Who has the power in your relationship?

In a couple, there are multiple forms of power. Who truly takes decisions? Who does what around the house? Who is allowed to go where?

There are also more subtle forms of power between two persons, for example, who is right? Who chooses how and when a conflict comes to a term? Who has to make sacrifices, yet again? Power struggles and disputes are unavoidable in a couple. At some point, couples will face an ”emotional gridlock‘.

Emotional gridlock: when partners express needs and desires that are conflicting, incompatible. For example, one partner asks to try new sexual practices, and the other partner replies that they are very uncomfortable with these kinds of practices. The need to try something new is in direct conflict with the need for safety and reassurance. Often, in an emotional gridlock, both positions are not up for debate and both partners refuse to budge.

 

Decision taker vs asking position

For each conflict in a couple, there is a decision-maker, while the other is in the asking position. The person in the asking position is the one coming with demands (trying new sexual practices, going on vacations, having one or another child, etc). Except by using strong coercion tactics with the other, this person does not have a “decisive power” in the final choice. They depend on their partner, who is the decision-maker.

The decision-maker has the final choice between both options because they usually don’t share the need for the demand expressed. The decision-maker may, or may not, be aware of this position and the power that it implies. Their final decision can be imposing, collaborative, or they can comply with the other’s needs to avoid further arguments.

 

Which strategy do you use in each of these positions?

  • Do you abuse your power in a decision-making position?
  • Do you have trouble managing the asking position?
  • Are you collaborative or do you try to get back at your partner?
  • Which strategy does your partner use?
  • In which conflicts are you the decision-maker? In which are you in the asking position?

Two strategies exist for each position, the “imposing strategy” and the “complying strategy”.

The imposing strategy is mostly used by a dominant partner. This usually comes with the habit of solving arguments and conflicts by ignoring the other’s needs. Imposing strategists are often stiff and have a lot of influence regarding decision-making processes. Imposing strategists will be advantaged during conflicts because of this attitude, they will often :

  • Feel entitled to have the final say in decisions
  • Crave to impose their desires and needs
  • Want to get back at their partner when in the asking position, but are not getting what they want
  • Have trouble accepting being in the asking position, they find it unfair
  • Feel angry
  • Minimize and invalidate the other’s needs and feelings

Imposing strategists often ache for the other’s approval and seek emotional fusion (being the same). Imposing strategists find being different very unsettling, so they impose others to their own desires and needs, building a feeling of entitlement.

 

The complying strategy is mainly submitted to the other person. Complying strategists are often too flexible in decision-making processes, even if they are the decision-maker. Because they feel insecure, they will ignore their own needs to quickly solve conflicts. Because they repeatedly repress their feelings and desires, they will :

  • Feel like everything is unfair
  • Feel submitted to their partner’s will
  • Feel unimportant, insignificant
  • Feel the need to insist, wanting the other to feel bad
  • Seek a lot of attention
  • Seek approval and avoid conflicts

Complying strategists are very sensitive to being ignored. Because they always put others first, chances are that the more they try to communicate their needs, the more aggressive they will be (shouting, crying, verbal and psychological abuse, etc). These are negative ways to cope with their partner’s stiffness. The couple dynamic will enter a vicious circle, where the same conflicts and arguments will always arise and come back.

 

A step () towards collaboration

How to efficiently solve conflicts, with all these strategies and positions? YOUR reaction towards the emotional gridlock is the key, more than the actual decision made to solve the conflict. It is impossible to answer every one of our partner’s needs, so we also have to accept that our partner can’t answer every one of ours. Partners have to acknowledge that both perception and needs are important, valid and on the same level. Even if a decision will inevitably have to be made and someone will NOT get their choice.

A couple is not made of a single entity as we have romanticized in our society, but of two different people who interact. Each person has values, ideas and needs that differ and go against each other at times. Sometimes, one partner’s needs will prevail and other times, the other’s needs will, so balance is key. This can only happen when partners are ready to peacefully face disagreements, denial, and misunderstandings. They must also be ready to face the emerging anxiety, to go beyond it to reach new and healthier horizons. For that, distinct challenges await each partner.

The biggest challenge for the decision-maker is to accept to feel guilty for the times they didn’t fulfill the other’s needs. They must stop misusing their power in decision making, stop putting themselves first and start paying attention the other’s needs. To make their partner feel accepted and validated, the decision-maker can:

  • Ask questions to improve dialogue and connection
  • Empathize, develop compassionate behaviors and actions
  • Really listen to the other’s needs and give them importance, even if their demand is not met
  • Accept to be influenced by the other, if an imposing strategist
  • Feel legitimate to put their own needs first, if a complying strategist

 

The challenge for the person in the asking position is to accept that their partner won’t fulfill all their needs, in specific situations. It could be helpful to :

  • Avoid imposing strategies to submit the other (making them feel guilty, being angry, acting like a victim)
  • Blocking negatives feelings and thoughts against the partner
  • Not acting on retaliation, when in a decision-making position
  • Being grateful when the decision-maker chooses to fulfill the needs of the asking person
  • Stay firm, but respectful, on subjects that are hard limits, if you are a complying strategist

 

A step towards collaboration starts with self-awareness

To get out of the straining dynamic caused by imposing and complying strategies, partners need to go towards a collaborative strategy. The first step is to question: who is usually dominant, who is usually complying, and in which circumstances. Partners also need to acknowledge that their position can vary, depending on the context. That the last strategy used for conflict solving will probably influence those to come.