Healing a  Relationship

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Power control and individuality issues in relationships

Power and control are two of the most significant issues in any relationship. The more trouble the relationship is facing, the more these power and control issues will come to the surface. The better the relationship is working the less power and control issues will be seen as a problem.

A really functional "grown-up" relationship will be marked by the lack of emphasis on issues about power or control. Instead, both the partners will feel closely connected (linkage) while maintaining a strong sense of individuality and independence within the relationship. This is how relationships are meant to be.

None of the first four kinds of relationship described below, are recommended. But I have included these four as a kind of bench-mark and as a contrast with number five, the "grown-up" relationship. Many of us have experienced one of more of these first four kinds of relationship in the past and most of us hope to avoid them again in the future. But because they have been so fully accepted (traditionally) in the past it's worth looking at them in terms of two basic positions:

    * how effectively power and control issues are resolved


    * how much or how little individuality and freedom is experienced by each partner within the relationship

Number five, the "grown-up" relationship is different. This kind can only be created by both partners working together as a team to discover better ways to minimise power and control issues. At the same time both partners work just as hard to recognise and maintain a strong sense of individuality within the relationship.

1. Traditional Patriarchal.

This type of relationship is based on male dominated teachings typically found in conservative religion based societies where the male is regarded as unquestionably dominant. Patriarchal relationships are based on and justified by their traditional view which regards women as weaker, less intelligent and therefore entitled to be controlled by the stronger male. Neither men nor women question this assumption. Females are expected to be subservient to males on most matters both within and outside the family. In this kind of relationship while the male experiences many opportunities for independence, there is very little opportunity for the female to experience life as an individual. See also separate page about the Inner Patriarch and Inner Matriarch.

2. Traditional Matriarchal.

This type of relationship while theoretically acknowledging the male as the head of the partnership, in practice places the female in the position where she exercises many subtle but powerful forms of control. This results in her having the final say on many significant family issues. Matriarchal relationships tend to regard men as being at best, "little boys" who (when it comes to family matters) need to be guided by stronger women. It is commonly found in many traditional Mediterranean, Eastern European and Jewish societies. Neither male nor females feel much sense of independence or freedom to be themselves as individuals. See also separate page about the Inner Patriarch and Inner Matriarch.

3. Co-dependent relationship

The unquestioned assumption here is that "the relationship" is more important than the independence of either individual.

Each partner is focused mainly on finding ways to make the "relationship" work. So each partner experiences a major loss of self (their individual identity.) After a while each partner recognises this loss but they each tend to blame the other partner for causing it. Typically a co-dependent relationship allows neither partner very much room to experience life or to grow as an individual. (See separate page "The Fable of the Two Codependents".)

4. Engulfment - Abandonment relationship (the Dance)

The Aban (abandonment issues - engulfing - pursuing)   vs  Engul ( Engulfment issues - avoiding - distancing) - This pattern is often described as a kind of dance a dysfunctional cycle along the lines explained in the examples below.

In a relationship like this, each partner describes themselves as controlled by the other. However, what one is experiencing as "control" is almost totally opposite what the other is experiencing.  One of them is focused on trying to prevent their partner from abandoning them. Let's call that partner "Aban”.  The opposite partner whose control issues are about trying to avoid being smothered or engulfed we will call "Engul".

Typically when Aban experiences  a sense of being abandoned or alone he or she panics and starts working overtime to force Engul to come closer.  As a result, Engul with strong engulfment issues becomes agitated about being over-controlled by Aban.  Engul will feel he or she is losing  individual identity. The more Aban tries to keep Engul close to them, the more Engul will feel  smothered or controlled by Aban. This increases the chance that Engul will naturally try to spend even less time with Aban in order to maintain his or her (Engul's) sense of identity.

Since they do not like being controlled themselves an Engul partner trying to protect their individuality may have a fear that they will appear as "too controlling"  So they tend to avoid methods of control like manipulation that they regard as "dishonest". An Aban partner on the other hand may be inclined to use almost any technique including manipulation to try to force Engul to come closer.

Partner Engul - avoider and distancer selves - fear of engulfment

The ‘inner selves’ that encourage Engul to stay out of intimacy developed from early experiences of being engulfed by control or smothered with over-protection. In fact when they are feeling engulfed, people like Engul may feel a form of terror, similar to that of being physically smothered and need to create physical distance to reduce the fear.  People like Engul are usually the product of a family where mother or father or both were either over controlling, or too close and too clingy. That is why Engul developed inner selves that avoid and resist closeness and intimacy and are also capable of blocking control by Aban.

But distancing, avoiding and resisting control is what is going to trigger Aban's childhood fear of being too alone (abandonment issues) and insecurity about lack of permanency in the relationship (powerless and not good enough issues). The result is a toxic cycle of abandonment and engulfment that goes nowhere.

Partner Aban - pursuing, clinging or engulfing inner selves

Partner Aban's inner selves are often attracted to people like Engul yet they are the very people have a fear of intimacy and who are triggered into distancing by pursuing behaviour.   Partner Aban has constant fears about being abandoned by partner Engul. To help reduce this, Aban has selves that pursue Engul to try to get closer and press him or her for more intimacy. They also try to control partner Engul, in the belief that the more Engul is under Aban's domination the less Aban will feel alone or afraid of being abandoned.

However, control and pressure is just what triggers Engul's childhood fears about being too close (engulfment and enmeshment issues) and about being too controlled (safety and security issues). Naturally this causes Engul to back away or try to escape the relationship. That is the very reaction that panics Aban who becomes even more needy, clingy, engulfing and smothering.

The flip side

The cycle is broken from time to time when Engul suddenly notices that Aban has finally given up, has flipped into temporary avoidance (emotional anorexia) to escape the pain and is no longer around.  Typically Engul in a case like this, then temporarily experiences the pain of abandonment and fearing losing Aban permanently, makes extravagant promises and apologies to get Aban to come back.

Engul may even get into a little temporary engulfing. (emotional bulimia) However this is short lived because Aban is so happy to learn that Engul ‘really loves me at last’ that they move into even stronger engulfment and totally enmesh Engul even more than previously to make sure he or she never escapes again.

Sadly, it is at that point the whole cycle begins all over again until both partners learn that it’s never wise to leave it up to the inner selves to fix relationship problems like these.

If they do separate, a ‘love addicted’ partner like Aban may experience actual withdrawal symptoms related to the loss of Engul whose presence was actually like a pain-killing ‘medication’. These symptoms are often remarkably similar to, or worse than, withdrawal symptoms of people going ‘cold turkey’ off heroin! The more vulnerability around any of these areas, the more likely a polarised inner self will come in to try to help. As polarised selves do, each self will suggest widely different solutions. If the same person is struggling with both abandonment and engulfment issues she or he may end up with as many as four different selves pulling in different directions.

The inner selves belonging to the other partner in the relationship then get in on the act, reacting in turn as they are triggered by the changing polarity of the situation. It’s not a pretty sight.

Individuality issues in this kind of  relationship

There is an irreconcilable conflict here:

    * Engul’s fear of loss of individuality through being over-controlled by A

    * Aban's fear of being left alone which for A means too much individuality

The more Aban tries to keep Engul close to them the more Engul  will feel overly smothered or controlled. This increases the chance that Engul will naturally try to spend even less time with Aban in order to maintain their (Engul's) sense of individuality.

Interestingly, an Engul partner, in trying to protect their individuality may have a fear that they will appear as "too controlling" since they do not like being controlled themselves. So they tend to avoid methods of control like manipulation that they regard as "dishonest".

The Aban partner on the other hand may be inclined to use almost any technique including manipulation to try to keep Engul. close to them. That leads to more disagreements, more abandonment for Aban, more engulfing for Engul. Backwards and forwards they go, the result is often described as being like a kind of toxic self-defeating dance. It's not a pretty sight, but one that is all too common.

5. The Grown up Relationship

One of the comfortable features of this kind of relationship is that issues around power and control take up very little time and seldom assume much importance for either partner. A peaceful relationship is not one that is free of conflict. It is one where both partners have the ability to deal with conflict in fair and moderate ways.

As they follow the guidelines below and other guides they work out for themselves, grown-up partners learn to define and agree on how their particular relationship can work best for them. There are no standard rules, each couple has to work their own set of rules out between them. However typically there will be some emphasis on issues like:

    * ways they are both comfortable with for developing a very strong personal bond and ways of connecting closely and comfortably with a high level of trust, mutual respect and friendship

    * at the same time, allowing each partner plenty of room to still maintain their individuality, that is each person allowing the other as much space as they need to continue being who they are as an individual

    * ways of developing closer intimacy at some times, while maintaining strong individuality at other times

To achieve this kind of outcome both partners will need to become well practised in different grown-up partnership skills. These will in themselves help define the nature of their individual relationship for example:

    * working out ways that suit both partners that allow them to share any resource that is limited, for example, time, money, physical energy, space, professional activities and so on. For example: For how long and how often does each person want to spend time with the other and how much time apart? How will expenses be shared? What expenses will not be shared? How much time is it Ok to spend apart because of work or professional commitments?

    * agreement about defined limits, that is what is and is not acceptable within the relationship. This is a very important part of providing each partner with a continued sense of being an individual, and protecting them from losing their individuality within the relationship. Some relationships may involve very few limits and still be successful.

    * a willingness to experiment, to try new ideas and solutions without a guarantee that they will work. It helps if there is acceptance that in a relationship there is no such thing as a totally failed experiment. Some useful new information will always be discovered as a result of trial and error experiments even if the end result shows of no immediate benefit.

    * developing their own set of negotiation (conflict resolution) skills to deal with issues of conflict. Understanding that in every negotiation it is normal for one person to want more or less than the other. Negotiation it is just grown-up way of discovering a midpoint where both are as comfortable as possible with the outcome.

Useful conflict resolution skills might include for example:

    * mutual sharing, give and take, trade-offs, one person giving up something in return for a benefit from the other

    * agreeing to disagree rather than continue allowing unresolvable issues to damage the friendship. Agreeing to put a difficult matter on hold (time-out) for a fixed period of time before bringing it up again.

    * developing the ability to negotiate in a grown-up way about living arrangements, (cooking, tidying, shopping, laundry).

    * Finding ways to help make it safe for each partner to increase their sense of intimacy within the relationship. Understanding that the greater the level of intimacy the more it is normal to experience an increased sense of vulnerability.

    * developing ways to warn the other partner when this happens, so they can back off for a while or do something which will help make it safer for both of them. (See separate page "Choosing between personal and impersonal channels")

    * developing boundaries that are comfortable for both partners around critical issues such as sexual boundaries and limits, financial boundaries and limits, boundaries and limits relating to other members of the each partner' s family and friends both children and adults.

See also

The Magic restaurant where I explain more about this

Feedback - please e-mail me John Bligh Nutting - at nutting@growingaware.com

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