Note: This is the first of a three part series.

Want to have a better relationship?  One of the worst things that can happen to your health and happiness is to live with a resentful, angry or abusive partner.  But the worst thing you can do is become a resentful, angry or abusive partner.

Real personal power comes from focusing on what you can control, controlling what you say and do, and acting in your best interests.  If you want to have the best intimate relationship possible, the primary rule is that you must hold a magnifying glass on you and think exclusively of how you can do better, regardless of how your intimate partner does.

You may be thinking “S/he blames, rejects and criticizes me, too.”  But if you want to feel genuinely powerful and valuable, you have to outgrow the schoolyard mentality of “it takes one to know one.”  This childish stance makes you feel utterly powerless because it implies that you can’t do better until s/he does better.  Genuine power is seizing responsibility for making things at least a little better on your own, whether or not your partner is able to help.

Say your partner complains—yet again—that you never listen to her.  The sheer repetition of the statement, along with her tone of voice, makes your feel accused and devalued.  So you respond with some kind of power assertion—you contradict her or accuse back, or blow her off or say something sarcastic.  (Any of these, by the way, will prove that she’s right, because you’re not listening to her when she tells you that she doesn’t feel heard in the relationship.)  Even this false feeling of power can feel better than feeling devalued and powerless, because it invokes an amphetamine-like arousal.  You get a surge of energy, which temporarily increases your confidence.  You know that you’re right, as long as you’re resentful and angry.

Sound familiar?  Ask yourself this:  When you feel the power of being right, why do things always get worse?  Somewhere along the line you learned to substitute power for feeling loved and valued.  But as you must be aware by now, it’s a lousy substitution.  Power tactics sometimes get you compliance, occasionally fear, sometimes hostility, always resentment but never love and never give you the feeling that you’re valued.

All behavior that is not habit has one of these three, usually unconscious, motivations:  approach, avoid or attack.  In love relationships:

  • Approach is showing interest, enjoyment, compassion or care
  • Avoid makes you want to get away from your partner, blow off her perspective or have her shut up.  It devalues her by implying she’s not worth your attention.
  • Attack is an attempt to undermine her confidence, to get her to agree with you or to do what you want.

Avoid and attack motivations damage love relationships. They betray the explicit promise you made when you fell in love:  that you would care about how your partner feels, especially when s/he feels bad.

How might you feel valued and powerful at the same time?  When your intimate partner complained about you not listening to her, you might respond with something like “I want you to feel heard.  It’s important to me.”  If said with sincerity and then acted upon, your partner will likely feel valued, and will respond by valuing you back.

I will continue this discussion in next week’s column.

Source:  You Don’t Have To Take It Anymore by Steven Stosny (Free Press)

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