When I was a boy, I went off to summer camp in the mountains of Virginia. My Mom would tell you I was not ready for summer camp and didn’t like it.
She would be, for the most part, correct. Her reason would vary from mine, though.
My reason: mid-week, in the middle of the night, one of my counselors is yelling to the other counselor who was sleeping in his tent with his boombox (yes, that long ago) turned up. Finally, we boys ran out to check and see what was up, only to be told to freeze in our tracks.
Turns out the one counselor found himself trapped on the trail by a rattlesnake. The snake wouldn’t move and the counselor couldn’t go a different way (did I tell you the camp was, well, rustic?).
We went to the tent and got the other counselor, and then were sent back to our tents to “sleep.” We all had heard the rattling. And we all knew that rattler had friends. They had to be out there, somewhere!
In the morning, after we hiked down for breakfast, we got to go to the ranger station to visit our new “friend.” In retrospect, he was probably 3 or 4 feet long, but I would have sworn him to be 10 feet long back then.
The rattler was not happy to be captive in a chicken-wire cage. But we all enjoyed his ill-fortune. I would step toward him, and watch him go from watchful to threatening. His rattle would pop up. The closer you got, the louder the sound. Step away, he calmed down.
Step closer, he got riled up.
Step away, he calmed down.
What fun for a 12 year old!
And step very close, the snake would strike at you, hitting his nose on the chicken wire. That nose was raw in no time.
In retrospect, I feel kinda sorry for the snake. But back then, it was just good fun to rile him up.
And now I realize that the snake wasn’t even really angry. Snakes are not capable of that emotion. Threatened is what he felt.
Step close, threat was real. Step away, threat was gone.
How, you might ask, does this possibly relate to marriage?
That same piece of brain that the snake has that reacts to threat, I have it in my head too. And so do you.
Our brain is designed to alert us to danger. Not just alert us, but put our body on alert, ready for attack.
That piece of the brain is the deepest part of our brain, poetically named the “reptilian brain” or “r-complex.”
The reptilian brain is really only designed to keep us alive. It is not social, does not care about collateral damage, and is set with a hair-pin trigger.
It takes nothing to set it off, and then takes its time calming down. Think of the last time you were startled. You feel the hit of adrenaline, and may still feel it 20 minutes later — even though the event that caused the reaction may have only been a few seconds (or less) in duration.
You have that piece in your head, and so does your spouse. And that is where the trouble begin.
Two lizards, looking at each other, waiting for some possibility of a threat.
Head tilt, hands on hips, tone in voice, word choice. It takes very little to get that part of the brain to put our systems on alert. And when our systems go on alert, we get caught in the fight/flight/freeze response that you have probably heard of.
Problem is, there may not be a threat. It may mean nothing. Yet we respond as if it is.
Which brings us to power struggles.
We struggle for power so that we do not lose power.
I cannot tell you how many people have reported that they have no power, that the other person is in control — and I hear it from both, simultaneously. Someone has to be in control, right?
But we are talking about perception, not reality.
Both perceive they are losing power and act to get it back. And that starts off the power struggle.
You have been there, so I don’t really need to identify for you the places you and your spouse get caught in the struggle. I will let you identify that for yourself.
But what do you do?
First, accept that part of you is in there. Accept that there is that piece of your brain that is caught by the sense of threat. Understand it is perception and not reality.
Second, affirm that you want to live as a WE, as a team. You want to be connected.
Third, seek to always understand where your spouse is coming from (and don’t listen to the lizard that whispers “why doesn’t my spouse have to understand me?” Lizards pretend to be about fairness. But really, they want to win!). In the midst of talking, ask “can you help me understand how you see it that way?” Ask politely. Don’t make it a sarcastic statement. Be sincere.
Fourth, recognize that a power struggle will not get either of you any closer to your goals. So decide to work together. Decide to join together to make it through life in better ways than either of you could do alone.
Fifth, be sympathetic that your spouse may still want to struggle. We are raised on that! It can take a while for the brain to re-wire away from it. Give it time. Be patient with your spouse, and with yourself!
Finally, power struggles are symptoms that point to places where you are still playing “you/me,” and not “WE.” Use it to identify the areas where you can grow and develop the relationship.
If you are ready to stop the power struggles, grab the “Save The Marriage System” by <=== CLICKING HERE.
Lee Baucom, Ph.D. is a best-selling author, therapist, coach and speaker, and has over a quarter of a century of experience helping couples and individuals learn to thrive in their relationships and their lives. He is the creator of the internet marriage program, Save The Marriage.