What a Body Knows

Finding wisdom in desire.

Why Relationships Work: Partner as Peer

One quality in a love relationship that you cannot do without

It is that time of year again when we are greeted by article after article on how to find the right match, our soul mate, the perfect partner, and then, make it work. We hear again about qualities for which we should look, and about danger signs of which we should be wary. Mostly, we are told to beware of differences--differences in age, education, or income; in ethnicity, religion, or upbringing; in work habits, play habits, sex and money habits; in missions, goals, and expectations of one another.

If we can avoid such aggravating differences, statistics state, we will be more likely to succeed in doing what we should--communicating, appreciating, and staying together.

But these lists miss the most important point: such differences can matter but they don't necessarily matter. Statistics aside, we never know which dot along the line we will be.

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We need to ask a different question: under what conditions do differences in the categories above actually make a difference?

The point is that such differences don't matter, or not in the same way, if your partner is a peer.

What is a peer?

A peer is someone who is willing and able to engage in creating reality at the same level as you are.

What does that mean?

Some people are eager and willing to live within the matrix of social expectations and cultural conventions as it exists. They can see examples of lives they would be happy living in the lives of their parents, siblings, mentors, or friends. They know which ladders they want to climb, how to manage their risks along the way, and what they want to do when they retire. They express their creativity in their choices of vacations, entertainment, hobbies, furnishings, or fashion.

People who aspire to engage with contemporary culture in these ways are happy with others who share that willingness and ability to engage reality at the same level. For these people--and they can occur in any class, profession, or regional locale--differences in the categories above can matter and do matter. They can pull a couple apart.

There are other people, however, who have not yet found an example of a life they want to emulate, and are not convinced that the system as it works is one in which they want to participate. They don't want to accept reality as it appears to be, but want to make it what it can be.

Such people want to unleash their creativity at multiple levels of existence--from their most basic assumptions to their highest ideals, and every ordinary habit and practice in between. These are people who want to stay in touch with their freedom to make the world differently.

For people who share this desire, this need, and this commitment, the differences named above don't matter in the same way. In fact, they can be valuable catalysts in helping one another get a critical purchase on what more is possible.

While there are many degrees between these two ends, and while all partnerships along the spectrum may share a desire for "life-long passionate love," what that "love" means and entails will differ greatly. Those who find lasting love with one another will be willing and able to move with their partners in creating their life together at the level to which they both aspire.

My partner and I are admittedly at the far end of the arc: people for whom the differences have been catalysts to deeper intimacy.

When we met, he had not finished college; I was entering a PhD program. He was an atheist turned-Buddhist; I was a yoga-inflected Christian. He smoked and drank beer; I didn't. He had coffee for breakfast and a pint of Ben & Jerry's for dinner; I ate three spare meals, with broccoli, tofu, and brown rise at night. He stayed up late; I woke up early. He had vowed never to marry; I had vowed never to date unless the man seemed promising. He was laidback, from the Midwest; I was uptight, from New England.

But he was a musician and I was a dancer, and when we met, everything changed. He finished his degree; I started eating Ben & Jerry's. He married me because he knew I wouldn't let him get away with less than everything. I married him because something inside kept saying yes. 

What was clear, from the beginning, was that we were both willing to engage in creating ourselves and our lives at every level. We both wanted to live in the world that opened when we were together. We wanted that love to be the most important thing--more important than our fears of not getting what we want; more important that our anxieties of not being enough; more important than our respective pain at not having been loved as we wanted. More important than gender roles, traditional norms, or the shape of any religious belief or law. It was all open to play. 

We were willing to go all the way with one another, exploring what love could be. We wanted to trust that our desire for one another, our life together, was what we each needed to become who we are, and unfold what we have to give. And to do so we knew: we would have to heal.

Nearly twenty-two years later, we are here, musician and dancer, living on a farm in upstate New York with our five children, one rooster, two cats, two steers, two milking cows, three heifers, eleven chickens, and a horse named Marvin.

We moved here in 2005 after quitting our jobs and leaving the city. We moved to create a place where we could dance, write, and make music in closer relation to the natural world. We moved to make love more real. Now we make ice cream together, from cream we skim from milk our children pull from our Jersey cows. 

It is the story I tell in my latest book Family Planting. It is a story that my partner encouraged me to share. It is a story of how we learned to greet the conflicts and tensions that arise between us as expressions of our persistent desire to connect with one another, and as opportunities to deepen the intimacy we share.

It is a story about partners as peers who choose love over reality.

It is a story that demonstrates what we have found to be true: in creating a partnership between peers, there is no formula to follow, only tales that can inspire you to write your own. So do!

Happy Valentine's Day!

Kimerer L. LaMothe, Ph.D., has taught at Brown and Harvard universities. She is the author of What a Body Knows: Finding Wisdom in Desire and Family Planting.

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