man and woman on couch arguing

Do you have Power Struggles in Your Relationship?

Couples are often told to learn the art of compromise. Find the middle ground. Make your decision a win-win for everyone involved. Satisfy both needs.

Those are wise words and yes, you have to find ways to factor in what you and your partner want when making decisions. In many situations, that advice works. 

But, what if you can’t do that?

What if your situation is a bit more black and white? What if, whatever decision is made, somebody loses out?

There are some conflicts with no easy compromise.

Examples include:

  • You want another child and your partner doesn’t
  • You’ve dreamed of moving to another state but your partner doesn’t want to leave family
  • Your partner wants to adopt a pet and you don’t want to
  • You both want your child to have a stay-at-home parent – each wants the other to put their career on hold
  • You want an open marriage and your partner wants monogamy

You can see that, in the situations above, neither partner is “right” or “wrong” for wanting their desired outcome. There’s no malice here. Just two good people with two very different desires.

For many of these examples, it’s not easy to find middle ground. Most couples go around in circles, debating their points, trying to sway their partner in their direction, ending nowhere but frustrated and back at square one.

Or someone feels repeatedly, “unheard”.

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Here’s how it plays out once a decision is made:

  • One partner gets what they want, the other partner feels angry, bitter, powerless, shocked, and dismissed
  • Their relationship divide grows
  • No one acknowledges an important word in the experience: grief

It would be nice if each partner could always get what they want, equally. But some decisions can’t be divided up that way.

It’s not even the final outcome that tears couples apart.

Instead, what trips most couples up is the process of how they got there.

In marriage therapy or couples counseling, couples usually call us after one partner went ahead with a decision; either out of assuming their partner was on board, confusion, and misunderstanding or lack of clarity around their partner’s wishes.

When you find yourselves in that situation, know that the person who didn’t get their way gave something up (even if they weren’t involved in the decision).

So, even if you weren’t trying to “win”, your partner will inevitably feel like they lost.

woman and man on bed frustrated

Maybe they’ve given up their dream to have a second child, or build their dream home, or make partner at the firm.

Maybe they’ve lost their freedom and independence and now have to take care of another life (child, in-law, furbaby).

It’s not your job to try to convince your partner that the outcome is “for the best”, or that they somehow “gained too” from the experience.

It’s not your job to help them see “the bright side” of things or in any way convince them to feel anything other than their grief.

In fact, when you acknowledge their pain and loss around these black and white decisions, you see and hear them.

You validate their experience. This helps them feel like they matter, even when things didn’t go their way.

Knowing what to say and how to say it is key to repairing this type of relationship rupture.

Below, I offer you language to help you hold healing conversations together.

In the examples below, we’re assuming that one partner went ahead with a decision that the other partner did not fully agree to.

Here’s how to speak to your partner when they didn’t get their way on an issue:

  • I know I didn’t go about this quite the right way. My decision has clearly caused you pain. I’m sorry that I didn’t factor in what you wanted.
  • I know there were no easy answers here. I can see that you feel like you lost out on this. I’m sorry about that.
  • I know you weren’t really on board with my decision. And now that this is done, I can see how hurt you feel. What can I do to help you manage your grief around this?
  • I understand how this outcome bothers/hurts you. What can I do to make it right?
  • I know that you didn’t get what you wanted out of this. I want to talk about what this loss means for you and for us.

While it’s nice to idealize power as a shared experience in relationships, there will be times when one partner exercises more power than the other. When one partner feels more powerless than the other. These moments are inevitable.

man woman on couch at therapist