey, this feels bad and doesn’t work!! Let’s cut it out”?
And that’s where trap theory comes in, which we’ve never talked about. Trap theory? It’s all about how we get stuck in situations we don’t want to be in.
A simple example. You’re waiting for a bus to go home. You could walk—it’s only a 40-minute walk—but you’re tired and buses come along pretty regularly, so you wait.
And wait, and wait, and wait. At some point, you realize you’ve been waiting for a half-hour. So even if the bus shows up right now, it’ll take more than 10 minutes, with stops, for it to get you home. You’d have been better off walking!
But do you start walking? No! Because you figure that since you’ve waited SO long, the bus is sure to come any minute.
Next thing you know, you’ve been waiting 40 minutes, and now definitely you’d have been home already if you’d walked. But if you start walking how much of an idiot would you feel like if a bus shows up in the next few minutes and you’re between stops and you can’t get on it!
You’re in a trap. The more time you’ve invested in waiting, the stupider it feels to stop waiting and stupider it feels to continue waiting, and for many of us, we just continue waiting anyway.
For many of us, this is our lives. We open a restaurant and while it’s not a success it’s not such a disaster that it drives us out of business. Instead, since we’ve put so much time and money into it, we just put more time and money in, endless hoping things will turn around.
Or you date someone with a lot of good qualities, but also some real problems. You can’t commit until those problems get fixed. But you can’t leave because of the good stuff. And the more time you put into the relationship the harder it is to leave, even as it’s increasingly hard to justify staying (because the problems still haven’t gone away).
Now let’s look at how this applies to a couple in a power struggle.
The question we’re asking is, Why do we stay in a power struggle in which ultimate victory always seems possible but never actually happens?
And trap theory has the answer. You’ve invested so much in winning, and come so close to winning—whatever the hell winning could possibly be!—that it just feels impossible to say no. After all, if you quit, not only do you lose but your partner wins! And that’s even worse. It’s like a thriller where two guys are both pointing guns at each other, and they’d both like to put their guns down, but who’s gonna do it first?
So how do you get out of this situation?
It’s easier than you might think.
Traps have almost all of their power from our not realizing what’s going on. The minute we realize how the trap game works, we can break free.
That bus situation. You just make a decision beforehand and stick with it. Believe me: experts have gamed this out. It doesn't matter what the decision is! Just say to yourself, “I going to wait 5 minutes [or no minutes or 15 minutes or whatever] and then I’m going to start walking.” You’ll come out ahead AND you save yourself a ton of stress.
But the hell with busses. What about your relationship, where you’re already in the trap? In this situation, the best solution is to just pull the plug NOW. You just...stop. Cold turkey. Fine: you wasted time and energy on a bankrupt solution. Sad and tragic. But the sooner you bail on that the better. And if you can bail on it as a couple, that’s super good.
You just say, “Honey, all those fights? They’ve gotten us nowhere and spread poison everywhere. We just have to stop. What do we do instead, because we still have conflicting needs, after all? Well, there’s this book, Why Couples Fight, that tells couples exactly what they need to do differently. We’ve been playing a game where we hope one of us will win but where no one ever wins. Let’s play a different game where everyone always wins. Yes?”