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Making Molehills Out of  Mountains/Reclaiming Your Personal
Power in Your Relationships

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Power and Control

By Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D.

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Take It to the Limit One More Time

Love creates an ‘us’ without destroying a ‘me.’
-Leo Buscaglia

Bridge-Builder’s Tip
Honoring your partner rather than fighting for your self-interests will lessen the conflict in your relationship.

“I want to join this club, but I don’t know. There’s so much they expect from you.”

"Like what?” I asked.

"First off, they have this meeting you have to attend. It’s the third Thursday of every month. I’m not going to give up my Thursday night just like that.”

“It sounds like it’s important for you to have a say in how, when, and where you spend your time,” I observed.

“Well, yea, of course it is. What if I want to do something the week they have their meeting? I should have the choice of whether I attend their meeting, shouldn’t I?”

“You feel like you’re giving up a lot by joining this club?” I asked.

"Well, yea, of course I do. And I haven’t told you the half of it. There’s more to it. They expect you to join a committee to head a yearly volunteer project.”

"That disturbs you?” I asked.

“Well, yea. Why are there so many conditions? Look, I’m paying dues to join this club. Isn’t that enough? What are all of these hoops that I have to jump through just to become a member of their club?”

“It sure sounds like you believe you have to give up a lot to join. What’s so great about being a member in the first place?”

“I told you all about that before. It will be great for my career. I’ll be able to meet a lot of people who can help me out. You know, you can’t get anywhere in this field without somebody who will take an interest in your career. And this is where all the main players hang out.

“Besides that, it can’t hurt my social life any. There are functions that go on throughout the year. And some of them are pretty impressive to attend.”

“Well, it sounds like there’s a lot for you to gain by joining. Why’s it so hard for you?”

“I just don’t like being told what to do and when to do it. I feel like somebody else is controlling my life. And if this is what you have to do just to join, then what’s it going to be like a year from now?

“First, they’re taking away my Thursday nights. Then they want to assign me to a committee to work with a bunch of people I don’t even know. Then, they have this whole list of rules about how you have to act if you’re a member of their club.

“It just seems to me that I should be able to have some say in all of this.”

“Well, it sounds like a real dilemma. On the one hand, you stand to gain a lot of visibility for your career. You’ll have the opportunity to rub elbows with important people who can support your development. You’ve been complaining lately about how bored you are with your social life. This sounds like just the shot in the arm you were hoping for. You’ll even have the opportunity to do some good work for the community.

“On the other hand, you’re digging your heels in because you don’t like other people telling you what to do. You’re  fearful of how much control this club will exert over your life. You feel like your ability to make decisions is being curtailed. You resent having to do things somebody else’s way. Most importantly, you don’t want to surrender in any way to somebody else.”

“Yea, that’s right!”

“I can understand how this decision is so hard for you.”

The struggle my friend is experiencing is not unique to him. Relationships challenge us to master the delicate balancing act of maintaining and surrendering parts of our individuality. The art of building relationship-bridges challenges us to cooperatively blend two separate lives into a singular entity that honors the needs of each individual, yet preserves the integrity and well-being of the relationship.

Don’t get me wrong. I assure you that last sentence was much easier for me to write than it is for any of us to execute. However, it’s the secret to the ongoing work we take on in our relationships.

There’s no question that the road gets rocky from time to time. And I’m sure that you can see by now, that when the road gets rocky, there’s something important going on beneath the surface of the relationship that isn’t getting expressed. However, how many of you focus more on the drama created by the power struggle rather than what the power struggle is masking about the underlying relationship issues? For instance...

While you get caught up in defending the correctness of your position, do you lose sight of what the drama is expressing about you and your partner and the emotional needs of both?

While you get caught up in creating a space in your relationship that protects your individuality, do you compromise the well-being of your relationship?

While you get caught up in enforcing your position, do you totally disconnect from what your underlying fears are?          

While you get caught up in justifying the righteousness of your cause, do you turn your back on the dignity of your partner?

Power and control is fear driven. The more you want to disconnect from feeling your fear, the more you will mask your fear with controlling behavior. One of the many fears that lives beneath all the drama that power and control creates is the fear of losing our autonomy. For instance, think about this conversation I overheard one night while I was visiting my friend Sylvia at her bar.   

I was nursing a Miller as I munched on a bowl of mixed nuts. Sylvia was in the midst of some animated conversation  with one of the patrons at the bar. I had one eye on the Bulls game on the big screen TV, but what had really caught my attention was the conversation going on at the table next to me between two gentlemen.

“Then she said, ‘I would appreciate it very much if you would trim your mustache. It tickles me when you kiss me.’

"I told her I wouldn’t do it. That I would trim my mustache when I was ready to trim my mustache, not when she tells me to. When she asked me why I wouldn’t do it, I simply told her, ‘Because I can’t have you believe I’m going to do something for you everytime you ask me to. I need you to know that when I do something it’s because that’s what I want to do.’”

His friend nodded his head as he said, “I know what you mean. I just went through something similar the other night with Laurie.”

He continued, “Laurie had been staying away from me lately. All we seemed to do was argue about how much time we were going to spend together. Well, I figured if she was going to be that way, I would fix her. I knew she called me every night at 9:00 p.m. sharp, so, when she called me one night, I let the answering machine pick up the phone.

“She spent the next three hours trying to get ahold of me but I wouldn’t answer the phone.

“The next day when we did talk to each other, she asked me where I was last night. I told her I decided to go out to a couple of bars. Let me tell you, she was out of her mind with jealousy. She became enraged. She asked me how I could do that to her. Her exact words were ‘How do you expect me to trust you if you’re going to act like this?’”

The man finished his story by telling his friend, “Of course, I showed her. I told her that I didn’t care whether she ever trusted me or not. That seemed to solve it right there!”

Trimming mustaches. Going to bars. Is that the root of what’s going in these guys’ relationships? Or is it more likely that there’s some struggle taking place between them and their partners that they haven’t even begun to talk about? Is it more likely that the power struggles that they’ve created mask the fears that they have about trying to cooperatively solve the problems in their relationships?

Can you guess what they’re frightened of? Frightened that they won’t get their way? Frightened that they won’t get what they want when they want it? Frightened that they’ll lose some essential part of who they are if they give into their partner’s demands? Frightened that if they give in one time, they’ll lose and their partner will win? Frightened if they give in just this one time, they’ll always have to give in?

These are many of the fears that bubble beneath the surface when two people try to blend their lives. It’s only natural to want to cling to our sense of autonomy, our own way of doing things. Yet, it’s this very natural desire to want to hold on to who we are, how we do what we do, that becomes the precipitant for so much of what gets fought over without ever being acknowledged.

There’s no question that the fears need to be honored. They can’t be wished away, talked away, or even threatened away. The best any of us can do is acknowledge that the fears are present. If you can acknowledge to yourself and to your partner what you’re so frightened of, then you can begin to support rather than fight with each other.

You see, that’s the only way you can defuse the situation. Supporting each other. Support means compromise. Support means shifting priorities. Support means balancing the relationship’s needs against the individual needs of each person. Support means being there for each other rather than  competing with each other.

That’s the biggest shift that needs to be made. Shifting from seeing your interests as competing to creating shared interests that support the well-being of the relationship. That’s the ultimate art of blending your life with your partner. Creating an environment of cooperation rather than competition.

So let’s take a look at your relationships. Let’s see what shifts need to be made to make your relationship less competitive and more cooperative. More importantly, let’s see if we can discover what your fears are that create the power struggles that exist in your relationship.

First, identify some power struggles that you experience with your partner. It could be as silly as the infamous toilet seat battle. It could be as important as the politics that revolve around your sexual life. It could be as boring as who cleans the dishes. It could be as fundamental as who controls the money. I’m sure you can think of at least three points of conflict where power and control keep you and your partner paralyzed in winning and losing rather than emancipated by the spirit of resolution.

Next, look more closely at each example you wrote above. Answer this only from your perspective. What’s the fear that’s buried under the power struggle? Why do you cling so hard to your position? What are you afraid will happen to you if you let go of your position and create a solution of compromise?

Now, the hard part. One by one, examine each example. Examine the fears that you associate with each example. What’s a compromise that incorporates your partner’s interests with your interests?

Take your time. Thoughtfully consider what a favorable solution is for all three concerns--you, your partner, and the relationship.

This is hard to do but it’s where you’re going to eventually wind up if you want to move beyond the power struggle. Ask yourself, just how much more do you want to invest in the power struggle? Have you invested enough or do you want to keep it going? If you’re ready to be through with it, here’s the path out of the struggle.

The key point to remember when we’re talking about power and control is that you’re really dealing with fear. Fear is something that you need to respect. When you respect the underlying fears below the surface, you’re much more able to work with the fears rather than untangle the knots of the power struggle that’s raging above the surface.

That’s it for the themes of the four underlying relationship issues. Rest assured that they won’t always appear as obvious as they sound in this book. But as you become more sensitized to what these four themes are and how they appear in your relationships, you’ll begin to feel more comfortable with how best to resolve the underlying relationship issues.

Recognizing the themes is one half of the battle. Resolving the issues once you recognize the theme is the second half of the battle. To more effectively resolve these issues, you’re going to need a blueprint and some tools to execute the plan. Join me in the next section to learn how to do just that.



Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in
Chicago, Illinois and Northfield, Illinois.

You can contact Dr. Frisch, Psy.D. at drfrisch@aliveandwellnews.com  or at
(847) 604-3290.

Recover from chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your children to choose to be alcohol and other drugs free. Learn how to in Dr. Frisch’s, Psy.D. Recovery book series.


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