Have you ever been in a relationship that seems to be stuck in an endless loop of repetitive arguments? Does it feel futile to even try to talk it out?
You might be stuck in a power struggle.
In the beginning of a relationship, we experience something called “limerance” – what you might know as the “honeymoon stage”. During this period, our bodies are releasing A LOT of hormones to encourage us to bond. And, in order to bond, we have developed an ability to magnify the similarities and minimize the differences.
Eventually, our bodies stop releasing as many chemicals and we are able to see our partner for who they really are – annoying habits, differences, and all.
And then, one day, something happens that challenges the relationship. Sometimes, it is a natural transition – moving in together, getting married, having a child – and sometimes it is a traumatic or sudden change – a death or other major loss.
Couples respond in one of four ways:
1. They create and offer each other stability and security
2. The connection power struggle (pursuer/distancer)
3. The “your fear makes me ashamed” power struggle (fear/shame)
4. The “I am gonna punish you” power struggle (demand/withdraw)
When couples enter the power struggle phase it is likely they will get stuck if they don’t learn to utilize new ways of communicating. It’s especially important during this time to understand how to prevent the four horsemen (you can take a free course from me on them here), how to listen, and how to show curiosity.
The power struggle stage ends when the couple accepts that there will always be differences. In Gottman Method Therapy we call these “perpetual problems”. That means, most of your issues will be differences that have no solution other than to create understanding.
“I want to save our connection”
One type of power struggle is all about saving “connection”. One person will pursue in an attempt to solve the issue in response to their anxiety. Their anxiety makes them believe “if we don’t solve this now then we will never solve it!” while the other person will withdraw due to concerns that the conversation will become negative and harm the relationship.
In this pattern both people are acting in ways that devolve the relationship BUT it is due to an attempt to save it. It’s funny how we end up sabotaging things isn’t it?
To read more about The Pursuer/Distancer Pattern I suggest reading “Hold me Tight” by Sue Johnson.
“Your fears bring up my shame”
In this second dynamic, couples will enter a power struggle based off of their own fears and shame. In this cycle, when one partner has a strong feeling the other partner responds by feeling guilty or ashamed that they could not prevent “the feeling”. For instance, if their partner is worried about money they might feel ashamed that they were not able to make more money.
When one person feels worried and unheard and the other person feels ashamed and wants to hide, you will enter a back and forth struggle that gets nowhere.
The person that feels ashamed will retreat or will become angry. The person that is worried might amplify their concerns in order to be heard. This amplification might sound like criticism or contempt. Thus, maintaining the cycle since criticism and contempt often elicit shame.
“I want to punish you”
This might be the most toxic of the power struggles. One person will pursue the other person with anger, criticism, and demands while the other person retreats and withdraws in order to punish. This might look like one person being contemptuous, offering ultimatums, or threatening the relationship while the other person gives a silent treatment.
While the dynamic might look the same as the pursuer/distancer dynamic, the underlying motivation is not. The motivation here is to punish.
This power struggle is usually in response to a prolonged period of being in the other two power struggles or in response to a very painful and regrettable incident in the relationship.
Getting out of the power struggle
Getting out of the power struggle means learning to communicate better. I recommend reading any book by John Gottman to improve your communication style.
Moving out of the power struggle also means understanding your imago and the template you have for relationships. You can learn more about your template by reading Getting the Love You Want.
Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT is a Philly based couples therapist and Certified Gottman Therapist. Elizabeth works with individuals and couples and supports them in creating relational wellness.
You can follow her on instagram @lizlistens.