top of page

The art of power struggle: how to make conflicts ruin your life

During couples psychotherapy, I sometimes like to say that 'relationships are not for free.' By this, I mean that in order for a relationship to work, one must be committed and invest their energies in the relationship rather than expect the partner to do everything.

In the history of a relationship, however, this is not always the case.

At the beginning, during the falling in love phase, it is normal to think that to keep the relationship alive and positive the only necessary thing is to stay together - without having to make an effort to understand the other's point of view, without having to devote oneself to the art of integrating opposites, etc

When in love, one tends to believe that the only thing there is to enjoy the relationship, without having to do anything that requires commitment or, God forbid, sacrifice.

But the Idyll phase, as anyone who has been through it at least once knows, sooner or later comes to an end.

From that moment on, the couple is no longer naturally harmonious. Once the romantic idyll is over, conflicts begin and gradually become more 'lively' (yes, I am using a euphemism).

beginning of the commitment

When the Idyll phase comes to an end, the Power Struggle phase begins, during which the partners strenuously try to change (which is quite different from' proposing changes') one another.

Power struggles, characterised by disputes, quarrels and bickering, take away energy and leave no winners in the field. Thus the couple becomes less and less a place of enjoyment and more and more a place of dissatisfaction.

At this point partners can take three different paths:

  1. Partners decide to break up and, if they have not deeply understood the reasons for the crisis, they will probably end up in a new couple that will present the same difficulties as the previous one.

  2. Partners realise the trouble they are in, and decide to do something different: they make a conscious decision to invest their energy in the couple to deal constructively and respectfully with the inevitable conflicts. This commitment, if carried out in the right direction and for the right amount of time, will lead the couple to reach the next evolutionary phase of Stability, in which partners will once again enjoy life as a couple - with the difference that in this phase well-being is earned, it does not come of itself without commitment as during the Idyll phase.

  3. Partners do not decide anything and continue along the path of Power Struggles. Power Struggles can also last a lifetime.

Today I would like to propose some safe strategies to keep yourselves indefinitely in the phase of power struggles and to get your relationship to become a real experience of suffering.

Obviously, what follows is provocative (but it is always good to warn ...).

Save energy

The first strategy I propose appeals to the universal human tendency to save one's energy.

During a discussion, one partner is usually emotionally stressed, and in such a situation, staying focused on the topic of the discussion requires energy.

Conflicts trigger very intense emotions: fear of rejection or abandonment, anger at feeling neglected or exploited, sadness at feeling alone, a sense of powerlessness, and so on.

In the emotional cauldron that is activated during a conflict, if you want to make sure that the discussion does not lead to any positive outcome, you have to keep adding new arguments.

It is not difficult.

While talking about a specific problem, one simply has to bring new issues into the discourse, even if they are not relevant to what one is saying.

A topic from a thousand years ago, a problem that was thought to be closed, new issues that came out of nowhere.

New topics will be added haphazardly to the discourse, with the sure effect of confusing the reasoning and making it difficult to follow a logical thread.

If you choose to use this technique, you will never run out of confusing arguments because, once the 'emotional brain' is activated and you start drawing from the 'resentment store' account, you will naturally enjoy a stream of unclarified events, previously unresolved problems, resentful issues, etc. Bringing them into the discussion all at once will have the sure effect of making constructive adult thinking impossible.

Mission accomplished!

Not listening

Listening is difficult. Listening implies an expenditure of energy. Consequently, not listening is something easy to do.

One just has to indulge their innate tendency to laziness and, while the other is talking, actively think about one's own response. You only have to listen to shreds of a sentence, just a few words, and only prepare the words you want to say in turn.

By doing so, one does not really listen to one's partner, one does not try to understand his or her point of view and emotions.

What is important is to cobble together a response and violently take the floor.

To this end, it works well to quote a few words taken here and there from what the other person has said (even just the last two or three articulated words are fine) in order to get vigorously into the flow of the discourse.

For example: 'Speaking of ... you also behaved very badly etc.'. Instead of the dots insert the word “caught”, as who cares what’s said - the only important thing is to take space in the discourse.

don't answer

Is your partner talking to you and asking a constructive question?

An elementary and very effective way of destroying any chance of communication is simply not to answer.

There are different ways of not answering and you need to know how to choose from the following list the one that’s most appropriate to the circumstance:

  1. Remaining silent. To implement this strategy, simply do not open your mouth. As can be seen, it is an elementary technique within everyone's reach, which can be enhanced by combining silence with a behaviour disconnected from what is being said. For example: sweeping the broom, washing the dishes, reading messages on one's mobile phone, and flicking through the newspaper. These distracting actions will communicate an attitude of indifference to your partner, who will probably perceive your presence as irrelevant.

  2. Changing the subject matter. Your partner asks a question and, instead of providing an answer, you say something completely irrelevant. For example, question: "Will you accompany me to the doctor on Tuesday?", answer: "Have you seen that the government has issued a new decree?".

  3. tangential answers. The partner asks a question. The answer relates to the object of the question, but is oriented towards different aspects than the object itself. For example, the question: "How do you feel when I am late at night?" can be answered tangentially: "I think it is indelicate ...". In this way, it appears that one is answering, but in reality, one is following one's own 'tangent', one's own line of thought and, in fact, is not answering the original question. Let's cross our fingers and hope that our partner does not notice, otherwise he/she might say something like: 'I asked you how you feel, not what you think.

  4. Blocking answers. The partner asks a question that is answered with another question that challenges the original question and allows the topic to be avoided. A blocking answer to the question "Do you love me?" might be "But what is love?". Et voila, the focus has been shifted to a different aspect than the requested topic: confusion is served!

Always deny

If your partner is complaining about your behaviour, it is necessary, as mentioned above, to avoid trying to understand his or her point of view. A useful strategy is to get defensive and to contest to the bitter end the validity of the other person's claims, no matter what he or she says.

If your partner is complaining about your behaviour, denying responsibility to the bitter end will have the sure effect of making your partner feel unheard, alone and ununderstood. Result achieved!

Respond to criticism with criticism

If one perceives that the other is criticising us, one must respond immediately with a counter-attack. No more delays! This will most likely result in an 'escalation' of accusations and counter-accusations, of increasingly intense emotions, of increasingly heated arguments that, like a ping-pong ball bouncing from one partner to another in an increasingly heated game, will sooner or later get out of control.

If one manages not to give in to the temptation to interrupt the process, it will sooner or later lead to shouting. The use of swear words and profanity will help a lot to accelerate the 'escalation' process.

If you are short of arguments, you can think of a mistake made by your partner (everyone makes one, it will not be difficult to spot one) and make it a criticism of his whole person, generalising the behavioural error to the partner's whole personality.

Treasure the fact that criticism directed at the person's essence is much more powerful than criticism directed at the person's behaviour. For example, if your partner has left his clothes on the floor, do not waste the opportunity by simply saying: "You left your clothes on the floor!". You can do better, you can criticise their whole personality by accusing them of being lazy and sloppy.


A particular form of criticism that is very powerful - and very, very widespread - is 'mind-reading'. This is done by claiming to know what the partner thinks, feels or wants without the other person having said anything about it.

For example: "I know you think I am wrong", '"You react this way because you are jealous'" "I already know your opinion on this'" and so on, without there having been a specific communication to that effect. This way, we communicate to our partners that we are superior to them and that we know more about them than they do.

Simply put, we treat them as stupid.

It is an insidious form of criticism, not everyone becomes aware of it (mind-readings are often accepted as normal modes of communication), but it is certainly destructive.


The 'cause-effect' strategy is another very effective, widespread method of criticism that is often not perceived as a form of criticism and therefore goes unnoticed as a harmless communication practice.

In order to implement this strategy, one must attribute the 'blame' of one's emotional experiences to the other, imputing to them that they are responsible/guilty for what one is feeling.

Obviously, this is absurd; adult human beings have their own independent emotionality that can be managed autonomously by the person himself according to their own choices. Consequently, no one else can be held responsible for provoking our emotions.

"You made me angry", "You make me nervous": with such statements, the other person becomes the sole offender, guilty of doing something that triggered an emotion in us.

Do you see that in this way one does not take responsibility for one's own emotions?

Not only has the other done something wrong, but also they provoked a negative emotion in us!

Different would have been to say: 'When you do this, I get angry'. In this second way, the 'cause-and-effect' strategy is not applied: I am responsible for my emotions and the other is much less to blame. Beware therefore of nuances!

destructive criticism

Criticism concerning a partner's behaviour can be constructive and help solve a concrete problem. To destroy the couple, one must be careful not to use this kind of helpful and constructive criticism.

To be sure that the criticism is destructive, the ingredient of blaming must be added to it. To this end, one will try to assume a position of superiority and will use words, but also tone of voice, facial expressions and body posture, to make the other feel deficient, wrong, or inferior.

If one succeeds in this, one will have one's partner in the palm of one's hand, who, oppressed by guilt, can be dominated by us and pushed to behave according to our wishes.

Since guilt is one of the main and most powerful weapons that can be used in the war for power within a couple, it must never be laid down. One must not give in to the temptation to believe the adage that 'conflict comes in two'. No! The other person is always and only to blame. His is the sole responsibility, pardon the blame, for the problem and the conflict. And, to be sure of having imposed one's authority, it is of paramount importance that the other comes to recognise his or her fault and apologise from a position of submission.

Systematically avoiding conflict

Arguments are the raw material and what keeps power struggles alive. However, it has also been noted that constantly avoiding disputes is a way to keep conflicts more alive than ever indefinitely. It is not true (fortunately) that time 'is a gentleman' and cures everything: unaddressed conflicts will always weigh more heavily on the couple's well-being by representing a reservoir of resentment from which they can constantly draw.

Systematically avoiding arguments, in fact, allows tensions and negative emotions to accumulate unprocessed in the couple's history to such an extent that, after a few years, recomposition of the original conflict becomes very difficult or even impossible.

An excellent strategy for maintaining power struggles is therefore to systematically avoid making explicit and addressing the couple's problems. Instead, it is advisable to keep problems to oneself, entrenching oneself in resentful isolation.

Avoiding couples psychotherapy

Your partner, unable to resolve the crisis, may want to make use of a psychotherapist to make sense of and deal with your problems. Beware, danger! This must be avoided at all costs!

Couple psychotherapy can, in fact, help to slow down the pace of communication, can provide a space for productive reflection, can encourage contact with one's own authentic needs and, finally, allow partners to empathise with each other and (heaven forbid) resolve conflicts positively.

Fortunately, avoiding couples psychotherapy is easy.

It will suffice for you to say: 'do not believe in psychotherapy'. With such a statement, you will probably get away with it because there is a lot of confusion and ignorance with regard to the field of psychotherapy: you are very unlikely to hear an answer that there are many different types of psychotherapy and that there has been a great deal of scientific research that has verified its effectiveness with regard to the treatment of various disorders.

Do harmonious couples argue?

Theabove-mentionedThe above strategies will help couples who intend to remain in the Power Struggle phase to make their stalemate situation chronic. In such an impasse, quarrels are likely to be the order of the day.

If, on the other hand, the couple decides to move towards the next evolutionary phase (Stability), quarrels will become less and less frequent as the partners are able to develop their own set of shared strategies for productively resolving their conflicts.

What distinguishes a growing couple from one stuck in power struggles is the awareness of the inevitability of conflict and the intention to invest one's energies in resolving such conflicts, even at the cost of sacrificing something of oneself. This of course requires commitment, a lot of commitment, so much so that it can sometimes take many years to develop a state of couple stability. Years during which partners gradually learn to really listen to and accept each other and to communicate their conflicting points of view in authentic and constructive ways.

Along this path - each time the partners manage to find harmony again after a conflict - the couple becomes more mature, the relationship stronger and more authentic.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page