Sex, money, kids. Relationship experts call these the “power” issues. This is where things are never what they seem. The “power” here is less about strength and more about power struggling. This is where couples can start to bump chests, emotionally and verbally fight to the death.
For a few reasons. One is that these topics are easy to have different and strong philosophies about. Generally this ties to family culture — how your parents dealt with these topics and your own reactions to them. If, for example, they were savers of money, you didn’t feel deprived, and left your childhood thinking this was a good thing, you’re likely to want to recreate it in your own relationship. Similarly, if they were strict parents, and it you caused you to feel like you were always walking on eggshells, you may decide as a parent to be more laid back.
But then there is complementarity, where in relationships you are often attracted to someone very different from you; these topics often get woven into the personality mix. Your easy-going boyfriend is also easy-going, you eventually find out, about money as well; unlike you, he spends more than he saves. While he too is reacting to his own parenting, his behavior makes you feel anxious and quickly becomes a big point of contention.
But wait there’s more…. The reason these can become power issues is not only because you both have different philosophies and strong ideas, but because there is a “power” edge to them all: a tension, a built-in “whose way is going to win, who decides, whose relationship are we really living.”
In sex that this can be translated into who initiates or takes the lead on what and when we actually do what we do. With money it can be about who is in control of the budget and if one partner is financially one-down and financially dependent, about always feeling like the other person is looking over your shoulder wagging her finger about what you can and cannot spend. With children it can be about who ultimately runs the show, who has the last word about bed-times, soccer teams, homework, about how child-life runs.
This power imbalance can easily lead to bouts of resentment and acting-out as a way of releasing this anger or balancing the score. With sex this can lead to affairs, or withholding as a way of rebelling against the other’s seeming control. With money it can lead to “shopping therapy” which is really binge spending, a “show you” expression of frustration and defiance.
With children couples may get polarized, a scenario where one parent is laid-back and nice, the other the strict disciplinarian. Each over-compensates for the other — the more one tightens up, the more the other lays back; the kids get caught in the middle and get confused or work the system, saddling up to the lax parent when the other is off-duty. Or the one-down parent can encourage the children to act out his own stuff — encouraging Billy to take the lead on rebelling against mom, while the dad sits in the corner doing nothing to intervene.
All this is not good, yet all easy to happen.
What to do?
The key to avoid falling into this quagmire is to take the power out of these power issues. How do this? Some suggestions:
Realize the power of these topics
This means being aware that these topics can too easily get tense, that communication on them can too quickly go off-course and get emotional. Awareness is prevention.
Speak up about your own philosophies and sensitivities
This translates into having sane conversations about these topics early on at the front end of a relationship to make sure you are both on the same general ground, or exactly know where your differences lie. It also means speaking up as soon as things start to go awry — when you feel pressured or are guilted into having sex, or when your partner does elaborate spending that makes you feel uncomfortable.
What you are looking for are larger patterns to help you sort out one-time events from long-standing and deeper issues. Is my boyfriend spending a lot of money on dinners because he is trying to impress me, or is it part of a larger pattern that he is freer with money than I’m comfortable with? Is sex always on her terms or can I express what I want and feel and be heard and considered? Can we have a sane and productive conversation about this if I feel we are not the same page?
Balance the power in the relationship
Productive and sane means that these conversations feel equal, that you can solve problems together and understand each’s vision and needs without it feeling like a power struggle; that you feel safe to speak up and say what you firmly believe; that you both are willing to listen and compromise. This is what dispels the power struggle, the tension, and helps short-circuit the potential acting out.
So take the challenge to figure this out — where you both stand, what you both want, what you both need to most avoid, and if you need help consider some counseling. Don’t let these topics become emotional potholes that you are either are always falling into or going out of your way to walk around.
Step-up and tackle them straight-on in order to put them to rest.