In between selfishness and selflessness is a middle ground. For Alex Rodriguez, better known as A-Rod, sports writers are working overtime to elucidate his motivation in becoming the seventh major league ballplayer to hit 600 home runs in his career. The fact that he is achieving, functioning on a high level as an individual payer, is indisputable; the question that rings throughout the headlines is, "A-Rod: Does the Team Mean More or the Milestone?"
Is he a champion of the "Me" or the "We"? Or, as my son might have expressed it back in his Little League days, does he do it for the "Whee!," the joy of the game, the spirit of play and participation in something perhaps even larger than the game itself?
The couples I see in my private practice, and the therapists I work with at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in Manhattan, deal with these distinctions - the "We," the "Me" and the "Whee!" - all the time. When a partner invests his or her "Whee!," their passion, in the "Me," partners report, not surprisingly, that something essential is missing from their relationship. Typically, such partners do not share their accomplishments freely. They tend to be secretive about the things that matter most to them and may also neglect, or simply be unable to identify, what is really important to their partner. They fail to validate or understand when or why their partner has accomplished something that is meaningful to them unless it is pointed out. Such partners tend to be unable to sustain commitment or relationship satisfaction. Their style promotes disconnection and loneliness.
Tara Parker-Pope, in her book, For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage (Dutton, 2010) cites an important study done jointly at the Universities of California and Rochester involving over 200 couples. The researchers developed a concept they termed capitalization. In the context of their studies, this term refers to a communication sequence consisting of two basic stages. In stage one, a partner shares his or her "good news," any positive accomplishment or experience with their significant other. In stage two, their partner responds with explicit validation of whatever is going well for the other.
Capitalization, defined this way, describes an important dimension of mutuality, which is the cornerstone of what I describe as middle ground interaction. When stages one and two occur sequentially, the pattern forms a circuit that amplifies good news into shared-and-mutually- acknowledged good news; this vitalizes good will and promotes healing between partners.
Furthermore, researchers found that partners who respond more demonstratively to their partner's good news boost the capitalization effect in their relationships significantly more than equally loving partners who respond in more quiet, muted tones.
Take-Away: There is something to be said for tacit understanding, non-verbal and unconscious communication but taking an extra step - amping up the effusiveness of your response - is worthwhile. Try it, even if it lies slightly outside your comfort zone.
Recommendation: Start a journal to track opportunities for sharing and responding to your partner's achievements, major and minor. Put a checkmark next to the good news that has been shared and a second checkmark if you have responded to the good news with validation AND excitement. List the good experiences you have had and about which your partner has responded with validation or enthusiasm or both. Try it for a week and you'll be in an excellent position to assess whether this is something that you and your partner need to develop further. At the very least, this exercise heightens your awareness of in-the-moment possibilities for deepening and savoring good feelings between you and your partner.
Let's return to the top of the order and the man of the hour on the sports channels. Do you think A-Rod is more motivated by personal or team glory? Or a mix of the two? If the image that the New York Yankees project in the media even approximates accuracy - mountains of high-fives and whipped cream pies shmushed into the player of the day's face after victories - I'd imagine that, though A-Rod may enjoy basking in his personal glory, he probably enjoys coming through for the team as well. And that principle also holds true for most couples lives together.
I welcome comments, questions and suggestions from you. Don't hesitate to let me know how you feel about what you read here. I invite you to give the Capitalization Journal a try and let me know about your experience! I am thrilled to be part of this PT community and look forward to an exciting dialogue between you and me. Remember, love and good feelings are plentiful yet elusive; I'll be around to help you locate and develop them in the Middle Ground.