In this post, a family therapist and our good friend, Raluca, shares her observations about working with couples who are caught in hopeless power struggles. She talks about how the power of play can unlock these couples from a dead-end cycle, creating a sense of freedom and possibility.
Please enjoy this post from our good friend and family therapist, Raluca:
“When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.“ (Mae West)
“Help me, my wife is so domineering! She always wants to control me, she always knows better, she´s always after me.”
“Help! My husband is such an ignoramus. He never listens, he is not interested. I am fed up with telling him what to do all the time.Then he gets mad at me for being too bossy. If he didn’t act so stupid I would not sound so bossy.”
Mia and Marc were not the first couple I have seen in my office who started their sessions this way. Mia, a historian, was a tall, darkhaired, energetic, woman of thirty-four. Marc, thirty-eight, was a reserved, serious, sporty- looking man. He worked as a designer.They were together for 7 years and their relationship was not going very well.
Their shared misery seemed to sprout from the same seed. She was too bossy and he was too tame. The bossier she was the more passive he became and the tamer he was the bossier she would become. They seem to have a lot of energy going on between them but they never seem to be getting anywhere; they ended up running in circles, driving each other mad for the best part of it. What a waste!
In my training as a family therapist I was taught a certain language in order to help couples and families transform their power struggles into more peaceful dialogues where everybody feels more heard and acknowledged at the end. A wonderful thing to achieve. And it works until it doesn´t. This certain language promotes passivity, good manners and political correctness and interferes with playful spontaneity. Human couples bond in the first place through (serious) playful spontaneity. So what now?
I started to look deeper into the power struggles of couples and into the female power that some call “dominance“. Why is showing power in a relationship a negative thing? Why are we afraid of each others power? What happens when the power is neutralized in a couple? Working with couples like Mia and Mark, I found out that learning to enjoy the power struggle is more effective than trying to avoid it by so-called non-violent tecniques of communication. I do believe such tecniques are wonderful in the workplace or in dealing with a stranger on the bus. Extrude the irationality of a power struggle from a love relationship and the result is a divorce. Of course I am exagerating a bit.
The idea of the couple enjoying the power fight more was introduced in our conversations by my mentor and friend, Dr. David Keith. He claims that marriage is a contest to see who can drive the other one crazy first. How does that help us think about the dominant woman and the detached/aloof man?
We are basically misunderstanding what power in a love relationship is. In our general cultural idea, “power“ is a concept oriented towards the abuse of power but not towards the use of power. Aikido as a martial art is a wonderful place to start looking for this sort of transformation of power; from abuse towards use. I believe in power – where there is power there is passion. Where there is passion, there is energy. Power is that special something happening in the relationship with the other. Power is not something one imposes on tothe other. I am aware of my (female) power and use it to create, contact and at best, facilitate growth. Power is my energy that I am willing to invest in you, the other. Communication courses and technique do not help. Remember the law of physics: Pressure Creates Resistance? This is what Mia and Marc where doing to eachother. They were not at ease with each other. They did not know how to use that power in order to create synergy, in order not to waste the investment in the other to violence or suppression.
And because we all learn best when experiencing it, one day in a session the following occurred: Marc arrived in my office a little late and he clearly felt bad about it. Mia already took her seat on the couch in my office, slightly annoyed. Marc, as if a little boy, asked me if he may go to the toilet first. From my Romanian background I have learned a way to joke when asked questions which had obvious answers by answering the opposite of what was expected. It is what I call my Romanian „knock-knock-joke“ mode. So if Mark would ask me permission to go to the toilet, I would deny it and thus reveal the absurdity of his question and of the attempt of delegating his power on me. The therapy session had already started. I replied in that humoristic, Romanian demeanor:
“Of course you may not. Do you want women to tell you what you should do so that you can complain about their dominance afterwards, huh?“ My voice and my body were friendly and relaxed. I was signaling that I am playful and serious at the same time. He was perplexed by my reaction and answered politely: “Oh, I only asked because I was being polite. I just wanted to know if we start immediately. If you say I should not go now, then I will wait“. I continued: “Oh, so you want to wet the couch and get me upset with you. Is this what you´re up to by being so polite? Is this how you get women to pay attention?“ It did not take him long to pick up on the play I was offering them and he said, in a more confident tone: “Oh, of course not. I will go to the toilet now“.
During this Mia was getting visibly angry. She was nervously searching for something in her purse, smashing it against the floor. “See, this is exactly what I am talking about. He is terrible. So clumsy. So helpless. I am fed up with him making me reponsable for his own stuff.“ I told her that her problem seemed to be that she did not learn to handle her feminine power and she did not know how to play.
Most of us fear our own power as well as the power of the others, especially female power. Feminism taught us for a long time to fight against male dominance and the abuse of power. That was a historically crucial step in our developement as social human beings. Until it started to resemble the thing we were fighting against. So what are we fighting for now?
As a therapist, it works better for me if I try to understand what I am doing when using my power. I think the way out of an exhausting power struggle is to be found in the dimension of play. Couples that cannot play are stuck into what George Carlin described in his unique way: “Men are stupid and women are crazy. And the reason women are crazy is because men are stupid“. Dead relationships lack the power to play, they lack a range of play. As a former performance artist and family therapist I know that there is nothing more serious than play! Play helps flip the destructive dynamic into a more constructive one, keeping the relationship alive. Play needs exercise and the more you do it, the better you become.
The non-anxious physical presence is crucial in play. Most men like Marc do not intentionally use power against their partners. They do not attempt to surpress or gain any pleasure out of weakening a partner. Marc is simply afraid of the amount of energy released from Mia. He lacks experience on how to handle the situation when his wife becomes glowing with emotion. He backs off in a a pseudo agreeing, enhancing his power in rejection of the obvious. Sometimes, in order to end a fight it is necessary to stand there fearless. Marc will need to learn that Mia is not dangerous. She only wants him to remain engaged and to “be a man“ that can handle her power.
Mia too is not attempting to belittle Marc or gain any pleasure from putting her partner down. She is simply not able to hold constant her high, challenging energy in a way that does not feel dangerous to herself. She has not yet mastered the art of backing off by turning the energy a level down and responding to her partner, not to her assumptions of her partner. She too is afraid of herself, and of her culturally infused patterns that a girl must talk nice, look nice, act nice and that a man is dumb, childish and lacks sensitivity and vulnerability. She will need to learn how to talk to her partner like a woman not like his mother or like his daughter.
In a way Marc and Mia created each other and might, with a little help, re-create each other again.
A piece of advice I have for women is to listen less to what their partner says and more to how they say it. Question your assumptions on whether the intent is to abuse or is your partner helpless, afraid or simply illiterate towards women. Another piece of advice I have for men is to keep asking questions. Ask your partner what she wants instead of what she does not. Enjoy your sassy woman. Get interested. Don´t just do something, stand there!