Power Struggles And Relationships

Couples fight for one main reason. The specific situations may be unique, but when we distill the disagreement down, the actual issue is a tug of war between people trying to give or take power from each other. In this post I'll talk about the ways these power struggles show up - and how to identify whether you're standing in your own power, giving away your power, or taking someone else's power. It's not about the mess. It's not about the cups on the counter, or the clothes on the floor. It's not about whether or not we should rearrange the living room or paint the house.

Couples fight for one main reason. The specific situations may be unique, but when we distill the disagreement down, the actual issue is a tug of war between people trying to give or take power from each other. In this post I’ll talk about the ways these power struggles show up – and how to identify whether you’re standing in your own power, giving away your power, or taking someone else’s power.

It’s not about the mess. It’s not about the cups on the counter, or the clothes on the floor. It’s not about whether or not we should rearrange the living room or paint the house.

It’s about how we feel. 

It’s about feeling seen & heard. It’s knowing – or not – that we had a voice in the decision. It’s knowing that we stood in our power, our partner stood in theirs, and together we’re stronger because we listen to each other vs talking over each other.

There are certain things that make us feel loved. Certain things that let us know we matter to the other person. 

The mess on the floor is a mask/scapegoat for the bigger issues. 

These bigger issues come down to:

  1. Personal power. Standing in our own power – and allowing others to stand in their own power.
  2. Feeling seen & heard. Feeling like we matter to the other person.
  3. Being able to express & experience emotions safely.
  4. Knowing you’re working toward the same goal together. *This aspect won’t be talked about in this post because the post is already so long – and this part of the topic is equally large.

I will be using ‘you’, ‘them’, ‘me’, ‘we’, and ‘I’ throughout this post to show different perspectives. Sometimes ‘you’ may be the person responding in a way that leaves the other person feeling disconnected. Sometimes it’ll be ‘them’, or ‘me’. I do this because we are all guilty of these behaviours or conversation habits at some point. There is always room to improve. I don’t want to inadvertently place one person in the role of ‘bad guy’ when anyone of us could be that person.

Someone can feel seen & heard, not get what they want, be okay with it – and still feel loved. But when the conversation is, at best, 2 dimensional, then we come away not feeling like we really got to the root of the problem.  

This is like trying to tell your partner something important. You don’t feel like they’re listening, so you say something only for them to repeat every word you said verbatim.

You still feel frustrated because you still don’t feel heard – but what can you say or do? They’ve just repeated. Every. Word. You said.

It isn’t about the dishes, it isn’t about the mess. It also isn’t about the words. We want to know they understood us and cared about what we meant. You just told them something that matters to you, and their response didn’t fit what you wanted/needed in the moment.

When we challenge them on whether they heard us or not, what we really mean is, “I just said something that’s important to me, I just shared part of myself, and your response leaves me feeling like I don’t matter to you.”

We want a conversation. We want the other person to respond to us, acknowledge our thoughts, fears, joys, sorrows (and all the other emotions as well). We want our partner to share our life with us – and that means asking us questions, getting to know us better, and listening deeply to what we’re saying.

A 1 dimensional (1D) conversation is repeating the words said to prove we were listening. Brushing aside the other person when they try to explain deeper. Turning away while you respond over your shoulder. These are the autopilot type situations. We don’t realise the importance of the situation to the other person.

If someone says they don’t think we’re listening, then this often means there is either a power struggle, emotion that isn’t being talked about, or both.

A 2 dimensional (2D) conversation looks like trying to solve someone else’s problem – this is especially 2D if we don’t ask questions about the situation, or if we try to solve their problem without asking if that’s what they want us to do. Women, especially, want to talk about a situation in order to process it and come up with a plan. Talking about it doesn’t mean they want someone else to solve their problem. In fact, offering advice, or otherwise solving their problem leaves them feeling unseen, unheard, and also leaves them feeling powerless. We hold our own power when we solve our own problems. When someone else jumps in, it feels like they’re saying they don’t think we’re capable of figuring it out on our own.

A different aspect of 2D conversations is making excuses, not accepting responsibility for your own stuff, or accepting responsibility that isn’t yours to own.

If I’m telling my husband about a problem I’m facing, and he jumps in with a solution – he’s accepting responsibility for my problem. He may feel good – because he wants to feel useful, wants to take care of me, and he wants to show he cares. However, I’d walk away feeling unseen, unheard, and more upset than when I started. It doesn’t feel like caring.

Director/writer/male actor Jason Headley

A 1 or 2D conversation is a power struggle – who can exert control over the other person? In the above situation, my husband would’ve been exerting power over me by solving my problem for me. It isn’t malicious, but it is still taking power that isn’t freely given.

A different situation may look like:

Person A says, “Hey, this can’t go on like this. You have to make these changes!”
Person B says, “Okay, I can do that!” 

Then they try. They might intend to make the changes asked for, but they seldom last long. There are many reasons why they might not be able to.
What happens if they don’t follow through?
Person A feels angry. They exerted power. They were promised power. But person B didn’t follow through. So then Person A neither got what they wanted, nor did they have power - and neither person talked about the bigger issue. This means Person A also doesn't feel seen or heard. They feel like the victim.
But Person B also feels like crap - because they also don’t have power - they didn’t stand in their own power in order to explore what Person A wanted. Or to even say 'No' to Person A - their (lack of) action wasn’t even intentional. They gained no power. But they also have an upset partner - which they didn’t want. Person B feels like the victim. 

This is always a lose-lose situation. Even if person B does what person A wanted, there is a power struggle that continues well beyond the situation.

As with all types of power, there is a creep that happens. It may start with, “You must use a coaster on the coffee table.” Then, “You must put your cup back in the kitchen.” Then, “You must keep the counters clean.”

This creep keeps going. Forever.

What started out as reasonable becomes unreasonable. Eventually one person doesn’t follow through. It became a much bigger problem than it should be because the conversations were 1 or 2D. This means you’re now in a bigger power struggle, with bigger emotions, and don’t have as much practice with 3D or deeper conversations – you’re left falling back on conversation styles where you’re fighting over who has power.

Often people aren’t capable of 3D, or deeper, conversations for a few different reasons. 

  1. Someone may have low confidence or low self-esteem. This means they want to give in to keep the peace. They don’t feel worthy of having their own power, so they give it away on the surface, while struggling behind the scenes to stay upright. This often looks like passive-aggressive behaviour.  

  2. Someone may have left a previous relationship where they were always ‘in-charge’ this is DRAINING!

    We often think being the one in power is great, but it’s draining. Having everyone else’s emotions be your responsibility, needing to put all the effort toward making all decisions, keeping track of everything, and then micromanaging everyone else is exhausting, overwhelming, leads to anxiety, and is one of the worst ways someone can feel.

    If that person doesn’t offer themselves proper self-care between relationships – and doesn’t regain equilibrium, then they go into the next relationship refusing to accept power – or responsibility. This leads to an imbalance of power – that takes away power from both people. 

  3. Someone may believe that standing in power means being bossy – this means trying to exert control over others. This is not being a leader – this *is* being bossy. It is the toxic kind of taking power – this grows bigger and more divisive faster than other kinds of power control. 

  4. Someone may have previous experience with someone who took power in a toxic way – this can lead to them vowing to never be like that. But in an effort to not be ‘bossy’ they refuse to accept their own power.

    This leads to major frustration because they don’t accept responsibility for their own actions, blame others, and also often show up with volatility.

    No one wants to give up power – even if their actions regularly do give up their own power. There is always a moment when they can’t take it, so demand they get their own power back. With these people you never know what to expect – but not in the fun kind of way.

    One moment may be yelling, the next complaining, blaming, or explaining. And then there’s the moments when they just give in. None of those feel good to either person in the relationship.

Those types of power dynamics often lead to both people feeling chronically upset and on edge. These lead to the 4 horsemen of the marriage apocalypse. From there things go downhill very fast. 

The big questions are: 

  • What can you do different? 
  • How can you stand in your own power without taking your partner’s power?
  • What if you really do want help cleaning the house? Does this mean you’re stuck being the sole housekeeper forever? 

I’ll start with the last questions because they’re easiest. 

No, you are not stuck being the sole housekeeper forever. However, how you go about getting buy-in matters. It cannot be a power move. Instead it needs to be a conversation with give and take, and recognizing each other’s perspective. 

The most important thing that generally needs to shift is ‘how’ things are done as well as ‘why’ things are done. You may want someone else to fold the towels – but if you also insist they fold them a certain way, then you’re stepping into a power dynamic where you’re attempting to control someone else’s actions with coercion or force. 

What if you really, really want the towels folded a certain way? You can ask. 

Give the other person permission to not do it your way, but ask if they'd listen to why you want it done that way, why it matters to you.
They may choose not to do it your way - how you respond to their 'No' impacts whether they tell you the truth in the future. Or whether they agree to your face, but then don't put effort in when you're not looking over their shoulder.
You have a choice. Either you can accept their decision, or you can accept that you're the one who needs to fold the towels.
Thank them for listening, and let them know you accept their response.
If you find you're doing all the chores and really wish someone would help you out, you may want to consider if you're attempting to force everyone else to do things your way. If you're taking away someone else's autonomy in the situation, then you're exerting power. You have to let go of that type of control in order to get the help you need. 

If you want help with the dishes, then insisting they’re done a certain way leads to struggle. Sure, if the dishes come out of the sink greasy, then they weren’t actually washed. It’s okay to mention it.

Say (something like), 

“Hey, these dishes went into the cupboard dirty. I know it can be easy to lose track of what you’re doing while washing the dishes, my mind wanders all the time. But this wasn’t just 1 or 2 dishes. All the cups and plates went into the cupboard greasy. I need these re-washed so we can have dinner. Can you please re-wash these dishes so we can eat?” 

They may grumble, they may be angry, they may be upset – often what happens is we take those emotions as meaning that the other person is mad at */us/*. Instead, it would be reasonable to assume they’re upset with themselves, and likely embarrassed they did such a crappy job. 

If we hug them and say thank you – despite their grumble – then they know we still care.

If we lash out at their emotion and expect them to be happy in the moment, then we’re taking on an even larger power dynamic. In that moment we’re expressing that we want the other person to not have, or not display, emotions. Their emotions trigger our emotions – and we don’t want to feel these emotions – therefore the other person must stop their emotions. 

As long as neither person is lashing out AT the other person, then accept that their emotions are not your responsibility – and not your problem. Don’t lash out at them because of your emotions!

What if you ask them to re-wash the dishes and they refuse? This requires a conversation. It’s easy to jump to conclusions – and consequences – but without a conversation, we don’t really know what’s going on.

Back to those other questions. They’re related. What can you do differently? Stand in your own power – and let your partner stand in theirs! 

This starts by understanding what is and isn’t your responsibility. 

Your emotions are your responsibility. Their emotions are their responsibility. 

It’s okay to have emotions – even better if you can label them. It’s okay if the other person is angry. This is not your responsibility to make them ‘not angry’. It isn’t your partner’s responsibility to make you ‘not angry’. However, what each of you do with your anger matters. 

You may feel angry about greasy dishes. If the words you use to talk about it are similar to the example I gave a few paragraphs ago, then you’re expressing your anger while still being respectful. However if you express that the other person is a bad person, incompetent, intentionally making your life difficult – if you’re expressing contempt for the other person, then you’re using your emotions in an attempt to exert control – and take power away from them. You’re also giving away your own power when you make someone else responsible for your emotions.

Giving away some power while taking other power doesn’t balance out. Our brains and emotions aren’t looking for an absolute amount of power. We’re looking for holding our own power. Holding someone else’s power doesn’t feel good – whether you hold your own or not. Not holding your own power doesn’t feel good – whether the other person took it, or whether you gave it away.

We always have a certain amount of power in a situation. Even someone who is reliant for personal/activities of daily living care has a certain amount of power in their life.

If I lash out at my husband because the dishes are dirty, then re-washing the dishes is no longer about him taking responsibility for doing the dishes properly – it’s about him making me happy and earning my love.

If your partner is telling you that you’re incompetent, never clean the dishes properly, or in anyway suggesting that you are the cause of their unhappiness – then this is them preventing you from taking responsibility and instead trying to exert control.

I want to be very clear here – this power dynamic – the give & take of power is not intentional in the vast majority of people. This isn’t something someone decides to do – this doesn’t make them (or you) a bad person. We’ve all done this before – but sometimes we don’t know a different way of doing things and these become our programmed behaviours and habits. 

When this dynamic is our regular way of interacting, then we develop a bigger problem.

When we talk about our expectations, our wants, and our needs, we really want our partner to hear us. We don’t want them to give in – especially not all the time. 

Think about a toddler crying because they want something. Do they want it? Yes, absolutely. However, if you always give them what they want, then they learn that their wants are more important than anything else – that their emotions are so big and scary that you’ll do anything to stop those emotions. And they learn that they’re the ones who have to make all the decisions. This is too much for anyone (especially a toddler). 

It feels the same to adults. If you say something , and the people around you jump to make it happen, then you begin to feel worried – and anxious. Does this mean you have to always make the right decision for everyone? What happens if you make the wrong decision? What if you change your mind?

What if you become emotional about something? Everyone jumps to make you happy again. But sometimes you need a good bad mood. Sometimes you need to express yourself emotionally. It doesn’t feel good when you have to always be happy – it doesn’t feel good when others try to take control of your emotions.

Instead what we all want is to know that our wants, needs, and desires have been heard – and as fully as possible – understood. We want to know that they’re capable of standing there and holding space while we process our emotions. 

If you start to feel upset, but then I rush in to make those emotions go away – then I’m not really listening to you. I’ve taken responsibility for your emotions – I’m NOT holding space and allowing you to process them. Instead I’m trying to prevent them from being processed. 

I come away stressed trying to manage my own emotions as well as yours. You come away stressed because you didn’t get to process those emotions (so they’re still wrapped up inside you). And we both walk away feeling a little less seen, a little less heard, and a little less loved. Our trust in each other has diminished – and then this carries over to the next situation. 

“Will they listen to me this time?” “Can I trust them to be a safe person to express myself?” “If I get upset, will they blow up again?” 

All these questions float beyond our conscious thoughts. Even though we’re not aware of them, they influence our emotions, words and actions. 

If we’re aware that we stepped out of line in the previous situation; If we recognize that we tried to take responsibility for someone else’s emotions, then we should acknowledge this, apologize, and talk about what was going on. 

This apology resets the dynamic and diminishes the power those subconscious questions might have over the next situation. An apology that acknowledges our actions, the way someone felt, without taking responsibility for something that wasn’t our responsibility, restores the power dynamic (at least a little).

So let’s assume you’re having a conversation about your partner’s expectations. They’ve just told you they need you to do more to clean up around the house. How can you respond so that you both hold your own power, feel seen, heard, and come away only taking responsibility for your own crap?

This is best done with questions, mirroring, reframing, and paraphrasing. This is a 3D conversation. Expressing, accepting, and acknowledging emotions is a 4D conversation.

Person A (frustrated): I need you to do more to clean up around the house. 

Person B: You need me to do more to clean up around the house?

Person A: Yeah. There’s clothing all over the house, and then you keep asking me where your clothes are after I do laundry. I’m feeling so frustrated that you expect me to find your clothes, wash them, put them away - and then tell you where they are! I’m so frustrated doing all that plus my own stuff. 

Person B: Oh! You’re frustrated because you think I expect you to clean up after me and do all my laundry on top of your own work? 

Person A: Yeah. You leave your clothes everywhere. Which frustrates me. But the biggest problem is that you expect me to know where it is when you don’t even know where you’ve left all your stuff!

Person B: I can see how that would be frustrating! It’s not fair of me to make a mess and expect you to clean it up. When I asked you if you knew where my clothes were, I wasn’t intending to make you find them - or clean up after me. I just meant to ask if you happened to see where I left them. Not stop what you’re doing to find my clothes, not keep track of them. Just did you happen to see them in the last 10 minutes and recall where.

Person A: Oh! I felt like you wanted me to find them for you. I felt really bad that you thought I wasn’t doing enough - but also frustrated that you expected so much from me!

Person B: Yikes! Yeah. I’d feel the same way if you expected me to find your stuff, keep track of it, and clean up after you. 
When you ask me for help, I appreciate that you trust me enough to reach out. I don’t think you’re trying to make me take over your jobs. I know most of the time you feel the same. But it seems this specific issue meant something different to you?

Person A: Hmm. Yeah. I guess I don’t always think you expect me to solve your problems. Growing up my mom always did all the laundry - and if my dad couldn’t find his clothes, my mom panicked and started yelling at everyone.
Person B: Oh. That sounds like it really impacted you?

Person A: Yeah, I never really thought about it. But I hated when my dad couldn’t find his clothes - there was always a lot of yelling, and then a lot of extra work for me because I had to help find it, and clean, then do the laundry on top of all that.
Person B: Wow! That’s a lot for any kid! I promise I won’t blame you for me not knowing where my clothes are. I also promise not to get mad or make you find my clothes. But I also want to be able to ask you if you know where something is without being afraid that you’ll get mad at me for wanting to know if you can help me. 

Person A: Oh, yeah. I want you to be able to ask me too. I don’t want you to feel alone in this. I’m sorry I misinterpreted what you wanted.
Person B: I’m sorry too. I could tell you were upset when I asked - but I was so focused on my own stuff that I never asked you what was going on. 

At the end of this disagreement both people actually feel closer than they were before. Neither has exerted control, and they both come away standing in their own power. And Person A isn’t doing Person B’s laundry.

Yes, it can take time, and practice, to learn how to have those conversations without letting emotions take over. But with both time and practice, both of you get better. Even more amazing is that if only 1 of you shifts, this still impacts both of you. 

One person shifting the dialogue while standing in their own power is enough to change the entire situation for both people! 


Standing in our own power means we identify our emotions, accept responsibility for them, and control how we behave as a result of our emotions. No one else is responsible for managing our emotions. It’s okay if we feel hurt by their words or actions, but just because we feel hurt doesn’t mean the other person is responsible for the situation.

Sharing power in a relationship means we need to dig into situations. Our first interpretation is often wrong.

Ask questions, repeat the other person’s words as a question, paraphrase to make sure you understand their perspective, and ask more questions! Do you feel like I understand you right now? What I hear is…is that correct? What else?

Power is also about responsibility. Responsibility for our actions, emotions, and words. If we insist someone else is responsible for making us feel a certain way, then we’re giving away our power, and nothing they do will make us fully feel better.

Feeling strong in our power is about holding our power, not giving it away, not taking others. It is a measure of how much of our own power we hold, not a measure of how much absolute power we have.

Absolute power means we have absolute responsibility – and that feels like a big pile of anxiousness disguised as strength. Deep down that person feels unsure, uncertain, and feels the need to do anything possible to retain that power.

If you’d like to strengthen your connections by learning how to hold your own power without taking someone else’s power, then please schedule a call with me. My Power of Connection Program offers tools, teaches skills, and holds space for you while you balance your power, move from feeling unseen, unheard, and disconnected, to feeling seen, heard, fulfilled, and like you truly belong in your own life.

Schedule a call now to learn more and see if this program is right for you.

Sarah Langner

Sarah Langner

Sarah Langner helps invisible people become visible and works to build bridges between people, ideas, and ideologies. The sweetest part of my life is my family, my friends, desserts, and, of course, Disney World!

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