Relationships can be challenging, especially intimate ones. It’s not like courtship where, instinctively, you both put your best foot forward, conveniently ignoring aspects of the other’s personality that, frankly, didn’t much appeal to you.
But a plethora of research on the trials of marriage testifies that for virtually every couple, once they take the plunge and enter into a presumably lasting commitment, each individual (however unconsciously) feels compelled to start focusing on what they never liked about their partner in the first place.
Such a crucial orientation shift is what’s commonly known as the “power struggle.” Yet, essentially, this relationship phase isn’t really about power at all—with one partner literally trying to gain control over the other. Rather, it’s about each individual’s attempt to alter the other’s characteristics and tendencies so they’ll better match their own. Though the goal here might seem to be control, it’s really much more about each partner’s endeavoring to feel more emotionally comfortable with the other.
After all, it’s extremely difficult to feel truly at ease with your spouse (what originally created those “warm fuzzies” during courtship) when they’re outwardly displaying qualities that plainly vary from your own. Sadly, when your partner manifests these discordant features, it can—however irrationally—feel as though they’re “discrediting” you, actively invalidating your opposing attributes and proclivities. And at a deep level, such a deviation feels alienating, seriously threatening the so-important bond you need to feel toward them.
For one thing, their actions may be at odds with what your family taught you as right and proper behavior. For another, it may contradict how, independently, you decided you wanted to define yourself. So when you just can’t feel simpatico with your partner (whether in interests, values, or general preferences), you’re beset with an unsettling tension, prompting you to question the relationship in ways you hadn’t before considered.
In turn, this disquietude fosters a powerful impulse to change one aspect or another of your partner’s conflicting way of being. Such prodding or pressure will, you vainly hope, better secure your attachment to them. And that’s what prompts you to criticize them. For when your significant other’s behavior is “out of harmony” with yours, old parental dictates firmly ensconced in your head can start criticizing you. After all, you did marry them, didn’t you? And so you’re inextricably linked to them.
Or, given assumptions about your autonomy, you may feel in danger of having to criticize yourself. And to fend off such inwardly felt attacks, you may feel obliged to dis-identify from your partner by rerouting such criticism onto them. That way you can absolve yourself from what, inside your head, had begun to make you feel blameworthy.
And guess what? For very much the same reasons, your partner will feel compelled to do pretty much the same thing. (That’s what your power struggle is really about.)
As in, criticism begets criticism. The only way the two of you may know how to lessen the distress of feeling invalidated is—self-protectively—to invalidate your partner. And such back-and-forth verbal attacks are best understood as defenses your ego “requires” of you both.
Put somewhat differently, you and your partner are likely to react critically to each other whenever either of your behaviors feels threatening to the other’s innermost sense of connection and self-esteem. If what they’re saying (or doing) is what would earn your parents’ disapproval, or varies too much from your own self-chosen standards, you may experience an irresistible urge to distance yourself from them. And regrettably, the most efficient way of doing this is through finding fault with them.
As I discuss in many of my other relationship posts, our organism doesn’t make that much of a distinction between being criticized and attacked. Deep down, a physical attack and a verbal attack feel very much the same. They both impel us to defend ourselves, whether that takes the form of attacking back (nonetheless, a form of defense), archly resisting our partner’s words, or downright refusing to stay engaged with them by walking away (or, passive-aggressively penalizing them with a lingering “silent treatment”).
If you recognize yourself in any of this, how do you counteract such mutually defeatist cycles? Hopefully, you’re not so rigid or self-righteous to believe that your perspective is the only one that’s legitimate. (And if that's not the case, you might as well exit this page right now.)
But if you can see that not just yours, but everyone’s viewpoint of what constitutes appropriate thinking and behavior is valid—in fact, must be valid from their particular point of view—then your inevitable differences no longer have to embody a fixed, insurmountable obstacle between you. And it can hardly be overemphasized that it’s altogether possible to validate another’s viewpoint (from their point of view) without in any way undermining your own. Once you fully “absorb” this insight, not just mentally but emotionally, differences between you and your partner (and others as well) will be experienced as much less frustrating.
Consider that your beliefs and behavioral tendencies are the net result of your biological heritage and all the family and environmental influences you were subject to. Or, that who you are is the sum total of your nature (your DNA) and nurture (as it acts upon and further “shapes” that nature). And this, of course, is equally true of your partner.
So, if your partner is defensive because they feel you’ve attacked them for something you wouldn’t say or do, can you stop in your tracks and realize they’ve just felt invalidated by you and that, however inadvertently, you hurt their feelings? And in the moment, made them feel inadequate, inferior, distrusted, stupid, unworthy, unwanted, or unloved?
And, too, can you get that when in the past your partner reacted to you defensively, it’s likely you automatically counter-defended, counter-attacked, or distanced yourself from the situation? But what if—backing up—you could “challenge” your frustration by recognizing and empathizing with the hurt, disappointment, or sense of dismissal underlying their defensiveness?
And what if you were to say something like:
“I’m guessing that what I just said must have felt like an attack, like I couldn’t accept your viewpoint, even though it’s got to feel just as legitimate to you as mine does to me. And I know how stubborn I can get when I have to face the fact that we’re just not the same person. Sometimes that really makes me uncomfortable, ’cause it feels like I’ve lost my connection to you.
“So, if you’re seeing me as hell-bent on putting you down, or making you feel bad about yourself, I’m really sorry. You’re every bit as entitled to be who you are and have your own point of view as I am....Maybe we can have a do-over? So both of us can feel more understood and sympathized with. Let’s see if we can find a way to agree to disagree, okay?”
Your communication style might be quite different from what I’m describing here. But as I’ve discussed with so many therapy clients over the years, if you’re truly “coming from” a substantially different place in addressing differences with your spouse, you’ll witness, in turn, a far more caring response from them. And simply being able to grasp that all points of view are necessarily subjective—and so, subjectively valid—will help you become a lot more tolerant, accepting, and loving.
So, to conclude, can you become more mindful about what’s really going on when your partner reacts defensively toward you (and you to them)? And rather than react in a way that will only heighten both your defenses, inquire about how you may have hurt or offended them?
As long as your questioning them isn’t interpreted as some sort of interrogation—that it’s coming from authentic caring, versus critical judgment—you’ll almost immediately find them “softening” to you. For they’ll be grateful for your willingness to appreciate where they're coming from, for really hearing them.
It hardly needs to be said that great relationships aren’t about triumphing over your partner. They’re about developing an ever-greater understanding, support, empathy, and compassion toward one another. That’s by far the best way to increase the love and intimacy in any relationship. In the end, isn't that what marital happiness and contentment are all about?
Note: If this post "spoke" to you, here are just a few of the many posts I've written on relationships that closely complement this one: "It's Not Really About Control," "3 Reasons Why Couples Have the Same Fights Over and Over," "One Marriage = Two Realities," and "Want to Avoid Blow-Ups with Your Partner? Here's How."
© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.