You’re wild about each other. Totally in love. Can’t wait to build a life together. So you decide to commit and… all hell breaks loose.

This is the power struggle

You’ve spent your whole courtship imagining, albeit consciously or unconsciously, how your partner’s going to complete you and make you feel good, and now you want the fantasy to become reality. Thing is, we don’t enter into a relationship looking to help or heal our partner. We get into it to fulfill ourselves.

Genevieve’s story

As I said earlier, Mike can be a bit detached and aloof. That’s something that attracted me to him early on, because that’s what I experienced from caregivers growing up. But once we got engaged, his aloofness infuriated me and I wanted him to change.

Also, I can be codependent at times and not very good at setting boundaries. Mike’s detachment mirrored a part of myself that I’d buried, and it was uncomfortable to look at.

I also wanted Mike to be the spiritual leader in our relationship. I wanted him to set the “moral code” and be this steady presence, something I didn’t have in childhood. I saw seeds in Mike, but he didn’t take it as far as I wanted him to. (I can still struggle with this one!) All of this contributed to our power struggle.

Mike’s story

Mike saw a lot of indecisiveness coming from me, which reminded him of behavior in his family growing up. He also struggled with this quality himself and had been trying to shed it through deliberate action. So seeing it in me was frustrating and agitating, which ignited the power struggle in him.

Also, I was somewhat conservative when we met, but I had sparks of adventure, art, and creativity which drew him to me. But when I’d talk about a suburb that I liked or a more traditional lifestyle, we’d end up arguing and polarizing each other around the topic (i.e. like I wanted to live in a cul-de-sac with a minivan and he wanted to be essentially homeless, traveling from one exotic locale to the next.)

Why don’t we just ask for what we want?

The forces behind the power struggle are largely unconscious, so we’re often not clear about what we want or need from our partner. We end up communicating in unhealthy ways – passive aggressively, arguments, ultimatums, etc.

Harville Hendrix links these unhealthy modes of communication back to our early infancy. When a baby needs something, they don’t smile and coo at their parents. Instead, they wail. And the baby’s parents anticipate his or her needs and meet them.

So, when we lash out at our partner in unhealthy ways, we’re, in a sense, regressing to an infantile state. Think of it as our adult wail.

Stages of the Power Struggle

Hendrix breaks the power struggle down into five stages – identical to the stages of grief:

  1. Shock
  2. Denial
  3. Betrayal
  4. Bargaining
  5. Despair

Mike and I went through most of these stages while we were engaged to be married and not in a linear fashion.

Bargaining was a big one for us. I bargained with Mike about spiritual leadership. If he’d just read the Bible with me every day, then I’d marry him. He did the same around where we’d live. If we just lived in an urban neighborhood, then he’d go through with it.

We also reached the point of despair

The stage of despair is where half of all couples split up. Hendrix describe other couples creating “parallel” marriages, where they find happiness and fulfillment outside their marriage.

5% of couples progress to a conscious marriage

A very few couples – maybe 5% – resolve the power struggle and go on to create conscious, healing, and mutually satisfying relationships, Hendrix says. One of the first steps in doing so is closing your exits.

That, dear mamas, is our topic for next time.

▷▷▷ Part 4: Closing Your Exits

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