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How to Recognize Your Relationship’s Power Struggle

It’s never fun to feel disappointed, frustrated, or angry with your partner. Many couples break up because one or both people can’t handle the constant push-pull of what they want from their partner and what they are actually getting.

In Imago therapy, this is called the power struggle. This is a necessary and important process to go through — both to grow closer to your partner and to gain a better understanding of yourself.

What is a power struggle?

As Imago defines it, your relationship’s power struggle is essentially the disconnect between what each of you want and need from each other and what you are providing. 

For example, you want your husband to be warm and accepting. But instead he pulls away when you try to get close. Or you wish your girlfriend would listen when you try to tell her about your day, but she’s always distracted.

The power struggle itself is not any single one of those things, but the sum total of all the ways that you and your partner aren’t giving each other what you need. 

Unfortunately, so often these small issues can feel like petty frustrations and annoyances that we can have trouble recognizing that they’re part of something bigger. They are a pattern defining the shape and nature of our relationship power struggle.

So, how can you take a step back to see that struggle for what it is?

Taking Steps to Clearly Define Your Relationship’s Power Struggle

In Imago therapy, there are actually several steps we take to help you get a clear look at your power struggle, often presented as a series of specific exercises. 

Here is a brief overview of the types of exercises:

  • Make lists of your partner’s negative traits, the things they do that frustrate you, and the things you don’t get from them enough. Circle the ones that impact you the most.

  • Write down how you feel when your partner engages in these negative behaviors, how you react, and why you react that way (what fear is it hiding).

  • Make lists of your partner’s positive traits, the things they do that you really appreciate, and the things you wish they would do. Again, circle the ones that impact you the most.

  • Write down how you feel when your partner engages in these positive behaviors and how you react to them.

  • Finally, list your reactions to your partner’s negative behaviors, as well as what kinds of reactions and behaviors these elicit from them.

Is it beginning to take shape for you?

Essentially, there are certain ways you want your partner to behave. You may not even realize this desire, but it is incredibly strong. So, when they behave in ways that diverge from this, you develop negative reactions, which then cause negative reactions from them and unintentionally strengthen their behavior you wish would change.

The specific things you listed above define the shape and nature of your power struggle. In other words, it tells you which things bother you the most, why, how you react, and how this further cements your partner in their bad behavior.

Only once you are able to clearly define this power struggle for yourself and share what you’ve learned with your partner can you begin to change it. Likewise, your partner will have to go through the same steps to recognize what they truly want from you and overcome their struggle.

It’s not a simple or easy process. Nor is it one that can be accomplished in a day. However, it’s absolutely worth it. Because when you get to the other side, you will have forged a deeper, more meaningful connection with each other that will make your relationship happier and more satisfying for both of you.


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Copyright @2020 Dana Cole, LMFT