Tackling today’s issues – Negotiation, Opinions, Power and Powerlessness – continues to be based on trying to acknowledge our own feelings and share them with our partners. I’m so impressed by the feedback from those who have been doing so – well done! – It is possible!
N. Negotiation: All couples need to manage the power dynamics in their relationships in a reasonably balanced way, as much as possible. Often without much conscious thought, we can: we negotiate compromises, we co-operate, we share decisions, and we divide up tasks and roles. However, if this breaks down there are temporary negative effects in the form of accusations, sulking, or arguments. Some couples slip into frequent, predictable arguments where one person constantly ‘has to’ win, and the other is always ‘the loser’. Unlike arguments, where both parties engage in ‘letting off steam’, negotiation has a goal: it seeks acceptable compromises and avoids victimhood. It does require practice, if neither of you are used to it….
When a ‘clash of interests’ emerges, try to identify what part you may play in things starting to go off the rails. Think about how strongly you feel about reaching a satisfactory outcome (which is not always about ‘winning’), and put your energy into changing what you do and say to make this more likely. So if for instance you are arguing about who does which domestic tasks, pay attention to what emotions you have – e.g. resentful, sad, angry? Or something deeper- lonely, unloved, disempowered (see ‘P’ below)? Your feelings and those of your partner need to be expressed and heard. As well as feelings check that you share information about the issue being tackled, such as how much time and energy specific tasks take.
Try to work out what is more important to you: to have your feelings heard, or to get your own way, i.e. win the argument. If winning the argument (e.g. “my partner MUST cook half the week”) is the crucial outcome for you, check whether you have ‘catastrophic’ expectations, such as ‘it’ll be awful if I have to give in… I’ll feel SO humiliated – I MUST win’. (Think carefully – can you shift to the possibility it may be only mildly annoying not to get your own way? Perhaps there might even be some advantages? )
When you’re clearer about what you would like, focus on that in your negotiation. Avoid retaliating or throwing in general complaints (“you never listen”, “you always have it your own way”). Assertively state your wish to have your preferences and needs taken seriously (“I need you to recognize that I resent cooking seven nights a week”). Listen -really listen- to your partner. If you know you have been heard, you may find that the actual frequency of your cooking doesn’t matter quite so much. If not, repeat your position, and re-state anything positive that has been said by either of you, to show that you wish to continue to negotiate.
O. Opinions: It’s easy to get confused about just what the significance is of expressing opinions. Right now, for instance, the Western world is both skeptical of ‘scientific opinion’ and yet reliant on it for life-and-death decisions. Notice that at every level- political, social, and domestic – expressing an opinion carries messages about the speaker’s status, and their social identification. For example, when my partner tells me his opinion about an announcement by the prime minister, agreeing with him strengthens our bond because it confirms his ‘right’ to ‘make a pronouncement’ and that we share similar values, and we have a broadly shared social identity. In ‘lockdown’ it is understandable that we want to keep this bond strong, but it’s important too that as a couple we’re not just an echo chamber: we need a balance between each having independence of thought, and also knowing we share views on values and important practical matters. We may need to seek out unfamiliar media sources to keep our conversations new and lively!
P. Power and Powerlessness: When there is a prolonged crisis and normal routines are disrupted, we have to cope with feeling powerless over many aspects of our life. Sometimes this is so strong that – even if we know it’s understandable to feel this way – it becomes difficult to prevent it affecting our partner and our relationship. In particular, many people have had it instilled in them at an early age that powerlessness=weakness, and to reveal that one feels powerless is humiliating. Anxiety, helplessness, and shame can all get muddled up together in a frightening way -for example: I feel ill, I hide it from my partner, s/he asks me to deal with some practical problem, I snap at him/her for making demands, s/he is angry and puzzled, I feel inadequate and even more anxious….
Being with a partner constantly may mean that they become a convenient target for blame; blaming someone else provides a temporary diversion and relief from how lonely and unpleasant – and possibly humiliating – it is to feel powerless. If this is true for you, try to be understanding and accepting of yourself, and work on avoiding blaming your partner.
In contrast, couples can cope positively with a sense of powerlessness at this time by sharing their fears, ‘empowering’ each other with regular appreciation and encouragement, and adapting their expectations of themselves and each other, as they need to. If this has been difficult, it may help to talk about some ‘automatic’ response when stressed or powerless in terms of “flight”, “fight” or “freeze” – and how this affects your relationship. Living in a fantasy world or pretending negative emotions don’t exist suggests a flight from reality, being too solution-oriented or over energetic is a ‘fight’ response, and being apathetic or constantly tired reflects a ‘freeze’ response. None is either ’good’ or ‘bad’, but may provide shorthand for understanding each other better in the face of powerlessness.