Power Struggles in Relationships and the Importance of Influence

power struggles in relationships

Power struggles in relationships are typically shaped by gendered behavior.

Research tells us that over 80% of conflictual marital discussions are initiated by wives, while husbands typically dodge and deflect these overtures.

It’s important for a couples therapist to normalize this dynamic; we’re not talking about dysfunctional marriages here. We’re talking about happy marriages as well.

Dr. John Gottman’s research concluded that men who allow their wives to influence them will tend to have measurably happier marriages and are far less likely to divorce than men who resist their spouse’s influence.

Men who resist their wives’ influence, and are not willing to share power with his partner have an 81% chance that their marriage will end in divorce. Power struggles in relationships not only erode influence, but they also erode respect and trust as well.

Influence Issues and the “Guy Code”

Gottman’s research is even-handed. While he reminds us that wives benefit from treating their husbands respectfully, he also points out that even in troubled marriages, most wives are inclined to hear their husbands out and accept his influence.

The problem is that most men are socialized with a “guy code” that values independence, self-direction, and emotional self-containment.

power struggles in relationshipsHusbands who resist accepting their partner’s influence fear a loss of power and agency. And because they are reluctant to accept influence, they paradoxically lose influence in return. The typical outcome is emotional gridlock.

Men who can effectively self-regulate have a greater capacity to listen, acquire understanding, and express empathy.

If a couple can get to a place where they can respect each other’s point of view and understand what each of them is looking for, they have a better chance of avoiding gridlock.

A Sense of We-ness

This means a sense of “we-ness” and solidarity is more important than “winning” the argument. Gottman calls this the “yield to win” approach and likens it to a judo principle.

In other words, the energy in your partner that is actively seeking influence (or at least validation) becomes the same vehicle by which influence and validation are in turn received.

“Acknowledging and respecting each other’s deepest, most personal hopes and dreams is the key to saving and enriching your marriage.” John Gottman

An emotionally intelligent husband “yields to win.” he doesn’t see conflict as a zero-sum game with a predictable winner and loser. He honors and respects his wife, even while perceiving the issue at hand differently. He knows that understanding precedes influence, and to prevail over his partner is really just another way of losing.

When I met John Gottman a few years ago, he mentioned that his earlier research suggested that over half of American men actively resist accepting influence from their wives.

But on the other hand, he also said that it was time for him to re-visit the issue of men accepting influence with a new research project geared toward the new generation of Millennial husbands. This more recent research suggests that Millennial men are becoming more emotionally intelligent in accepting influence from their partners than previous generations.

Power Struggles in Relationships and the Pursuit of a Common Interest

Gottman has found that the men who respect and validate their wives are more able to share power and decision making.

Husbands who can maintain a calm demeanor, turn toward their spouse, and accept influence have a happier marriage.

Gottman found that the best strategy for men facing an angry wife was to not escalate the conflict. There is a critical 5-second window where self-regulation for a husband is an important skill.

Here’s why. Although wives sometimes express anger they rarely escalate.

Most women either attempt to tone it down or match their husbands level of emotion.

Power Struggles in Relationships and the Four Horsemen

Men typically become physiologically aroused, escalate, and seek to prevail. The Four Horsemen (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling) describe what happens as the couple space collapses. The four horsemen are the opposite of accepting influence and often lead to persistent marital gridlock.

Rather than taking 5 seconds to steady himself, this husband recruits the Four Horsemen to obliterate her argument. Every time this happens it damages the intimate bond between the couple. But men who can hold it together and seek common ground have cleaner fights and happier marriages.

Both spouses should avoid these four toxic behaviors. But men are particularly inclined to ratchet up the negativity and escalate the argument. Research tells us that this long-term tendency damages a marriage more than 80% of the time.

When Religious Beliefs Shape Power Struggles in Relationships

What about husbands simply who openly refuse to accept influence from their wives?

Some men claim that their religious conviction requires them to be in control of their marriages.

But a deeper truth is that sharing decisional power is a relatively new idea in marriage and has come about in the wake of relatively recent epic social change.

Gottman has studied religious couples who firmly believe that a husband should be the head of the family.

He has compared and contrasted them with couples who hold more egalitarian beliefs.

In both cases, the most important variable was the husband’s level of emotional intelligence.

A husband’s ability to honor and respect his wife and accept her influence was the most essential variable. it is important for him to recognize that even when she acknowledges his authority as the head of the family, she stills expects to respected and valued.

Self-Regulation Creates the Space to Avoid the Four Horsemen

power-struggles-in-relationshipsWhen a husband stubbornly refuses to accept influence, it’s not unusual for his wife to respond negatively. When this negativity enters, he may respond by escalating.

Once the attack-defend cycle is underway, any person would feel a state of enduring negativity.

In couples therapy, we teach strategies which help develop self-regulation. And self-regulation opens the door to co-regulation and more open communication.

Accepting influence doesn’t mean that you never express negative emotions toward your spouse.

Marriages are remarkably resilient. Conflict is not a barrier to intimacy.

Couples can endure and even work with intense conflict. Accepting influence is not knee-jerk capitulation or suppression of negative feelings.

Marriages, where a husband resists accepting influence, are four times more likely to result in divorce. You may have a handful of ways to control your wife, but she may have hundreds of passive-aggressive moves to thwart you.

When power is shared and influence is accepted, compromise and resilient adaptation are possible. These couples can make repair attempts and deescalate conflict reliably.

Gottman’s more recent data on couples indicate that overall, husbands are becoming emotionally intelligent. About 35 percent of the men Gottman has studied fall into this category. Previous research suggests that this is a remarkable improvement.

Why The Culture is Changing

More than 60% of married women work. The economic hegemony of a household is no longer the purvue of husbands exclusively.

In other words, it’s no longer exclusively a man’s world…and it hasn’t been one for nearly half a century.

Many men suffer from cognitive dissonance. They’ve been socialized for a relational world…which no longer exists.

It is important to recognize that a mantle of responsibility and entitlement has been handed down from father to son for countless generations.

But now men are starting to realize that they are sharing a world where accepting influence from their wives is the next step in social evolution.

Reference:

Gottman, John M., and Nan Silver. (1999). “Principle 4: Let Your Partner Influence You,” in The Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work (Chapter Six, 100-127). New York: Three Rivers Press (Random House, Inc.).

Daniel Dashnaw


Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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  1. Research tells us that over 80% of conflictual marital discussions are initiated by wives

    How many conflictual discussions are initiated by girlfriends?

    Why is there such a discrepancy in this behavior?

    What changes in a woman before and aftrre marriage where she thinks making this drama is ok? Is it perhaps a shift in the power dynamic?
    Could this increase in drama and disrespect have any relation to the decrease in sex and gratitude/appreciation?

    Most women either attempt to tone it down or match their husbands level of emotion.

    Do, “most women” not fall under the heading of nagging, and criticizing?

    was to not escalate the conflict. There is a critical 5-second window where self-regulation for a husband is an important skill.

    Men should exercise emotional regulation , females can be angry and rude, over reacting to the spouse in their head.

    Those studies incorporate gender bias it appears, and blame men for other people’s bad behavior.

    Is this really the premise and suggested solution to ” making marriage work” for “science based” therapy?

    1. You write:

      “Research tells us that over 80% of conflictual marital discussions are initiated by wives

      How many conflictual discussions are initiated by girlfriends?

      Why is there such a discrepancy in this behavior?”

      Can you quote the study you’re referring to here? I don’t know that there is a discrepancy, as I’ve worked clinically with single couples and this pattern seems to continue to hold.

      You also say that bringing up conflict reflects “drama and disrespect.” It does not. In fact, the level of conflict has no bearing on marital outcome. Some happy couples fight a lot. Some never do. Some unhappy couples fight a lot. Some never do. And disrespectful fighting is in fact almost always a sign of marital problems.

      You write: “Do, “most women” not fall under the heading of nagging, and criticizing?”

      It’s a good question. Science has provided the answer, and as a regular reader of the blog, you probably know the answer. Nagging and criticizing isn’t the same as complaining. In fact, criticism is the opposite of complaining. Criticism puts the problem IN your partner whereas complaining is not only respectful, but encourages mutual problem solving.

      You write: “Men should exercise emotional regulation, females can be angry and rude, overreacting to the spouse in their head.”

      These would be best put in the form of a question, but anyway, here goes: Anger has no indication of problems in an intimate relationship. It’s how that anger is expressed. Rudeness isn’t an appropriate way to express anger. Living with the “partner in your head” is often an occupational hazard in being in an intimate relationship, particularly for people who have been traumatized, but the challenge is to stop that. The challenge is to question the assumptions you are making about the person who you are in relationship with and ASK, not be snarky or rude. And emotional regulation is a task for both men and women.

      The gender difference is that men physiologically get flooded faster than woman and stay flooded longer. That’s not “men bashing.” It’s a consistent physiological and scientific finding over the past 50 years.

      There is a difference between “gender bias” and “gendered behavior.” Some behavior simply occurs more often in one gender than another. “More often” doesn’t mean “only.” Men complain 20% of the time and some men complain much more than that. They do have to learn to do it without a snarky attitude, or contempt (“You’re such an idiot!) just as women do.

      Men stonewall 85% of the time, but that leaves 15% of women who do and it’s a very bad sign clinically.

      As outlined in this article, women we think of as the “keepers” of the relationship, and when they complain effectively, they are trying to keep connection or resolve conflict. When they do it poorly, they only cause more resentments and problems. When they do it well, they make it easier for men to respond in kind and accept their influence. However, men have a role too. If men simply refuse to accept any of the complaints offered (“Hey, honey, can you put the mail in the box instead of on the table? It will make setting the table easier.” “No, if you want that done, do it yourself!”) they escalate the fight.

      Escalation, not fighting, is the enemy of a happy relationship.

      This isn’t “male-bashing.” It’s a collaboration and cooperation where goodwill is assumed. Men have a role. Women have a role. Both cooperate together, even while these assumed roles are different, according to the research.

      Ndbbm, thanks for contributing to this blog. I think you would find Gottman’s work comforting once you studied it more carefully. It’s not full of the bias you fear. He has a lot of books for the general public you can find locally. I hope you do because you are clearly interested and fearful that his work is out to prove men to be the bad guys. That’s simply not the case.

      Dr. K

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