My Ten Year Power Struggle

Article by Dr. Michael Tobin
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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 He feels like I have hurt him and has withdrawn his love and takes but rarely gives.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.

He is very old-fashioned in his ideas about home and family (the wife/mother should do the housework and raise children) yet thinks of himself as a sensitive, 90’s 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 up. 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 abusive 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. 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 forgiving and repairing. To do that I would suggest that you enter marital therapy. In my opinion, no one should contemplate ending a marriage without first going to a competent marital therapist.
  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.
  3. Write a letter to your husband and tell him that you love him and that you want the marriage to work. Describe how painful it is for you to keep fighting with him. Apologize for your part in perpetuating the conflicts and then suggest to him that the two of you find some time to talk about the relationship.

I hope that you can find the strength to extricate yourself from your negative entanglement with your husband. You’ll know that you have succeeded at ending your part in the struggle when, in spite of your husband’s negative behavior, you can act in an independent and healthy manner.

Good luck,

Dr. Michael Tobin

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