Power Struggles: Opportunities for Connection
Yes, we all know what it is to be in a power struggle, whether it’s with a parent, child, spouse, lover, friend or co-worker. Power struggles are fraught with tension, anger and provocation. The feeling on one or both sides is “no I won’t and you can’t make me” and, “I’ll show you who’s in charge here.” Yes, power struggles are generally unpleasant. They are also frequently supported and even glorified in our media – in violent movies, sports, politics, economics, war and even religion.
To over-power is one of the mistaken goal patterns of negative or unproductive behavior. When a person is in a power struggle, they are discouraged in finding more effective ways to meet their goals to feel powerful, lovable, connected and contributing. They are operating from fearful beliefs that “might makes right”, “there’s not enough for everyone”, or “if you win, I lose”. What is less obvious is the belief that power struggles provide my best or only option to connect intensely with another person.
Therefore, in addition to learning how to effectively redirect power struggles, most of us would greatly benefit from remembering that first and foremost, power struggles indicate a deficit of intense positive connections. Just as in the movie “crash”, many of us then go to great lengths to feel connected, even when it means evoking dramatic negative side effects through struggle if no other intense connection seems possible.
There is frequently joy in opposition because the intensity of connection within it satisfies us deeply. Coupled with this is the fact that it’s often discouraged and under-modeled to create the same level of intensity during win/win exchanges. The answer therefore is to go beyond learning to dispel or transform unpleasant and unproductive struggles; rather it is to incorporate and create positive, intense connections in relationships where power struggles are prevalent. This is key to remember because the power-struggling partner you fight with is the last person with whom you will feel inclined to be close and positive!
Power struggles are never about the surface issue. They are always about connection. The following example is a reframe of the over-power pattern in which my client influenced a shift from a negative connection to a positive one that focused on joy rather than struggle.
I was recently coaching a mom to redirect recurring power-struggles she was having with her teenage daughter about curfew. I walked her through the steps of redirect which included helping her to refrain from her first impulse to struggle, guiding her to speak out loud the wants and needs of her daughter and herself, and finally to invite her daughter to help craft a win/win solution. I also spoke with her about consciously and proactively introducing more regular, intense positive connections with her daughter.
She called me the following day to describe what happened next. Her daughter was going out for the evening. As was her habit, in a belligerent tone, she asked her mother, “What time do I have to be in tonight?” Her mother felt provoked and recognized the call for connection in the challenge her daughter was presenting. She walked over, gave her daughter a huge hug and said, “I love you.” Her daughter (as predicted) upped the ante, and rebelliously replied, “Mom, when do I have to be in?” Her mom cupped her daughter’s face in her hands, smiled into her eyes, and said, “I’m so happy you’re my daughter.” At that, her daughter laughed resignedly and sheepishly said, “Ok, I know, 10:30” and then proceeded to cooperate with the curfew. This mother was astounded and grateful to experience the truth of the call for love that she had been missing in the struggles with her daughter. She was also excited about the new opportunities she now had to create greater intense positive connections with her daughter as a new dance!
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As published nationally in the Women’s Journals, December 2007