Are you having trouble getting your needs met in your relationship? If so, this often has to do with power.

So what is power in a relationship? Essentially it is the ability to make or prevent something from taking place. If one party says anything or does anything that makes you feel disempowered then its a power move. Power moves are the actions we take in an attempt not to feel disempowered – because we know no other way of getting our needs met. Power and competition in relationships go hand in hand.

Power moves and competition are context dependent and they depend on the players and the state of the relationship. It is useful to look at the relationship through the lens of attachment styles. Ask yourself how empowered do I feel in my relationship in the realms of sex, finance/money, parenting, household responsibilities, in-laws e.t.c?

Do you feel as though your partner has more power than you do? Do you feel as though most of the time your partner has the upper hand? Do you spend a lot of time trying to get your needs met? In an attempt to get those needs met do you find yourself carrying out behaviors that in hindsight you are not happy with?

Power dynamics in relationships are extremely destructive. They destroy trust, harbour resentment, build battle lines, isolate and create wedges in the relationship. Power struggles can escalate to the point to which neither party can remain in the relationship. With every single little exchange partners walk away loving each other just a little less. They have said hurtful things to each other, they have treated each other as rivals and/or as opponents – essentially as enemies. There are no power issues in relationships where there is room for two whole people.

The kinds of behaviours that go with power moves include sniping, bickering, smiling, looking away, eye rolling, blaming, contempt, loaded arguments, uneasy silences, certain kinds of questions (e.g. ‘Do you know how crazy that sounds?’), descriptions of you (e.g. ‘Can you be reasonable for once‘), threats (e.g. ‘I was given the name of a great divorce lawyer today‘), bullying, dramatic displays of emotion e.g. weeping or sobbing. Others include exaggeration, displays of weakness (e.g. ‘I really can’t deal with this right now, my heads killing me‘), invalidating the other’s needs, changing the subject, analysing each other – just to name a few. In addition there is a category of people who simply make unilateral decisions. This is also a power move if it affects the other partner. (But don’t confuse physical violence with a power move – this signifies real danger and you should immediately get help).

None of these moves makes for a happy relationship. Instead there are two people trying to make room for themselves in their relationship – the frustration is palpable. Mutual disempowerment magnifies the differences between you. If one partner has more power than the other then it is likely that the partner with the power is getting their needs met more than the one without power. Power dynamics can be very subtle – 3 sighs, a roll of the eyes and no words are enough to do the job. No one wins in these power struggles nor does either party give up.

It is important to take the time to say what you need to say to each other. You both want to feel heard and seen. There is considerable emotional pain that comes with having your truth denied. Having our perceptions validated by the other is of enormous importance. There is some core aspect of who you are which is being denied by the other and that turns conflict into a hard pill to swallow.

Not addressing the issues that lurk behind the power struggles satisfactorily will ultimately result in increased distance and lead to an increasing length of time between love making until it stops all together. This dynamic can take place without a raised voice or even a harsh word spoken. Though escalation too, can result in outrageous shouting matches and growing distance. Often in relationship there will be one of you that makes the confronting moves and the other that is the non-confronter. But both of you will exhibit power moves. The confronter gets vocal fast while the non-confronter sighs, cries or disappears. Slowly but surely both partners will feel more and more disempowered. With each power move the disempowered one retorts with another power move and so the cycle perpetuates. We are caught up in our feelings of disempowerment and we feel there is no other option than to try to re-empower ourselves.

There are a couple of responses to disempowerment: The first is despair, withdrawal or apathy and the second is underground hostility.

Under these struggles sits much frustration around the feeling that neither’s needs are being met. When couples find themselves in this cycle their natural response is to blame the other (fundamental attribution error) – we assume it has to be the other that is causing the problem. Partners rarely come to the awareness in these situations that the issue sits between them. They are approaching the issue in the wrong way!

In order to get out of this terrible mess you both have to be willing to make the change. To acknowledge that you are contributing to your problems and face your part in maintaining the dance and not simply blame your partner. As the saying goes – it takes two to tango!

Here is one simple way you can help each other settle practical differences between you:

Each write down on a piece of paper on a scale of 0 to 10 how important a particular issue is to you. (‘0’ meaning it is of little or no importance and 10, being – of great importance). Then compare your numbers. Do this instead of endlessly debating the merits of your own view or position on the matter. Of course if one of you simply wants their own way they’ll keep putting down high numbers – but this behaviour is not in the spirit of creating a healthy, happy and sustainable relationship. This little exercise is a good way of indicating preference for something rather than getting into heated arguments. It is a useful exercise because often the way we communicate about an issue with our partner is not always a true representation of how we feel about our true preferences. It helps the partners have a clearer understanding of where they sit in relation to the issue.

Give it a go!

If you need to talk about your situation with a professional – contact us:

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