Marriage

Are Power Struggles Destroying Your Marriage?

How to treat your partner as an equal.

Posted Dec 19, 2020

Why do couples bicker all the time? At first blush, one might say that conflict in marriage is inevitable because a marriage consists of two individuals with different preferences, different priorities, and different points of view. Those preferences, priorities, and viewpoints will inevitably clash, and partners will campaign for their preferences, priorities, and viewpoints. Partners don’t necessarily see this as selfish or self-centered because they are campaigning for what they truly believe is best for both of them.

Of course, it can always seem to the other partner that the argument for what is best for us as a couple is really just a self-serving but disguised argument for what is best for the partner making the argument. So, couples argue about what is best for us as a couple, each hoping to prevail by making the most convincing case. But as we all know, no one wins such arguments. The debate goes on forever as partners get more and more frustrated that they can’t get their points across. It’s an infuriating stalemate.

Why We Need to Be Right

Such arguments turn into endless power struggles because neither partner can just let it go. They each need to prove they are right, and no one wants to cave in by admitting they are in the wrong. But deep down neither partner really thinks they are in the wrong. It doesn’t seem fair to admit defeat when you really believe the facts are on your side. You don’t want to suffer your partner’s unwise preferences, misplaced priorities, or misguided viewpoints. You feel that your partner should just be a reasonable person, admit that you are right, and adjust their behavior accordingly. Of course, your partner feels exactly the same way about you so it’s a standoff. In such a situation, resentments fester while emotional intimacy withers. It seems like you can’t be close until your partner admits you were right and they were wrong. Your partner might do that just to placate you or get you off his or her back, but your partner doesn’t really mean it.

The question is why it’s so important to get our partners to concede that we are right and that they are wrong. It’s an unrealistic expectation. It’s not going to happen no matter how we express ourselves or no matter how long we debate it. We are not going to get that validation. So, we better start learning to live without it. We have to satisfy ourselves with the private knowledge that we know we are right even if our partner won’t acknowledge it. And it doesn’t get us anywhere if we carry around a grudge that our stubborn partner who will never concede defeat won’t give us the validation that we feel we deserve.

It’s a bitter pill to learn to accept that we live in our own personal reality that even the person who loves us the most and knows us the best doesn’t entirely share or even fully understand. Maybe our romantic partners don’t exist simply to validate who we are and maybe, in the end, we might not need that validation if our partners are devoted to our best welfare as “they see it,” not as we see it.

Hierarchy and the Need for Validation

In an egalitarian marriage, no one gets to be the boss. In an egalitarian marriage, you need to be a team player. That means that no one pulls rank on the other. You might think you know better, but in an egalitarian marriage, your partner’s opinions are equal to your own and warrant respectful treatment. That means even if you think your partner is dead wrong, you must respect the fact that your partner is entitled to a mind of his or her own and you should treat your partner’s opinion as equal to your own. That’s hard to do if you think you are right, and they are wrong. But you have to learn to tolerate your partner’s wrongness and perhaps even suffer your partner’s wrongness if you are going to treat your partner as a true equal.

A husband complained to me that his wife never cleaned up after herself and their messy household was driving him crazy. He believed that a mature individual should clean up after herself. But his wife didn’t accept that argument. His wife argued that she had other priorities. Her job and childcare came first, and it didn’t bother her if the house was a mess. She felt that if he didn’t like the mess, he could clean things up himself. The husband protested that this was unfair because he cleaned up after himself. I noted that his wife was entitled to her opinion and since he wasn’t her boss, she resented him telling her what to do as though she was his housekeeper. He had grown up with a housekeeper.

I suggested that if he wanted to end the constant arguments, he had to let go of the endless power struggles over getting her to clean up after herself. The husband found that living in a messy apartment without the arguments was a lot more relaxing than living in a messy apartment with the arguments and if he did a bit of tidying up himself, he could live in more pleasant surroundings while living in peace with his wife. It no longer seemed so important to get validation of his heartfelt belief that everyone should clean up after themselves. He reconciled himself to living in a world where a lot of people, including his wife, just aren’t going to clean up after themselves and he doesn’t really have the power or authority to make them do it against their will.

Agreeing to Disagree

Yes, couples inevitably possess conflicting preferences, priorities, and viewpoints, but they don’t have to argue about it. They can just voice their beliefs because, after all, it’s a free country where people can speak their minds without censorship. At least your partner will know what you really feel and think, and you will know where your partner stands. But you don’t have to debate it. You can simply agree to disagree. You can learn to live with the difference rather than try to argue it away. You’re not the boss.

You can try to tell your partner what to think and how to act as though you were their superior but that will just get you in an endless power struggle. Instead, you can learn to accept the difference. Then you can figure out how two stubborn people with independent minds of their own can learn to function as a team without bossing each other around because you each think that you know what’s best.

References

Josephs, L. (2018) The Dynamics of Infidelity: Applying Relationship Science to Psychotherapy Practice. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.