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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Power Struggle - A Losing Battle

In many couples, an ongoing power struggle is what brings them to therapy.  One wants to change the other and the other won’t change.  It’s a losing battle for both people.

A power struggle is just like a tug of war.  In a literal tug of war two teams take either end of a rope.  Each team tries to pull the other team across a line drawn between them.  

The winner is the team who pulls the other team across the line.  

In fact in a tug of war, everyone loses.  The “losers” usually fall on their faces as they are dragged across the line.  The “winners” also land on their rear ends as they fall backward, pulling the other team over.

When a couple in such a power struggle sits in my office, I am often reminded of the last scene in the old movie War Games with Matthew Broderick (it was his first movie).  The computer in charge of nuclear missiles is out of control.  

Although the computer is programmed to play a game called Global Thermonuclear War, in fact the computer has armed the actual missiles that will start a world war.  The computer’s inventor and the Broderick character try to teach the computer that war is a bad idea.  

They teach the computer to play Tic-Tac-Toe.  

If you know how to play Tic-Tac-Toe and are playing with someone who also knows the game, then every game will end up in a draw without a winner.  The computer plays simulated game after game of Tic-Tac-Toe in a frenzy and of course, never wins.  Then the computer moves to playing “thermonuclear war” working out each scenario that is in its program. Each scene ends with the words on the screen:  Winner: NONE.

Suddenly the computer stops everything and declares:  “The only winning move is not to play.

While that is true for nuclear war, it is also true that in a relationship power struggle, the only winning move is not to play.  In other words, if you don’t engage in a power struggle, your communication with your partner is much more likely to arrive at a resolution with which both of you can be comfortable.

The only hope for getting out of a power struggle is to find an area of agreement with the other person and build from there.  For example, if you and your partner are in conflict over your long commute to work in Atlanta, the power struggle can be avoided in this way:

You:  “Can we both agree that the long commute to work is boring and stressful?”
Other:  “Yes, I hate it.”
You:  “OK so we both agree that the commute leaves a lot to be desired.  Let’s brainstorm some ideas about how to lower the stress of the commute for us every day.”
Other:  “OK, but I don’t think there’s a good answer.”
You:  “Let’s just throw out ideas without judging them until we can’t think of any more.”
Other:  “Well, we could listen to books on tape.”
You:  “How about putting "move inside the perimeter" on the list.”
Other:  “How about finding someone to carpool with so we wouldn’t have to drive every day.”
You:  “I’d like to spend less time in the car - but MARTA doesn’t come out this far.”

When you run out of ideas, then each of you pick your favorite two ideas from the combined list.  See if the two of you can join on coming up with the strengths of each idea, no matter who contributed it.

If you get stuck or find a power struggle starting up again, return to the most recent area of agreement, “Well, I don’t want to struggle about that - I believe the last thing we agreed on is that we would discuss moving, carpooling, and looking for neighborhoods closer in but not all the way intown. Let's go back to that.”

Any time a power struggle starts, it is a losing battle.  The only way to win is not to play.

Note:  If you’d like to see the clip from the scene in the movie War Garmes, you can find it here.

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