• Robert Schwebel, Ph.D.

All or Nothing Power Play

Updated: Aug 24

An 8-year-old says, “If you don’t play by my rules, I’m gonna take all my marbles and go home.” It’s an “all-or-nothing” power play. The threat is: Either I get all of what I want, or you get nothing.

Unfortunately, power plays of this sort are not the exclusive domain of 8-year-olds. “All-or-nothing” takes a variety of forms in different age groups and in different situations.

“Now or never” is one variation often seen in the sexual arena. The threat is: “If you don’t sleep with me now, then I might have to end this relationship.”

In “committed” couples, it could go like this: “If you don’t want to have sex with me, then I’ll have to find myself another partner.”

One variation of an “all-or-nothing” power play is the “incredible sulk.” With this, Mr. Grump sits in his easy chair and withdraws all his affection from the entire family until he gets what he wants.

Then there’s the variation called “you're either for me or against me,” which is sometimes used to effectively stifle criticism. The implication is that you're disloyal if you have any criticism whatsoever.

Salespeople turn “all-or-nothing” into a sales pitch when they threaten with the story of the man who came by earlier and wanted to buy the same used car that you’re looking at now. The prospective buyer went home for his checkbook, so you better “buy it or lose it.”

Do we have to buy the car? Must the marble game end? Do we have to have sex, even when we don't feel like it? If we don't want to give in, what are the options when we are on the receiving end of an “all-or-nothing” power play?

Sometimes we may decide we've seen enough and simply conclude that it's not worth dealing with this type of behavior. We can simply withdraw from the relationship.

Often the impulse is to retaliate and escalate: “Oh, you’re gonna take your marbles and go home. Great. Don’t ever bother to come back again and don’t call, either.”

One good escalation generally begets another: “That’s fine with me. I always thought you were a jerk, right from the start.” With escalating power plays, it’s not very likely that either person will attain even minimal satisfaction.

If we don't want to end the relationship, then we can try to discover more effective responses to “all-or-nothing.” This power play's success depends upon the arousal of fear. We are vulnerable when we fear that we will lose or fail to attain something that we want.

This suggests that the way to neutralize the power-play is to say convincingly: “I like your friendship, your affection, your companionship playing marbles, and your used cars, but I don’t need it that much.”

In other words, what you offer is not so important that I can be coerced into doing something that I don’t want to do. Once it’s clear that you can’t be coerced, there’s still the option of trying to negotiate a mutually satisfying solution.So, another possible response to “all-or-nothing” is to try to establish a respectful conversation, in which an attempt is made to change the mode of resolving a disagreement from competitive (someone wins and someone loses) to cooperative (let’s see if we both can be happy).

“It’s troubling that you insist on having it your way. If we’re going to be a successful couple and make things work between us, then we’ll have to learn to compromise. I’m hearing what you want. I’ll tell you what I want. Maybe then we can reach an agreement that works for both of us. What do you think?”

It’s worth a try. Sometimes people use power plays because they don’t know about cooperation. An invitation to cooperate may be exactly what they need.


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These articles are written to share ideas about how to create and sustain loving and cooperative relationships based on equality and mutual respect.

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