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What power moves have to do with you

Here’s something else that makes Why Couples Fight a revolutionary book.

You and I are in a relationship, let’s say, and suddenly you ask me, in a grievance-filled tone of voice, “Can we please open a window in here!?! It’s so hot!”

Now in a way, nothing’s happened. You’ve just asked me to open a window. Nothing’s preventing me from saying, “Oh, sure.”

It’s just that there we are, sitting together quietly, and suddenly I feel ambushed by your aggrieved tone, your sense that—although you’ve said nothing until now—you’ve put up with all you can endure. Your picture of me as this huge frustrating obstacle to your being able to enjoy life.

Too subtle? Over analyzed? Perhaps, but only if I don’t have a reaction to your words and tone. If I do have a reaction, if they set me on edge, then all I’m doing here is showing why.

So where are we? You’re hot and you’d like the windows opened. A perfectly normal, reasonable request. It’s just that you framed your request in such a way as to de-motivate me. To disempower me. As if your urgency and frustration will somehow panic me and stampede me into jumping up and running to the window and opening it.

But what I respond to instead—like most people—is my sense of disempowerment itself. You’re feeling hot? Okay, but now I’m feeling one down! So I say, “What are you, crazy? It’s freezing out!”

Hah! I called you crazy!! And since you’re mentally ill now, you have no standing to make requests about opening or closing windows. You’re supposed to say now, “Oh, you’re right! I AM crazy. Don’t listen to me. I don’t know what I’m talking about...”

Except no one in the history of the world has ever responded like that. Uh uh. On the contrary, now you feel disempowered, and off we go and the cycle spins on and on, getting hotter and hotter. Or one of us caves in and seethes in resentment. So what just happened?

We both had legitimate needs. Nothing wrong with your needing the room to be a little cooler. Nothing wrong with my liking things the way they are. The whole problem was our both using what I call “power moves” as a way to express our needs. Saying “Can you please open a window in here!?!” in a frustrated way is a power move, whether you intend it to be or not. My saying, “What, are you crazy?” is a power move, no matter my intentions.

In fact, the rule is, between any two people anything A says is a power move if it makes B feel disempowered. That’s it!

What would NOT be a power move? Easy! Suppose you asked me, “How would you feel about opening the windows?” No power move there at all. You are, in fact, giving me agency. You are eliciting my feelings. You are including me in a decision-making process.

And suppose I replied, “Are you really hot?” No power move there either. I’m just asking what’s going on. Checking out whether opening the windows is really a big deal for you.

And if I say, “Yeah, I feel it’s pretty stifling in here,” and you say, “How about if we open the windows a crack?” then we’ve hit on a possible solution real fast.

So! Want to make everything in your relationship better? The very simplest thing you can do is to stop making power moves. Stop saying or doing anything that would make your partner feel disempowered—put down, disadvantaged, dismissed, discouraged, and so on and so on.

To go one step further, agree that you’ll monitor each other, and whenever one of you makes a power move the other will just point it out. Not make a big deal about it; just point it out. “For me, that was a power move.” And the other person tries to make their point another way.

There is ALWAYS a power move alternative. Three examples:

  • Instead of “Did your sister put you up to this?” you can say “Why do you want this?”

  • Instead of “Oh my God—you’re such a baby!” you can say, “Help me understand why this is so important to you.”

  • Instead of “Fine, do what you want, but that means I can do whatever I want,” you can say, “I’m afraid that if we don’t work this out our relationship could come apart.”

In Why Couples Fight, we have a whole chapter on power moves, and a six-page list of examples of power moves! And if you and your partner can just dial that back, you’ll be on your way to a whole new relationship.


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