Commentary: Dealing with power struggles

"We've been trying to make a decision on the color of the marble slab for the kitchen island for weeks now! And our agreeing on the darkness of the wood floor isn't getting any closer. What's it going to take for us to decide on these choices?"

Even when an interior designer may be used to help narrow the decision-making process for the choices that must be made when doing a remodel, a couple still must come to their own agreement on what is right for them. If one partner delegates major decision-making power to the other, the decisions become much easier to make.

For example, some men don't care about the shade of brown on a wood floor, the brand or style of appliances for a kitchen, or what color the new sofa should be for the living room. They simply tell their partner to choose what she likes and thinks is best. Out of courtesy, she may tell him what she's thinking and if he has no interest or objection, no problem.

But on some choices, he may have a stronger preference and want his voice to be considered. How can couples make these decisions when they may disagree and each feels strongly about their respective preference?

Much of the time and energy wasted in disagreements and arguments comes from a conscious or unconscious power struggle by one or both partners to have the final say or control the outcome. If this desire to control can be seen and acknowledged up front, it can be avoided. And that happens when couples designate one partner as the final decision maker.

For the partner who is allowing the other to be the final decider, he or she must have confidence in the partner's knowledge and taste, as well as realize that compromise is better than stand-offs that become difficult to resolve and therefore, bog down forward movement of the project.

We think that once couples are able to eliminate the elements of power and control from the equation, compromise becomes easier.

The partner who is delegated the main decision-maker feels he or she is basically in control and does not need to continually battle the partner to establish this. This makes it easier for this person to solicit and consider her partner's opinion, especially on those items where he has a strong preference.

While this dynamic of vying for power and control may be occurring in other big and small choices that a couple must make together, it makes itself felt more obviously when so many choices are required in a home remodel. And if it can work to make decisions easier for home remodel choice, you may want to try it for other couple decisions as well.

One clue that an argument is more about control than the actual decision at hand is that often the concern becomes who is "right." If you notice that you have a lot of petty bickering around being "right," than ask if it really matters so much who is right and whether the crux of the issue is, "who is in control?"

Curiously, the popular slogan that some men have adopted, "Happy wife, happy life," implicitly understands that a power struggle over many issues simply isn't worth the price that is paid. But uniform passivity is not the answer to dealing with power struggles. Don't be afraid to get professional help if you are spending too much time locked in ongoing arguments around power and control.

When it comes to remodel choices, consider agreeing on a final decision maker and see whether this allows greater openness in listening and considering your partner's opinion when the elements of power and control are attenuated.

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Drs. STEVEN and DEBORAH HENDLIN are clinical psychologists in Newport Beach.

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