Power Struggles are Exhausting

Dr. David B. Hawkins

I watched yet again as couple attending a Marriage Intensive here at The Marriage Recovery Center, clawed and fought for what they wanted from each other, all the while becoming more and more exhausted and discouraged.

“Do you notice what is happening here?” I asked.

Jill had tears in her eyes as her husband, Ted, stared at her angrily. Married for seven years, they had come here as a “last-ditch effort to save our marriage.”

Neither spoke, sitting with their pain and feelings of fear and rejection. Both desperately wanted to save their marriage and wanted reassurance from the other, yet when speaking to each other from their "hurting self," could only speak more hurtful words.

“Hurting people hurt people,” I said to them. “You’re both trying to get what you need, but the way you are doing it only pushes your mate away, leaving you feeling even more rejected and hurt.”

“But, I’m not asking for that much,” Ted blurted out. “I just want her to stop yelling at me.”

“And I want you to stop yelling at me,” Jill retorted.

“Hold on folks,” I said. “You’re starting it all over again -- telling the other what you want, but doing it in a critical, angry voice. Power struggles are a good way to lose power, and NOT get what you want.”

“I don’t start it,” Jill responded defensively. “He starts it.”

“If you respond defensively,” I countered, “you’re buying in. You’re continuing the vicious cycle.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I mean, someone has to stop the bickering, settle things down and speak from a calm, clear place.”

“That’s easier said than done,” Ted said.

“You’re so right,” I said. “We try to grab and get what we want, instead of caringly and compassionately asking for what we need.”

And so goes the vicious cycle, until someone decides the pattern is not working for them. They speak from their wounds, biting word after biting word, serving only to push the other further away. They try to get what they want, using power to coerce change in the other, yet only becoming more exhausted.

“You both want love and affection from the other,” I said softly. “You both want to be held and to be told the other is there for you. You both want to be hugged and reassured that things will be okay.”

“Yes,” Ted said anxiously. “I was left in a former marriage, and I’m frightened that Jill is going to leave me too.”

“Wow, Ted,” I said. “That was honest and said in a way that I bet touches Jill’s heart.”

Indeed, Jill turned to him and patted his leg. I could feel the shift in the room. Jill’s heart had softened. Why? Because Ted talked in a way that connected to Jill, not push her away. He had spoken from his Most Vulnerable Self, asking for what he needed. She responded in kind.

Consider some of these tools for giving up power struggles and asking for what you need:

First, emotions are contagious. Yes, I’ve said this again and again. Emotions attract like emotions. If I respond to you angrily, you’re more likely to respond angrily back. If, on the other hand, I respond from a soft, sensitive place, I’m more likely to "hook" that soft, sensitive place in my mate.

Second, power struggles don’t work. I can’t make my mate do anything. The more I try to coerce her to change, the more pushback I’m going to get. The more I scold, ridicule, or chastise him/ her, the more that language and emotion comes back to bite me.

Third, power struggles are exhausting. Power struggles — attempts to make a mate change — lead to resistance and resentment. You find yourself harboring anger and bitterness that is draining. Sincerity works. Vulnerability works. Sitting down and having heart to heart conversation works. These moments are exhilarating, not exhausting.

Fourth, instead of power struggles, ask kindly and respectfully for what you want. Be specific. If you need a hug, ask for it. If you want reassurance, ask for it. If you want to spend more time with your mate, ask for it. Clear, constructive conversations lead to healthier outcomes.

Finally, keep agreements. Remember what your mate wants and needs. Remind yourself about what is important to him/ her. You will make unbelievable points by surprising your mate with some earlier request, letting them know you’ve been thinking about them.

Angry, coercive conversations are poison in a relationship. Soft, gentle words are soothing and exciting. Watch for words and phrases that seem to push your mate away, and continue those words that seem to draw them close. Notice the difference.

Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website www.MarriageRecoveryCenter.comand’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. 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.

Publication date: May 7, 2012