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A Ten-Year Power Struggle

A Ten-Year Power Struggle

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 He feels like I have hurt him and has withdrawn his love and takes but rarely gives.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

January 17, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) shira kestenbaum, December 23, 2004 12:00 AM

WHAT? she is perpetuating the power struggle?

sorry - i have read other articles that you wrote and they were wonderful - but, in the case of physical/emotional/mental abuse, i don't agree with putting some of the blame on the victim. yes - i am sure that there is *something* in their relationship that is the key to the struggle, but to take it from there and to somehow put some of the responsibility for HIS abuse on HER shoulders is just plain WRONG.
This poor woman needs concrete help, and she needs it NOW. She is not talking about futile and empty arguments about taking out the garbage or whose turn it is to do the dishes; she is talking about REAL ABUSE!

(5) Anonymous, March 17, 2004 12:00 AM

An experiment

Every couple argues about who does what in running the house. Nobody wants to feel put-upon, especially working mothers who really are overextended.

On the other hand, both partners need to feel appreciated. Men also need to feel respected and important in their home. Think about how you react when your husband does something around the house - are you genuinely grateful, or do you criticize how it's done, or that it's not done often enough? Would a normal human being want to help again under those circumstances? Does your husband criticize your house-keeping as a defensive reaction to being accused of not doing enough? "Maybe I don't do dishes, but the way YOU do it stinks!"

Do you use your work as a weapon against him, taking away from his value to the family? "You don't even support us" translates into "you're worthless".

I repeat, these are really common mistakes that people make, even good couples that love and respect each other normally, sometimes break down into this behavior when they are overwhelmed. Successful couples find ways to solve it or forget it and go back to their real relationship.

Here's an experiment you can try without dragging your husband to a marriage counselor: what if you decide that you will do all the housework. All of it. You will not ask him to do anything, except as a huge favor to you, with "please" and "thank you" and no criticism. Don't tell him that you're doing this; just do it.

Some things won't get done around the house. Do not push yourself and make yourself into a martyr. Do as much as you can comfortably, then stop. Take time to rest, play with the children, hang out with your husband, and just what's absolutely necessary when it comes to housework. If he mentions that things are not done, DO NOT say "well, if you would do your share...". Say "Oh, well, I tried, but there's not time for everything; maybe tomorrow". At the same time, make an effort to give your husband 5 minutes of attention when he first comes home from work (or you, whichever). Pay attention to him as you would to a friend you haven't spoken to in a week, not as a household employee who is negligent in his work. Concentrate on making him feel important.

Do this for about a month.

After a month, he should be a lot less defensive, and you should be a lot less antagonistic. (Your house will be a lot messier - but who cares?) If he is a normal human being, by the end of the month, he will have reciprocated the positive attention that he's been getting.

Then, and only then, you can sit down together and ask his help in figuring out how you can make your housekeeping burden lighter. You might decide on outsourcing some of the work if you can afford it at all. You might decide that certain things just won't get done. He might even volunteer for some tasks (but you have to let him do it his way, and never, ever, remind him to do them.) But this would be a conversation about HOUSEWORK, not about who owes what to whom and who deserves more respect.

Maybe you think that in this day and age it's ridiculous for the woman to take the responsibility for the household. But what would you rather be, politically correct, or happy?

Good luck.

(4) Anonymous, January 22, 2004 12:00 AM

a spiritual psychologist available is a blessing

It is a blessing you give the readers
opportunity to seek help from a good psychologist who is also spiritually able to give correct advice in critical situations to struggling spouses.

(3) Lisa, January 21, 2004 12:00 AM

I have been there!!

Love doesn't always erase all the bad. As much as saving the marriage is needed where possible. Not every marriage should be, or can be saved. Better to be alone for all the right reasons, than to live a life of abuse and unhappiness.
Just my opinion.

(2) Renée Silberman, January 20, 2004 12:00 AM

Only a miracle can help this marriage!

A chill ran through me as I read a story that closely repeated my own sad history. In all likelihood the husband in this case will resist getting help - denying there is a problem is part of the problem. Start a new life NOW, spare your kids the spectacle of a mom taking constant criticism! DO NOT WASTE TIME!! I endured 21 years of similar abusive behavior (from a professor, no less), because I mistakenly believed the children were better off with two parents in the house. The minute we separated, my life improved, as did the children's. We thought we were coping during the reign of terror, but believe me, once rage walked out the door, we all relaxed. Don't worry about loneliness - you are married to a monster, not a man - and I guarantee you will soon find HUMAN company. You might have to reexamine your own ability to face the external world - reentering the work force could be a challenge - but freedom to live without violence, verbal or physical, is your right.

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