A few weeks ago, I got a call from Eric. He needed coaching, he said, because his perfect relationship was suddenly not-so-perfect, and he did not have a clue what was going on. He was grieving for what he saw as the loss of his ideal relationship.
He told me: “Gillian and I fell passionately in love and dated for two years before marrying. We were blissfully happy and had no reason to doubt that happily-ever-after could come true. We are only one year into our marriage and now we argue about everything. She finds something to criticize me for every day. But it’s not just her, it’s me too! The things about her I once thought were cute now get on my last good nerve. I thought she was perfect for me. We have shared values, similar senses of humor, and life and relationship goals that mesh perfectly. But now I’m terrified that we are not going to make it.”
Eric and Gillian were in a classic power struggle. This is often a stage in a relationship that is filled with conflict and blame, a need to feel right, disappointment in our partner, and a threatened sense of security and happiness. If it is not dealt with, this stage could become a recurring pattern that may haunt a relationship or even bring it down. When it is processed in healthy ways by open and loving partners, it can be moved through and beyond, to a state of accord—a place we call the mature stage of love. Of course we’d love to skip the power struggle stage altogether, but often it provides an important step for individual growth as well as in co-creating a life with your loved one.
First, there’s the honeymoon stage, during which we basically see our partner through rose colored glasses. When we are looking through those sweetly tinted lenses we literally do not see our partner’s flaws or quirks. He or she seems literally perfect—and we all know that is not possible. But many of us also know the feeling that we’ve beaten all the odds and actually have found a perfect person! Well, that ends. Thank goodness. Being perfect is so much pressure.
Soon enough we see our partners as the imperfect beings they are—people with their own needs, idiosyncrasies, and peccadilloes—and they see us the same way too. Witness the advent of the power struggle. Your needs and your partner’s don’t always line up. Or, as with Gillian and Eric, all those little quirks that you either did not notice during the honeymoon stage, or that seemed adorable when viewed through rosy tinted lenses, suddenly make you crazy.
The power struggle stage is both the toughest and the most rewarding. Though your first reaction may be to bolt, fight, or submit, there are better ways to work through this phase. The goal is to:
* look at what is actually going on underneath the words and worries
* find ways to communicate (aside from criticizing, yelling, or being sarcastic)
* understand yourself and your partner as you really are (not tinged pink)
* grow together as a pair of distinct but compatible people
* reach common ground
Okay, so let’s take a step back to look at one of those pivotal moments between honeymoon and power struggle.
√ You come home from work and realize that your wife’s shoes are always left by the front door, her coat is always tossed across the back of the couch, and her pajama bottoms are invariably discarded in a little heap next to the shower where you find them and toss them into the hamper. You also realize that all this infuriates you.
√ Saturday morning, you both agreed, was for chores. When you get them all done, the rest of the weekend is for relaxing and having fun. It dawns on you— or rather slams into your consciousness like a Rocky Mountain boulder—that your husband sleeps in a little later every Saturday, wastes time drinking an extra pot of coffee and checking emails, and basically kicks back till you’ve done more than half the chores and cleaning. Then he pitches in for the last hour. No fair. Now that you notice this pattern…you are pissed off.
- What is really going on?
- How are you reacting?
The first question can only be answered with honesty and in a safe, blame-free environment. The second will differ for everyone, but there is one thing for sure: your reaction is about you, not your partner.
→ Are you quick to take every action of your partner personally, as if each one is specifically directed at you?
→ Is it easier to blame and show anger and disappointment than to ask for what you need or share your feelings and vulnerabilities?
Chances are the clothes all over the place or the lazy Saturday mornings—or whatever it might be—is not a “screw you” but really about your partner and his or her personality, previous habits, comfort zone… all of which are different from yours, naturally. So you set about finding a workable solution based on open communication and total honesty.
Option one: “You are so inconsiderate and lazy that you expect me to clean up after you.”
Option two: “I feel like I am unimportant to you and it hurts me. I want us to work together to do the chores so we can have more time to do things we enjoy together.”
The first communication option will simply put your partner on the defensive and imply a comparison between you where you come out looking great, and your partner comes off looking like a jerk. The latter communication is non-accusatory, honest, shows your personal vulnerability, and opens the door for change.
As uncomfortable as power struggles are, they represent an opportunity for personal growth. Through the conflicts you can learn what you need in the relationship and how to express it confidently in a non-defensive manner, take responsibility for your contribution, and find a mutually satisfying solution.
How can you work through this stage and reach the mature love stage that we’ve dreamed of—where we accept and appreciate our partner for who they are—quirks and all? Here are a few tips to reach A.C.C.O.R.D. instead of living with strife:
√ Accept and appreciate yourself and your partner as you are, imperfections and all.
√ Communicate honestly with one another.
√ Create a mutually satisfying approach to any potential power struggle or difference in approach, needs, wants, etc.
√ Own your own responsibility within the relationship.
√ Realize what the power struggles in the relationship are—what triggers them, when they arise, etc.
√ Dedicate yourself to making sure both partners’ needs are met—they are equally important and what may seem silly to you could be earth-shattering to your loved one. No judgments, just loving accord.
Reaching the mature love stage is like being on the top of a mountain. You look down below you and can see all the trails that led to where you are now—all the lessons you learned about yourself and your partner. You can see the stars above as the future that awaits you. While you’re up there, thank your lucky stars for your perfectly imperfect partner who is perfect for you.