Creating balance in a long relationship can be a minefield of misunderstandings, as author Anna Maxted knows.
Even after 19 years of marriage, I’m slow to sense when my relationship is out of sync. Then, over several grey days, I’ll realise there’s a briskness to our chats, less easy laughter. My husband Phil and I will talk in cool practical terms, mainly about our kids. Phil will pointedly clean the kitchen, practising ‘aggression tidying’ – banging cupboards, plates – until I feel tense enough to scream.
Usually, our relationship is balanced, or it wouldn’t have lasted. He cooks and drives more; I do the washing and the tax. I hate doing the tax, but it’s only fair.
And yet, when Phil starts bashing crockery, it dawns on me we’re out of kilter. “We need to talk,” I’ll snarl. “Why are you being such a brat?” A furious argument will ensue, all “you never” – exactly what therapists warn against. In one exchange, Phil declared, “You never hug me!” I retorted that I’d had terrible news about a relative; I felt sad and introspective. “Anyhow,” I growled, “your family is more tactile than mine.” Then I considered how cold I’d been. I hugged him. He hugged me. We reset the scales.
We all have a vision of normality. Then something happens – the death of a parent, a big work project or concerns about one of your children. And any of those external pressures can destabilise your relationship…
You feel he’s lord of the manor to your serf. His impression is he’s third in line for your attention, after the kids and cat. There’s clearly an imbalance – of power.
Unfortunately, we only recognise this when the balance isn’t in our favour. If we are more powerful – say, we decide how money is spent – we don’t notice because people like being in control.
It’s unlikely that everything is 50-50 in a relationship. If you don’t care about cars but your partner does, it’s logical that he chooses your vehicle. But if things alter – maybe illness or retirement – the power balance can change.
Often, a clue the scales have tipped is when you feel resentment towards your partner, which plays out as anger, arguments and withdrawn behaviour.
Andrew G. Marshall cites one client who works while her husband looks after their toddlers. “Probably because she feels guilty about not being with her kids, she’s very controlling. He feels she makes all the decisions. She not only has the financial power; what she says goes when it comes to raising the children.”
Another tricky area: who has power in the bedroom and decides when you’re going to have sex? It can be a negative power: ‘I won’t give it to you unless you jump through a thousand hoops!’ If you feel you lack power in one area, you may seek it elsewhere. Generally, an affair is a passive-aggressive way of saying ‘I’ve got no power’. Often, people have to be in control as they’re anxious.
Relationship, family and marriage counsellor Christine Northam; Marital therapist Andrew G. Marshall, author of It’s Not a Midlife Crisis, It’s an Opportunity (Marshall Method); Psychotherapist Wendy Bristow give advie…
Most couples would do anything to avoid the terror of a frank discussion with their partner about (the wrongs of), say, their sex life. But if subjects like sex become so divisive that you can’t even talk about them, that’s dangerous behaviour. Unless you are gently honest, resentment will grow until, nine times out of 10, you find yourself talking after an affair.
One helpful tool is each drawing up a list of who’s in charge where; of the children, the holidays, the dog. Then next to each item, add: me, you, joint. Show each other what you’ve got, and see if you agree. You’ll probably find you’ve got different opinions – and that’s a very good place to start. Then address the most pressing issue, but as a team, rather than opponents. One partner could talk for five minutes about how they feel, very much sticking with feelings, rather than what the other person did to him or her, cutting out the blame. Meanwhile, the other partner listens without interrupting. When the timer goes, change roles.
Don’t give up!
If you keep talking, one of you might find out that you control sex because you always decide whether you’re having it or not. Alternatively, you might feel powerless because he’s always pestering. That conversation promotes mutual understanding, meaning the dynamic could change.
However, women especially find it hard to say what they want. They think to declare ‘I do the cooking, cleaning and washing, and you do nothing’ is just complaining. If the balance of responsibility for household chores is rather 1950s, make a recommendation. Say, ‘From now on, would you please take the rubbish out and vacuum weekly?’ Then stick with it. Do not vacuum and take the rubbish out when they don’t do it. Many women give in too quickly, take up the slack, and then resentment builds up all over again.
Is Your Friendship Unbalanced?
When Imbalance works…
A technical imbalance in a warm, respectful friendship can be accommodated. Take two friends: Claire, who has no children, and Helen, who has three. Claire goes to Helen’s house for dinner, year in, year out. That’s a practical imbalance, but Claire understands it’s difficult for Helen to get out with three kids. The respect is mutual: Helen cooks a special dinner, and makes a fuss of Claire.
We sense, however, when an imbalance is caused by a lack of respect. It might be that a friend talks and talks about herself and seconds after asking after you, the answer is presumably so yawninducing, she interrupts or starts trying to catch the waiter’s attention. Or it could be the friend who always cancels on you. Once – fine. Five times – it feels like an absence of empathy and understanding.
What To Do When It Doesn’t…
Speak up: We often diffuse our anger onto other people; complain about a friend to another friend until we’re red in the face, while that friend has no idea we’re annoyed.
Use neutral language: For instance, ‘I feel I supported you through your divorce, and now I feel I need some support. I don’t feel I’m getting it.’ Say what you want. ‘I want you to really listen to me when I talk about my sister-in-law…’
And When To Let Go…
We can be overly nostalgic about friendships, but life’s too short to hang out with people who aren’t really there for you. Unlike family, where you take the rough with the smooth, a friendship is something we do voluntarily. A profound imbalance is a toxic friendship – and it’s damaging and painful to put up with that. So free yourself!
When to move on
Often, an imbalance is unintentional. No one thinks of themselves as controlling – they’re just right! And yet, if you hate flying, for instance, and feel less panicky if you leave early to get to the airport in plenty of time, a thoughtful partner will concede control of all travel scheduling.
If we care, we want to find a fix. You know your relationship is over when neither of you is prepared to keep talking about it, and neither of you will listen to the other person. But if you’re about to end your relationship, you need to know that you have tried absolutely everything to fix it. See a couple’s counsellor together. Issue an ultimatum: ‘Unless you do this, I’m leaving you’.
“It’s a drastic measure,” concedes psychotherapist Wendy Bristow, “but if the dynamic in your relationship has been out of whack for decades, you need to do something drastic.”