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Lessons About Power Struggles in a Relationship

08/12/2014 08:50 EDT | Updated 10/12/2014 05:59 EDT
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I recently was at a business lunch at Cipriani in New York City and what started off as a very interesting work discussion turned into a more personal one. The client I was having lunch with told me about his amazing wife -- how much he loves her, how she is his soul mate and how it was love at first sight. Of course, I thought it must be early in the relationship, but I was wrong. He had been married for 23 years! And this got me thinking about how relationships stand the test of time. What are the key learnings? And how do you make your love last?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that power struggles play a huge role in determining a relationship's success. I'm not saying we should all fight with our partners! But that it's about HOW you fight, how you struggle to find that common ground to develop and grow within the relationship. It's a lot like self-awareness: you need to face your issues not hide from them if you want to truly get to know yourself. The same goes for your relationship.

Here are my key learnings about power struggles in a relationship:

Understand that the honeymoon phase will end. Perhaps not with my still-smitten luncheon colleague :) but for most, once the initial amazing intoxication of an early relationship settles down and real life sets in, many of the things you loved about the other person and found interesting or intriguing in the start are now the things that irritate or annoy you. His quirks you once found cute now drive you up the wall. This is okay. The honeymoon phase doesn't last forever; we all wear "rose-coloured glasses" in the beginning. The actual duration differs depending on who you ask, but we could generally agree that this period of bliss lasts one to two years. Some people say shorter, some say longer; some even say you can predict how quickly it will end. It's almost like the beginning of a relationship is all chemical -- all about your heart -- and the rest of it is about your head. Because that's when we start to see things more clearly, and if we know the honeymoon phase will end we can anticipate this clarity will come. This helps us stay realistic.

Recognize the difference between healthy power struggles and unhealthy controlling behaviour. What does it mean to have power struggles in a relationship? They can be anything from letting your spouse get his way about watching sports every night to more important things like control issues in a relationship. An example of this is a jealous partner: initially when you first get together and your partner questions you or expresses jealousy, you find it "sweet." It's seen as an expression of how much he/she likes us. But as time passes, jealousy can be extremely destructive to a relationship. It is the opposite of trust. This type of behaviour can create an unhealthy power struggle -- a very serious one at that. And, believe it or not, some minor power struggles like, "Don't look at your smartphone during dinner, please", can turn into a HUGE issue when that is someone's way of controlling you. It's important to recognize the difference between healthy and unhealthy behaviour, because when it all boils down, we are grownups and we can choose if we want to live our lives with or without someone telling us what to do.

Create a relationship "contract." Power struggles are not always a bad thing, but you do need to be aware that they are happening. This is actually a very important phase in a relationship because it's where you create your relationship "contract." This is what determines how you will respond to arguments and to loving moments. Therapists say that we all have a relationship contract and the reality is, once it is set in place, it's not so simple to erase it; to change it, you actually may need to break up. You have about a year to write it -- figuratively speaking, of course. Because although some people are putting pen to paper, you don't have to actually WRITE a contract! I find this to be a great analogy of relationship building, and when you think of it as a contract, you're more likely to take seriously the choices you make or the actions you take.

Power should be equal. What happens if one person isn't pulling their weight, whether that means not doing the chores or being lazy or not making an effort romantically? Is it ever okay for one person to try to change the other, if they do it with good intentions? Personally, I don't think it is ever a good thing for one person to exert power over another. But I do agree that in relationships there is always a bit of an unwritten rule that we have -- things we will tolerate or not tolerate, qualities we seek in our partner, and how we behave ourselves. This is where the contract comes in. The problem is, when we're in our 20s or 30s, we are still changing and growing and the type of "agreement" we make with our partner at that time might work then, but a decade later we could want to change it and that creates a new power struggle. I think that's why a lot of break-ups happen: we aren't entering into our relationships with equality and respect in mind.

Be honest about what you're going through. Should you try to avoid power struggles or embrace them? Either way, I think you need to be honest with yourself and your partner. Try and think long-term about your life and what you want out of it. As time goes by in your relationship, be honest with your partner about how you feel during the changes you experience in your life, and let them know that they can be honest with you about their own changes and feelings. It's important to "love with honesty", share open communication, not place blame and remember that the WAY you tell someone how you feel is just as important as WHAT you say. It's about addressing the core issue and being true to one another.

Overall, the key to longevity in love, I think, is to know yourself well enough to have the confidence to lay out the terms of what you want out of your relationship and what you don't want in the most romantic way possible :). Write that 'contract' with your partner and be honest from the get-go. If you want this to last then you're going to have to either address your struggles now, or you might live with years of resentment, stress and anger later. We're all human; we have our strengths and our weaknesses. None of us are perfect. But to that special someone, we might just be close enough, and if we play our cards right, it could last forever!

Have you experienced a power struggle in your relationship? What did you learn from it? Tweet me at @NatashaNKPR or leave your comments below!

xo Natasha

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