Symmetry Counseling

Written by: Meghan Emerson, MSMFT

In any relationship, there will be a struggle for power – an innate drive to assess and understand the dynamic of the relationship. Who is in charge? Can I trust this person as my leader? Is this person trying to challenge my authority? Such thoughts are often subconscious, occurring beneath the surface and completely hidden from view during the fantastic rush of a new romantic relationship. But inevitably, aspects of the power struggle will surface, whether directly through interpersonal conflict or passive aggressively, and partners will need to reach a state of compromise and acceptance to keep the relationship afloat.

During the romantic love stage of relationships, the focus is on how great our partners are and how great they make us feel. This stage usually lasts around two years, and then disillusionment occurs as reality sets in. We begin to take greater notice of those times when we feel let down by or distant from our partners, and this can trigger power struggles that define the future of a relationship.

To work through power struggles in relationships, you must:

  • Establish safety.
    Form boundaries around vulnerable conversation that eradicate judgment and abuses of power. Abuse of power can occur if you see your partner as more of an object than a person. Depersonalization is a form of emotional distancing and may be triggered by feelings of powerlessness or being taken advantage of. Try to identify your vulnerabilities and approach the conversation in an open, calm manner.
  • Acknowledge your power.
    The power both partners hold in an intimate relationship encompasses power over the other person’s needs and wants and what they fear, which usually includes a fear of rejection or abandonment. Sometimes feeling powerless will push a person to abuse the power one has over a partner, and he or she will target the partner’s vulnerabilities in an effort to gain back a sense of power. While many of these tendencies can be subconscious, it is each partner’s responsibility to become aware of these patterns and change them to more adaptive ways of communicating.
  • Communicate directly about your vulnerabilities and requests for change.
    If you find yourself feeling powerless or overburdened, you need to communicate your discomfort with your partner. The most effective way to do this is to identify the vulnerability being triggered in you so that your partner clearly understands where you are coming from. This may be the fear of rejection or the fear of not being good enough.

    As with any serious conversation in an intimate relationship, it is important to remember that a different perspective is not a wrong perspective. If your partner comes to you expressing his or her feelings of fear or insecurity, it is not your place to defend your position or tell your partner that he or she should not feel that way. Work with your partner to create a more harmonious balance of power.

  • Forgive and move forward from previously addressed hurts.
    Holding on to old wounds feeds resentment and falsely conveys a feeling that you are justified to continue hurting your partner as payback. If you are missing something from your partner that will allow you to more efficiently move forward, identify what that is and request it directly from your partner. Your partner is not a mind reader, and we all occasionally need guidance in understanding our partners’ wants and needs.
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