Relationship Connection: How do I break a power struggle with my husband?

Question

It seems that whenever I try to set personal boundaries my husband freaks out and it turns into a huge power struggle.

I am a stay-at-home mom while my husband works 12-hour shifts on a rotating schedule and has been working full-time and doing school most of our married life (he is nearly finished with his Masters degree).

I have tried to be supportive and have basically taken over running our entire household. I cook, clean, do the laundry, pay the bills, make appointments, do almost all the shopping, and take care of the vast majority of the errands and things our many children need.

My children have daily household chores, and help with lots of other things as well, including taking the garbage out, doing the yard, and deeper cleaning on weekends.

So, my husband really has no “set” responsibilities around the house. For whatever reason, he can’t seem to clean up after himself, and when he is home, leaves his things and whatever he uses in a trail throughout the house. We have talked about this multiple times and I have told him how it makes me feel disrespected and like I am just his maid when he doesn’t clean up after himself. He tells me he will try harder, and will do better for a time, but then can’t sustain it.

I finally decided I would start putting his things in a corner in our room, so that he could take responsibility for them when he got around to it without me nagging him.

My husband got super upset about the pile. He told me I should be willing to give him “service” by cleaning up after him after all the hard work he does for our family, that I was creating more work for myself and him by moving it to the corner of the room instead of just walking 10 feet to put it away. He now purposely leaves anything and everything he can around, as well as throwing my things into a corner of the room even if they’re put away in spots where I normally store them.

He is also ignoring me, glares at me, or immediately starts trying to convince me to go back to the old way if I try to re-engage with him. How can I get out of this power struggle?

Answer

Power struggles are toxic to romantic relationships because they leave both people feeling misunderstood and unloved. The underlying premise of a power struggle is that one person wins while the other one loses. Each partner digs in deeper, fearful that they will disappear if the other gets their way. It’s a rotten way to live and often results in separation or divorce.

You say you’ve already tried talking with him directly to let him know how his thoughtlessness affects you. You’ve tried navigating around his stuff, hoping he’ll take some personal responsibility for his belongings. You’ve been hopeful that he would notice your sacrifices for him and the family. Yet, all you get is more disrespect and defeat.

When stuck in a power struggle, it’s tempting to push harder or go the opposite direction and become passive aggressive. The hope is that you can inflict enough pain so your partner will notice and care about your hurt. If your goal is to create connection, this strategy will only produce more acrimony and disconnection.

Let’s talk about what you can do so you don’t stay resentful while battling an ever-escalating power struggle.

I recommend you find a time free of distractions and let him know you want to talk with him about this negative cycle you’re both caught in. You can even map it out by showing the different reactions each of you are having with one another. Make sure you describe your reactions as clearly as you describe his.

For example, you might start by saying something like this:

I notice that when my efforts to keep order go unsupported, I feel strong resentment and want to teach you a lesson. I stop supporting you and then you seem to become more defensive and upset that I’m not doing my part.

Eventually, I dig in deeper and refuse to do more things while you feel more irritated that I’m not recognizing the contributions you’re making.

I hate what we’re doing to one another and don’t want to keep going down this road.

It’s critical to keep this discussion focused on the negative downward spiral that has a hold of both of you. If this turns into a one-sided conversation about how selfish and childish he is, you will have entered right back into the same spiral you’re trying to exit. Recognize how this back and forth has both of you trapped.

Make the cycle the enemy, not each other. If he becomes defensive or begins to blame you, do everything you can to take accountability for your reactions while keeping the focus back on the cycle.

This isn’t a failure of communication skills. You are both communicating loud and clear, but neither of you feel the other really cares or understands your pain.

Interrupting this negative cycle of disconnection is the first step in recognizing how each of you are resorting to unhealthy reactions to try and get the other to see and appreciate your efforts. Once you can see how each of you is working hard to have your partner care, it becomes easier to stay out of this negative dance.

This takes tremendous patience and practice to learn how to identify and stay out of this power struggle. If you can keep the conversation focused on how you’re both unintentionally caught in the struggle, you can side with each other against this unhealthy pattern.

Keep blame out of the conversation and let him know you want to work with him to find a new way of relating to one another. 

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.

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Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

Twitter: @geoffsteurer

Facebook: facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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11 Comments

  • Simone May 20, 2015 at 11:18 am

    Unfortunately this cycle of “men” treat their wives like trash is all too common. In this case it would appear that this guy never had to clean up after himself and whose father never did either. After all, they had a mother and wife who did it for them so when he married, he was under the impression that his new wife would simply clean up after him too. Unfortunately for him it sounds as if his wife is living in a place called reality and not the “Beaver Cleaver” world her husband chooses to reside in. In my opinion she “services” him by cooking, cleaning and taking care of herself and their children while he is at work. I’m sure she was also willing to “service” his other “desires” during times when she might not be feeling the same thing. She does her duty, I think he can do her the “service” of tossing his clothes in the hamper at the end of the day. If he still refuses let him stay home for a few days with the kids alone, see if he has a change of heart. 🙂

  • 42214 May 20, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    Great Beaver Cleaver reference. Reminds me of when June said to Ward, “I think you were a little hard on the beaver last night”

    • izzymuse May 20, 2015 at 5:25 pm

      Ahahahahaha! Lol! Oh man…that is so hilariously wrong.

  • izzymuse May 20, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    In this scenario, there’s a lot of vagueness – is the husband leaving trash on the floor? Or are we talking clothes on the bedroom floor? He’s leaving a “trail” of what through the house? Toys? Trash? Clothes? Has he gotten away with being this way his whole life? What was his life like growing up? Did his mommy always clean up after him?
    Here’s an idea:
    Wife says to husband: “Whatever’s not in the dirty clothes hamper is not getting washed. I’m doing laundry tomorrow, so if you want it cleaned, put it in the hamper.”
    Husband: “What is a hamper?”
    Wife takes husband to the hamper and explains the concept.
    Scenario 2:
    Wife: “Did you just leave the candy bar wrapper on the couch?”
    Husband: “uh…ya.”
    Wife: “The trash can is in that closet. Use your hand, pick it up and put it in. What are you a cave man? Were you raised by a pack of wolves?!!!”
    This isn’t nagging. This is basic human functioning. If he’s being totally dysfunctional, was he always that way? If so, why did you marry him? Etc. etc.
    Just for starters.

    • native born new mexican May 20, 2015 at 11:16 pm

      in reference to your comment izzymuse i know men who actually are that dysfunctional. The men I know are aware of their behavior but they do it and demand to get away with any way. If any thing is said to them about it or if any expectation is placed on them they complain loudly and blame all the mean women in their life starting with their mother for mistreating them. It is amazing these guys would truly rather die than take responsibility for their own unhappiness and have to change something. They are certain there is absolutely nothing wrong with them and that the female world just picks on them. I think the guy in this article is one of those and I think this marriage will probably end in divorce because I think he knows what he is doing and he likes it that way. He will just move on after this marriage and find some other unsuspecting woman to do his stuff to till that relationship gets destroyed also.

  • fun bag May 20, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    Guy is working long shifts so the wife can spend all his money on frivolous things to maintain an uppity lifestyle appearance to impress the other members of the local LDS ward. Then wife nags and whines because she has to make a tiny extra effort around the house. This poor man! I recommend a divorce, bc she will only get worse, trust me…

    • mesaman May 20, 2015 at 9:51 pm

      Go with your anti-Mormon rant, scumbag. I suppose being a bottom feeder as long as you have, any titillation of your declining cortex would bring you temporary pleasure. Enjoy ’til the candle goes out and you become fodder for the buzzards.

      • fun bag May 21, 2015 at 9:08 am

        You speak to your momma with that very same tone, boy? I think we all know who the scumbag is…

        • mesaman May 21, 2015 at 12:29 pm

          So you didn’t understand the big words. No problem, just continue to muddle your way through life trashing the majority religion of the area and thinking you are clever.

          • 42214 May 21, 2015 at 7:58 pm

            Majority rule isn’t fun when you’re not the majority and your day is coming.

  • anybody home May 21, 2015 at 10:53 am

    What’s wrong with this picture? If there are children old enough to help with chores, this is not a new marriage, so my question is how long has this woman been putting up with what now is grinding her gears?

    Has she been putting up with it with a smile and has suddenly seen a light and decided she’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore? Or has she been in this battle for all those years? It makes a difference. A big difference.

    And if it is a longer marriage, as it seems to be, has this guy really been going to school most of that time? Is he a loser like Zonker from Doonesbury who refuses to graduate? This dysfunctional mess is not about picking up after himself or a power struggle. It’s more about two people who apparently don’t want to grow up and be adults in a committed relationship.

    I have to disagree with the good Dr. Geoff – these people are not communicating with each other loud and clear. They’re a couple of sixth graders yelling at each other in the school yard. They need to grow up and stop acting like adult-size brats.

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