“Human interaction can be hell. Or it can be a great spiritual practice.”
— Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks
I was sitting at a coffee shop one day, deep in thought—pondering over the ‘deeper’ meaning of power. An altercation with a neighbour had led to my current frame of mind.
Just then, a hand waved at me and distracted my musings. It was followed by a familiar smile; my friend Anjali had walked in. She asked me about the reason for my forlorn face and it was easy for me to draw her into conversation about what had happened in the morning. She then told me how she viewed power in the context of her turbulent marriage. “My husband calls me a control freak,” she confided. “But don’t you agree that if I am responsible for running the home, it should be me who takes the final decisions on the home front?”
While she rambled on, I noticed a couple arguing heatedly at the next table. The man bellowed: “Why should you always have your own way? Why don’t you ever listen to me? Why can’t we live peacefully like our two dogs who never fight.” “That’s exactly the point”, replied his wife. “Tie them together and see what happens!” she retorted snidely.
We—all of us—are unavoidably ‘tied’ to certain people in our lives and at times one dominates the other. So how do we make the best of the situation when the other dominates us? Or what can we do if we are the argumentative ones in the relationship?
What is power?
Power can be defined in terms of who is able to influence others in the relationship to get their own way. No single individual holds all the power, although it often seems so. The power equation keeps shifting—depending on circumstances, role changes and other factors. In most societies perpetuated by patriarchal beliefs and traditions about male authority, it would seem that males have more power in families. But power could be in the hands of the one who earns more, owns the house or is more educated, and in many modern nuclear families it could be the woman who holds the reins of the relationship.
So there is a person who wants to maintain the power structure, while the other feels dominated.
Why do we crave power?
Years ago, I had my own daily struggle with a family member. We spent a lot of time and energy arguing about almost everything. At this point, I came across certain authors who offered insights:
- Philip Kavanaugh in Magnificent Addiction says, “The need for control and the addictive quest for dominance is a universal quest, aimed at avoiding the inner void.” I could see this was true. After realising this, my daily meditation sessions began again, to great effect!
- In The Celestine Prophecy James Redfield tells us that human beings compete for energy, and that they believe that they must get attention, love, recognition and energy/power from others. They forget that they can and ought to connect directly with the ‘Source’. The insights in the book helped me to become aware of the way the other person was using control to increase excitement through dramatic situations and disruption when connecting with me. This helped me bring compassion into the situation.
- Dr Berne also offers insights into the psychological games people play. ‘Yes-but’, ‘poor me’, ‘how hard I have tried’, were just some of the games I realised that I was playing. I found that getting out of this ‘martyr-complex’ was refreshing and freeing.
Thanks to this difficult experience, it’s much simpler for me as a mentor to empathise with, and guide others undergoing similar struggles.
Helpful guidelines towards resolving power struggles
- Get into an empowered state: This is a very important first step. When Ingrid came to me seeking help to deal with the constant struggle with her spouse, I encouraged her to first acknowledge herself and her decision. I then asked her to give herself an appreciative pat on the back for taking responsibility for the situation. I also told her that I was pleased that she sought a mentor, which required a degree of humility. We spent time together dwelling on her numerous strengths before moving ahead.
- Describe the situation: When I sensed that her spirits had risen, we went to the next step of describing the situation as it is without ‘added stories’. For example, Ingrid was recounting to me that her spouse always forgets her birthday and added, “He does this to hurt me.” I explained to her that the added self-talk was what was hurting her. This statement was subsequently limited to: “My spouse forgets my birthday.”
- Clarify your goal: We then went on to the next step: she wrote down what exactly she expects in the relationship and why. The ‘why’ helps to gain inner clarity. We were careful to avoid focussing on what she did not want. If you let your mind dwell on what upsets you, you go further away from your goal.
Improving communication skills is imperative
Communication is an art form. My life changed radically after attending programmes on interpersonal skills and neuro-linguistic programming. I attended these courses soon after I got married and they helped me to build my relationship with my spouse. I was reminded to seek to understand the other, before I sought to be understood myself.
Cut down on the number of arguments
In an argument, both parties seek power by insisting that their point of view is the right one. Eventually, one has to become the loser and the relationship suffers. A serious issue always requires an open discussion that can be had only when both parties are calm and receptive. If you notice, most arguments are about trivial matters. So why not acquire the habit of giving in gracefully rather than insisting on your way.
Tap into the power within
A friend of mine with a rather dominating husband shares how she got solace from the words of Eckhart Tolle, “When you receive whoever comes into the space of Now as a noble guest, when you allow each person to be as they are, they begin to change. Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.” Strange as this may sound, once she learnt to let go, she began to observe changes in her husband over time.
Much depends on the intensity of the power struggle. Arguments every now and then are common and even build a healthy relationship. If it’s constant bickering that you are engaging in then you can work on it. However, if you are being made to feel less than you are or being physically and mentally abused, then assess it for what it is and bail out or get therapy.
The right word may help: You choose: would you like to describe relationships as ‘challenges’ or ‘opportunities’? Pick the right words and see the transformation taking place in yourself and the ‘other’!
This was first published in the December 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.