One of our most valuable human characteristics is the capacity to consciously evolve. Once we reach a certain point of self-awareness, it’s a small step to advancing our social, emotional, and spiritual intelligence. What happens, however, when our context—especially a significant interpersonal relationship—fails to keep pace with our self-creation?
Two factors that play an important role in our personal development are sense of self and sense of place. One gives us a perspective on who we are, while the other gives us a perspective on how we relate to the world around us. When the two are out of step, it can present us with obstacles to moving forward, and often the impetus to reverse course.
Just as we define our context, our context defines us. Maintaining this delicate balance supports both our growth as individuals and our integration into the world. When we are confronted with a context that is not growing with us—particularly a relationship—we can become stuck, or even retreat into the relative safety of old behaviors. Essential to perpetuating our personal development, then, requires also attending to the cultivation of our context.
There are three parts to every relationship; you, your partner, and the relationship that the two of you create by virtue of what you bring to the table. As we evolve, our contribution to the relationship changes. If our partner is not moving in parallel with us, the relationship can become limiting to the point of frustration.
Moving in parallel doesn’t mean evolving alongside. Rather, it refers to an acceptance of change and a recognition that things are not only different, but will continue to become different. This is a reflection of the evolving partner’s contribution to the relationship as a whole.
For example, if one partner has in the past been less than forthcoming, he or she has set up an expectation around deception. Should that same partner choose to work on becoming more transparent while the other partner continues to exercise his or her expectation that there is bound to be some deception in the works, the relationship becomes unbalanced. With the gap between evolution and expectation maintained, or even magnified, this imbalance might then lead to outright instability.
One remedy for managing this imbalance is actually part and parcel of the self-development process. It is often not enough simply to act, or act differently, but also, as Sun Tsu says in the Art of War, to “know your ground”. What this means is that if you plan to act, you are best served by understanding the terrain of your action, which in this case refers to the landscape of your relationship.
In our example, understanding that an effort toward transparency will likely be met with resistance based on past expectations provides us with some perspective. This understanding allows us to hold space for the resistance, giving our partner—and, by association, the relationship—an opportunity to catch up.
If, at first blush, it appears that this tactic is enabling the resistant partner’s inability to shift with the changing landscape, it’s because it is. There is such a thing as healthy enabling—supporting relatively unproductive behavior in service of prompting more productive behavior later—and this is one example. The key here is to set a personal boundary that holds space and allows for that partner’s resistance without putting ourselves at risk or disadvantage.
This strategy gives our partner a chance to, as we said, catch up, and the relationship to evolve accordingly, while also providing a container for how much imbalance we are willing to accept. It also provides us with a more conscious and inclusive way of cultivating a resistant context, rather than simply exercising a more ego-centric approach informed only by our own worldview.
© 2014 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved
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