Couple on puppet strings

The Power of… Moving Out of Power Struggle

Decades ago, I lived with that feeling for days at a time. I can still generate it from memory, nausea around my solar plexus, a jutting out of my chin, that ick feeling that comes from adrenaline.

Who knows how it would start, the imagined transgression that one of us had committed? Was it me? No way, if you hadn’t looked at me that way, used that tone, corrected me, brought up the issue at the wrong time, well, we wouldn’t be in this, would we? Or, ok, it WAS my fault, see, I do suck as a human. I, you, someone deserves punishment. Maybe it’s a cold shoulder, or yelling, or flouncing around the house in indignation. Clearly the way out was for someone to apologize, admit their wrongdoing. But I did it last time, it’s your turn now….

Couple on sofa looking away from each other

Is it as awful to read this description as it was to write it out? But I know this misery is common. The couples that I’ve worked with, the folks who are out there this minute trying to find their way–I know this is a shared hell. We do the best we can with what we know, and yet we find ourselves acting in ways we never thought we were capable of. We say the worst things, we behave in ways we hate ourselves–and each other–for.

When we finally emerge from the chaos of relationship escalation, we search for explanations: we must have, once again, made a bad choice in partners. Or perhaps it was our astrological, enneagram, Love Languages, attachment style, or Myers-Briggs compatibility that was askew. And when the entrenchment continues, we seize on the biggest weapon of all: diagnosis. Toxic narcissism. Borderline Personality Disorder. Pathologically needy/enmeshed/sensitive. Crazy.

While those formulations are clearly helpful to many people (and my psychologist self used to love assessing what was wrong), I eventually saw how none of that actually helped me be closer to my partner, Kath. Over the years and thousands of hours of sessions I’ve led, though, the true source of much of relationship hell began to emerge from the fog:

All conflict is based in power struggle.

To create connection and flow, shift out of the struggle. 

Couple on puppet strings

Power struggle is an invisible puppeteer. We detect threat (regardless of its actual presence) and hormonal puppet strings descend upon our bodies. Where a microsecond before we had access to our best selves, suddenly we are jerked around by the whim of our old patterns of reactivity.

This happened when I was driving a couple of days ago. All was well with me until someone zoomed up behind me and passed me too precipitously. (Hear my Reactive Brain interpretation??) I reacted by speeding up, finally passing them back. HA!

Ugh. I’m not proud.

I watched myself through this whole rather mundane episode. I could see it. But I still did it. Thankfully, my awareness helped me chuckle at myself–and slow down.

Can you relate? Do you notice when the threat puppeteer yanks you around? Have you ever been surprised by what you’re capable of thinking/saying/doing? Add in the stressors of everyday life, maybe some sleep deprivation or an unforeseen bill, and, well, the real question is how we ever move out of this pull down to demon-land.

It’s a simple concept, but with a million years of mammalian survival instincts behind us, shifting these patterns can seem like a gargantuan task. But it’s possible. And understanding what is really going on points us to the clear path out of hell, back to the very heart of what relationship has to offer: Remembering each other as the divine beings you knew yourselves to be when you first fell in love.


Tips for moving out of power struggle, back into connection and Flow:

One: Make a commitment right now: “I commit to choosing connection over struggle.”

Two: Watch your body for signals that you’re now in the thrall of The Mammalian Threat Puppeteer:

  • Shallow breathing
  • Adrenaline
  • Only one solution
  • Rigid posture
  • “It’s not funny!”
  • Sense of urgency, like it’s life or death

Three: Choose to shift your physiology (even if that doesn’t make sense to your Reactive Brain):

  • Take deep breaths
  • Move your body. (My friend Hannah recommends “30 Second Dance Parties”)
  • Open your vision; get out of Narrow Focus
  • Don’t solve anything until you’re back in Creative Brain

Four: Visualize a tug-of-war. While pulling on the rope can seem fun for a bit, at some point notice that you’re expending lots of energy to get nowhere. Imagine…dropping the rope.

Five: As the MT Puppeteer’s hormonal strings loosen up, decide–is it time to smile? To reconnect through eye contact, or holding hands, or just leaning into your fellow human mammal?

From one mammal to another—

Blessings and love, as you ripple your essence out into the world…


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