Q&A with Geoff: How do I break a power struggle with my wife?Jun 15, 2022
My wife and I are locked in a power struggle and neither of us feels appreciated. We are on the ropes and close to divorce. Any advice on how to break this cycle? We are seeing a counselor trying to figure out if there’s a path forward. Do you think a weekend retreat with couples therapy can help to break this cycle and give us better tools to handle this? We also have kids and boundary issues with in-laws.
I respect your desire to resolve things in your marriage so you can find a way out of your impasse. In fact, I feel hopeful when I meet a couple who are stuck in a power struggle. It’s much easier to harness the misdirected energy of a couple who are trying to get things right rather than generate energy in an emotionally flatlined couple who have completely lost interest in their relationship.
While I don’t want to minimize the difficulty of the road ahead, I want to highlight that there is a road ahead for your marriage if you want to learn how to work with this relational energy you’re both experiencing.
You’ve identified a cycle in your marriage, which means that it’s something predictable. Cycles are good news because you’re past the point of being surprised by each other’s reactions. Instead of asking “What’s going on here?” you’re more likely to say to yourself, “Here we go again!” The predictability of the cycle makes it easier to intercept it and shape it into a healthier outcome.
The topics of kids, boundaries and other issues are secondary to the cycle you’re describing. The destructive cycle of disconnection is usually the same regardless of the topic you’re trying to tackle. Think of the cycle as to how you discuss the topics. This is what does damage to the relationship, not the topics.
In fact, when couples stay out of destructive cycles, they can talk about anything, including all the topics on which they strongly disagree. Let’s break down how to begin seeing your cycle and then discuss how to break out of it.
If you pay attention to the different movements you both make when you’re in your cycle, you’ll see that every reaction you have toward each other moves you away from the other person. This is the first thing you’ll want to recognize and interrupt. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
You can simply say to yourself and the other person something like, “I don’t like what’s happening to us right now … I feel like we’re moving away from each other in this discussion.” You can emphasize this without blaming the other person. Your distress comes from the distance you feel from the other person, not from the topic.
If each of you looks closely at yourself when you’re in the cycle, you’ll see that there are tendencies and reflexes that happen so quickly they’re easy to miss. For example, one of you might get loud while one of you gets quiet. You might both become defensive and interrupt each other. There are countless ways we protect ourselves instead of protecting the relationship.
Protecting the relationship means that you recognize that staying close and feeling respected by the other is the way out of the cycle.
It helps to offer reassurance to each other that you want to stay close and not lose the connection. It’s common to believe the opposite when we’re stuck in the cycle of disconnection. We can easily believe that our partner doesn’t care about us when each of us are stuck reacting in self-protective ways.
If you each can be drawn on your courage to admit that you don’t want to lose the other person, it will go a long way to soften the interaction.
Weekend retreats and counseling are helpful ways to slow down the cycle and learn how you impact each other. The perspective I’m sharing is based on the work of Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. I highly recommend you seek out courses and counselors who are trained in this highly effective method for helping couples.
I’ve also created a free guide to help couples identify and step out of their cycles available at this link.
Even though you’re working on a relational struggle, most marriage work involves taking an honest look at our own reactions and how we impact our partner. If both of you are willing to take a step back, drop the topic for a minute and look closely at how you’re overwhelming the other person, you’ll be one step closer to breaking your cycle.
Once you see how you’re impacting the other person, you can take ownership and work to respond in a healthier way. This takes a lot of practice as you notice, interrupt, and come back to try it in a better way. Make sure you do this with patience, compassion, kindness and commitment. The way we treat each other is more important than what we talk about.
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