It is perfectly natural for every relationship to have its elements of conflict and compromise. This is because each individual has their own unique needs, beliefs and perspective on life.
This conflict reflects an inherent struggle for power. Each party has their own expectations that they want met and if they conflict with the other person’s then the struggle becomes apparent. Unfortunately, volatility and other extreme behavioral expressions – such as verbal, emotional and physical violence – can also arise through this struggle.
All relationships, including those with serious levels of abuse, have this element in common: an ongoing battle for control.
This element is a power divide that, for example, is a mandatory ingredient of a child and parent recipe. It naturally begins in the early years through the combat of implementing disciplinary tactics. Yet even though rules are important to guide a child through their development, as they grow into their independent adult selves the power imbalance should be equaled out so that a true friendship can begin to be formed.
If this occurs, the guidance of the parent might actually be respected, embraced and sought after by the child.
Any power struggle between two parties inherently contains arguments of who’s right and who’s wrong. This fighting is over different matters relevant to each person. Depending on the communication and other skills of the team members, this struggle can manifest in either subtle or excessive ways.
For example, if either party refuses to make a sacrifice, then a fight will ensue, but this fight could either be a serious scream for control or it may just be a playful, verbal dance to resolve the issue, all of which will be determined by the maturity and sophistication of each of the partners. Unfortunately though, this stand-off often manifests as abuse.
An Abusive Power Struggle
*Note: At this point it must be emphasized that there are some men and women who are dangerously abusive, especially physically, towards their partner. It is recommended that you seek social protection and professional guidance if you are in a relationship of this nature and not handle it by yourself.
There’s no point kidding ourselves; abuse is abuse, regardless if it is minimal and inconsistent or excessive and ongoing. It might be a form of abuse which is considered at the low to mid end of the scale, such as name calling, emotional manipulation, control of activities etc., or at the higher end, such as physical violence.
With this in mind it is important to acknowledge that basically every relationship – between partners or between parents and their children – has had abusive moments. This abuse may have been serious, such as ongoing verbal and emotional abuse, or it may have just been a few incidents where vicious conduct temporarily occurred.
Abusive conduct can sometimes increase so much in a relationship that if paralleled with an imbalance of power, it would be considered Domestic Violence (DV) or Family Violence (FV). From hereon I will simply refer to this dynamic as DV. If power is still somewhat equally balanced between two people, although there are seriously abusive behaviors employed by both parties to control each other, then this is still technically a DV relationship, which is unhealthy, dysfunctional and dangerous.
DV is a social and legal concept that, in the broadest sense, refers to abusive and controlling behaviors which takes place among people in an intimate relationship. DV includes more than just physical abuse; it is also characterized by other forms of violence such as verbal, emotional, psychological, sexual and financial exploitation. Essentially, a relationship with no physical abuse can still be considered as domestically violent.
These forms of conduct can be purposely implemented to elicit a power imbalance within the relationship so that a primary control is established and maintained by one party. Yet a common misconception with DV is that there is only ever one perpetrator and one victim. This is definitely true for some people, both women and men, but if there has been a power struggle where both parties were engaging in violent control tactics, then the relationship has dual perpetrators and dual victims.
This does not mean that life-threatening DV employed by a man only is not a reality for some women. Obviously many women die from DV each year and as a society we need to undertake actions to ensure it is prevented. This would be considered the extreme end of DV and is usually the primary focus of news headlines and even most academic research.
The reality is, however, that abuse and DV in the lower to mid range is much more common, particularly in so-called ‘normal’ relationships. These engagements are also more likely to have both parties perpetrating various forms of violence and abuse.
Mental health can play a major role in abusive relationships, but not always. Diagnoses such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), anxiety, depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Schizophrenia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), among many others, can influence the abusive and dangerous conduct which happens in some relationships.
But not all malicious behaviors can be attributed to mental health issues.
As a professional who unpacks the reality of conflict in a relationship, it has become increasingly difficult to merely use the perpetrator/victim dichotomy because power coercion and control, as well as abuse, has been perpetrated on different levels by both members. This happens frequently between partners, but also between parents and children.
Most of the relationships I have mediated are not on the extreme end of abuse, as described above, but they have contained nasty and exceptionally unhealthy actions by both parties. Usually they have wanted to overcome these issues and find their relationship peace, but didn’t have the skills and knowledge to do so. Much of the time it escalated to this point simply due to a lack of communication, listening and validation skills, as well as a shortfall in empathy.
In any case, if both parties are working towards the goal of overcoming a serious power struggle or a highly dysfunctional relationship then they really need to take responsibility for their abusive actions. Instead of continuing to blame each other for what’s wrong in the relationship, a behavior I refer to as blamism, they need to accept their own mistakes and work together as an equal team.
Taking Responsibility for Abusive Behaviors
In many ways, the dynamics of power and control in society are learned from a young age, such as in the school yard, the classroom, through the implementation of the law and via parental techniques.
As we are all should be aware, disciplining children can have severe emotional and psychological impacts if applied inappropriately, excessively and without proper emotional support. Control tactics that parents employ can also include practices which are considered to be aspects of DV, such as verbal, physical and emotional abuse, blackmail, excessive punishment etc., as well as authoritarian practices which demand unrealistic expectations, promote suffering and lead to rebellion and behavioral warfare.
The reality is, these are all abusive practices which can be part of DV in both adult and parent/child relationships. If each party does not take responsibility for these actions and therefore does not aim to evolve them in any future conflict that arises, then the relationship will generally become more dysfunctional and unhealthier in general.
Regardless of whether we have ‘won’ a power struggle or not – or exercised extremely abusive tactics or not – we all need to take responsibility for our poor conduct to regain the health of the relationship.
We need to accept that through our endeavor to be victorious in the individual battles or the overall war, we were likely at times to make abusive choices. For the sake of validating the other persons experience and feelings – which is the exact validation that we’d appreciate because it would help us to heal – we should always recognize our abusive participation when engaged in the struggle for power.
We need to ask ourselves the tough questions and face the real answers. For example, have we ever excessively screamed at our partner or child? What about abusively manipulated their emotions to get what we want? Do we impose unrealistic expectations on our loved one at the expense of the relationships health? Are some of the ways that we achieve our power goals vicious?
If so, then we need to take responsibility for those actions, regardless of whatever abuse they might be guilty of themselves. It is essential for both parties to do so because it’s the only way to reinforce camaraderie and solidarity, so the relationship can heal and grow.
Overcoming the Power Struggle
To overcome the power struggle we should consider ourselves as equal teammates. Part of this acknowledgment is that sometimes as a team member we need to sacrifice our own needs for the needs of our loved one. This is called compromise.
For instance, are there ways we could both move and meet in the middle? If not, did they give up their needs previously, so therefore is it our turn to make a sacrifice? Are we truly listening to them and validating their experience? Are our needs and expectations actually realistic? Are we simply asking too much? Even if they are fair requests, does our partner or child have an equally fair request? Or maybe their request isn’t that fair, but is it a battle not worth fighting this time because it means nothing in the big scheme of things?
It’s these questions that we need to ask ourselves when managing the power struggle in our relationships. We might also have a greater intellectual understanding of the issue at hand, but even so, if we invoke excessive conflict and abuse in our approach, or deliver our message in a poor and unhealthy way, are we really that intelligent about the matter?
To better manage the power struggle, what follows is a five step model for overcoming conflict and achieving harmony in a relationship:
- Agree that each teammate and their needs are equally important so that respect can be established.
- Ensure that each party takes responsibility for their previously abusive behaviors, including validating each other’s experience, thoughts and feelings.
- Clearly identify what conflict and power imbalances currently exist.
- Communicate together as a team and make individual sacrifices to compromise on issues that are important to each party.
- If there are some items where it is necessary to agree to disagree, do so, and then implement what needs to happen for things to really change.
Final Thoughts on an Intimate Power Struggle
The honeymoon phase of an intimate relationship is characterized by courtship, attraction, romance and lust. Through this bonding, the differences between the two people become more apparent. Philosophical and behavioral contrasting occurs. A divide begins to take place, which in the early stages is indicative of whether we can see a potential long-term future with that person.
Once we’ve passed through the initial learning about one another and then begin to accept the union’s compatibilities and incompatibilities, a power struggle more than likely will ensue. As explained above, it may be very subtle and hardly recognizable, or it might be extremely potent and volatile; this will depend on the skills, maturity and nature of each party.
Managing the struggle involves asking ourselves some empowering questions: what can we help them understand about themselves and ourselves? There are certain things which are important to us and non-negotiable, but what is negotiable? What do we absolutely have to put our foot down about? How can we make them acknowledge and embrace what our needs are? How can we do the same for them?
Whether consciously or subconsciously, we all ask ourselves these questions, so it is important for us to know if we’re projecting fair and realistic expectations onto our partner or not. The more conscious we become of these issues, the better. To do so, we need to delve as deep as we can: do we even recognize that we’re in a struggle for power over certain issues? Are we fighting for something that just isn’t worth it? Do we have a right to dictate the power we’re after?
When we begin the initial phase where a power divide is developed, we set the scene for how we resolve the stand-offs that will inevitably ensue. Importantly, we need to be aware of our personal baggage, as well as past relationship trauma, because it will sneak in whenever we give it the chance. Developing clear and calm communication techniques in the early stage is key.
In any case, no matter how old our relationship, if we’ve created an abusive and undesirable template for our clashes and arguments – instead of just engaging in reasonable discussion – then it is in the best interests for both parties to go back to the start and refresh how we communicate with each other.
After all, how we manage the power struggle, which is an entirely natural relationship process, can either make or break the relationship.
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