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A Ten-Year Power Struggle

May 9, 2009 | by Dr. Michael Tobin

A power struggle can only continue if both antagonists "play the game."

Dear Dr. Tobin,

My husband and I are and have been having a power struggle for nearly 10 years. He is stronger in the struggle than I am and it has now reached a physical level. He feels like I have hurt him and has withdrawn his love and takes but rarely gives.

We are parents of three who sometimes see their father swearing and yelling at their mother and I fear for future relationships with mates. I need more time away from family responsibilities, something he has always managed to have.

My husband has conflicting ideas about what he wants. He is rather old-fashioned in his ideas about home and family (the wife/mother should do all the housework and raise children) yet thinks of himself as a sensitive, modern man who does his share. When he does dishes for instance his attitude is that he is doing me a favor and doing MY dishes. Then the guilt trip and rubbing in starts. Dishes are something he does maybe once a month.

I am constantly criticized for not doing enough housework, called lazy, called other not-so-loving names and yet I am considered to be abusing him. I financially supported our family and continue to do so yet he thinks he is the one who "keeps the roof over our heads". I think he does love me and that we can resolve this problem. The power struggle is not as important to me as a loving, happy home with healthy members.

Where do we start?

Trapped in a Ten Year Power Struggle

Dear Trapped,

You begin your letter by stating that you and your husband have been engaged in a ten-year power struggle, one that now has reached a "physical level." I'm not certain what you mean by "physical level" but if your husband is physically abusing then you should take immediate and strong action. I would suggest that you call your local women's center or hot line for instructions on precisely what you should do in a situation of abuse. The Torah absolutely prohibits the physical and emotional abuse of a spouse. Having said that let's move on to the issue of your ten-year long power struggle.

By definition a power struggle involves two people, each of whom is equally committed to winning. At the end of the letter you intimate that you would be more than willing to exchange your power struggle for a loving, happy home. I'll accept your sincerity.

My question to you is the following: Are you willing to take a hard look at how you're perpetuating the power struggle? Be aware that a power struggle can only continue if both antagonists "play the game." Dropping the game might mean a loss of involvement with your husband; a power struggle is often a highly charged substitute for authentic intimacy.

I'll assume that you now realize how futile it is to maintain the struggle. What I think you may not be aware of is how you are still trapped in the on-going conflict. I will try to clarify what you will need to let go of in order to create a loving and happy home.

First of all you attribute the following ten behaviors to him:

1. He is physically abusive.
2. He has withdrawn his love.
3. He takes and rarely gives.
4. He swears and yells at you.
5. He has an old-fashioned attitude toward women.
6. He rarely helps around the house.
7. He lays guilt trips on you.
8. He calls you "lazy" and labels you with other negative names.
9. He is a failure as a provider.
10. He has a distorted sense of reality, i.e., he erroneously thinks he is the breadwinner.

Your involvement in the power struggle is fueled by those resentments. You may sincerely want to let go and get on with your marriage but bitterness and anger don't evaporate into thin air. In your case they get expressed through a painful and meaningless ten-year struggle.

So what's the answer? Here are three suggestions that may help you to get on with your life:

1. Assess whether your marriage has passed the point at which you and your husband are capable of working things out on your own. If so, I would suggest that you set up an appointment with a competent marital therapist to help you work things out.

2. Decide to drop your part of the power struggle. Learn how you get caught and then make an effort to avoid the trap. Using "I" statements that express how you feel instead of "you" statements in which you accuse and blame may help you to avoid the inevitable explosive trigger. Be careful to avoid criticizing and blaming your husband and take a good hard look at what your part may be in perpetuating this ongoing struggle. Reread "Ten Things Never To Do In a Marriage" and start incorporating those suggestions into your marriage.

3. Write a letter to your husband and include the following:
a. Tell him that you love him and that you want the marriage to work.
b. Describe how painful it is for you to keep fighting with him.
c. Apologize for your part in perpetuating the conflicts
d. Suggest to him that the two of you find some time to talk about the relationship.
e. Tell him five things that you appreciate about him and ask if he would be willing to share five appreciations with you.
f. Ask him if together with you, he'd be willing to practice the exercises in "Ten Things Never To Do In a Marriage."

I hope that you and your husband can find the strength to extricate yourself from your negative entanglement with one another. The fact that you know that he does love you will help you to be persistent and determined in finding a way through this ongoing struggle. With God's help and your mutual decision to work on the relationship, you will be able to succeed at creating a more satisfying and loving marriage.

Good luck,

Dr. Michael Tobin

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