Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a power struggle? A power struggle is nothing more than competing for control. There may be a turf war at work, a colleague leveraging for more prestige or a friend who must always have the last word. Power struggles come in many forms. In romantic relationships, competition for control can be problematic because power imbalance is associated with less satisfaction within the relationship.i
An Example of Sexual Power Struggles
Emma and Troy really love each other but struggle with a power dynamic over sex. Troy wants sex more often than Emma does. Emma likes sex, but Troy’s pressure to have sex makes her feel unseen and lowers her desire. She wishes she could be the one to initiate sex sometimes, but Troy is always hovering and hinting at sex. Emma is grateful that Troy still finds her attractive after being married for five years and having two energetic kids. Troy’s sexual desire drives initiation.
Their arousal process is also driven by Troy’s sexual preferences, which means they spend little time on foreplay. Troy hurries toward intercourse and orgasm because he can’t slow his arousal down, and he feels orgasm is the goal of sex. These dynamics make it difficult for Emma to enjoy sex fully. They both feel there is a long list of changes they would need to make to achieve any noticeable difference. They feel stuck.
Troy cares about Emma and wants their sexual experiences to meet her needs, but their patterns of sex seem to be set. This pattern has never been interrupted by clear sexual communication, so Troy isn’t aware of what’s not working for Emma. Troy and Emma haven’t taken the time or effort to examine their sexual patterns, so the rushed foreplay doesn’t allow enough stimulation for Emma to do more than just start to get interested in sex. Then Troy reaches orgasm, and the experience is over. Emma only occasionally orgasms. Emma has been quiet for so long that she feels the time to speak up has passed. She continues to feel frustration and accommodate Troy’s sexual patterns. All the while, Troy wishes Emma would initiate or talk about what she likes in sex.
Power Struggles Within Your Relationship
Do parts of Troy and Emma’s story sound familiar? Anyone can fall into troubling patterns without intending to control or assert power. Too often, when couples feel invalidated, they withdraw or become hostile. When these patterns emerge, it’s easy to get stuck because the way out doesn’t seem clear. Often couples pause instead of acting as if a power dynamic doesn’t matter. Maybe they think it will pass. Unfortunately, power dynamics within close relationships are unlikely to change without some skillful tools.
Emma and Troy could benefit from several aids, such as more education on sexual anatomy, improving the quality of relational and sexual communication, and addressing individual skills of feeling personally competent and empowered. One skill that would be easy for them to start with is mindfulness.
Sex Is Not Really About Sex
Mindfulness can really matter when trying to get unstuck from old patterns. George Mumford, a world-renowned mindfulness sports performance coach, said,ii “The path of pure performance is about performing for no reason—just to be fully engaged in a moment, and fully deploy and express yourself, honestly. That’s really what it comes down to. You’re not doing [an activity] for [some specific outcome]. You’re doing it because in and of the thing itself is the moment and being fully engaged in a moment, fully deployed in a moment, and fully self-expressive in a moment. That’s the most important thing. Not the thing that we’re doing.”
If we apply Mumford’s thoughts to sex, we may stress less about the goal of orgasm or frequency, but instead, be in each present moment. Sex is not really about sex—it’s about creating intimacy and connection and pleasure for both individuals. Consider how your partner’s scent enters your awareness? What do you associate with the scent? What is this scent from?–hard work, cooking a meal, their favorite perfume? If the scent is from sweat, let go of the constant temptation to evaluate whether sweat is good or bad—recognize that it just is. Let your curiosity move you toward more intimacy by thinking about why sweat is needful or what sweat represents.
Armed with this attitude of curiosity, Emma and Troy may find room to meet each other’s sexual needs. Researchiii shows that mindfulness helps us let go of pre-determined ideas and gives space just to enjoy the moment. Enjoy each touch and sensation. Enjoy being aware of your body and your partner’s body. Enjoy not worrying about arousal, orgasm, or goals.
Research on Sexual Mindfulness and Power Struggles
Recent research found that mindfulness buffered the negative relationship between power imbalance and relational and sexual satisfaction.iv Most couples will experience periods of power imbalance or even periods when both partners feel a lack of power. Mindfulness, particularly sexual mindfulness, encourages a more generous, forgiving, and connected approach when power struggles are present.
For example, if Emma can be more sexually mindful when Troy initiates sex, she may recall that he longed for more physical touch as a child, and his need for the physical element of sex is like a reaching out for physical and emotional connection. If Troy is more mindful, he may be able to sit with his desire to initiate sex. Instead of pushing for sex, he can give Emma time and opportunity to generate desire to a level where she wants to instigate physical intimacy. They can meet each other’s needs as they both practice mindfulness.
The Power of Letting Go
We can all use the same sexual mindfulness skills to address our unique sexual needs. Just stay anchored on your breath. Live each experience in six-second increments—breathe in and breathe out. Notice how your body can take over any decision. Let your mind just stay with those feelings. Notice how being mindful also allows you to relax judgment. We can give attention to the moment and just notice the strangeness of what we experience. A synonym for curiosity is having a thirst for knowledge. This longing for knowledge is what mindfulness encourages. Learn things about your partner for the first time. See them anew. Mindfulness helps us to see more positive options in our relationships.
Antoinette Klatzky, a mindfulness guide, reminded us, “When we stay open, we begin to uncover possibilities we may never have thought existed.”
Power struggles are a no-win game. Instead of engaging in a struggle, open yourself up to a different response. Let go of the push for power and instead be curious about your own body, awareness, and each moment’s endless possibilities.