My wife and I are locked in a power struggle and neither of us feel appreciated. We are on the ropes and close to divorce. Any advice on how to break this cycle? We are seeing a counselor but are figuring if there’s a path forward. Do you think a weekend retreat with couples therapy can help to break this cycle and give us better tools to handle this? We also have kids and boundary issues with in-laws.
I respect your desire to resolve things in your marriage so you can find a way out of your impasse. In fact, I feel hopeful when I meet a couple who are stuck in a power struggle. It’s much easier to harness the misdirected energy of a couple who are trying to get things right rather than generate energy in an emotionally flatlined couple who have completely lost interest in their relationship. While I don’t want to minimize the difficulty of the road ahead, I want to highlight that there is a road ahead for your marriage if you want to learn how to work with this relational energy you’re both experiencing.
You’ve identified a cycle in your marriage, which means that it’s something predictable. Cycles are good news because you’re past the point of being surprised by each other’s reactions. Instead of saying, “What’s going on here?”, you’re more likely to say to yourself, “Here we go again!” The predictability of the cycle makes it easier to intercept it and shape it into a healthier outcome.
The topics of kids, boundaries, and other issues are secondary to the cycle you’re describing. The destructive cycle of disconnection is usually the same regardless of the topic you’re trying to tackle. Think of the cycle as how you discuss the topics. This is what does damage to the relationship, not the topics. In fact, when couples stay out of destructive cycles, they can talk about anything, including all the topics on which they strongly disagree. Let’s break down how to begin seeing your cycle and then discuss how to break out of it.
If you pay attention to the different movements, you both make when you’re in your cycle, you’ll see that every reaction you have toward each other moves you away from the other person. This is the first thing you’ll want to recognize and interrupt. It doesn’t have to be complicated. You can simply say to yourself and the other person something like, “I don’t like what’s happening to us right now…I feel like we’re moving away from each other in this discussion.” You can emphasize this without blaming the other person. Your distress comes from the distance you feel from the other person, not from the topic.
If each of you look closely at yourselves when you’re in the cycle, you’ll see that there are tendencies and reflexes that happen so quickly they’re easy to miss. For example, one of you might get loud while one of you gets quiet. You might both become defensive and interrupt each other. There are countless ways we protect ourselves instead of protecting the relationship. Protecting the relationship means that you recognize that staying close and feeling respected by the other is the way out of the cycle.
It helps to offer reassurance to each other that you want to stay close and not lose the connection. It’s common to believe the opposite when we’re stuck in the cycle of disconnection. We can easily believe that our partner doesn’t care about us when each of us are stuck reacting in self-protective ways. If you each can drawn on your courage to admit that you don’t want to lose the other person, it will go a long way to soften the interaction.
Weekend retreats and counseling are helpful ways to slow down the cycle and learn how you impact each other. The perspective I’m sharing is based on the work of Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. I highly recommend you seek out courses and counselors who are trained in this highly effective method for helping couples. I’ve also created a free guide to help couples identify and step out of their cycles that is available here: https://www.geoffsteurer.com/3-steps-to-end-your-marriage-argument
Even though you’re working on a relational struggle, most marriage work involves taking an honest look at our own reactions and how we impact our partner. If both of you are willing to take a step back, drop the topic for a minute, and look closely at how you’re overwhelming the other person, you’ll be one step closer to breaking your cycle. Once you see how you’re impacting the other person, you can take ownership and work to respond in a healthier way. This takes a lot of practice as you notice, interrupt, and come back to try it in a better way. This is why I believe the Lord emphasized we treat each other with “long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned…by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul…”[i] The way we treat each other is more important than anything we talk about.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at ge***@ge**********.com
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About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] D&C 121:41-42