By Linda Arnold
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — We all know relationships are two-way streets. Give and take, depending on who is more “needy” at the moment.
When a pattern evolves that tips the balance, though, it may be time for some self-introspection.
Take your primary relationship, for instance. If it has become more about who “wins,” you might be locked in a power struggle.
It’s an all too common pattern that can sneak up on couples. Before you know it, hurt feelings drag into long-term frustrations that can be damaging — or even fatal — to a relationship.
That’s because anger that isn’t dealt with acts like sulfuric acid, eating away at a couple’s love and commitment, according to family counselor Gary Smalley, author of “Hidden Keys to Loving Relationships.”
Anger can tie us up in knots emotionally. And it doesn’t have to be outward anger. It can be repressed anger, playing out in passive-aggressive behavior. And then you stop to think, “How did we get here?”
In any serious relationship, it often takes 12 months or more for power issues to surface. During the “honeymoon period,” your partner can do no wrong. If unmet expectations haven’t been dealt with, though, a battle may break out for who’s “in control.”
Spenders and savers
Bill is a “spender,” and Sally’s a “saver.” They’ve been married for a year, with unresolved frustrations building up in their marriage.
When Bill and Sally receive an unexpected inheritance, all these issues come bubbling to the surface. Bill has already picked out his new home theater system and golf clubs. Meanwhile, Sally wants to put half the money away into savings and use the rest to retire all their credit card debt and medical bills. Always before, Sally had said nothing. But now she feels compelled to take a stand.
And then a power struggle begins. Sally is no longer willing to keep things as they were. Unless they talk things through, Bill will fight consciously and unconsciously to protect his “right” to spend money in an unrestricted way. And, in the other corner, Sally will fight just as hard to press for financial accountability.
If you’re experiencing power struggles in your relationship, here’s a three-level process that can tip you off to its deadly presence.
Level One: Issues are constantly raise but never resolved.
When you’re locked in a power struggle, everything becomes an issue. Because Sally is so angry with Bill for “blowing” so much money, she starts picking at little things — nagging and criticizing. A wet towel on a chair gets an 8 on the Richter scale when it actually deserves a 3. Bringing home white bread instead of wheat gets blown into a life-and-death issue.
Level Two: As problems pile up, couples drop the issues and begin to pick on the other person.
Instead of focusing on issues like wet towels and wheat bread, the parties begin attacking one another.
“If he was sensitive like Kathy’s husband, he would have …” or “If she had a brain in her body, she’d have …”
Now the battle heats up over who’s in charge and who’s going to change. (Good luck with that!) Being “right” trumps everything.
Level Three: The final option: attacking the relationship.
Here’s when a person thinks, “If he/she is this kind of person, then what am I doing in this relationship? I may as well get out.”
As soon as the relationship starts being questioned, out goes security — one of the crucial pillars of an intimate marriage. And then every issue jumps immediately from Level One (unresolved issues) to Level Three (questioning the relationship).
Is there a way to break free from this killing cycle? Try this on for perspective: All of us just want to be heard.
Even unknowingly, we can offend people by what we say or do. This can result in “closing their spirit.” Likewise, people can offend us by their hurtful actions and words. Here are ways we can close someone’s spirit:
n Criticizing unjustly
n Using a harsh tone
n Taking someone for granted
n Telling another his or her opinions don’t matter
n Dismissing someone’s needs as unimportant
n Making jokes about someone’s character or physical flaws
n Making sarcastic statements
n Putting someone down in front of others
n Being unwilling to admit wrongdoing
When a person’s spirit is closing, an uncomfortable awareness exists — a heaviness lurking in the air that can result in:
n An argumentative attitude
n Resistance to discuss or agree on almost anything
n Not respecting the other’s advice
n A decline in warm or romantic feelings
Five keys to open a closed spirit
1. Become gentle.
2. Understand what the other person has gone through, listening carefully not only to what is said, but how it is said. What has caused his or her anger?
3. Acknowledge that the other person is hurting — and admit when you have been offensive.
4. Touch the other person gently.
5. Ask for forgiveness.
Be persistent using these keys. The walls will not come down right away. Depending upon how long the layers have been building up, it may take sincere, repeated attempts to make a dent.
Start out with a minor conflict. Ask the other person to rate the severity of the problem on a scale from 1 to 10. And work these five keys.
Next, take a more sensitive area and work through it. Look at opening your partner’s spirit as a goal: “I want to stop offending you, and I know you don’t want to continue like this. I love you, and I’m committed to you. Do you think I really understand how you’re hurting?”
While these tools are conveyed for primary relationships, they can also be tweaked to play out in other arenas — with siblings, co-workers and others.
Is it time to give up your power struggle?
Linda Arnold, M.A., MBA, is a psychological counselor, certified wellness instructor and syndicated columnist. Reader comments are welcome and may be directed to Linda at firstname.lastname@example.org.