It is widely recognised that there are two distinct stages during the first few years of a new relationship.
The first of these stages is the attraction, lust and romance stage, which develops from when a couple first start dating and can last anywhere from a few months to several years. This continues to develop as a couple discover each other fully and build intimate rapport together.
The second of these stages is the commitment, management and awareness stage, which continues thereafter. This stage usually develops around the time there is a prominent gesture of commitment, such as deciding to live together, or simply the period where a couple become deeply and emotionally close to each other.
The power shifts that develop across these two stages are unavoidable, but the degree to which we let a power struggle affect our relationship can most certainly be managed…
How the power struggle develops:
Everyone wants to feel in control in their relationship, although that is not to say that everyone wants to purposefully control their partner.
Even people in controlling relationships or perpetrators of domestic abuse do so because of learnt behaviours and an inability to effectively get what they really want and fulfil their own needs.
When we feel comfortable with someone, we naturally feel more inclined to pick up on previously insignificant things that may irritate us. We also gain a superior need to expect unconditional love and receive constant validation and reassurance from a romantic partner. These are both instances of things that can escalate to an obvious power struggle.
The interesting thing about these two examples is that they have opposing effects on a relationship, depending on how mutual the power struggle symptoms are. The following graph will help to illustrate what I mean:
If the need for validation and expressions of love is completely one-sided, the relationship becomes imbalanced and arguments will arise due to the inciter not feeling appreciated enough. This easily leads to the manifestation of a clear power struggle.
If the need for validation and expressions of love is equal then a couple can usually share those feelings to each other’s satisfaction and enjoy a fulfilling relationship, as long as that balance is maintained. [related article: Managing the most powerful emotion in the world – The love equilibrium]
On the contrary, behavioural retorts such as criticising your partner have a more severe effect the more mutual they are. By definition, an argument has already started:
“I hate it when you do x. You ALWAYS do x”
“Yes, well I hate it when you do y and z” etc.
A recurring exchange such as this dilutes the dominant/submissive roles in the relationship and leads to a power struggle faster than any other method.
How to avoid the power struggle completely:
What it ultimately comes down to is learning to notice, understand and fulfil each other’s needs, which will undoubtedly differ between the two of you. Alternatively, where appropriate, you can help your partner to develop or overcome those needs.
Certain behavioural acts such as criticism are intensified if they are fuelled from both sides, yet it is instinctual to sometimes want to “give as good as you get” in a relationship. Pain or a lack of validation on both sides doesn’t balance out a relationship; it just doubles the amount of pain and lack of validation! I hint about some remedies to this particular example in the latter part of the article Connecting in a relationship and interacting using frame theory.
The only way to solve any feelings of resentment that can arise from the power struggle is to help your partner get what they want without supplicating! The last part is crucial because it keeps intact the attraction, respect and trust within the relationship.
I will go into more depth with the intricacies of how to spot and avoid the power struggle in a future article but remember that you ALLOW people to control or antagonise you by conveying what you will accept and by reacting to certain things in a certain way!
Also keep in mind that hate – which can be an observational side-effect of the power struggle – is not the opposite of love; indifference is! As long as both people in a relationship seem like they care, any negativity or power struggle can be flipped without too much difficulty. 🙂