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In an ideal relationship, two people will work together side by side as equals.
They’ll communicate, discuss options, and compromise as needed to ensure that both are heard and respected.
This relationship becomes a sacred balance, where each partner feels supported and seen while supporting and appreciating the other in turn.
But what happens if there’s an imbalance? What if the partners are constantly warring for dominance instead of working together towards common goals? Well, that’s a power struggle, and they are more common than you think.
That begs the question: what steps can you take together to ensure that there’s a journey forward on an equal footing instead of a constant battle of wills?
Below are some of the most common signs indicating that a power struggle is taking place and what to do about addressing and reversing them.
1. Arguing over decision-making.
Does one person generally get to make the household decisions? Maybe they have a naturally “strong personality” and keep at the other person until they agree to do what they want. Or perhaps one partner simply gives in to what the other wants to do to avoid conflict, only to feel voiceless and resentful later.
These types of arguments can arise over pretty much any topic. These hot topics can include which movie to watch, what’s for dinner, or whose parents get visited during the holidays. It could even extend to arguments over which friends you see and those you can’t.
Agreeing can be difficult when both parties have fierce personalities, as both might feel that they’re in the right or simply stubborn about what they want. Solving these types of conflicts requires compromise to ensure things are fair. Compromise and fairness are part of a healthy relationship.
The key here is to bring attention to this in a healthy manner and then learn how to compromise. Compromises ease power struggles by giving each person a “win” at various points and in equal measure. Let’s use a couple of the examples listed earlier: ordering food and visiting family.
Imagine that it’s Friday night; you want to order Thai food, but your partner wants pizza. You can say that you’re okay with ordering pizza that night as long as you can order Thai food the following week. Your partner will likely agree in the moment because, hey, pizza. As soon as you’ve ordered it, go write “Thai food” on the calendar for the following Friday night. When the topic comes up again next week, you can remind them that they agreed to let you choose this week. It’s even on the calendar, and it’s only fair to be able to do what you want equally.
Similarly, let’s say that you got your way regarding family visits over the winter holidays. Maybe you visited your family first, then your partner’s a few days later, or solely seeing yours. The next holiday will need to be spent with your partner’s family, on their terms.
Fairness over ego.
2. Keeping score on chores and expenses.
Some couples are super comfortable having “one wallet” in that they both contribute to the household pool and draw from it as needed. Similarly, they might just take care of household chores and necessities when they arise. Others may prefer to have assigned tasks and expenses that they’re responsible for.
When couples fight for power and dominance over another, they’ll often try to beat down the other by commenting on how much more they do than the other.
One might insist that since they do more physical chores like taking out the garbage or shoveling the snow, they have more say in deciding where to go for dinner.
In retaliation, the other might respond that they get to decide which groceries to buy since they earn more money.
You can well imagine how that can spiral into all-out fights in which each person tries to show the value in their contributions. This cycle isn’t fair to anyone, as there will always be some kind of give and take present, and it will never be about taking equal responsibility.
One way to counteract this form of power struggle is to keep a list of expenses and a list of chores. Write down everything that needs to be done around the house, and work together to determine who will shoulder what, primarily. Rather than being of equal amount, it should be of comparable effort. For instance, chopping wood or shoveling snow takes more physical effort than washing dishes or doing laundry.
The same goes for expenses. If your partner bought the groceries last week, then step up and make sure you pay for this week’s round. Each person is responsible for their cellphone bills, but one can pay the electric bill while the other shoulders the internet, streaming services, and other entertainment. The goal is to make expenses of equal value.
Make it fair.
A note on temporary inequality:
Now, you’re likely to experience temporary imbalances once in a while due to illness, injury, or unexpected life changes. A couple that’s usually very equal financially might get off balance when one has to lean on the other because of job loss.
Suddenly, the supporting partner might feel like they’re paying the bills and have more say in things. They’re now in a position of power because they’re giving more of themselves and should be compensated accordingly.
This attitude will make the other partner feel awful. They’ll think that they aren’t loved and valued for who they are but instead have to keep up and compete with their partner to be respected in the relationship.
Alternatively, some people play the victim card. They might claim that because they’re sick or in pain, they should have more say in household decisions to make them “feel better.” While it’s nice to be compassionate when others are hurting, one can feel manipulated and taken for granted if the said person uses their pain to get what they want all the time.
If things are temporarily imbalanced in one direction, you can be pretty sure the scales will tip the other way eventually. For example, suppose your female partner can’t contribute as much physically or financially during pregnancy or postpartum. In that case, she might have to shoulder those burdens if and when you need surgery or are in a cast with a broken leg sometime in the future.
Consider your actions and behaviors. Remember that the shoe will inevitably be on the other foot one day. Treat the other as you would want to be treated if your roles are reversed. Communicate about this with your partner if you feel that their behavior is getting out of hand. Try to keep the emphasis on equality and fairness in your relationship.
3. Criticism and one-upping.
Do you put down your partner with little backhanded comments? Or do they make snide remarks about you? Do you find that you keep “trying to help” your partner by suggesting that they dress differently or change their hairstyle? Or are they trying to “encourage you to do better” by belittling your job, your hobbies, or your accomplishments?
Alternatively, maybe one partner constantly feels the need to be superior. If you’re proud of earning your bachelor’s degree, they might smirk and say that they’ll be impressed when you’ve gotten a master’s like theirs. Oh, you got a promotion? Well, that’s awesome, but they’ve been running their own (very successful) business for five years. You can hold a yoga pose for ten minutes? Try doing 200 pushups like they can, and they’ll be impressed.
No matter what you do, they always make a point of showing that they’re just a bit better than you.
People who suffer from low self-esteem often put others down to build themselves up. Since they feel small, untalented, weak, etc., their way of trying to regain a sense of personal power is to try and cut other people down. It’s a trauma response, but their past damage doesn’t excuse their behavior towards you. Or vice versa.
When and if this occurs, call attention to it immediately. Let your partner know how it makes you feel when they talk to you like that. They’ll undoubtedly get defensive and try to defend their actions or tell you that you’re being dramatic or unreasonable. At that point, you can remove yourself physically from the situation until emotions have cooled a bit.
If they try to reiterate that they “just want to help,” ask them to define precisely what it is they think they’re helping. Point out that too much “help” is controlling. If you want their input or opinion, you’ll ask for it. If your partner sincerely wants to be helpful, consider their motivations for doing so. Encourage them to use a more respectful tone rather than a condescending one.
4. Refusal to apologize.
Have you ever had an argument in which neither of you wanted to extend the olive branch to smooth things over? Yep, that’s another example of a power struggle and one that is very common when both partners have strong personalities, as neither one wants to come off as spineless.
Sometimes taking the first step to make amends is perceived as a sign of weakness. Some people want to maintain their sense of power or security and thus won’t show their bellies to end the conflict. They want the other person to crawl over and beg for forgiveness. Even if they know they’re in the wrong, they’re unwilling to admit to it because they don’t give an inch.
This attitude and unhealthy conflict resolution style does not bode well for long-term relationships. Recognize that going to talk to your partner after a fight to smooth things over isn’t a sign of weakness but instead shows great strength of character.
If you’re the one who is going to extend the olive branch, you can reassure yourself that you’re not giving up your power but rather putting the health of your relationship above your ego. You can communicate this idea with your partner, especially if they’re also hesitant as well.
In turn, don’t be spiteful or smug if your partner is the one who takes the first step to end an argument. Acknowledge that it took a lot for them to do that, and remember that this is a person you love and respect. Don’t get little digs in or hold grudges against them.
5. Spiteful actions and game playing.
Some people purposely try to hurt their partners or put them on unsteady ground to maintain the upper hand in the relationship. They might believe that if their lover is too comfortable in their partnership, they’ll take them for granted or leave them for someone else. As a result, they make themselves seem more appealing by making it seem like others are also interested in them.
For example, they might post provocative photos on their social media accounts to get likes and comments. Or they may reach out to past partners and tell you about it. If the partners don’t live together, one might take just a bit too long to call or text the other back. They might even ghost for days at a time just to keep the other on edge, worrying about the state of the relationship.
If you feel that you’ve been doing these kinds of things, ask yourself what your end goal is. Do you think these are healthy actions to take? How would you feel if your partner were doing these things to you? If your friend told you that this was happening in their relationship, what would your advice be?
People who respect one another and want to be together don’t play these kinds of games. Even if these behaviors are a trauma response from a previous relationship, they are not okay.
If you love each other and want to be in a committed relationship, then you’ll need to sit down and create some healthy boundaries. Not controlling ones; you can’t demand that your partner must stop talking to their exes, for example, especially if they’re still good friends. But you can ask that they respect their relationship with you enough that they don’t post semi-nude photos on Instagram.
You can both set out reasonable expectations for communication. If you don’t live together, agree to communicate a couple of times a day, even if it’s just a few text messages. Commit to respecting each other enough to work together as a team.
How do people get to this point? What causes these types of power struggles?
Every person has a slew of issues that they need to work through. Some process these issues alone, subconsciously, while others process them by using other people by proxy.
For example, let’s say that someone had a history of being in situations where they felt powerless. It could have been a family environment where they were mistreated by overbearing parents or romantic relationships where they were bullied or abused. As a result, as soon as they could remove themselves from that situation, they might have made the conscious decision that nobody would ever have a position of power over them again.
Their decision could extend over to new personal relationships as they go through life. Instead of compromising and finding the middle ground when dealing with a partner, they’ll insist on having their way and being the leader in every single situation. They might feel that allowing the other partner to “win” would undermine their decision never to be disempowered again. Even though they’re with an equal partner they love dearly, that underlying need to be strong overpowers their rational thinking.
Alternatively, controlling behavior can stem from traumatic experiences. Let’s say someone had a parent or previous partner who died unexpectedly of a heart condition. As a result, they might become overprotective and controlling towards their current partner. They’ll insist on making decisions about meal options so that their partner doesn’t eat potentially heart-damaging foods.
When it comes to things like downtime or vacations, they might insist on hiking excursions or other physically demanding activities to keep their partner’s heart healthy. They might even overstep with health decisions, insisting on too many doctor’s visits or supplements that aren’t needed, solely to reassure themselves.
They may feel that they have their partner’s best interests in mind, and they “just want to help” keep them healthy and safe. Their motivations stem from an intense fear of loss. They’ve experienced incredible pain and trauma in losing someone they loved dearly and will do everything in their power to avoid ever feeling that kind of pain again.
It’s crucial to understand where someone’s behaviors are coming from. Once you know the root of their actions, you can address them on that level. You can communicate that you understand where they’re coming from but then explain how their words and actions affect you.
Mutual understanding can work absolute wonders for finding a middle ground. You’ll end up supporting one another as loving equals rather than trying to fight for dominance.
Work to your individual strengths.
In addition to the communication as mentioned above, one of the best ways to combat power struggles and ensure equality and fairness is to harness each person’s strongest personality traits to their greatest effect. By doing so, not only do you nurture your partner’s natural tendencies, but you also create a harmonious balance.
Try to work with one another’s strengths rather than getting frustrated with them, and honor them in their place of power.
For example, one partner is a man with a powerful personality. He might love mountain climbing or dirt bike racing activities and enjoys putting physical strength to good use. He may have trouble in standard relationships because his instinct is to conquer rather than negotiate. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it takes a lot of compassion and patience to get through to that person so they can expand their sphere of personality.
How can you support his natural personality without losing yourself? Work with his strengths. He likes to tackle and conquer things? Well, what’s a project the two of you can work on together? Maybe you can buy a small patch of land and build a pioneer-style log cabin together. Let him take point with all the physical stuff and ask how you can support him. He may have no interest in the budgeting or “little details” like furnishings, and you can take on that aspect. This way, your tasks are still equal but different according to your individual abilities.
Similarly, you might have a female partner who’s a meticulous planner and list maker. She might be a project manager at work, and others might consider her a “control freak.” These tendencies can make her controlling in relationships as well, and she might get frustrated when the other partner doesn’t go along with what she feels is the best way of doing things.
Harness that meticulous planner’s skill sets and put her in charge of household maintenance. She can keep tabs on which grocery and home supplies need replenishing every week. Give her calendars to fill in everything from the kids’ dental appointments to when to start which seeds for this year’s garden.
Meanwhile, you can take on the things you enjoy most and do the cooking and baking if that makes you happy. If she’s ordering the seeds, maybe you can take point on growing the vegetables and herbs you like to cook with most.
Some people approach all aspects of life the same way, simply because others haven’t taken the time to offer alternative ways of thinking or behaving. They might have never had the opportunity to work as part of a relationship “team” whose personal strengths and abilities are put to best use.
Communication is key.
When we spend a great deal of time with someone, we often forget that they don’t just “know” everything about us. It takes time to get to know someone, and there will be tons of different details that come up over several years.
This is why it’s so important to learn how to communicate effectively. When you’re trying to work out compromises and power struggles, this is an excellent opportunity to discuss what you feel happiest and most empowered by.
It’s also important to discuss how different situations make you feel, e.g., if they’re triggering memories of past traumas. Many of us say and do things out of habit without considering that what’s normal to us might be damaging to someone else.
When communicating about these things, use “I” statements rather than anything accusatory. For example, “I feel belittled when you say X,” rather than “You make me feel like an idiot.”
If and when your partner makes accusatory statements, take a deep breath and try not to retaliate because you’re feeling hurt at that moment. If necessary, you can even remove yourself from the room for a while and come back when you’re feeling calmer.
Removing yourself and using healthier communication skills will prevent you from speaking out in anger.
Determine how you can best support one another and how you can put your individual strengths to best use equally. You have each other’s backs; where one of you is stronger, the other might need support, and vice versa. Be each other’s pillars—of equal size and strength—and you’ll create an excellent foundation to build your partnership on.
Still not sure what to do about the relationship power struggles you’re experiencing? Sometimes you need an experienced professional to provide the kind of specific and tailored guidance that an internet article can’t. A professional will be able to help you identify the major sticking points and suggest ways to overcome them. So why not chat online to one of the experts from Relationship Hero who can help you figure things out. Simply click here to chat.
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