“Empowerment” is a term that has, in recent years, entered into our American lexicon and gone from the fringes of jargon to the mainstream of language. Yet many of us are ill-informed in regard to the actual meaning of the word ’empowerment’ and how it can be cultivated, particularly in the context of committed partnerships. Empowerment isn’t something that happens to us or something we can do to or for another. It is the process of developing greater inner strength, confidence, and overall personal effectiveness in the fulfillment of our needs and desires.
More than any other aspect of life, relationships not only challenge us to claim our power, but to do so in a way that promotes feelings of safety, trust and respect on the parts of both partners. Relationships provide the context and the arena to practice mutual empowerment. Although many of us see relationships through the lens of a “zero-sum game”, that is, the view that in order for one person to succeed or win in getting their needs and desires fulfilled, the other person must lose. While this orientation holds true in most sports and competitive games, when it comes to relationships, unless both partners experience satisfaction with the outcome of an interaction, neither person will, in the long run enjoy the pleasure of success. Even when one partner does “win” in the short run, if it is at the expense of the other person feeling defeated the “loser’s” disappointment will will cast a shadow on the victor’s gratification and defeat can, over time bring about feelings of resentment, mistrust, or acrimony.
This is not to suggest that it’s wrong to want to fulfill your desires and needs, or that both partners have to be equally satisfied with every negotiation that they engage in. Satisfaction has to do with the fulfillment of a need, yet many of us see the other person as an adversary rather than a partner. When we operate from this perspective we are reinforcing zero-sum thinking in ourselves and in each other. When we are able to bring a win/win orientation to a situation in which there is a difference in perspectives, we become more able to create an outcome that is satisfying to both partners. Doing so makes it more likely that our efforts will promote reciprocal goodwill and mutual empowerment. It’s one thing to bring out your biggest guns when you’re encountering an adversary on the playing field that you may rarely or never encounter again, but it’s another thing altogether to bring those guns into a conflict with the person with whom you share your home, your children, and your bedroom.
When an intimate relationship is characterized by an orientation of goodwill rather than zero-sum thinking, it will, in all likelihood be mutually satisfying for each partner. When both partners share a commitment to empowerment the possibilities are literally inconceivable. Here are are some of the values, traits and skills that couples who have a good will orientation exhibit:
- a personal growth orientation
- a belief that people can change
- good communication skills
- a high level of mutual trust
- a commitment to self-care
- a willingness to subordinate their own desires to the other’s without sacrificing their own need
- a perspective towards each other as equals in authority and worthiness
- generosity of spirit
- valuing honesty and integrity at the top of their priority list
- competence in managing interpersonal differences
- a willingness to be vulnerable in expressing their concerns and less predisposed to be defensive
- skillfulness in repairing relationship breakdowns when they occur
- ability to set clear, respectful and interpersonal boundaries
- capability of accepting responsibility, rather than projecting blame onto others
- valuing each other’s needs and well-being as highly as they hold their own
There is no arguing that these factors set the bar to a pretty high level. And there’s no question in our minds that for nearly all of us, achieving them is doable. And yes, it does take time, effort, and work, to up-level a zero-sum orientation to the level of a world-class relationship. It’s not rocket science, and if you accept the challenge of going for the gold, you may discover that the results can be as thrilling and fulfilling as any trip into outer space could be!