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Power Struggle

In a relationship defined by power struggle, both partners feel they must keep the other in line by stopping them from acting too freely. This tension can only be made stable if the partners assume the roles of dominant one and submissive one. This results in a relationship in which the submissive partner's goals and preferences have to 'fit into' the goals and preferences of the dominant partner. But such a relationship will never be truly stable, though it may have less open conflict than other relationships. In a power struggle, the fighting, however disguised, is always about power, and all issues, as meaty as they could be by themselves, are always sucked into this dynamic. This is by no means always a situation that is forced onto the submitting partner, although that can happen. Quite often one partner is a 'pleaser' and so the wishes of the other partner have a dominating effect.

Now natural dominance is based on voluntary following of an leader who has confidence and decisional energy. It is really a function of attraction, and occurs in many groups. In some couple relationships, natural dominance works because it is a natural and organic outgrowth of two partners' responses. Where natural dominance works, there is no struggle to keep anybody in line. Freedom of action exists for both and is felt by both , but one partner's goals tend to drive joint efforts more than the other. In the long-term this will only remain stable if the dominant partner incorporates a great deal of what the other partner wants. In this sense, the situation is more one of leader and follower.

Domineering is an artificial dominance created by pushiness. Domineering allows one partner's goals to set the agenda, but instead of whole-hearted cooperation toward those goals, there is a hidden power struggle, in which neither partner feels freedom of action, even though one of the two wins in some sense. It is domineering that partners with submission in a power struggle.

Usually, however, the domineering partner is a person that by no means feels powerful, but rather has very strong opinions on what is right or wrong. Defining reality' is a phrase that describes one person putting forth personal preferences and personal beliefs as if they were self-evident truths and binding on others. This is a natural path into a power struggle because the basic trend is to devalue and exclude the interests of the 'submissive partner' The submissive partner may not 'feel' submissive because they 'resist' the domineering partner's plans. But the submissive partner never puts any substantial items on the agenda and so is really always playing 'defense.'

The submissive partner usually also participates by maligning his or her own habits, tendencies, and capacities. But despite this psuedo-cooperation there still there is never any smooth teamwork as a result. Usually the submissive partner has equalizers in some passive-aggressive sense, and so a 'real' power imbalance may not be present. However, these passive-aggressive actions (for instance forgetting, stalling, not following through) tend to confirm the dominating partner's belief that he or she must control what happens 'or nothing will get done', and the loop continues. The submissive partner avoids really testing his or her 'mettle', blaming (usually secretly) the dominating partner for any failures.

To a casual observer, relationships with a power struggle can appear to be working well. That is because the asymmetry is not a conflict per se, but rather a strategy of avoiding open conflict. Surprisingly, it is those couples that try most to be fair and democratic that have the most trouble falling into these roles. That is because when both partners suppress conscious self-interest, unconscious processes are running things. In a couple in which both partners are pursuing their self-interests more or less without apology, one partner may be stronger, but not to the point of suppressing what is important to the other. In this setting, real agreements will be reached rather than endless struggle.

The domineering partner will rarely feel 'on top', but rather usually feels that he or she is just struggling to see that the 'right thing' happens. The submissive partner will usually agree that they feel limited but not see their own role in creating a void, hiding what they want, or avoiding responsibility.

In a power struggle, a superficial agreement exists about goals and strategies, but there is also a crazy-making quibbling about details. The problem is not the details, however, but the relationship. Where one person is helping another get what they want, or especially where two people want the same thing, details take care of themselves!

A power struggle is very tricky to address in couples therapy, but no progress will be made if it is not addressed. This is because it will seem that the conflicts deal with x, and y, but they are really about power. Both partners recognize the struggle, but they tend not to recognize the power roles. Instead the roles are seen as each doing what they do best. For conflicts to become symmetrically 'fought' may seem like it imperils the relationship even more, but this destabilizing can be temporary.

(Abusive relationships, much rarer, are distinguishable from mere power struggle by the use of coercive tactics to achieve actual control. For more on that topic, see my website on abuse. There is also a power struggle going on, in addictive relationships, but power struggle is not confined to addictive relationships.)