How do I live with my very own power person?
April 16, 2012 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Those who have read or are familiar with Mira Kirshenbaum's "Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay:" recommend books / resources for dealing with my Power Person wife.

I'm reading Mira Kirshenbaum's "Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay" thanks to a recommendation in a thread hereabouts.

It has really, really helped me recognize the sources of my relationship ambivalence and I highly recommend it to anyone who has ever caught themselves trying to figure out whether their relationship is busted beyond repair but never feels sure either way.

I would like to request that you take it as a given (cause that's all I'm going to give) that Chapter 6, "You've Got a Hold On Me" describes my wife perfectly. My answer to the two questions in that chapter strongly evoked the book's "You'll be happier if you leave" recommendation.

I can't accept this recommendation right now. I have no desire to be a divorced person with a teenage daughter, and I want to be in a functioning, strong relationship.

My google-fu is not such that I can figure out how to find resources for dealing with what Kirshenbaum calls "power people." I believe the book has equipped me with a cold-eyed recognition of what's happening when my wife engages in her power plays, which have left me with a constant sense of low-grade humiliation and a hesitance to bring up any subject at all. I believe that with the proper tools I could deal with this effectively enough to change my response to those questions within a reasonable period of time (we've been married over 20 years.)

I don't see a way to encapsulate Kirshenbaum's description of the "power people" so those who haven't read the book can play along. Here's a link to the google books version. If you search "Power people in action" you'll get a taste of the description.

One difficulty / snowflake per customer filter: Counseling has failed for my wife and me. She played along when we were in session with counselors but disdained my attempts to put their recommendations into practice. I say that not to make it clear how awful I've got it, but rather as a pre-selected response to recommendations of counseling.

Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
One difficulty / snowflake per customer filter: Counseling has failed for my wife and me. She played along when we were in session with counselors but disdained my attempts to put their recommendations into practice. I say that not to make it clear how awful I've got it, but rather as a pre-selected response to recommendations of counseling.

If she won't cooperate, there's nothing stopping you from going on your own. A counselor might be able to help you cope better.

Also... whether you go or stay, you should think about what your daughter is seeing in your interactions with your wife, and whether you are ok with her using your relationship as a template for her future relationships.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:11 AM on April 16, 2012 [9 favorites]

Has counseling failed you, or just your relationship? Can you go to individual counseling with someone you respect, who can help you out with your specific problems? Someone trained in family counseling but who also takes individual patients might be a good place to start looking.

I want to be in a functioning, strong relationship.

This is not an option. You've just said this is not an option -- you cannot change your wife, and she refuses to change herself. You need to let go of this as a goal, because there is a 0% of it happening with this woman. You may be able to make it more tolerable, but make sure you are objectively looking at whether the environment your daughter is in is good for her, better than it would be if she didn't constantly see her dad humiliated and overwhelmed. Also keep in mind that you are her model for what a relationship is supposed to look like. Are you happy with the image she is getting on how people should be willing to be treated in a relationship?
posted by brainmouse at 10:12 AM on April 16, 2012 [10 favorites]

I think it depends entirely on how old your daughter is.

If she's 13, tough it out a couple more years.

If she's 17, do what my parents did and file for divorce right after she leaves to go to college.
posted by Oktober at 10:14 AM on April 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Google "how to deal with a narcissist" (not saying she is one, but the tips may be helpful). At the same time, know that they are hacks. They're not going to turn your relationship into one that's strong and functioning. Please get therapy for yourself!
posted by Wordwoman at 10:36 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind this is a book written for women with "power" male partners, but I think the advice in it would apply to any couple where one routinely dominates and steamrolls the other: Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them by Susan Forward. (Don't be put off by the title; it is not a misandrist book.) It helps people with "power partners" understand what motivates them and how they can set limits and boundaries in dealing with them; most of all it reassures the partners that it isn't their fault.

Some of the people in this book ultimately chose to leave their partners when they just couldn't take it anymore despite the boundary-setting and assertiveness used in dealing with them.

I'm also a big fan of "Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay" (and I found it through MeFi too!).

But what I am seeing with your partner is that she doesn't care enough about you or your relationship to want to make you happy or even treat you better. This is a sad thing to say, but it's a hard truth that some people in some relationships need to face. Sometimes "he/she is just not that into you" even after marriage. This is when I tell people that they might want to reconsider being in this relationship. If your spouse does not deep down love you or care about you or value your happiness, then you are with them on sufferance - you are more like furniture than a partner. This is NOT your fault and there is nothing you could do or have done about it.

If your wife is irredeemably selfish and domineering and won't change, and worse, "puts up a front" in therapy (a HUGE red flag with a Jolly Roger on it) you may want to consider just marking time until your daughter is an adult. It is NOT better to "stay together for the children." You, the parents, set the first and most important example for what a relationship is like. The most important thing with divorcing parents is remembering that you can never, ever divorce your child and you will be that child's parent for life. It sounds like you are a good dad, and THAT is what matters to a child.

tl;dr: what if "being in a strong, functional relationship" is never possible with this person? There are people out there who are unsuited to functional partnerships and will make any spouse's life miserable.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:36 AM on April 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

Speaking as someone whose parents really should have gotten a divorce (and I was very much aware of this even before I became a teenager) please do not stay in this for the sake of the kid.

It seems like you realize that your wife is not going to work with you and unfortunately in this case, whether or not you are in a functioning, strong relationship does not seem to be within your realm of control.

Maybe see a one-on-one counselor to work this out? I realize that whatever you decide to do is much easier said than done, but this could help you work out the best rational decision.
posted by fromageball at 10:42 AM on April 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have no desire to be a divorced person with a teenage daughter, and I want to be in a functioning, strong relationship…Counseling has failed for my wife and me. She played along when we were in session with counselors but disdained my attempts to put their recommendations into practice.

relationships are a two-way street and you are driving one way down that street bc you're wife has no interest in traveling with you. you can not change her. she does not want to change.

my parents stayed together far too long (hell, should never have even been together), "for the children." everyone was miserable. and as brainmouse asked: Are you happy with the image she is getting on how people should be willing to be treated in a relationship? i have spent over a dozen years in therapy trying to straighten out patterns in my relationships that were the direct effect of my parents' relationship dynamic. don't do that to your daughter.
posted by violetk at 10:45 AM on April 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Keep in mind also with your daughter that if she gravitates to relationships that mimic the one you have with your wife, it might not be your wife's role that she gravitates to. She might gravitate to men who *treat her* the way your wife treats you. It is not uncommon for women to say to themselves, "I had a wonderful relationship with my father, why do I keep going for guys who treat me so badly?" And then realize they are in a relationship with their mother. It's happened to me.
posted by cairdeas at 10:50 AM on April 16, 2012 [10 favorites]

A problem I see with the "don't stay together for the sake of the child" advice is, how likely is it that the mother will get custody of the daughter in a divorce? Power people can be just as domineering and unreasonable to their children as to their spouses.

I know a family where the wife was a power person. Everything had to be done her way or there was hell to pay. The husband and son got through it relatively ok by just deciding most things were not worth crossing her about; but the daughter, who was emotional and sensitive but too quiet to stand up for herself, sustained some real emotional damage. She moved acroos the country from her parents as soon as she finished college, and barely spoke to either one of them again. (And the power person mom, for her part, had no idea what she'd done to alienate the girl so badly. They were still estranged when she died as an elderly woman.)

So I guess what I'm saying is, if you do consider divorcing at some point it would be good to figure out if a divorce would be more likely to get your daughter out of your wife's clutches (as in, you get full custody) or whether she'd wind up being alone in a continual power struggle with her mom without having you in the house as a close ally.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 11:04 AM on April 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Once the daughter is 18 and an adult she can live wherever she pleases. I advised the OP to mark time until his daughter is an adult for that very reason (and I suspect that is why other posters suggested the same).

I agree that "power people" can be ruthless in divorce court, and because the OP's child is a girl and it's even more likely that primary custody would go to the mother because of this, if he can hang on without too much misery until his daughter is 18, he'll be spared a custody battle if he chooses a divorce.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:11 AM on April 16, 2012

The page for "power people in action" was hidden to me. The sense I got was someone who wants control, will gain it through a variety of techniques, and will overrule their partner's desires in the process.

I'd get counseling for yourself so that you can learn how to be assertive about your own needs and boundaries, if you haven't done that already. That will give you a sense about whether this can become a functioning relationship or not.
posted by salvia at 11:22 AM on April 16, 2012

…because the OP's child is a girl and it's even more likely that primary custody would go to the mother…

OP should definitely look into this but, the tendency in the last decade or so is to award 50-50 shared custody between the parents.
posted by violetk at 11:23 AM on April 16, 2012

Oh, and to answer your question "how to you live with a power person", from personal experience I can tell you... I have no idea. Nothing I tried worked.

If I fought with him, he fought dirtier.

If I tried a reasoned argument, he'd pull a "snow job" until our conversation was so convoluted and confusing I didn't know which way was up any more, and threw in so many wild accusations about the unfairness of my actions and the selfishness of my motives that I'd walk away feeling guilty and wrong and ashamed in spite of knowing in my heart that he was wrong and I was right.

When I tried calmly setting boundaries and refusing to engage, he'd escalate his behavior until I could no longer remain calm, or if that didn't work, he'd pull out his "big gun", the thing that was sure to bring me to heel... threatening to leave me, and on more than one occasion actually moving out (or kicking me out.) Which worked a few times, until the last time he left and then tried to come back after he felt he'd punished me enough, and I told him to stay gone.

Point being, I tried several extremely different ways of getting my needs met in the relationship and nothing worked... not even doing what he wanted as much of the time as I could manage it. He'd just find new things to be demanding and angry about, because he needed to assert his authority somehow in order to feel his power over me.

I hope you get some good advice from someone who had more success than I, but I just wanted to put my experience out there to illustrate that there are some people you just can't win with, because to get their own way they will always sink lower than you are willing to go.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 11:28 AM on April 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

If she doesn't want to follow the recommendations of a therapist that she agreed to, I don't know what else there is to do.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:43 AM on April 16, 2012

Let me just give you the child's perspective on a rocky relationship: "waiting it out" for the kids or "staying together" for the kids really sucks. My parents split when I was 21 and it was a horrible, awful shock. It would have been horrible and awful at 13 probably, but the longer you wait the worse it gets. I disagree with the previous comments to wait until your daughter is older to divorce.
posted by radioamy at 12:11 PM on April 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

To add onto the don't wait for the kids sake theme, since therapy does not seem to be welcomed by your spouse I would see if you could involve your daughter in them instead. Not as a means to fix anything, but to give her the heads up that you're not happy and to have someone there (the therapist) to help explain why in a way that makes sense to her.

Not only will it give her a good idea of what to expect if she ever needs therapy (don't we all?) and that it's okay to be in therapy, but it'll also strengthen your relationship with her.

I wasn't surprised when my parents split, I was more surprised that neither one of them wanted to talk to me about it, ever. Which seemed odd because they both used me as a reasoning for staying together for so long.
posted by Blue_Villain at 12:48 PM on April 16, 2012

I just want to chime in and say that I can understand not wanting to be divorced with a teen. It isn't always "for the children's sake". It can be devestating for the parent. And in some states, that's almost always the father. It's sad and heartbreaking when you can no longer be a daily physical presence in your child's life. Especially as they're getting ready for adulthood.

The OP's hesitancy may be for his own sake. I can totally understand that.
posted by vitabellosi at 1:07 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

My experience in relationships with folks with similar traits is that for me, the common thread was a constant fight to have my needs recognized as equal to theirs, frequently feeling invisible and dismissed, the pervasive sense that I did not take up as much space in the relationship as they did, and a constant knot of dread of being yelled at or ridiculed when I brought up a problem I was having with the relationship. I spent a lot of energy trying to accept and be happy with the space I had. I tried to convince myself I didn't need more - that it was okay with me for the person who cared more (in the sense of the excerpt you linked) to have more, even if it came at my expense. I spent a lot of energy trying to convince myself that almost enough was enough.

My stance was "if only I could"...adjust enough, fight harder, assert better, explain myself just right at, the right time, the right place, with the right argument delivered in the right tone of voice with perfect I statements etc. I could get through to them. I spent a lot of time in therapy a. convincing myself that my perceptions were legitimate, that I was not crazy and b. trying to develop enough tools and strategies to get my needs met. In all these relationships I tried to make the fact that we loved each other deeply enough to balm over the most painful parts. It was not.

It was hard for me to accept was the possibility that this pain was, at some level, intentional. The next hardest thing to accept was that even though I believed that their behavior was grounded in deep pain of their own, it did not matter. Even now I have occasional pangs of the "if only I could have"...responded better to their pain and not their behavior, been more patient, more open, more loving, more accepting whatever, I could have made it work. Of course that's silly. I was working too hard on too many fronts - to get my needs met while also meeting their needs, to walk the tightrope between anger and resentment, to not get swallowed up, to be happy when I was not. Of course I tried to change them. In these relationships no one is innocent in trying to make one person fit the other.

I see hints of this in your post - that your search for the right resources to deal with your wife is simply an extension of you tying yourself in knots to both change her and adjust yourself to someone who does not seem to want to adjust to you. If your wife's treatment of you makes you hesitant to "bring up any subject at all," assume this is intentional. If the end effect is that you don't feel heard, assume that she does not want to or can't hear you. If she says or does something that smacks you into a far corner, assume the corner is where she needs you.

By far the hardest thing for me was coming to terms with my own intentionality. That I was hiding out in these relationships, that if I wasn't being heard or seen, it was because I didn't want to be heard or seen. If I felt smacked into a corner, I had to figure out why that corner felt safer for me. There was an emotional pay off in this that I could not see at the time. Since I couldn't see it, I'd get all passive aggressive, wishy washy, smug, I'd inflict pain my own way.

For me, the real ambivalence was not in "stay or go." It was the tension between both wanting and not wanting to a full member of a relationship. The stay or go decision became much easier when the tension between want and don't want became untenable. Once I fully realized what I wanted, settling for less became unacceptable. Leaving was my only option.

Therapy moved a lot faster when I began to focus on why I sought out these types of relationships instead of trying to fix them. Not surprisingly, as cairdeas said, all roads led back to Mom. Therapy also helped me tease out and highlight the dynamics of relationships I am really happy with - that process has made it easier to find them.

Much of this is to say that perhaps your inability to find resources on how to deal effectively with your wife is that you've already found all there is. Perhaps the real work is elsewhere. You're in this relationship for a reason and it may lie deeper than simply not wanting to divorce. Your wife may be the bad guy here, but you have some investment in her being the bad guy - you're getting something out of it. I don't day this to blame you, I say this because you may be nearing the point where the only place you can go is inward before you can decide what to do.

You'll figure your way out of this. Best of Luck.
posted by space_cookie at 1:58 PM on April 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

Your relationship does not sound good, and what follows are recommendations for if divorce is really, truly off the table. I also recommend you seek therapy for yourself, even if your wife won't join you.

I'd recommend In Sheep's Clothing, anything by Suzette Haden Elgin, Crucial Confrontations, Games People Play, and possibly The Art of War. I've read them and used them in dealing with power people, though not in intimate relationships so much.

One mental hack I've picked up on is to start from the "I'm right, you're wrong" position in disagreements with power people, and then progress from there to an outlook that may or may not be sympathetic to the other person based on things like social norms (if they're definitive on the subject at issue), prior agreements I've made with them, or a consideration of short term vs. long term gains.

It's not being an asshole, rather, it's shifting the burden of proof to the other side instead of always being the one who has to convince, while (and this is extremely important) remaining open-minded enough to recognize when you're in the wrong.

With practice, it becomes easier and easier to see the unstated assumptions someone is making to put you in a one-down position, point them out, refuse to agree with them, reverse those assumptions, or otherwise rebuff them. Or to deny someone the psychological payoff they are seeking (Games People Play). But the best approach is to conceal the fact that a conflict is occurring or stack the deck against the other person before you get there, if in fact you can't use the conflict as an opportunity to improve the relationship with the other person acting in good faith, which of course is always the ideal.
posted by alphanerd at 2:03 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Dr. Irene's website has some excellent resources in this area that I found useful.
posted by infini at 5:08 AM on April 21, 2012

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