Fixing Families

Tools for walking the intergenerational tightrope

Relationships: Doing the Math

When 1+1= 3


Tom and Karen have had difficult lives. Tom has struggled with depression and employment, Karen with addiction problems. They have been together for 5 years and together they make a good pair. When Tom’s depression starts to take over, Karen steps in as support — making sure he gets out of bed in the mornings, making sure he is taking his meds, giving him some extra TLC. And when Karen is having a hard time, feels those old addiction cravings setting in, Tom is able to step up and help her get through it. 

Teresa has always managed to take care of herself and does a good job at it. She is successful in her field, is assertive, people naturally see her as a leader. When she and Carlos married 10 years ago they were similar — he too was successful in his life — but over the past few years Carlos has struggled — with medical problems, and with them emotional problems. Now he is on disability. Teresa has held steady, is the major breadwinner, and organizes the kids and household. 

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Matt and Amy are an upper middle class professional couple. Matt works for an advertising firm and has done well though the hours are demanding. Amy, an attorney, is in a similar position. They are career focused, both amazingly independent. They consider their time together, though limited, quality time, if not emotionally intimate.

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One way of looking at relationships is like this:

½ + ½ = 1

1+ ½ = 1 ½

1+ 1 = 1+1 

The first, ½ + ½ describes Tom and Karen. Through no particular fault of their own, each of them are struggling in their own ways with life. On their own they might flounder, but together, by helping each other out, they are able to hold each other up, keep their lives out of the ditch, and create a somewhat stable life together. The concern is that because of the relative fragility of their circumstances, if one of them starts to slip further -- the depression, the addiction -- it may pull the other down as well. 

The second describes Teresa and Carlos. While they may have started out on an equal solid footing, things have changed. Again through no particular fault of anyone, the balance of power is now unbalanced. Teresa has stepped up and taken on more responsibilities, is carrying a heavier load. The worry here is that Teresa, like a lot of caretakers, may become eventually or periodically resentful, burn-out, or emotionally or physically collapse under the added weight.

Matt and Amy fit the last combination. Here we find 2 independent solid people able to stand on their own 2 feet. Their falling down or collapsing is less likely. However, there is a quality of their running on parallel tracks. They are roommates with benefits. These types of relationships were popular at the height of the divorce era in the early 80s – the “You be you and I be me” period. Because they are so career centered, we could image that if one them were to struggle and threaten to derail the other, they could simply decide to go their separate ways.

But there is one more equation to add to the mix: 

1+1 = 1+1+1 

What is this? Here we have 2 people who like Matt and Amy, are, in their own way are able to stand on their own feet. But there is that extra 1 and that 1 is the relationship itself. It is like a baby that they share and are responsible to taking care of, and that baby is the relationship itself. When the baby that is the relationship is not doing well, is in trouble, they both give it the attention and TLC that it needs to keep it healthy, and ultimately to help it grow.

Yes, it is certainly a matter of problem-solving and self development, but even more one of attitude and sense of commitment to the space between you. Even fragile individuals can be strengthen to be an equal partner, even fragile relationships can strengthen with support and attention. 

So where are you in your relationship? What do you need to do to, individually and as a couple, to make 1+1= 1+1+1?

 

Bob Taibbi, L.C.S.W. has 40 years of clinical experience. He is author of 6 books and over 300 articles and provides training nationally and internationally.

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