WHAT IS AT STAKE IN RELATIONSHIPS?
There are actually only two issues in a relationship that cause problems. They are Power and Intimacy. Everything else is derivative of these two issues. Putting it another way, couples have only two real fights: One about how power and control is distributed. The other about how much closeness and intimacy is negotiated. How issues of power and intimacy are resolved define a relationship.
Every problem in your relationship can be described in terms of these two constituents. For example, issues of power emerge in disagreements over responsibilities, roles, household work, money management, big decision-making, and smaller everyday decision-making. Issues of intimacy emerge in disagreements over time together, closeness, separateness, affection, sexual intimacy, caring, desire, loneliness, freedom etc.
In marriage and couples counselling these are the two issues which couples come back to again and again. Couples in distress really struggle with identifying what is really the problem, what is at stake and what the solutions might be. This is all very difficult because in any serious relationship problem there are four ingredients: The kind of control she seeks, the kind of intimacy she seeks, the kind of control he seeks, and the kind of intimacy he seeks.
Typically all four of these issues are thrown into the pot and are fought about at the same time! It can become very confusing and exasperating for couples. Their fights can become like cartoons. They ultimately become caricatures of themselves. Because of this confusion and the inability to identify and resolve the issues, couples have the same fights over and over and over again. We see couples that visit us from time to time over a period of years. Without fail, they will come back with the same issues in different forms. You and I are no different.
In your relationship you will realise that nearly every disagreement or fight has the same structure and predictability. You will invariable say to yourself “Here we go again!” and find yourself feeling the same feelings. Couples have two fights in them at the most, but they repeat the same sequence repeatedly over the years. The fights might seem different because the events fought about are different, but the substance remains the same. Change a few names, instances, and details and you’ll find the fight you had last week was the same as the one you had last year. Also, for some couples it may not even be a fight, it may be a sequence of interactions that leads to a stalemate with one or both saying to themselves “There is no point in pursuing this because it will get nowhere.” (Or it may all be inside your head, where you go over possible scenarios in your head and then, rather than experimenting, conclude that things will end up as you imagined them. And you withdraw in frustration without him/her ever knowing what was troubling you. For you, it is the imagined scene that is repeated over and over with the same outcome: “Ah, there is no point, he won’t understand anyway!”).
The thing is that, unbeknownst to the couple that get into these repetitive stalemates or fights, they are each fighting about different things at the same time. If you are upset with each other then the four issues are immediately thrown into the pot. This is why it gets so confusing. It is impossible to resolve the four issues (his needs for control and intimacy and her needs for control and intimacy) in the one fight, simultaneously, when both people are angry. It’s mad. It’s no wonder you don’t know what he/she is on about. It is quite impossible to try to solve four problems as if it is just one! It’s crazy-making.
The thing is all of us are like little kids. We need to be coached because when we get upset we get confused. So with a couple what I have to do is the A, B, C’s of problem solving, which most adults have never learned. Sometimes I have to talk to couples of 40 years like they are children in first class. We have a laugh about it because it’s not funny!
Problem: John wants to go away for the weekend by himself to their holiday home to get some work done. Anne is upset that he would even ask because of the pressure they are under at home with the children and because he works so hard anyway. John claims he only does this twice a year and he should be entitled to time away because he feels under a lot of stress. Anne cries because she feels rejected by him. John withdraws into himself and sulks because he now feels guilty. There is a stand off and they don’t know what to do. What is the problem?
Solution: This is not a problem of whether John should go away or not. There are four problems mixed up in the cocktail of his-going-away. If I was working with this couple we could talk about four different issues: His need for independence, her need for influence, his need for encouragement, her need for support. These four needs have to be considered, addressed, and acknowledged. If not the couple will, out of frustration, come up with a short-term solution. One of then will give-in, but the score will be kept and logged until the next fight. The other alternative is for the couple to give the issues time and to learn how to assess who has what concern. Not easy, but well worth the trouble.
So with your repetitive couple disagreements consider to what percentage it is an issue of power and of intimacy. Then consider the four separate concerns that each of you has. See if you can think about them one at a time. Not to mind talk about them. The thing about talking is that talking-itself becomes one of those problems. “Let’s sit down later with the TV off and have a chat” says you. “Why?” says he. “Because we need to communicate.” Says you. “We do communicate,” says he. “We don’t” says you. “We do,” says he. “For God’s sake, we never have a chat.” Says you. “We are chatting now.” Says he. “Oh For F**s sake”, says you.
Dr. Colm O’Connor, Director of Cork Marriage Counselling Centre