Struggle for control unbalances marriage


September 04, 1994|By From Ladies' Home Journal Los Angeles Times Syndicate

"I can't help thinking my husband's a wimp," says Emily, 32. Although her friends tell her Eric is a dream mate -- he willingly cares for their 6-month-old daughter, Jenny, while Emily attends night classes and pitches in with housework and cooking -- Emily remains unsatisfied.

"I wanted an equal partner in marriage," Emily explains, "but in issues large and small, I'm always the one who makes the decisions." Eric never has an opinion about anything, she reports: "He won't even tell me whether he'd like chicken or hamburger for dinner, any more than he'll let me know whether it's OK to start my master's degree next fall."

When they met, Emily was recovering from a disastrous first marriage to a man who was as much of a tyrant as her father had been. "I swore I would never let that happen to me again," Emily continues. But now she feels that what she thought was kindness in Eric is really weakness. "I love Eric, but I need to respect him, too."

Before they married, Eric, 35, was also on the rebound from a failed relationship -- and, paradoxically, one in which he had been accused of being dominating and disrespectful of his girlfriend's ideas. "My own father was the same way. I guess I became just like him," Eric admits. "But I've tried to change for Emily, and still I seem to be losing her."

Her bossiness is more than he can handle. "I do everything I can to make life easier for my wife. Instead of being grateful, she's more demanding than ever."

Emily's rudeness is particularly grating. "She demands, 'Fix the screen door,' or 'You have to stay with Jenny tonight because I have to go to the library,' " he reports. "She never asks, and she never says, 'Thank you.' " Eric wants to save the marriage, but he feels that with Emily, he can never win.

Balance of power

"Though they don't realize it, this couple is caught in a power struggle," says William F. Mecca, executive director of Family Counseling of Greater New Haven in Connecticut. Both Emily and Eric have experienced rejection from important people in their lives -- their parents, their first loves -- and this has destroyed their self-confidence. To protect themselves emotionally, they tried to change their basic natures. Emily became overly aggressive, and Eric became too passive. But whenever power in a relationship is unbalanced, each interaction becomes fraught with tension. And when one partner feels controlled, resentment brews. Inevitably, both lose.

Do you find yourself caught in a similar stalemate with your spouse? These five rules can help you both feel better:

* Discuss the balance of power in your marriage.

Don't stick your head in the sand and pretend the problem doesn't exist, as Emily is doing. How is power divided in your relationship? Is it lopsided? How was it divided in your families when you were growing up? While Emily and Eric were both raised in a male-dominated home punctuated by battling, they responded very differently to those influences.

* Right the balance if it's skewed.

Once you've identified the areas of imbalance, zero in on areas where each of you can compromise. Pick one area each week -- say, housecleaning -- and discuss how you both feel about hanging up coats, clearing away old newspapers and so on. If you're a neatness fanatic and your spouse doesn't even notice the piles of old newspapers, you might work out an arrangement whereby he at least puts those piles of papers in a corner of the closet where you can't see them. For your part, you must try not to let the accumulating pile bother you.

* Be flexible.

Don't be stubborn when it comes to deciding with whom the power lies. One way to reduce resentment over control issues is to acknowledge each other's strengths and weaknesses. If your husband is the better bookkeeper, then let him balance the checkbook and don't make such a big deal about it as long as you both make decisions regarding how your money is spent.

* Let it be.

The hallmark of a healthy power partnership is for each of you to feel comfortable and free to think and act as you please (within reason, of course). Encourage each other's freedom to do that -- no strings attached. If Eric feels like going to a basketball game one evening with a friend, Emily must be willing to change her schedule once in a while.

* Don't be rude.

The most common way couples control each other is through criticism, as Emily does. Partners often treat friends and co-workers better than they treat their spouse. Sure, you should feel comfortable to be your grumpy self once in a while. But

marriage is not an excuse for rudeness and fault-finding.

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