Buying your morning coffee is the perfect metaphor for a healthy relationship: a balanced transaction that involves expressing needs and distributing resources.

When you buy your morning coffee, you sidle up to the counter and say to the person behind it, “I’d like a cinnamon latte, please.”  The counterperson responds with, “Sure.”, which actually implies, “You need a cinnamon latte and I have water, coffee beans, milk, a cappuccino maker and cinnamon syrup—I can meet your needs.” When the barista (did I really just say, “barista”?) returns with your cinnamon latte, you say, “Thank you.” and hand over your money, implying, “I recognize not only your effort, but the value of the resources you have distributed to me.” The counterperson hands you your change—“I understand the exact value of my resources and accept only the appropriate amount of what you have offered.”—and you drop the silver in the tip jar, implying, “I value you, as well as what you have to give.” It’s a perfect system, and a perfect metaphor.

Relationships are transactional. They engender a give-and-take of social, emotional, sexual, physical (different than sexual), financial, intellectual, spiritual and cultural capital shaped by what each of the two people in the relationship is able to offer. When a relationship is balanced, both people are fully engaged and interject the full measure of each of these eight elements that they are able—there is no withholding, and no overspending. Imbalance in a relationship is fostered by a deficit or surplus on one—and sometimes both—side(s) of the “element equation”.

In a balanced relationship, an imbalance in any of these dualities can be addressed by acknowledging, recognizing and working through it. So, if there is, say, a deficit in emotional availability on the part of one partner, the other partner has the latitude to say, “I feel like you aren’t always present in the relationship, and I need that from you to feel safe.” The other partner can then respond (notice, not react) accordingly, and some cooperative solution can potentially be met.

In an imbalanced relationship, that same imbalance may be the result of withholding or overspending, or both. The partner who is emotionally unavailable may, in fact, be withholding that emotion for reasons that are sometimes obvious, and sometimes not. On the other hand, the partner who is sensing a degree of emotional unavailability from the other may be overinvested in the receipt of emotion—also for reasons sometimes obvious, and sometimes not.

Whichever side of the imbalance we are on, the first step toward correcting that imbalance is sorting out, first, whether the imbalance is one prompted by withholding or by overspending and, second, by whom. That second step also begs the question of whether it is a dual dynamic (in our example of emotional unavailability and neediness) that creates a self-sustaining system of negative emotional tension. The next step is to discern whether the imbalance is actually correctable and addressing that, either as a couple, or an individual.

Correctable is easy because we are starting from a place of wellness. Not correctable, or at least not obviously correctable, goes to a place of deeper distress and is, therefore, a question infinitely more complex. Can the partner who is emotionally unavailable because of withholding release that withholding, or is it some aspect of a larger dynamic that forces a needy partner to stay in an unsatisfying—and possibly even pseudo-abusive—relationship? Can the partner who is overspending emotion (i.e., needy) find some measure of self-acceptance that dispels the drive to manage the others’ emotions through hyper-compensatory people pleasing?

Clearly, correcting an imbalanced relationship that does not begin from a place of wellness is a difficult task. However, if we start with a clear understanding that certain elements go into creating a balanced relationship and an awareness of what the balance within those elements is right out the gate, we are very likely going to get a very satisfying latte that is worth every penny, every time.

© 2013 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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