Relationships are one of the most meaningful things we create and share with another human being. They are simultaneously wonderful and hard, requiring work to maintain. As mentioned in last week's post, thriving relationships lead to personal happiness and well-being. So they are worthy of our effort and attention.
From Dr. Dan Siegel, we know that one must feel seen, safe, and soothed in order to be secure and thrive. If this is our foundation, what are the walls that help create a sturdy home in which to inhabit?
My colleague, Rachel Gardner, and I were discussing what it looks like for two individuals to healthily relate to one another. She shared three vital components: Separate/Equal/Open. (While this goes for all forms of relationship, (platonic, parent-child, romantic), I'll be using language in reference to romantic partnership. The following material is informed by Roberta Gilbert's, Extraordinary Relationships.)
In relationship, you maintain your individuality while still experiencing intimacy and closeness. You understand that you do not complete another person because you are already 100% whole on your own (sorry, Jerry). And the same goes for your partner; they are not deficient nor are they lacking without you. Your identities remain in tact with or without the relationship.
The letters H vs A provide a helpful illustration. The horizontal line represents the relationship and the vertical/diagonal lines the two individuals in relationship. H shows separateness. Two individuals standing on their own but in relationship. Should the relationship dissolve, though painful, they are still individuals standing on their own. In contrast A shows that even without the relationship, these individuals are still dependent upon one another to exist...they need the other for support.
You see yourself as equal to your partner. Your partner is seen as equal to you. Neither is more or less than who either of you are as individuals. Because you come to the table as separate individuals, it allows you to stand as equals in the relationship. This means each person has equal capability to take responsibility for themselves and only themselves.
You make yourself available to the other. You don't cut off contact when either of you is upset or distressed but you also don't chase. "Chasing" would be qualified as anything pushy or pulling. You have a posture that is inviting, not manipulative or demanding. You allow the other person to have their process and they are aware that you're there when and if they would like to speak and share. You are, as Rachel says, "calmly present and accounted for" to your partner.
What a Separate/Equal/Open relationships looks like:
- You are not dependent upon your partner for your happiness or emotional fulfillment because that is your responsibility to give to yourself. You may experience happiness with them but it is because you are choosing to feel happy.
- You are in charge of your own self: managing and communicating your own emotions and thoughts. That is not your partner's responsibility. Nor is it your responsibility to manage or interpret their emotions and thoughts.
- You are present with and make yourself available to one another.
- "Awareness also marks the ideal relationship" according to Gilbert. In order to relate healthily and create a thriving relationship, we must be responsible to know ourselves, what makes us the separate individual we are: the stories and nuances and patterns we bring.
Does this describe your current relationship? Or might you be relying on your partner (or child or friend) to fulfill you? Maybe you feel empty without a relationship? Do you find that you are trying to meet someone's emotional needs or want to control how they respond?
If you struggle to define your relationship as separate and equal and open, begin the work of self-examination. If you don't invest in your own individual awareness, you will unknowingly rely on another to complete these "missing" things that you've yet to discover about yourself. This will inevitably create an unhealthy "A" dynamic. No relationship can thrive under that kind of pressure or demand to support another's emotional weight.
By knowing ourselves, it allows us to offer something to another freely and willingly, without expectation they be something for us. In turn, we are able to accept what our partner freely and willingly offers. And isn't that the type of relationship we long to have?
I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.
If not, it can't be helped.
(Fritz Perls, "Gestalt Therapy Verbatim", 1969)