Beyond Power Struggles and Into Collaborative Partnership
By David A. Yeats LCSW

Over the course of a relationship, there are two periods of time where things shift somewhat dramatically, and where couples often will struggle.  The first has to do with moving out of the honeymoon phase, (The Urge to Merge Stage), and into the power struggle phase (The Urge to Diverge Stage).  Here, partners move from the first initial blissful bonding to an active struggle to hold onto the relationship while they learn to be autonomous at the same time.  When two people want and need to act autonomously, they will frequently deal with controlling their partner or feeling controlled by their partner, and an extended period of power struggle results.

Ways to work with The Urge to Diverge Stage are described in some length and variety in the Relationship Tools posts, and include among others, Trigger Awareness, Time Out/CPR, Two Truths of Relationship, Boundaries and Bridges, and importantly, The Three Gardens of Relationship.  Also, the post on Stumbling Blocks addresses specific communication styles not to do, and the posts on and Building Blocks to Satisfying Communication and Communication Strategies suggest very specific positive styles to adopt in order to move beyond power struggles.

It is at this point that the second dramatic shift can occur for couples in their relationship, as partners move toward the Urge to Converge Stage of relationship. They have largely understood the idea that a relationship that works has a conscious balance between connection and autonomy.  They have seen that tilting the balance in either direction results in more struggles and less satisfaction. And they have worked to be aware that each person needs to be the Guardian of the Closeness in relationship and each person needs to be the Guardian of the Separateness in relationship.

Concretely, this means that they deliberately communicate in a way where each person gets to voice what is true for them, while the other partner respectfully listens and expresses appreciation. The essence of intimacy is this: two people who are willing to say what is true to each other and willing to hear each other—and then work together collaboratively so both truths are honored in their relationship. So when we dare to say what’s true to our partner, and when we stop and listen to our partner, truly trying to take in understand and appreciate where the partner is coming from, we have engaged in the most intimate of acts.  

If partners actually implement this notion of one person talks at a time, while the other listens receptively, that there are two truths that need to be expressed, heard and respected (but not necessarily agreed with), then the seeds are planted for coming together as a team, a partnership, a unit, that has the best interests and well being of each person and the relationship at heart.

 If partners talk over each other, interrupt, or are preparing their responses before hearing each other, they revert to power struggle dynamics.  

Let’s say that we have worked hard as a couple to be conscious, and to develop a norm of being able to both talk and listen to each other as we express what is true for us.  We regard both our partnership and are separate selves in the highest way we can.  Does that mean we don’t disagree?  On the contrary, if we have two autonomous, unique adults, we can expect to see quite a range in what they imagine and prefer. So the work of The Urge to Converge Stage involves a complex, intricate, extremely creative and mutual process of arriving at a Win-Win.

We’ve talked about the concept of Win-Win in the post on the Three Gardens. The goal of a Win-Win is for both people to be able to say about an agreement they have made that “It’s not perfect, but I can live with this!”  That means a negotiation, a collaboration, and usually compromise.

This is the most difficult step for couples who want to create a truly mutual, satisfying and healthy relationship.  So here are some techniques and strategies.

1) Take a breath and remember (and even remind each other) that the process between us is the most important concern. If we have a caring, respectful process and we see and honor each other’s boundaries and each other’s truths, we cannot fail to get to a satisfying Win-Win.

2) Two Truths. The Talk-Listen Exercise (described in Maggie Scarf’s Intimate Partners), uses a defined structure of one person sharing what is true for them, and the other listening, and then the reverse, (which works best in 3-5 minute alternating segments).  The appropriate response when someone has shared their truth is “Thank you,” which can be more deeply understood to mean: “Thank you for caring about me and trusting me enough to be intimate with me by saying what is true for you.”

3) When a partner has heard and acknowledged the other’s truth, and are wanting to take their turn, it is important to clarify the transition. A statement such as the following will help. “I appreciate you letting me know what you think and how you feel.  What’s true for me is…”

4) The next step after Talk Listen (or saying our Two Truths) is KEY.  It is a question.  It is a WE question: It should be asked out loud, not assumed: “So now, what are WE going to do so we both feel good?”
WE have shared concerns.  WE are the container that is our relationship. WE work together to find a solution WE feel good about and in a process WE feel good about.

Here we go: now we get to negotiate.  It helps to:

4) Take turns.

5) Bring good will.  Assume good will.

6) Lead with the technique called Signal Your Intention. “What I am wanting do is…,” “My intention is…’” or more specifically, “I am not wanting to trigger you, or tell you what to do, or judge you, or blame you, or case build, etc…;” or ”I want to say how I feel or think, but I am talking about what’s true for me, and not about you…”

7) Start each comment with a Bridge. Build a Bridge. Acknowledge, appreciate, recognize, show support, reflect the other’s truth, express love, express caring, and Build a Bridge. Say things to your partner to help them feel better, not worse. And if we need to define a limit or a boundary or a line, it will always be heard better, get a better response, and feel better if we first Build a Bridge!

8) Focus on the Positive, NOT on the Negative.

9) Focus on the Present and the Future, NOT THE PAST. Talking about the past leads to case-building, judging, blaming and other HIGHLY TOXIC communication styles.  It will trigger.  The past is good for information about what we may want differently in the future. So: talk about what we want, not what has been.  Talking about what is past brings the Past into the Present and, suddenly, the Present now feels just like the bad of the Past.  Stay Present and Future focused. Stay Present and Future focused.

10) Use “I” messages, not “you messages.  And say what is true for you or what you feel.  “I feel sad, hurt, abandoned, criticized, betrayed, dismissed, etc…, not “ I feel like you….”     “I feel like you…” is not a feeling statement, and it is a “you” message. “ Feel” and “like” should not be used together.  Cleaning up communication in this way is the difference between power struggle or collaborating, even though it may seem petty or insignificant!

11) A good default formula is an open ended question (where the answer is not a “yes” or “no” answer).  When you are finished speaking, segue to your partner with an open ended question.  

12) Even better is the Request Formula:
-“when you…,” or “when I see…,” or “when this happens…”
-“I feel…” (happy, sad, hurt, scared, not heard, angry, dismissed, abandoned, neglected,
misrepresented, etc.) And “angry” calls for further expanding into more vulnerable
-“What I’d like to feel is…”
-“So my request is…”  A request is a request, not an order.  Appropriate responses then
can be yes, no, or some other proposal.

13) Even when we’ve gone a long way to establish good will and understand each other’s triggers, triggering will occur.  Please remember Time Outs/CPR.

14) WE are a team. If we can’t run the play together, have the same strategy and goal in mind, we will work at cross purposes.  Football teams that don’t huddle punt a lot and aren’t very happy.

These techniques and strategies are difficult to implement. Like learning a new language, they take determination, work, repetition, practice, patience, and time.  Like learning a new language, they are possible.  And they are hands-down preferable if we want to have a joyful relationship and well being in one of the most important aspects of our lives. Our lives are intertwined, and so, creating something mutually rewarding, clear, and satisfying for our partner as well as ourselves creates the greatest of joys!