Negotiation in relationships is essential as you attempt to get what you want from your partner. Not all strategies lead to loving and positive interactions. This blog identifies 5 strategies that make it harder to get your needs met and can erode trust. They tend to become more frequent when you are at your worst or stressed and in some relationships take over most communication. Being hard-wired to protect yourself can lead to a need to control vulnerability and disappointment. Your protectionist nature is affected by experiences growing up in your family or society as well as the interactions that develop in your intimate relationships. If these strategies escalate in your relationship it becomes harder to be vulnerable and emotionally available to one another. Perhaps you can identify which of these approaches you most often use.
Controlling behaviour comes in many forms and occurs when you restrict your partner because of insecurities about what they want to do or might do. Partners who use this strategy tend to move into a one-up position and are judgemental of their partner’s different ways of doing things with a tendency to invade boundaries. Manipulation and threat are central to this strategy.
Sometimes the threat is spoken and obvious such as leaving the relationship or withholding sex or covert actions by avoiding or doing something behind your partner’s back. Control occurs when there is a complete lack of negotiation. You will just go ahead with your actions to get what you want or restrict your partner to get what you want. Controlling behaviour is fuelled by insecurities that are deeply buried. Rigid rules are employed to maintain control such as; ‘if you loved me you would _’ or,’ In a relationship, you should/should not _.’
All genders can exert control. However, men and women can be affected differently for the most part. Even though we have come a long way, the world we live in is a Patriarchal system where there is a hierarchy of entitlement and status with cis white men at the top. These power dynamics show in the way controlling behaviour plays out in relationships with feelings of vulnerability associated with women and men socialized to deny their ‘weaker’ feelings. This masculine code of invulnerability has a detrimental effect on cis men. They are in a bind where to be intimate with their partner means to be more emotionally available and vulnerable, but goes against their training of invulnerability. Attempting to control your partner can be a way of managing the helpless feelings that come up in intimate relationships of disappointment, loss, feeling let down, that you need your partner in some way or feelings of uncertainty. Giving each other choices around decisions or acceptance of different ways of doing things opens up the possibility of disappointment and doubt.
Women often use guilt and shame to try and control their partners. Men have more of a sense of entitlement that leads to overt ways of control vs. women tend to use covert methods of control. Partners who use control as a strategy will tend to use the rest of the strategies in a controlling way.
Being right is the foundation of any argument. It will go something like this. One of you starts a discussion where you need something, want to share something, want your partner’s help, and need to be heard or understood. The urge to make each other wrong is activated as your requests are not able to be met. On the one side, you are wrong for disagreeing or not meeting the need and on the other hand for the way you are asking for something or making the request in the first place. Each partner is protecting themselves from feeling the disappointment of not being satisfied or feeling guilty about not giving their partner what they want. Nothing gets sorted out because the focus is on maintaining your position of being right.
You can reach a moment of feeling superior if you manage to convince your partner you are right or exhaust them into agreeing with you. However, it becomes an ongoing battle between you of who is going to be the one who is right. When you are trying to get your needs met through being right, it is exhausting and leads to low self-esteem. The battle to be right escalates as you both try and protect yourself from the shame of losing.
The catchphrase ‘it is better out than in’ has been used in the psychology field as an encouragement to express feelings and thoughts. This has been particularly important for women who have felt their experiences silenced and unheard by society and their partners. Unfortunately, this has also justified interactions in relationships such as emotional dumping on one’s partner, and being unkind in the name of honesty. Typically what happens when there is ‘unbridled self-expression’ is discussions become an opportunity to talk about everything that is and ever has been wrong with the relationship, and the original point of the discussion gets lost. Nothing ever gets resolved, and so this list of unresolved events, hurts, and unmet needs are brought up time and again. This is the nature of unbridled self-expression.
It is important to know not everything is relevant at a particular moment. Just because you are feeling something does not mean your partner has to listen to you then and there. Nor does an unfettered expression of all your feelings and thoughts equal being close to one another. The expression of one’s feelings and desires is essential to a healthy relationship, but for this to be effective we need to learn to be focused and relevant.
We can all recognize the feeling of wanting to hurt someone because they have hurt us. The desire to get back at your partner, and make them feel what you are feeling can satisfy your angry/hurt feelings, although it’s only temporary. This strategy only serves to bring more hostility and hurt into your relationship.
Because you are in pain, it is easy to justify retaliatory behaviour whether it is shaming jabs back and forth in an argument or a week of the silent treatment. If confronted you can always point to what your partner has done. Neither partner’s hurt gets comforted or repaired because each of you is more concerned with accusing and wanting to get your pain acknowledged. Retaliation can be described as persecuting your partner from the victim position.
There is often a feeling that you want your partner to feel the pain you experience then, maybe, they won’t hurt you again. Unfortunately, this all too often escalates into more retaliation when either of you is in pain.
Resisting the urge to retaliate when you are hurt is the first step. Learning to repair instead of retaliating is ongoing work.
Withdrawal is a strategy of flight and avoidance to feel safe and comfortable. It is a strategy of non-participation in the relationship. If you don’t participate, then you won’t get hurt. However, if you don’t participate your needs won’t be met, and your partner is likely to feel abandoned, ignored and frustrated. Over time withdrawal can lead to more and more distance between partners and even venturing outside the relationship to get your needs met.
Any number of aspects of the relationship can feel uncomfortable and cause you to withdraw. For example discussions or specific topics or a part of the relationship such as sex, parenting, and spending time with your partner. Withdrawal is not the same as needing time to yourself or space although you may convince yourself that is what you are doing. Needing space is conducive to a healthy relationship where you negotiate and communicate about what space you need. Withdrawal is a habit to avoid being uncomfortable and often acted on without returning to deal with what you were avoiding. Learning to calm the anxiety and fears about facing your partner or talking about difficult topics is what will be required to overcome a withdrawing strategy.
The ideas in this blog are inspired by Terry Real and Relational Life Therapy
Our relationship counsellors are trained to help you transform these losing strategies