Power struggles and how to get beyond them

When a marriage relationship or a church community seems to be stuck or even falling apart, it is probably because we are not listening. We must be having trouble hearing one another.

There are often many reasons  for our lack of hearing. But the biggest reason of all must be not listening to Jesus. He is calling us into a transformation that allows us to listen, hear, and love like He does.

It is a strange problem. Jesus wants to nurture us into our true selves, which sounds great, but we resist going there. We have trouble letting Him get through a sentence without feeling threatened and either butting in with an objection or turning away. We have a power struggle with God and everyone else.

Friend or servant?

I was pondering a few power struggles I had identified last week when Julie reminded me of John 15. I have been thinking about our conversation ever since. In that account, Jesus calls his disciples into an intimate relationship with him, like branches in a vine. He warns that a disconnected branch will wither and die. But He assures the disciples that withering is not the destiny for his friends. He tells them he is no longer going to call them his “servants,” as if they were people who merely fulfilled a master’s bidding. They have matured into His “friends,” someone who knows His business and can bear the fruit of love that comes from a renewed life. Most of us have a hard time hearing what Jesus is saying, just like we have a hard time with our other intimates — there are reasons for this.

The main reason for our muddled hearing is that we should have outgrown the servant/master kind of relating a long time ago. I think many marriages and most church communities are still working out of the “lower” level of relationship Jesus describes in which one person is the master and one the servant. I call it a ten-year-old’s sense of righteousness. Pre-teens spend a lot of effort getting things right and understanding how things work. They can be very black and white, dependent on getting praise or punishment by achieving harmony with whatever is dominating them. In Christian terms, they might spend a lot of time in the Old Testament — organized by laws, mastering the rules. But, as Paul says, that process is just a tutor for following Jesus. If they never get out of that stage, they will have constant power struggles with all their intimates trying to get things “right.”

In a church like ours, dedicated to cells and teams, everyone is called into the Lord’s “friend” category. They are responsible for love that overcomes a multitude of sins; they are given the keys of forgiveness and grace to unlock the restored image of God in everyone. But some people persist in the “master” or “servant” category, demanding that the master be followed or getting by with as little obedience as possible. The “master” could be principles drawn from the Bible or the latest cause that becomes holiness for them. The service they do or resist could be sharing money or showing up to a meeting. You might be more familiar with this in your marriage, when one of you is furious over an injustice that consumes all your feelings and you lash out at or withdraw from your loved one who is making you serve their demand.

The five horsemen

Where the power struggle gets exhausting, in a marriage, a cell or a team meeting, is when the parties bring our what John Gottman names “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” to fight for their “rights.” These behaviors are what destroy marriage relationships and undermine any hope of hearing one another. They also destroy cells, teams and whole congregations. Consider them briefly.

The first horseman of the apocalypse is criticism. This is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint! The latter two are about specific issues, but the former is an attack on your partner at the core.

  • Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.” (Note the “I” message).
  • Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish! You never think of others! You never think of me!” (Note the “you” message).

If you find that you or your partner are critical of each other, don’t assume your relationship is doomed to fail. But do pay attention to the danger. Because criticism, when it becomes pervasive, paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen. It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and often causes the perpetrator and victim to fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity.

The second horseman is contempt. When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean -– treating others with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, mimicking, and using body language such as eye-rolling. We shame them. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.

“You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic computer games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid –- try to be more pathetic…” 

In his research, Dr. Gottman found that couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, etc.) than others, as their immune systems weaken! Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner – which come to a head as the perpetrator attacks the accused from a position of relative superiority. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce (and of team failure, church dissolution). It must be eliminated!

It might not be so easy to eliminate contempt (as U.S. political discourse has been demonstrating for years and especially this past week!). We need the Lord involved. We are powerfully motivated to maintain consistency in our thoughts, feelings and actions and to minimize conflict among them. (We don’t like “cognitive dissonance). We even have a place in the brain that researchers have identified as a key mechanism in mediating conflict-reduction. So a marriage partner or team mate may feel a need to control a relationship to satisfy their cognitive dissonance. When they are behaving badly, they might find another way to solve their problem rather than changing. For instance, they might see themselves as a decent, liberal-minded person, and that leads to dissonance between their self-image and their unseemly actions. Since we are all strongly motivated to reduce dissonance, they might unconsciously do so by developing a contempt for their mate or partner which is more in accord with the humiliating way they are treating them.

The third horseman is defensiveness. We’ve all been defensive. This horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on the rocks. When we feel accused unjustly, we fish for excuses so that our partner will back off. Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take them seriously, are trying to get them to buy something that they don’t believe, or are blowing them off.

  • She: “Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?”
  • He: “I was just too darn busy today. You know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”

He not only responds defensively, but turns the table and makes it her fault. A non-defensive response would have been:

“Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. Let me call them right now.”

Although it is perfectly understandable for the man to defend himself in the example given above, this approach doesn’t create connection or even the safety he would like. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of diverting one’s guilt by blaming one’s partner.

The fourth horseman is stonewalling. Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction. In other words, stonewalling is when one person shuts down and closes himself/herself off from the other. It is a lack of responsiveness to your partner and the interaction between the two of you.  Rather than confronting the issues (which tend to accumulate!), we make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a habit.

I think we need a fifth “horseman”: unfaithfulness. This is not a behavior as much as an incapacity to change. Gottman and other therapists assume we can change our minds and move with new feelings, which is true, to a point. But like Jesus tells his disciples, they will not bear fruit that lasts unless they are faithful to Him. Without Jesus we are desperate, withering branches longing for but despairing of connection. We will always be trying to get something and never quite get it. We won’t have a true self to give. We will be drawn into perpetual power struggles, seeking to preserve ourselves or achieve what we want. We need to relate faithfully to our faithful God in order to be faithful friends, mates and partners.

Being able to identify The five horsemen in conflicted situations is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication patterns, we must replace them with healthy, productive ones. That’s what Jesus is teaching his disciples. They are going to be a community in mission, threatened from without and way over the capacity of their inner resources. If they are not intimately connected with Him, they will just dissolve into feuding factions like the rest of the world.

Four ways to help defuse a power struggle

Without the healing, comforting friendship of Jesus, whatever is pushing our buttons just keeps pushing them. Our unresolved hurts and beliefs continue to scream for attention and healing. As James teaches: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from the desires that battle within you? You want something but you do not get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want” (James 4: 1-3). Our faith may not have matured much beyond the 10-20 year old era. But no matter how distant, angry or closed we may feel right now, we are called into a safe place with Jesus where we can stop reacting and start reflecting on the source of our disconnection.

Here are four suggestions for creating connection in your marriage, friendship, cell or team:

  1. Listen to your partner’s point of view with patience and respect. You might have heard it all before but try to understand why the situation has become so loaded.
  2. Look for the important things that are not being said. A useful prompt is: “Can you explain why you feel so strongly about this?”
  3. Behind nearly every power struggle is fear. Resist the temptation to placate, rationalize or dismiss these fears. Instead acknowledge them out loud. When someone feels truly heard, they will be more likely to listen to your concerns.
  4. With everything out in the open, you have an opportunity to look for a compromise or for next steps and to move with how God is leading someplace beyond what you presently experience.

Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. Connected to him we can hope to bear fruit that lasts, the fruit of love given freely and nurtured in mutual relationships of empathy and vision. Julie (and Jerome) can see their newly-formed community coming together as everyone re-forms around Jesus — it is a productive new vineyard! But it is also painfully easy to see where people just cannot bear that fruit yet. There will be power struggles. I’m sure they will keep listening with patience and respect, but also with an honest awareness of what it takes to love like Jesus.

[Gwen White adds some good things to this subject in her speech The Narrow Way]

About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

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