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Live Life Fully: Locked in a relationship power struggle?

By Linda Arnold

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Do you feel like your major relationship is a struggle? Is it more about who "wins"?

If so, you may be locked in a power struggle because of unresolved anger.

Not that you scripted any of this. It's often a common pattern that sneaks up on couples. Before you know it, hurt feelings drag into long-term frustrations that can be damaging, even fatal, to a relationship.

"Anger that isn't dealt with acts like sulfuric acid, eating away at a couple's love and commitment," writes family counselor Gary Smalley, author of "Hidden Keys to Loving Relationships."

And not just outward anger. Repressed anger plays out in passive-aggressive behavior.

So, how did you get there?

In any serious relationship, it often takes 12 months or longer for power issues to surface. During the "honeymoon period," your partner can do no wrong.

If unmet expectations and anger haven't been dealt with, though, a battle may break out for who's "in control."

Spenders and savers

Bill is a "spender," and Sally's a "saver." They've been married for a year and have unresolved frustrations.

When they receive an unexpected inheritance, Bill picks out a new home theater system and golf clubs; Sally plans to put half the money in savings and retire their credit-card debt.

Always before, Sally has said nothing. But now, she feels compelled to take a stand.

And then a power struggle begins. Unless they talk things through, Bill will fight consciously and unconsciously to protect his "right" to spend money. And Sally will fight just as hard for financial accountability.

If you're having power struggles in your relationship, here's a three-level process that can tip you off to its deadly presence.

Level One: Issues are constantly raised, but never resolved.

When you're locked in a power struggle, everything becomes an issue. Because Sally is angry with Bill for "blowing" so much money, she starts picking at little things -- nagging and criticizing. A wet towel on a chair gets an "8" on the Richter scale. Bringing home white bread instead of wheat gets blown into a life-and-death issue.

Level Two: As problems pile up, couples drop the issues and start picking on the other person.

Instead of focusing on wet towels and wheat bread, the couple begins attacking one another:

"If he was sensitive, like Kathy's husband ..." or "If she had a brain in her body ..."

Now the battle heats up over who's in charge and who's going to change. Being "right" trumps everything.

Level Three: The final option -- attacking the relationship.

"If we're constantly dealing with issues, and he or she is this kind of person, what am I doing in this relationship? I might as well get out."

As soon as the relationship starts being questioned, out goes security -- one of the crucial pillars of an intimate marriage. And then every issue jumps immediately from Level One (unresolved issues) to Level Three (questioning the relationship).

Closing someone's spirit

Even unknowingly, we can offend people by what we say or do -- closing their spirit. Likewise, people can offend us by their hurtful actions and words. The disharmony in our relationship can even be the evidence of our own closed spirit.

When we think someone is devaluing us, it sparks anger. Turned inward, this anger causes deep resentment or depression.

When we act in a way that devalues another person, guilt ties us in emotional knots.

When we feel someone is discarding us for another person or something else, rejection creates deep pain.

Here are some of the ways we can close someone's spirit:

  • Criticizing unjustly
  • Using a harsh tone
  • Taking them for granted
  • Dismissing their needs as unimportant
  • Making jokes about their shortcomings
  • Making sarcastic comments
  • Putting them down in front of others
  • Refusing to admit we're wrong
  • When a person's spirit is closing, an uncomfortable awareness exists -- a "yuckiness" that permeates the entire relationship.

    A closed spirit can result in:

  • An argumentative attitude
  • Resistance to agree on anything
  • Avoidance
  • Disrespecting the other's opinion
  • A decline in warm or romantic feelings
  • Opening a closed spirit

    How can we break free from this killing cycle? Here are five keys:

    1. Acknowledge that the other person is hurting, and admit when you have been offensive.

    2. Be gentle. Demonstrate tenderheartedness.

    3. Understand what the other person has gone through. Listen carefully. What has caused the anger?

    4. Touch the other person gently on the hand or arm.

    5. Ask for forgiveness.

    Be persistent. The walls won't come down right away. It may take repeated sincere attempts to make a dent.

    Start with a minor conflict. Ask the other person to rate the severity of the problem on a scale from 1 to 10. And work these five keys. Next take a more sensitive area and work through it.

    Set your goal on opening that person's spirit with compassionate statements. "I want to stop offending you, and I know you don't want to continue like this." "I love you, and I'm committed to you." "Do you think I really understand how you're hurting?"

    While these tools are designed for primary relationships, they can also work in other arenas (siblings and close friends, for example) with some tweaking.

    Is it time to give up the struggle?

    Linda Arnold, M.A., MBA, is a certified wellness instructor, counselor and chairwoman/CEO of The Arnold Agency, a marketing communications firm with offices in West Virginia, Montana and Washington, D.C. Reader comments are welcome and may be directed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301 or emailed to livelifefully@arnoldagency.com.


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