• Robert Schwebel, Ph.D.

Short Story: Power Play

Updated: Jun 22

An 8-year-old says, “If you don’t play by my rules, I’m gonna take all my marbles and go home.”

This is an example of an “all-or-nothing” power play. The threat is this: 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” power plays take a variety of forms in different age groups and in different situations.


“Now or never” is one variation that is often seen in the sexual arena. The threat between single individuals is: “If you don’t sleep with me, then I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”


In married couples, it’s: “If you don’t want to have sex with me, then I’ll have to find myself another partner.”

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


The familiar “you're either for me or against me” is sometimes used to effectively stifle criticism. The implication is that you're disloyal if you have any criticism whatsoever.


Sales people turn the “all-or-nothing” approach to their advantage when they threaten you with the story of a man who came by earlier and wanted to buy the same used car that you like. That prospective buyer went home for his checkbook, so you better “buy it or lose it.”


Do we have to buy the car? 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 everbother 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 decide to end the relationship, then we can try to discover more effective responses to the “all-or-nothing” power play. 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 car, but I don’t need it that much.”

In other words, it’s 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 is still the option of sitting down and trying to negotiate a mutually satisfying solution.


Another possible response to an “all-or-nothing” power play is to say what you feel, ask what the other person feels, and attempt to change the mode of problem solving from competition to cooperation:


“It upsets me very much when you threaten to leave me because I don’t want to have sex with you. I need to know you better before I could sleep with you. I realize that you are more casual in your relationships. Do you think we could slowdown to talk about this and try to reach an understanding that takes care of us both? I would very much like to do that.”


It’s worth a try, anyway. Sometimes people use power plays because they don’t know about cooperation. An invitation may be all that they need.


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For 8 years, Robert Schwebel Ph.D. wrote a weekly psychology column for the Sunday edition of the Arizona Daily Star. This article is one of many.

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