The New Resilience

Better health in an interconnected world.

Why Leaving Your Relationship Will Improve It

How to build equality and mutuality in your emotional and sexual relationship

Paul Simon’s song, “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” may come to mind here, but I’m referring to a different kind of “leaving:” departing from how couples typically relate to each other in day-to-day life -- struggling over power and control while also longing for greater mutuality and equality. 

Power struggles and lack of equality are visible in what couples actually do with each other in their interactions, their decisions; in how they behave towards each other around differences of needs, desires, and personalities.  In my recent post about “radical transparency” I explained that two-way exposure of your inner life generates emotional and sexual vitality.  Not your personal fantasies or crazy thoughts, which we all have from time to time, but rather, your intimate feelings, fears, hopes, and vulnerabilities.  Another source is building “whole person sex,” which I’ll discuss in a future post.

But here, I explain why learning to relate more as equals, as collaborative partners, is also crucial.  It’s similar to what many people have had to learn in today’s rapidly changing workplace, by necessity.  “Leaving” your lover in the ways I describe builds greater equality because it’s more than just learning new communication skills or new sexual techniques.  They won’t create mutuality or equality by themselves.  What it does is shifting away from how you’ve learned to envision a relationship to begin with.  And then, shifting to serve the relationship itself; not just whatever serves your own desires.

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To explain, power-struggles are features of what I’ve called our adolescent model of love. Most people carry that model with them into their adult relationships, consciously or unconsciously.  At the same time, most long for mutual acceptance and a loving connection with their partners.  People want to be fully themselves, and not fear rejection, chastisement or abandonment.

Conventional relationships head south as two partners struggle around domination and control, products of both our adolescent model of love and the traditional gender roles we learn growing up within our families and culture.  They build more bricks in the wall over time, as couples lament the sense of connection and joy just being together they once experienced.  This lack of equality and corresponding emotional shutdown becomes visible in the twisted and distorted relations couples live with, such as Michael Vincent Miller described in Intimate Terrorism.

Learning to “leave” your lover for the sake of greater emotional and sexual connection begins with the above understanding; how it’s entrapped you.  The next step is shifting your mentality about your relationship and your actual behavior within it. It’s not a formula, but rather something you have to work at and practice. Here are some guidelines that can help:

Give Without Trying To Get

Let go of viewing your relationship as a transaction, a give-and-take, an investment for which you expect a return.  We live in a commercial culture; don’t commercialize your relationship.  Instead, commit to demonstrating your support and love of your partner without expecting anything in return.  You say you feel love? Show it for its own sake, period.  Essentially, this means letting go of self-interest.  Loosen your grip on what you hope to "get" for yourself. That redirects your energies towards enjoying who each of you are with the other; and away from the self-centered goal of trying to get something back. 

Sounds like heresy, I know.  But you're more likely to "get the love you want" by not grasping for it.  If it comes to you freely, from your partner, that’s great.  But don’t make it your objective.  Research and clinical observations show the value of this way of relating. For example, studies by noted researcher John Gottman find that mutual support is crucial for a positive relationship.  That means forgoing personal interests as your goal and putting your partner's needs ahead of your own -- hard as that may sound.

Level The Playing Field

Trying to control or dominate your lover through overt or subtle maneuvers digs you further into a hole. Reframe your relationship from seeking power over to having power with.  Demonstrate reciprocity and equality through your actions.  That’s more than just compromising around differences.  Show through your actions that you recognize and support your partner as an equal being, not an “object” to serve -- or thwart -- your own ego.  Experiment with sharing power.  For example, in daily decisions or conflicts figure out what best serves the ongoing relationship itself, between the two of you, rather than either of you. That builds greater consideration, respect and empathy for each other.  Moreover, research shows that shared decision making between equal partners actually leads to better decisions.  Also, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that if you have an argument with your partner, and either one of you disengages from the emotional impact of the dispute upon you; that is, you don't let it overflow onto the relationship in other areas, then both partners feel more positively towards each other, afterwards.

Collaborate Towards Mutual Growth

If you’ve been conditioned into more traditional gender roles (as most people still are), recognize that men and women have strengths as well as underdeveloped capacities, as a result.  Therefore, as a man, demonstrate active support of the woman's autonomy, independence, and competency, while also showing that you value and support her emotional sensitivity and need for connection.

As a woman, show support for the man's capacity for engagement, openness and vulnerability, while also affirming his solution-oriented strengths and tendencies.

You will strengthen your relationship as equals by encouraging and supporting your partner to stretch and grow underdeveloped capacities. 

Support Each Other As Individual Beings

Another shift:  View differences of perspectives, interests, and desires as enjoyable to experience; not something to be feared or squashed. Embracing differences provides an “edge” that helps a relationship stay energized. You’re going to feel greater stimulation and positive connection when you treat each other as equal human beings; as separate, distinct individuals who are also connected. Feeling and demonstrating interest in each other's growth and development as individuals builds greater connection and sustained energy -- emotionally, relationally, sexually, and spiritually.  All are intertwined.

Being both separate but together aids your personal growth and your shared sense of purpose and meaning as partners.  Mutuality is strengthened when you also share a larger life vision, values and overall purpose. Keep in mind that a living, thriving relationship is an ongoing energy exchange. Healthy energy is always flowing, flexible, balanced and associated with positive feelings. Unhealthy energy is frozen, rigid, and associated with negative emotions.  Couples have the capacity to build a healthy, flowing energy state between them.  Mutuality is a critical part of keeping you connected around a vision of why you’re in this relationship, this journey through life, to begin with. 

dlabier@CenterProgressive.org

Center for Progressive Development

Blog: Progressive Impact

© 2012 Douglas LaBier

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is a psychologist and the Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, DC.

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