The main characteristic of a power struggle is that each person feels hurt and picks up the nearest and most lethal weapon they have in order to retaliate – with the obvious danger of escalation and the destruction of the relationship.
The only way out of a power struggle is
1. Both parties put down their weapons and agree to not use them until all issues are resolved
2. Each person then states as clearly as they are able what it is that they were trying to achieve through the use of weapons
3. Both parties agree that responsibility for the struggle, and for resolving it, is divided 50:50. Each person then does whatever they can to recognise their own 50% – and resists the temptation to tell the other person what their 50% is!
Here is what I recently wrote to two friends who were in a nasty power struggle. It serves as a good example and explains a bit more of what is involved.
“The weapons I see in play at present are on A’s side the threat of intimacy with other women, on B’s side leaving the family home with the implicit threat of leaving for good. Neither of you may regard these as ‘weapons’ – but you may recognise the other person’s weapon as being effective! If you were to lay them down then you, A, would relinquish all intimacy with other women and you B would agree to stay and talk . These commitments would be without reservation and continue until the issues between you are resolved – or you both agree to split up. There may be other weapons in play that I know nothing about – they would be subject to the same peace deal.
I have no idea what each of you is trying to achieve by using these weapons – but know that you can never ever make anyone else do anything – so fighting in this way is doomed to failure. To uncover what it is that you are seeking to achieve think of how you want the other person to change – that is usually where the rub exists. If that doesn’t work then consider how your reality is threatened by some aspect of the other person’s reality. You will know when you have arrived at your aim, because disclosing it will make you feel vulnerable.
Taking responsibility for your contribution to the mess is never easy – and it will go deeper than the current stuff that you are arguing about (because you have been in difficulties for some time). It is a good discipline to only make ‘I’ statements (i.e. nothing beginning with “you..”). It is also usually helpful to identify what it is that you are most critical of in the other person (see the Criticalness Exercise). What you identify in this way is an aspect of yourself you are not fully owning and that is certainly contributing to the current situation. However you go about it neither of you have anything to offer until you uncover, for yourselves, what you have done to contribute to the mess you are currently in – that is your work and the sooner you get on with it the sooner you can start to love and live again.”
So, in summary, what you have to do in order to cease the power struggle is
1. Identify the weapons you are using and agree to put them down
2. Figure out what it is that you were trying to achieve by using these weapons.
3. When you have figured this out own it, which means telling your partner
4. Notice what you are critical of in your partner and use this to reflect on yourself
5. Throughout the process of unwinding the power struggle do your best to not make statements about your partner. Instead tell them about you, what you are feeling and fearing.
6. If you can reach a place of regretting hurting your partner then apologise to them (but don’t fake it).