23th IAIP Congress papers, Congress papers, Round Table

Negotiating open and hidden power struggle in couples counselling

Yvonne Schürer

A congress on Intercultural Living and Power would not be complete without at least a few presentations in the field of couple counseling. In intimate relationships we have both:

  • female and male cultures either mingling with or bouncing against each other as they interact.
  • overt and hidden manifestations of power.

In my presentation I shall focus on the latter.

Having worked with couples in conflict for over 35 years now, I have become quite an expert when it comes to power struggles. I am not unlike one of those dogs at the airports, which sniff around for drugs in the unsuspecting travelers’ baggage. That is, I believe I am able to detect power struggles in any area of a couple’s daily life. And I am equipped with some tools I use to deal with this phenomenon. One of those tools I am going to present here is a method, which helps reveal open and hidden strategies employed by partners in conflict.

I know it is not new and I am not trying to re-invent the wheel, so to speak.

The method is based on the knowledge of my teachers, who are not with us any more: Rudolf Dreikurs, Bill Pew and Erik Blumenthal, who were outstanding couples counselors, all three of them. I have been working with their ideas throughout my professional career; I have been applying them to specific needs in various situations; and finally, I have gained enough expertise and experience to develop my own method, which I hope will be useful to some of my colleagues, who work with couples.

Couple counseling, as we all know, is not an easy task, for many reasons. Perhaps, the greatest obstacle we face here is the fact our clients mostly pursue somewhat ambivalent goals: On the one hand they want to improve their relationship with their partner, but on the other hand they want to win their fight against them. They have come to a point where they believe their partner no longer understands them, and that their living together has lost much of its former quality. They had other ideas of a marriage, of a partnership. They feel hurt, they feel deceived, they feel “way down”. Thus, when a couple wants counseling we generally have to deal with two desperate fighters, who originally both had the best intentions. But with the years they had been getting themselves entangled in ever-aggravating problems, and by the time they are coming to see us, they feel completely lost, not knowing which way to turn.

Therefore, in most of the cases, our first job or task will be to rearrange things, to bring some light into the chaos.

When it comes to conflict resolution, according to Rudolf Dreikurs the first essential point is

“to be able to see the goal behind the conflict.”

For this reason, during counseling sessions, I want my clients to get an overview, which can help them to look at their fights at a distance, as if they were to assume a position of a detached observer. Their first step would be learning to observe what is going on. Our clients have already made their observations, you bet, and both of them are more than ready to give their counselor a good briefing. Counseling, therefore, is sometimes similar to the task of solving one of those well-known riddles in children’s magazines: You see two pictures, which seem identical, but there are 10 differences, and you must find all of them.

Dreikurs compared the information we get from both partners with the script of a theater play:

Each client can tell us only half of the script, because he does not remember his own part. But he remembers well what the other said and what the other did.

The wife tells us:

Suddenly he came storming into the kitchen shouting: “Could you stop talking to your mother and get your things ready?”

I tried to ignore his aggressive tone, but he went on: “I am warning you: If you are not ready in time you can stay where you are. I shall leave this place in 30 minutes.”

The husband tells us:

I had been waiting far too long. I did not intend to intrude, because my wife was having an intimate conversation with my mother-in-law. But, all the same, I had to remind her we had to catch our plane. She completely ignored me. She treated me as if I didn’t exist. She sighed, she shook her head and went on speaking to her mother in a soft voice.

I went out, I waited for another 10 minutes.

Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer and gave her a second warning. She said in an icy voice: “I shall be ready in time. Mind your own business. Can’t you see that I am having a conversation with my mother?”

How can we see the facts, when our clients have as Adler would put it, such a “biased apperception”? Both claim to be the victim of their partner’s aggressive behavior

and they are convinced that they, themselves, had been behaving in an appropriate way.

We could come to the conclusion that they are trying to confuse us, to mislead us, and that we must try to obtain a more objective view – perhaps, somewhere in the middle of both statements.

But this would be all wrong. We have to observe what is going on – yes. But we also have to look at each of the 2 stories separately without comparing one with the other. It is the inward dynamic, the innermost, delicate workings of the psyche of a person, who is telling us about the incident, which should indeed be the focus of our attention. Therefore, even if the wife were to state she had been hit by her husband – even then, we should forget about the facts. They are irrelevant. We must concentrate on a victim’s experience, on the way he/she felt, and how he/she was dealing with the facts.

There is only one way to create a firm basis for mutual understanding:

We have to give room to each of the partners to enable them tell their tale without the fear of being interrupted. However biased it might be, however far from the so-called “facts”, the partner isn’t allowed to interfere either verbally, or non-verbally.

And this is where the difficult part of the counseling process comes into the picture: We have to make each partner listen carefully to the story, which the other is telling. This means they have to listen to the representation of their own wrong-doings. And they also have to ‘listen’ to the feelings, which the narrator has experienced during their quarrel. I must admit this is tricky and that this is not an easy task and sometimes I do fail.

But once I succeed in winning him – or her – over; when they all of a sudden dare step into the boots of their mate, when they begin, according to Adler

“to see with the eyes of another,

to hear with the ears of another

to feel with the heart of another”

i.e. when at last their “Gemeinschaftsgefühl”, their social interest, their love is reactivated, then, and only then, we can proceed to the next step of conflict resolution, which is

“to understand what is going on.”

Our clients, too, must be able to see their goal behind their conflict.

Here, now, the counselor can be of a great help to the couple: He has the advantage of knowledge. Thanks to psychological models, the Adlerian model for example, he is able to build a professional hypothesis about the discouraging dynamics, which are at work in his clients’ partnership.

And now, how, can the counselor transfer his way to look at things, his suppositions to his clients? I think that many of you must already have been familiar with the counseling technique of applying the metaphor of a ping-pong game to the situation – that is to a couple’s power struggle.

It is the Ping-Pong Effect. I personally have found visualizing the ping pong effect extremely helpful. For this purpose I have created a handout that is easy to understand and which forms the basis of my work with couples. Visualization is a great help to them when it comes to understanding the ups and downs of their daily fights. At the heart of the idea lies actually the Adler’s model of the individual striving for superiority.

Let me show you how I explain it to my clients, who mostly have no profound knowledge of psychology:

We all feel good when we are convinced that we belong somewhere and that we are respected as an equal human being. As long as this condition is granted, an individual behaves in a friendly, cooperative way.

But as soon as the person gets the impression of being in a lower position they immediately become self-conscious, self-focused and self-oriented. The deeply-rooted conviction of being “way down” manifests itself through a surge of strong, negative emotions: hate, shame, fear, or isolation. These feelings are a warning sign. Because human beings are inherently of social nature they can’t endure to be left out. They need to belong somewhere – i.e. to their social environment.

As soon as their internal alarm goes off, sending out a message “You are out!” their inferiority feelings urge them to compensate for their unfavorable situation. The mechanism that is responsible for this strife toward regaining a good position is then activated.

They start to force their way “upwards” in order to overcome the feeling of inferiority and get back to the place, where they would regain that lost feeling of belonging and worthiness.

Unfortunately, individuals rarely achieve their goal to get the feeling of belonging, of embedment back. It is out of fear that the individual tends to exaggerate his upward movement and is striving for superiority.

As far as couples are concerned this applies to both partners:

As long as both are feeling equal there is no need for couple counseling.

The trouble starts as soon as one of them begins feeling inferior.

He or she might feel neglected, overruled, or hurt – whatever. It doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t even matter if the feeling is traceable or whether the experienced “wrong” is based on a mere fiction. It’s the emotions that count. These emotions are urging them to get even. And from that moment on a friendly exchange is no more possible; the harmony is broken.

This is generally the moment when they start using their power as a weapon against their partner.

The easiest way to get on top will be to push the partner down.

No matter in which way, whatsoever, they may let the other feel their power – whether it be by using hard words, violence, silence, by refusing cooperation, or through sexual rejection – the result will always be the same:

Their partner, now, is feeling misunderstood, hurt, abashed – whatever. They also experience inferiority feelings and use all their energy to overcome them. It is like a ping-pong game: each strike provokes a counter strike. Their aggressiveness level is constantly rising. And there they are, in the middle of a power struggle, that may go on and on.

So far, this has been my explanation regarding the dynamics of the power struggle, I am generally giving to my clients.

Now, let me take you back, to the example of the couple, who got into a fight before heading to the airport. Just like we do in counseling sessions we are now going to look at the short incident through a magnifying glass. In this case I started with the story of the woman, because, in this session, she was the one who brought up the problem.

From now on I am working with the Ping Pong Effect Scheme. I fill in the peaks and the low points in accordance to my client’s feelings.

The woman said:

Suddenly he came storming into the kitchen shouting:

“Could you stop talking to your mother and get your things ready?”

Now. when I asked her how she felt at that moment, she said:

“I was irritated and angry. It was very important to me to give my mother the feeling of intimacy and togetherness before I left. And my husband was behaving like a wild boar. Therefore, I also was embarrassed. His boldness doesn’t fit in with the refined manners my mother is used to.”

(Low point)

The second statement of the woman:

I tried to ignore his aggressive tone, but he went on:

“I am warning you: If you are not ready in time you can stay where you are.

I shall leave this place in 30 minutes.”

At this point I was feeling enraged and I had to use all my self-control to keep my mouth shut. I also felt helpless, because I was at his mercy. He had the keys to the car, he had my ticket, he had my passport, – my hands were empty.

(Lowest point)

When we listen to this woman, it looks like she had always been in the lower position and that her husband had constantly had the upper hand.

But we must ask ourselves: “Where are the peaks ?” How, in which way, did she compensate for her inferiority feelings? What was going on in her mind? How did she fight back? How did she maintain her self-esteem? How, did she get “even”? Well, she doesn’t tell us, – and probably she can’t.

As a counselor I could bet that she was feeling superior to her husband, that she was feeling way above him. But she didn’t allow me to go into this. When I tried bringing it up, she didn’t even know what I was talking about. Later, as the result of our ongoing counseling sessions, this woman learnt to see her own attitude in a new light. Instead of pleading to be the helpless victim she dared to have a critical look at herself. She understood the passive aggressiveness of her attitude, the devastating power of her moral superiority. But some training was necessary and lots, lots of encouragement before she could reach this point.

(She now saw the peaks)

Let’s now examine the husband’s story:

I had been waiting far too long. I did not intend to intrude, because my wife was having an intimate conversation with my mother-in-law.

His feelings: I was getting nervous and very tense. I felt unfairly treated.

(Low point)

But, all the same, I had to remind her we had to catch our plane.

(Peak: He sees himself as the reliable one who is meeting the needs of the situation.)

She completely ignored me. She treated me as if I didn’t exist. She sighed, she shook her head and went on speaking to her mother in a soft voice.

I felt rejected. She was treating me without respect. She showed me that I was a nobody.

(Low point)

I went out, I waited for another 10 minutes.

I became more and more nervous; I was very angry.

(Low point)

Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer and gave her a second warning.

It was my duty to remind her. She should have been glad that I did care.

(This is a peak. He feels he had a right to intrude.)

She said in an icy voice: “I shall be ready on time. Mind your own business. Can’t you see that I am having a conversation with my mother?”

I felt humiliated and helpless like some little boy who is getting reprimanded by his teacher. (Lowest point)

We can now put the two different scripts together. They match like pieces of a puzzle. And we are now able to get the whole picture of the couple’s fight.

If we use the approach of visualizing the couple’s fights with the help of the ping-pong game metaphor, they can learn a lot:

First, they become aware of the fact they both are engaged in that struggle, that fight, – and that there is not a wrong doer and a victim.

Second, they realize that the facts are irrelevant, that the goal behind their fight is the wish to overpower and dominate their mate.

Third, It is easy to see that each strike provokes a counter strike. They soon come to realize they are caught in an eternal struggle none of them will ever win, or rather, which both of them are inevitably bound to lose.

However, don’t be mislead into thinking this method leads to depression!

On the contrary: It is a very encouraging approach. My clients soon discover that they can laugh at the game they are playing together. At the beginning of the session, when they have to listen to what the other brings up, they are feeling more relaxed and less wound-up, as they initially would. They calm down; they know their turn will come. This helps them to avoid resorting to an instant impulse to defend themselves.

And they love filling in the ping pong scheme! It often happens like this: While I am fetching the papers, they shout: “Bring some more! We had a long fight! It went on and on.” Thus, they are each made to recognize their own share of the conflict. They learn to see the negative consequences of each other’s aggressions without being embarrassed.

Now we are reaching the point where some crucial changes can occur.

We look at the incident again and we ask each partner :

In which way could you have acted differently, to make it easier for your mate?

At the beginning of counseling sessions no client is able to answer this question. – “Why should I help her? Why should I make changes? She/he was the one who misbehaved!”

But as soon as they realize that also their partner had been suffering during their fight, they start considering alternatives.

When my client wants to prove what a good boy he is, he might say: “I should have waited patiently until my wife had finished her conversation with her mother.” But because, at this point, I will already be familiar with his lifestyle, I must know that my client is a person who needs very much to be in control. I understand that he would have felt like a martyr, not being certain to make it to the airport on time. I must teach him, therefore, to become more aware of his own needs; he has to find a better solution, i.e. one which will not force him to jump over his own shadow.

And I am also not satisfied if his wife declares: “I should have stopped talking to my mother as soon as my husband came in.” She would have felt she had behaved rudely towards her mother by giving in to her husband.

Remember a second essential point of conflict resolution, according to Rudolf Dreikurs, which is:

“Don’t fight. Don’t give in.”

Both partners must learn to react in a way, which suits their personal needs. So, if the counseling has been successful, after some months of training, my clients will be able to handle a similar situation in the following way:

He knocks at the door, opening it gently and says: “Sorry to interrupt, but we should get ready soon.” And she answers: “Thanks for reminding me. I won’t take long.”

Which means that by now they both are able to meet the needs of the situation: They are ready to communicate and to cooperate.

This is my way to train a couple to become more receptive and to learn more efficient ways of conflict resolution. I wanted to demonstrate how through a structured, and yet flexible, way of leading the dialogue, the counselor can facilitate and promote mutual understanding and receptiveness between partners in conflict.


Adler, Alfred. Co-operation Between the Sexes: Writings on Woman an Men, Love and Marriage, and Sexuality. Heinz L. Ansbacher and Rowena R. Ansbacher (Eds.). W.W. Norton & Co. New York and London 1982.

Ansbacher, Heinz L. Alfred Adlers Sexualtheorien. Fischer. Frankfurt a.M. 1989.

Blumenthal, Erik. Verstehen und Verstanden werden: Die neue Art des Zusammenlebens. 5th Ed. Rex-Verlag. Luzern and Stuttgart 1988.

Dreikurs, Rudolf. Technology of Conflict Resolution. In: Journal of Individual Psychology, November 1972, pp. 203-206.

Dreikurs, Rudolf. The Challenge of Marriage. Accelerated Development. Philadelphia 1999.

Pew, Miriam L. and Pew William L. Adlerian Marriage Counseling. In: Jon Carlson and Steven Slavik (Eds.). Techniques in Adlerian Psychology. Accelerated Development. Washington, 1997, pp. 350-361.

Schoenaker, Antonia and Schoenaker, Theo. Die neue Partnerschaft. Goldmann. München 1993.