SOURCE: Ron Welch, Psy.D/AACC
“Power doesn’t corrupt people, people corrupt power.” —William Gaddis
In my forthcoming book The Controlling Husband: What Every Woman Needs to Know (Baker/Revell, 2014), I write:
“It can happen in the car, at the ball game, in the grocery store, on the phone—you name the place—and if the conditions are right, you and the one you love can end up in a disagreement. It may start as a minor difference of opinion, and sometimes it ends right there. There are times, though, that the disagreement turns into an argument and the argument into a major conflict. Some of you can get into arguments that would make your mother (or at least your grandmother) blush. Others of you have perfected the silent treatment. Regardless of your technique, you are probably concerned about how conflict is being handled in your relationship.
Control and power in relationships are best seen on a continuum; they will be present in all relationships to some degree. Sometimes the power struggles are very small and easily resolved, while others can last for hours or even days. In a world of finite resources, there is no way we can have everything we want. There are times when negotiation is possible, but often, one party (or both) has to give up some of what they want. If the power struggles are resolved well, through honest and direct communication, couples can move on and be no worse for wear. However, when resentment builds up and scorecards are kept, trouble is just around the corner.”
Lest you think I am simply writing about clients I have worked with or sharing some ivory tower concept written from afar, let me share one other excerpt that explains why this is personal for me: “I never wanted to be that guy…you know, the one who thinks the world revolves around him and lets everyone else know it, the man who always wants to be in charge and drives people nuts because he always thinks he’s right. Somehow, without even realizing it was happening, I became that guy. I’ve heard all the names—control freak, ego maniac, narcissist, know-it-all, controlaholic (okay I made that last one up)—but you get the picture. For many years, I was the poster boy for controlling husbands.
I don’t consider myself to be a particularly bad man and I don’t believe I suffer from any specific mental illness. I can be narcissistic at times, I have problems with anger control, and I can be extremely selfish, but I’m not evil. What I have done is spent much of my marriage caring more about myself than my wife and children.”
Here is what I think a counselor needs to understand about power struggles in marriage: they are not about what they are about. Let me say this another way—a power struggle that occurs due to a conflict over where to go for dinner is not about the dinner. I’m a huge process guy—I think most things those of who serve as therapists deal with are much more about the process than the content.
Let’s use the timeless example of the husband leaving the toilet seat up—something most couples who have been married can relate to. When he leaves the toilet seat up and she becomes offended, it’s not about the toilet seat.
She is hurt because she feels that he doesn’t care enough to think about the inconvenience leaving the seat up causes her (even though it doesn’t really take a tremendous amount of effort to put it back down). It’s the principle of the thing, right?
Power struggles in marriage are often based more on issues of safety and security than on any specific difference of opinion. One partner feels threatened or unsafe, while the other may be defending his or her territory out of fear of losing the security of being in control. As counselors and therapists, we would do well to focus on the underlying issues of safety and security, instead of the surface conflict that represents only the tip of the iceberg.
I know for me, focusing on my own selfishness, which is rooted in insecurity and anxiety, is the best way to understand power struggles that I find myself involved in. When I get away from the content of the disagreement and focus on the process driving it, the power struggle goes away, and I can deal with the real issues that created it. I think you will find this to be true with the clients who allow you the privilege of working with them, also.
Dr. Ron Welch has been a clinical psychologist for over 20 years and is the author of the book, The Controlling Husband – What Every Woman Needs to Know (Baker-Revell, June 2014).