August 6, 2014

Managing Power Struggles in Relationships.

wolves animals conflict fight couple

Every relationship has its elements of conflict and compromise.

This is because each individual has their own unique needs, beliefs and perspective.

Through many years experience in the community services sector—particularly working with couples, parents and their children—it has become apparent that in basically every relationship there is or has been a struggle for power.

Volatile relationships tend to have one element in common: an ongoing battle for control.

Each party have their own expectations that they want met and if they conflict with the other person’s then a struggle arises.

For example, a power divide is a mandatory ingredient of a child and parent recipe which naturally begins in the early years through the combat of implementing disciplinary tactics. Obviously rules are important to guide a child through their development, but as they grow older the power imbalance should be equaled out so that a true friendship can be formed.

It has been proven time and time again that this results with the advice of the parent being respected and sought after by the child.

A power struggle between two parties inherently contains arguments of who’s right and who’s wrong. This fighting is over different matters particular to each person.

Depending on the communication and other skills of the team members, this struggle can manifest in either subtle or excessive ways.

For example, if one party refuses to make a sacrifice, then a fight will ensue, but this fight could either be a serious scream for control or it may just be a playful little dance to resolve the issue, all of which will be determined by the maturity and sophistication of each of the partners.

Unfortunately though, this stand-off often manifests as abuse.

An Abusive Power Struggle

Abuse is abuse, regardless if it is minimal and inconsistent or excessive and ongoing. It might be a form of abuse which is considered at the low to mid end of the scale, such as name calling, emotional manipulation, control of activities etc., or at the higher end, such as physical and sexual violence.

With this in mind it is important to acknowledge that most relationships between partners, or between parents and their children, have had abusive moments. This abuse may have been serious, such as ongoing verbal and emotional abuse, or it may have just been a few incidents where vicious conduct temporarily occurred.

Abusive conduct can sometimes increase so much in a relationship that it would be considered Domestic Violence (DV). If power is still somewhat equally balanced between two people, although there are seriously abusive behaviors by both parties, then it may not be a DV relationship, but it is still extremely unhealthy.

DV is a social and legal concept that, in the broadest sense, refers to a power imbalance coupled with abusive behaviors which takes place among people in a relationship. DV is more than just physical abuse; it is also characterized by other forms of violence such as verbal, emotional, psychological and financial exploitation. This type of conduct can sometimes be purposely implemented to elicit a power imbalance within the relationship so that a primary control is established and maintained by one party.

Yet a common misconception with DV is that there is only ever one perpetrator and one victim. This is definitely a reality for some people, both women and men, but more than likely there has been a power struggle where both parties were engaging in abusive conduct and tactics.

Put another way, both participants are perpetrators of abuse and both are victims of abuse. One party may have achieved a favorable power imbalance in some ways and the other party in several others.

Mental health can play a major role in DV relationships, but not always. Diagnosis’s such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), anxiety, depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Schizophrenia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), among others, can influence the abusive and dangerous conduct which happens in some relationships.

But not all malicious and vindictive behaviors can be attributed to mental health issues.

As a professional who unpacks the reality of conflict in a relationship, it has become increasingly difficult to merely use the perpetrator/victim dichotomy because power coercion and control, as well as abuse, has been perpetrated on different levels by both partners.

This happens frequently between parents and children.

Most of the relationships I have mediated are not on the extreme end of abuse, but they have contained nasty and exceptionally unhealthy actions by both parties. Usually they have all wanted to overcome these issues and find their relationship peace, which I have been able to achieve through intensive mediation.

Ultimately, if both parties are working towards the goal of overcoming a dysfunctional relationship then they need to take responsibility for their abusive actions instead of continuing to blame each other for what’s wrong in the relationship and work together as a equal team.

Taking Responsibility for Abusive Behaviors

In many ways, the dynamics of power and control in society are learned from a young age, such as in the school yard, through the implementation of the law and via parental techniques.

As we are all aware, disciplining children can have severe emotional and psychological impacts if applied inappropriately, excessively and without proper emotional support.  Control tactics that parents employ can also include practices which are considered to be aspects of DV, including verbal, physical and emotional abuse, blackmail, excessive punishment etc., as well as authoritarian practices which can promote suffering and lead to rebellion and behavioral warfare.

The reality is, these are all abusive practices which can be part of domestic violence in both adult and parent/child relationships. It is therefore important for each party to take immediate responsibility for these actions if we employ them in our own relationships.

Whether a person has ‘won’ a power struggle or not—or exercised extremely abusive tactics or not—we should all take responsibility for our poor conduct.

Through our endeavor to be victorious in the individual battles or the overall war, we are likely at times to make abusive choices. For the sake of validating the other persons experience and feelings—which is the exact validation that we’d appreciate— we should always recognize our abusive participation when engaged in the struggle for power.

Have we ever excessively screamed at our partner or child? What about abusively manipulated their emotions to get what we want? Are the ways that we achieve our power goals vicious?

If so, then we need to take responsibility for those actions, regardless of whatever they did for us to react in that way. It’s the only way to reinforce camaraderie and solidarity so the relationship can grow.

Overcoming the Power Struggle

*Note: At this point it must be emphasized that there are some men and women who are dangerously abusive, including physically, towards their partners. It is recommended that you seek social protection and professional guidance if you are in a relationship of this nature and not handle it by yourself.

Power struggles may be equally balanced at the start and then slowly unbalanced by one party over time. That may not just be because one person is more committed to winning, but sometimes one person just allows it. To them, it’s easier that way, even if it is unhealthy for themselves and their relationship over the long term.

To overcome the power struggle, we should consider ourselves as teammates. Part of this acknowledgment is that sometimes as a team member we need to sacrifice our own needs for the needs of our loved one.

This is called compromise.

Are there ways we could both move and meet in the middle? If not, did they give up their needs previously, so therefore is it our turn to suck it up? Are our needs and expectations actually realistic? Are we asking too much?

Even if they are fair requests, does our partner or child have an equally fair request? Or maybe their request isn’t that fair, but is it a battle not worth fighting this time because it means nothing in the big scheme of things?

It’s these questions that we need to ask ourselves when managing the power struggle in our relationships. We might also have a greater intellectual understanding of the issue at hand, but even so, if we invoke excessive conflict and abuse in our approach, are we really that intelligent about the matter?

Following is a five step model for overcoming conflict and achieving harmony in a relationship:

  1. Agree that each teammate and their needs are equally important so that respect can be established.
  2. Ensure that each party takes responsibility for their previously abusive behaviors.
  3. Clearly identify what conflict and power imbalances exist.
  4. Communicate together as a team and make individual sacrifices to compromise on issues that are important to each party.
  5. If there are some items where it is necessary to agree to disagree, do so, and then implement what needs to happen for things to really change.

Final Thoughts on an Intimate Power Struggle

The honeymoon phase of an intimate relationship is characterized by courtship, attraction, romance and lust.

Through this bonding, the differences between the two people become more apparent. Philosophical and behavioral contrasting occurs. A divide begins to take place, which in the early stages is indicative of whether we can see a potential long-term future with that person.

Once we’ve passed through the initial learning about one another and then begin to accept the union’s compatibilities and incompatibilities, a power struggle more than likely will ensue.

As explained above, it may be very subtle and hardly recognizable or it may be extremely potent and volatile; this will depend on the skills and nature of each party.

The struggle involves asking ourselves questions. What can we help them understand about themselves and ourselves? There are certain things which are important to us and non-negotiable, but what is negotiable? What do we absolutely have to put our foot down about? How can we make them acknowledge and embrace what our needs are?

Whether consciously or subconsciously, we all ask ourselves these questions, so it is important for us to know if we’re projecting fair and realistic expectations onto our partner or not.

Do we even recognize that we’re in a struggle for power over certain issues? Are we fighting for something that just isn’t worth it? Do we have a right to dictate the power we’re after?

When we begin the initial phase where a power divide is developed, we set the scene for how we resolve the stand-offs. If we’ve created an abusive and undesirable template for our clashes and arguments—instead of just engaging in reasonable discussion—then it is in the best interests for both parties to go back to the start and refresh how we communicate with each other.

This can either make or break a relationship.


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Editor: Renée Picard

Image: Carsten Tolkmit at Flickr 

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