By Diane Walker, December 30, 2013
In my practice as a psychotherapist, I have talked with couples about the importance of “maintaining a level playing field” within their relationship. I define this as an equal balance of power, each partner allowing the other to be true to their personality. Couples often come to therapy with a marked imbalance of power, one partner has become discouraged with “always being the one who gives in to the wishes of the other”. Marriages require a constant give and take, “I will, then you will” type of respect. Couples often talk about not feeling “respected or noticed” in their relationships. Generally, this means they are not feeling validated; they cannot be true to their identity, their true personality.
Think of your relationship with your best friend (who is not your partner); is this different from your relationship with your partner? Typically, we can be completely forthright and honest with our best friends. We can get angry, frustrated with each other, or not agree with the choices our friend makes but we still maintain our close relationship. Best friendships are egalitarian, characterized by equal dignity, they evolve over time, as we enter new phases in our own lives. As with making friends, dating is often filled with hope, expectation, disappointment, and happiness. As the relationship evolves into a commitment, our own expectations and hopes evolve. In a mutually respectful relationship, we allow each other the freedom to grow together, to say what we want to say, to act as we choose.
I often tell clients they have the freedom to be who they are without judgement in my office and hopefully in the outside world. We all need to make rules that are of our own choosing to accomplish goals and meet with success. Within marriage, partners must be able to listen to each other and be heard, even if one is in disagreement. One must accept influence from the other, as much as you may be influential. We have to be able to talk straight and ask for what we want/need even though there are risks involved, such as disappointing your partner. Talking about the disappointment with honest communication creates this type of equality.
The relationship consists of two separate individuals who have had different life experiences. Often, the couple’s expectations are that we handle conflict, money, chores, child rearing, in the same way. Two people who allow for their differences can create fairness and lower the likelihood of establishing controlling expectations. Traditionally, women have maintained the household and raised the children while the men supported the family financially, often due to social norms. Gender roles have dramatically changed in the past several decades allowing for an increase in equality of domestic and financial duties. More importantly to the relationship though, is the feeling that our identities and worth are affirmed and valued. This allows for each other’s vulnerabilities, which is a difficult but necessary component for a successful, long term relationship while allowing us to be completely true to our own personhood.
Personal happiness is a quality that can only be achieved through individual work. Your relationship enhances this quality if it is already present although we cannot make each other happy. Elements of equality include validation, respect, allowing for differences, accommodation, influence, paying attention to, being fair, making repairs when necessary, and fostering well being. These qualities create a level playing field within a relationship which often leads to personal satisfaction and positive growth. This in turn leads to intimacy and connection; which together create all the necessary components to a relationship that lasts through life’s milestones.
Counseling can help establish this platform of equality within the relationship.
This blog was inspired by an article I read in Psychology Today, February, 2014.
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