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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

Diffusing Power Struggles in Marriage

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins The Relationship Doctor
  • 2010 2 Jun
Diffusing Power Struggles in Marriage


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There is little more frustrating than to argue your point and to feel it misunderstood. Perhaps worse would be to have the person refuse to listen to you all together. Either way, disagreements can be the source of many escalated conflicts.

The Apostle James had it right:

“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from the desires that battle within you? You want something but you do not get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want.” (James 4: 1-3)

Power struggles are like intentionally hurting your mate. Power struggles are a way of saying:

“I insist on you agreeing with me. I insist that my point of view is right. I know the correct way to do things, and you must do them my way.”

Can you hear the mean-spirited attitude taking place in that scenario? You want someone to see things your way. When they don’t, you fight and quarrel. You push and shove, manipulate and pout, shouting and perhaps even using obscenities.

A recent email illustrates the problem:

Dear Dr. David. I live with a man who is very intimidating. He can be overpowering at times, and many times I feel that I have to see things his way or not have an opinion at all. Surprisingly, he feels the same way. He often feels that I am controlling as well, that he cannot disagree with me.

I had the courage to share this with him and he said that he didn’t want me to feel controlled, and I certainly don’t like it. I’m wondering if others get into power struggles with each other, and if so, what they do to make sure they keep an open mind as to the other’s point of view. How can you stick to how you see things when you see things very differently from your spouse? What if they see things entirely different from how you see things? We just don’t know how to disagree in a way that honors the other person. We don’t want to give up our opinion, but don’t want to bully the other either. Can you offer some hints on how to manage this process in a marriage?

First, admit to one another that power struggles are hurtful and could ruin a wonderful relationship. Acknowledge that both of you tend to get locked into a position, forgetting each other’s feelings. Acknowledge the detrimental impact power struggles have on your relationship and that there is a better way of relating.

Second, we must hold to our opinions very loosely. When we hold rigidly to our point of view this leaves little room for the other to disagree or to simply see things from another angle. While we commonly refer to this as “controlling,” it may simply be rigidly holding to a point of view. Remember, there are many different ways of viewing the same situation.

Third, ask that your opinion be considered, assuring him that you will consider his opinion. This too will take practice. Listen to what he is saying, assuring him that you can see the validity of his perspective. Slow down the process, taking time to truly listen to each other, guarding against the temptation of preparing your counter-attack while either is talking. Likewise, ask him to validate your point of view. 

Fourth, empathize with him and ask that he empathize with you. A powerful bridge is built between two people when they truly walk in the other’s shoes. A sigh of relief often occurs when we let the other person know we see and understand what they are saying. We, too feel relief and actually experience healing when our mate offers empathy. Empathy causes us to change our style, seeing and feeling the impact of what we’re doing to our mate.

Fifth, refuse to get into power struggles or arguments. Agree that you will not bicker or push your point of view on the other person. Interrupt fruitless arguing and hurtful bickering. Reassure each other that peace and harmony is sweeter than any victory obtained through argument.

Finally, hold each other accountable for change. Changing old patterns is difficult. It is much easier to slip into old ways of doing things. However, this is an opportunity for both of you to grow. Make an agreement that you are both going to change old patterns, allowing for minor slips to occur on the path to healthy relating.

We can “win” any argument. We can forcefully push our agenda and cause the other to retreat. This harms the other emotionally and ruins a marriage. Take care, when taking a position, to not overwhelm your mate. Seek win-win solutions that take the relationship to a higher level. Notice the delight when you both feel heard, empathized with and fully appreciated. Accurate empathy heals—and you have an opportunity to offer that to your mate.

Tell me what you’ve done to avoid harmful power struggles.

David Hawkins, Ph.D., is the founder of the Marriage Recovery Center. He has worked with couples and families to improve the quality of their lives by resolving personal issues for the last 30 years. He is the author of over 18 books, including Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage   Saying It So He'll Listen, and  When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You. His newest books are titled  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt.  Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.