It seems that whenever I try to set personal boundaries my husband freaks out and it turns into a huge power struggle. I am a stay-at-home mom while my husband works 12 hour shifts on a rotating schedule and has been working full-time and doing school most of our married life (he is nearly finished with his Masters degree). I have tried to be supportive and have basically taken over running our entire household. I cook, clean, do the laundry, pay the bills, make appointments, do almost all the shopping, and take care of the vast majority of the errands and things our many children need. My children have daily household chores, and help with lots of other things as well, including taking the garbage out, doing the yard, and deeper cleaning on weekends, so my husband really has no “set” responsibilities around the house. For whatever reason, my husband can’t seem to clean up after himself, and when he is home, leaves his things and whatever he uses in a trail throughout the house.
We have talked about this multiple times and I have told him how it makes me feel disrespected and like I am just his maid when he doesn’t clean up after himself. He tells me he will try harder, and will do better for a time, but then can’t sustain it. I finally decided I would start putting his things in a corner in our room, so that he could take responsibility for them when he got around to it without me nagging him. My husband got super upset, told me I should be willing to give him “service” by cleaning up after him after all the hard work he does for our family, that I was creating more work for myself and him by moving it to the corner of the room instead of just walking ten feet to put it away. He now purposely leaves anything and everything he can around, as well as throwing my things into a corner of the room even if they’re put away in spots where I normally store them. He is also ignoring me, glares at me, or immediately starts trying to convince me to go back to the old way if I try to re-engage with him. How can I get out of this power struggle?
Power struggles are toxic to romantic relationships because they leave both people feeling misunderstood and unloved. The underlying premise of a power struggle is that one person wins while the other one loses. Each partner digs in deeper, fearful that they will disappear if the other gets their way. It’s a rotten way to live and often results in separation or divorce.
You say you’ve already tried talking with him directly to let him know how his thoughtlessness affects you. You’ve tried navigating around his stuff, hoping he’ll take some personal responsibility for his belongings. You’ve been hopeful that he would notice your sacrifices for him and the family. Yet, all you get is more disrespect and defeat.
When stuck in a power struggle, it’s tempting to push harder or go the opposite direction and become passive aggressive. The hope is that you can inflict enough pain so your partner will notice and care about your hurt. If your goal is to create connection, this strategy will only produce more acrimony and disconnection. Let’s talk about what you can do so you don’t stay resentful while battling an ever-escalating power struggle.
I recommend you find a time free of distractions and let him know you want to talk with him about this negative cycle you’re both caught in. You can even map it out by showing the different reactions each of you are having with one another. Make sure you describe your reactions as clearly as you describe his.
For example, you might start by saying something like this: “I notice that when my efforts to keep order go unsupported, I feel strong resentment and want to teach you a lesson. I stop supporting you and then you seem to become more defensive and upset that I’m not doing my part. Eventually, I dig in deeper and refuse to do more things while you feel more irritated that I’m not recognizing the contributions you’re making. I hate what we’re doing to one another and don’t want to keep going down this road.”
It’s critical to keep this discussion focused on the negative downward spiral that has a hold of both of you. If this turns into a one-sided conversation about how selfish and childish he is, you will have entered right back into the same spiral you’re trying to exit. Recognize how this back and forth has both of you trapped. Make the cycle the enemy, not each other. If he becomes defensive or begins to blame you, do everything you can to take accountability for your reactions while keeping the focus back on the cycle.
This isn’t a failure of communication skills. You are both communicating loud and clear, but neither of you feel the other really cares or understands your pain. Interrupting this negative cycle of disconnection is the first step in recognizing how each of you are resorting to unhealthy reactions to try and get the other to see and appreciate your efforts. Once you can see how each of you is working hard to have your partner care, it becomes easier to stay out of this negative dance.
This takes tremendous patience and practice to learn how to identify and stay out of this power struggle. Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught the simple truth that “perfect love is perfectly patient.”[i] If you can keep the conversation focused on how you’re both unintentionally caught in the struggle, you can side with each other against this unhealthy pattern. Keep blame out of the conversation and let him know you want to work with him to find a new way of relating to one another.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves as the primary chorister. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
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[i] Maxwell, Neal A., All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience, 69