When you see some couples that seem happier, more balanced and equitable than others, do you ever wonder: What do they know that I don't? Is it chemistry, destiny, or luck that creates such stability between them?
We are bombarded with information about what an equal partnership consists of and what couples must do to have a great relationship. We are told that great relationships are based on realistic expectations, communication know-how, and gender-fluidity when it comes to who manages the household and who earns the money. But... is there more to it?
'I', 'You', 'We'
Let's review a relationship model that I believe best describes an egalitarian one; a healthy, balanced partnership is made of three distinct entities: two individuals and the life they share together. It sounds simple, right? Not so fast.
To achieve a successful 'We', both individuals must be whole and autonomous. That includes a unique identity separate from the relationship. In order for you to become a whole person, you must do several things:
- Don't blame your partner. Look within and take full responsibility for your personal shortcomings.
- Take ownership of your fears.
- Be radically honest with yourself.
- Look within (not at your partner) to ensure that your self-worth is healthy.
Often, people do not look inward for personal growth and development. Instead, they look towards their partner for healing inner pain, to build them up, and create happiness. By releasing personal deficits and projecting (unconsciously) unrealistic expectations onto their partner with the hope of being rescued, they will eventually feel disappointed in them. Of course, the responsibility to make up for their shortcomings was never their partner's to begin with.
When two people depend on each other to fill their unmet dependency needs, theirs is an immature partnership, not one of mature equals. On the other hand, in a balanced and equal partnership, each individual is open to influencing their partner. As two well-defined people with clear boundaries, they grant their partner the right to have their own feelings, thoughts, needs and viewpoints, which will be different than their own. By revealing their inner lives to their partner and being sensitive to how they affect them, they nourish the third entity, the 'We'.
Profile of an Equitable Couple
Phil and Marilyn, have been in a relationship for four years and have a lifelong commitment to each other. Let's take a look a look at the following interaction between them and how it reflects the characteristics of an equal partnership.
Marilyn: Something happened between us last night that I want to talk about.
Phil: You sound serious. What's troubling you?
Marilyn: When we were having dinner with Ross and his wife, you made a joke about how I overcooked the birthday dinner we had for my Mom and I felt embarrassed and incompetent.
Phil: Let me make sure I understand. You feel badly because I brought the incident up?
Marilyn: It's not so much that you told the story, but more that by making a joke about it, I felt like you were putting me down. It felt awful, so I had to bring it up
Phil: Oh, wow. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to devalue you. Now I get it. In the future I'll ease up on the jokes even though I enjoy being playful with you. If I inadvertently slip up, please call me out.
Marilyn: I know I can be sensitive, but thanks for understanding .
When I began couples' counseling with Phil and Marilyn they fit together more like pieces of a puzzle than function as two well-defined individuals. As their two 'I''s became more differentiated, they became equal team players invested in developing their 'We'. The above dialogue between them exemplifies the characteristics of balanced partnerships, which are summarized below:
- Safety to express needs and worries rather than place blame.
- Team players finding a mutual solution, not manipulative individuals in competition.
- Equal responsibility for conflict resolution.
- Ability to face difficult situations together, not avoid them.
- Active listening and recognizing when your partner has something important to say.
- Ability to sacrifice for your partner even when you don't feel like it.
In partnerships of equals, like Marilyn and Phil, each person feels equally valued and equally respected. This kind of a relationship requires ongoing negotiation and intentional cultivation of each individual ('I' and 'You') and the shared growth between them ('We').