Nothing, it seems, begins with more hope and promise than romantic love, or more consistently ends in pain and disappointment. No high compares to the exhilaration of falling in love, when two people seem to melt completely into one another. Unfortunately, that early phase doesnâ€™t last forever, and as it wanes the real work of building a sustainable relationship is just beginning. The misunderstandings and conflicts that inevitably arise at this point can be bewildering, and are all-too-often misunderstood as proof that the relationship isnâ€™t working.
In an excellent new book, Get Closer: A Gay Menâ€™s Guide to Intimacy and Relationships, Los Angeles psychotherapist Jeffrey Chernin draws on his more than 14 years experience in counseling gay male couples to describe the difficulties and potential pitfalls in creating and sustaining intimate relationships. His book also offers practical strategies for responding successfully to these challenges. In a recent conversation, I asked him what he saw as some of the most commonly recurring difficulties. He replied that one of the most common problems gay men face in trying to get closer are issues with power.
â€śMen who subscribe to a definition of maleness which includes being competitive and aggressive,â€ť he told me â€śtend to have more challenges in risking being vulnerable, and often make the mistake of focusing on winning when a disagreement arises.â€ť Since most of us, to some degree, have been affected by that concept of masculinity, struggles for power are not uncommon in male relationships. The issue can be tricky, he added, because many men get caught up in the surface content of their disagreements and arenâ€™t aware that what theyâ€™re really doing is fighting for power.
How can a couple know if their disagreements are actually power struggles? Chernin believes that when a couple habitually fights over the same issue, theyâ€™re probably involved in a power struggle. Another tip off is that the focus of a power struggle isnâ€™t about compromising or finding common ground: itâ€™s about being right and winning. When winning is the focus, the real issue in the argument is the question of whoâ€™s top dog, and whoâ€™s way of doing something is going to prevail. Another sign of a power struggle is the feeling that â€ślosingâ€ť the argument, i.e., doing something the other personâ€™s way, means sacrificing oneâ€™s autonomy.
Chernin notes that power struggles are often characterized by an attack/defend pattern of communication. The tone is typically self-righteous, and the argument tends to begin with accusations or blaming statements, e.g. â€śDonâ€™t you think youâ€™re being childish?â€ť The ensuing conversation is often characterized by sweeping generalizations about the other person, beginning with â€śYou neverâ€¦â€ť or â€śYou alwaysâ€¦â€ť
Another common sign that an argument is a power struggle is what Chernin calls the â€śhot potato of blame,â€ť in which both parties fight over who owns the problem, as in this interchange: â€śYour problem is that youâ€™re insensitive.â€ť â€śNo, thatâ€™s your problem. Youâ€™re too sensitive.â€ť
Another common pattern is â€śdigging in,â€ť in which one party declares any requests for changes or compromises off-limits. â€śYou canâ€™t expect me to change. Thatâ€™s just the way I am.â€ť
The big picture is that whenever two men meet and begin the process of merging their lives, both have to make changes in what are often deeply ingrained habits and routines in order to create a viable partnership. Chernin points out that these adjustments are handled most productively if both parties can avoid seeing conflicts in terms of win/lose and right/wrong, and begin asking instead â€śHow can we find ways of cooperating with each other to resolve this issue?â€ť A willingness to negotiate, coupled with a generous tolerance of each otherâ€™s shortcomings, are the attitudes most conducive to successful conflict resolution.
What I like most about Getting Closer is that itâ€™s full of detailed and practical advice as to how to accomplish this. One example: How do you steer clear of a power struggle if your partner makes an attack comment? Chernin replies that the conversation will rapidly devolve into an attack/defend cycle if you respond defensively or go on the attack yourself. He suggests that an effective way to change directions is to respond to the feeling (i.e. â€śYou sound angry.â€ť) rather than the content. It can also be helpful, when attacked, to respond by describing the impact on yourself rather than fight back, e.g. â€śWhen you say x â€¦I feel y (hurt, distant, etc.) Changing the focus from the â€śfactsâ€ť to the feelings invites closeness and can do much to defuse potential conflict.
Chernin writes that intimacy is created â€śâ€¦when you and your partner know each other on a meaningful level, but this can come about only when you have enjoyed many good times and survived several rough or transitional periods. You cannot see all of each otherâ€™s traits, moods and behaviors until you have been together for several years.â€ť Patience with the process, he reminds us, is indispensable for anyone who wants to experience the deep rewards of shared love and shared lives.
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website is tommoon.net.