11/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Relationships: Fighting For Control

Q: So last night, my lover got angry at me because I would not finish my dinner. Actually I wasn't very hungry. I told him that even if I tried I could not eat even another bit. I know he worries about me, but I also don't like it when he tries to control everything around me. It wasn't always this way.

In the beginning of our relationship, we were equals in our work. We are both commercial artists, but at the moment his star has risen and mine has fallen. In fact I have not worked in about two years. I know that I have more time and am now responsible for the home, our meals, our travels, and our social life. But I do feel sometimes like I got the raw end of the bargain. He gets the applause and of course the money, and I have been relegated to the caretaker position because I am not bringing in a salary and because I am just not busy.

In the past year, I have also not been able to work because I have been diagnosed with an irritable bowel syndrome and that keeps me sometimes tied to the house. I have lost a lot of weight and that also reduces my activity. I am tired a lot of the time. So, John, needless to say, worries about me and is always trying to force me to eat. He is very loving but he treats me as if I do not know how to take care of myself. He treats me like a child. He should just stop bothering me about it.

When he gets angry at me, I stop talking and then we seem to disintegrate into snide comments, cold stares, and a distance that is fraught with tension. Eventually the yelling begins and the same complaints from both sides get repeated without any hope of ever getting resolved. "You are always down" "Well, you are always too frantic" "You complain about everything" "Well, you are always too busy to take the time to spend quality time with me." It just goes on and on, until we are too tired to continue. At that time, I think we will never reconcile, but soon the argument is forgotten and we just realize that we love each other, that we have been together too long to treat the relationship lightly, that we have been through a lot together, and that we will be together always.

How do we stop these eruptions?

A: Are you sure you want to?

Couples seem to always enter into a DANCE. Everyone knows their roles, everyone knows the steps, and everyone easily falls into the rhythm of the dance. It never changes, and everyone seems to enjoy the dance's familiarity and repetition. Sometimes these dances are good for a relationship because they get us out of narrow corridors from which we would otherwise not know how to escape. But sometimes, if there is a viciousness to the attacks, the dance can chip away at the security of the interaction. The dance can then be a dangerous territory to continue to enter into.

This does not seem to be what is happening in your case. If anything, there are appropriate concerns and uncomfortable adjustments to new roles. This occasionally comes to a head and you both find yourself entering into the predictable dance with the complaints, the silence, the eruption, and then the reconciliation. You both know that will happen, so the dance becomes a safe way to let off steam.

You may also want to confront the underlying discontents that seem to inevitably crop up. You know what these concerns are. Why not spend some time looking into them? For instance, you resent your lover's success but at the same time you may enjoy the fact that you are well taken care of. He goes out every day to earn money. He has the financial responsibility for both of you. It's understandable that he doesn't want you to add more pressure to what he already has. Your complaints have to weigh on him -never mind his genuine concern for your health. Is he actually treating you like a child? Or do you simply feel that he doesn't respect you as much as he used to?

I also suspect that your illness and fatigue may be a sure way to get his attention. You know he will be concerned and will shower you with love and caring. In fact, are you exacerbating your illness with bad eating habits that you then take no responsibility for? This is really your way of exerting control -of reasserting the power you once had as an equal breadwinner. So, even though you label his concerns as him trying to take control or to bother you, you may actually be fishing for a response from him.

Can you stop this dance? Sure. But first decide if you really want to. Does it really threaten your relationship? Maybe not. But if so, then it is within your power to stop the entirely predictable path of the argument. Tell him he is right and that you will listen to him and eat more carefully. I bet you he will still embrace you lovingly.