Since the perpetuation of the species is the force that drives the longing for connection, it seems that we’d be wired to get along with each other with ease and pleasure, but for a lot us, that doesn’t seem to be the case; especially when it comes to committed partnerships. Why is that?
The abbreviated answer to this perplexing question requires us to consider the fact that we live in a culture that continually encourages us to fulfill two seemingly contradictory mandates. The first is to accept, honor, and embody your “true self”. This message shows up throughout popular culture in the form of slogans, advertising jingles, song titles, and even army recruitment posters. We are urged to “Be all that you can be!” “Be true to you,” “Love yourself”, “Be authentic” “Be number one in your own life!” and “Trust yourself”.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these messages. In fact for those of us who tend to forget that there are other reasons to be put on earth besides to take care of others, such reminders, if we take them to heart, can save us from a life of excessive self-sacrifice and unhappiness.
The second mandate has to do with providing for the relational, as opposed to the individual aspect of life and has to do with serving the greater good, not just one’s personal interests and desires. One of the most painful criticisms that many of us can hear is “You’re selfish!”, meaning that we care more about ourselves than we should. This admonition contains the implicit message that you shouldn’t care more, or even as much for yourself as you do others (particularly the “other” who is accusing you of being selfish!).
There is of course, validity to both of these perspectives. And therein lies the essence of the challenge of all relationships. They require us to fulfill two of our strongest impulses: to serve others and the larger culture of which we are an inextricable part, without losing the integrity of our unique self. Most of us are predisposed towards one of these poles. We tend towards a perspective geared to primarily favor care of self over care of others, or vice versa, and consequently are likely to be attracted (not just in our primary relationship but in our relationships in general) to our counterparts. Relationships with those who embody tendencies that complement our own predisposition, enable us to more effectively fulfill both the personal as well as the interpersonal aspects of our life.
In theory, this is great idea, in practice, not so much. For many of us, the fear of losing ourselves by going too far over to the “other side” outweighs the fear of self-abandonment. And for others, the fear of losing the other outweighs the concern about preserving our sense of individual integrity. Not surprisingly, and for good reason, these two types of people often manage to find and connect to each other.
Despite our attraction to those who fulfill our inclination to experience greater wholeness in our lives, it turns out that we may be much more attached to our innate predisposition than we realize, creating a conflict within ourselves. When both partners bring this internal conflict into a relationship, the result can be that it becomes an interpersonal conflict and we are off and running, sometimes literally!
While on a rational level, it makes sense to allow another person to support the cultivation of traits and characteristics that are relatively undeveloped within ourselves, on an emotional level, doing so can feel dangerous, even life-threatening. Such feelings inevitably activate defensive and controlling reactions on the part of both partners, and result is… well, most of us know what the end of that sentence is.
So….what to do?
Given the likelihood (some would say ‘inevitability’) of experiencing both the internal and the interpersonal conflicts that arise when seemingly opposing desires co-exist, don’t be surprised if you notice the symptoms of discord showing up in your relationship. Like we said, given the way things seem to be set up, discord and differences are likely. Differences, however are distinct from conflict and don’t necessarily have to lead to fighting.
The challenge in these situations is not to “win” an argument by having your view prevail. We can not only move from seeing the other person’s perspective in a way that enables both of us to not only accept that there is at least some validity to their orientation, but to go even beyond that to an appreciation of the value that their orientation brings to your own life. When one person can cease or at least diminish their efforts to coerce their partner to agree that their way is the “right” way, there is inevitably, a diminishment in the feelings of defensiveness that arise when we are subject to coercion, and an increase in the feelings of safety which enables both partners to speak and listen with greater respect.
In the early days of our relationship, the different orientations that Linda and I had in regard to being predisposed towards valuing independence and autonomy or relationship frequently came sharply into focus, often with painful results. Linda’s bias was almost always towards the care and maintenance of our relationship. She would be the first one to notice when we needed more together time or when our relationship had been neglected due to other commitments and interests. She would also be the one to bring to my attention that we had unfinished business or “incompletions” to attend to that were keeping her awake at night.
Since my sensitivity was around freedom and independence, I was sleeping fine, even if arguments were left incomplete. I usually felt harassed at times when I perceived Linda as trying to “steal” time away from me, to “indulge” in her relationship needs. Actually, we both demonized each other making the other person wrong and labeling them as the problem. As practicing psychotherapists, we also had the disadvantage of bringing an arsenal of diagnoses to each other pathologizing them with psychological labels. Needless to say, this didn’t help to create a more respectful environment for our relationship.
Although it didn’t happen overnight, we both managed to move from demonizing each other to accepting the legitimacy of the other’s view. Eventually we came to enjoy a deep appreciation of how a complementary perspective enabled us to experience greater love and self-care. We no longer had to rely so much on each other to fulfill the needs that we had been making the other person responsible for fulfilling.
Moving from conflict to appreciation is possible even for couples that have been trapped in cycles of resentment and grudge-holding for years. What is required is recognition of the true nature of the problem, seeing that it’s not about right/wrong, but about a failure to recognize the gifts that both partners are bringing. And it requires a willingness to forgive the other person for being how and who they are. It may also require making apologies for disrespecting them in an efforts to coerce them into changing their views or behaviors.
It helps when each person can acknowledge the gifts that they see the other person brings to their life and gratitude to them for hanging in there if things have been difficult. It’s an advantage to have a vision which recognizes the specific ways in which the relationship can be mutually fulfilling and the qualities that can be deepened and shared by both partners. Examples of these qualities include respect, trust, affection, gratitude, creativity, intimacy, joy and love.
Like all good things, while such results are unquestionably possible, it does take a willingness to put the time, effort, and intentionality into the process to reap the amazing benefits that we can enjoy when we embody this commitment. Great relationships require interdependence AND self-reliance. These two qualities are NOT mutually exclusive: they can and must exist simultaneously if a relationship is to truly thrive. And who knows; your partner may be just the one to help to make that happen!