When do we give in to a power struggle and when do we hold our side of the rope taught?
I was in Florida over the holiday break and got a new phone. (Wow, why is that such a difficult process?)
The guy helping me started talking about his girlfriend. I asked, “How long have you been together?” He said, “Five years.” I responded, “Five years? Give that girl a ring.” (Why I say these things to people, I don’t know.)
He looked at me and said, “Did she send you in here?”
After we laughed, he said, “Listen, the minute I give her that ring, she wins. Right now, she’s on her best behavior. She makes dinner. But as soon as I give her that ring, that’s all over.”
Besides for saying to him, “Dude, do not marry this girl,” I also had one of those moments—why do we often see ourselves in a tug of war with those closest to us? Why do relationships feel like a power struggle?
Who is in charge?
In Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, one of the author’s friends says to her, “At the root of every conflict is the question: Who is in charge?”
I think about that jewel of wisdom constantly when I’m frustrated in a situation. These questions run through my head:
• Am I frustrated because I’m not in charge?
• Do I think I’m in charge and others aren’t listening to me, so I feel powerless?
• I am in charge: why am I resisting having my authority questioned?
I have this particular ‘tug of rope’ dynamic with one of my children. We’ll call that person “D” to protect their privacy.
D wants to be in charge. Clearly, I’m the mother. I should be in charge. (Complicating this is that I’m the youngest in my family, I was never in charge, and therefore, I yearn to rule over all seven kingdoms, all of the time.) When D and I argue, the mature part of my brain says, “This kid is arguing with you about which one of you in the boss. Drop the rope, Ahava. Drop it.”
But, I struggle. When is it the right call to drop the rope? Conversely, when is it important to dig in my heels? And when does it make sense to let D ‘win’ this one? If D wants to drive late at night and it’s unsafe, I hold my end of the rope tight. But if D wants to hang out with her friends instead of study, is that really my rope to tug?
Reframe the rope
One of the most humbling things about parenting and management is learning we are not in charge. Rather, parenting and management, when done successfully, is truly a partnership between the child and the parents, the employee and the manager. No one person holds the power. Instead, the power is shared.
We don’t drop the rope. We reframe the rope.
Think of the phrase, ‘help me help you’. This phrase is at the root of stopping the tug of war. We say to our children and our employees: How can we work together by you telling me what you need to feel powerful in this situation so we can both achieve our goals? Let’s have an honest, straightforward conversation about it.
I reframe with D: it’s unsafe to drive after midnight. Your safety is my responsibility. You may not like it, but I’m not budging on this decision. D, you should study now, but you’re old enough to make your own choices. If you are choosing to spend time with your friends instead of studying, you need to be prepared to own those consequences.
The rope connects us
When we reframe being in charge as helping the other person be the best that they can be, then the rope is what connects us, not what we’re trying to control. When you create a supportive and consistent environment with boundaries, for both children and employees, you’re sending clear messages that both of you are powerful in the roles you play.
Sometimes, the people you are with aren’t the people you want to be connected to at that moment. We don’t always choose our employees. We don’t always choose aspects of our children’s personalities. The rope is there and it’s real.
Instead of constantly pulling on it and meeting resistance, ask yourself, “Why am I pulling here? Am I just hurting myself by wasting exertion on this issue with this person? Or am I holding tight for the right reasons?” If the answer is yes, then keep holding. But if you keep feeling that tug and it’s getting harder and harder, it might be time to ask yourself, “Is it time to drop this rope?”
After all, if you really are in charge, then there is no power to take. There are just good choices to be made about the best form of guidance and support for that unique soul.
H/t to Lisa Himmelfarb for this idea.