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10 Ideas for Maximizing Your Freedom Within a Relationship

How to not lose yourself when you find love.

1. Relationships are inherently constraining: In our dreams, we could have it all including complete safety and complete freedom within a partnership. You could do whatever you wanted always and your partner would always be there for you. In reality, that’s obviously absurd and unfair, so don’t complain. Don’t say “You know, I’m feeling constrained by this relationship.” Of course, you do. If you want a relationship, expect some constraints. In any intimate relationship, you’ll have to mind your elbows, tucking them in to make room for your partner’s freedom, and extending them where you can afford freedom. The more realistic you are about relationships, the more freedom you can gain fairly and honestly.

2. Even the simplest relationship is eight-in-one: A relationship is two people with multiple commitments, to each other, to themselves, to the relationship and to others. Enter a partnership with this in mind: It’s not “I love you and you love me.

It is instead:

  • I love you.
  • You love me.
  • I love me.
  • You love you.
  • I love us.
  • You love us.
  • I love others.
  • You love others.

We make relationships a whole lot harder than they have to be by pretending they’re simpler than they can be. Romantics may spend the honeymoon period saying, “I love you more than anything,” but that’s neither true nor safe in the long run. Sooner or later you’ll have to admit you’re both juggling priorities.

3. Just three ways to get along: In partnerships, you’ve got

  • Your compatibilities
  • Your ability to compromise on your incompatibilities
  • Space taking.

There are variations on all three but that covers the basic ways of making things run smoothly.

The compatibilities are win-wins. You both like to do the same things, and you do them together. Easy. Then you have your incompatibilities because no two people have the same temperament, life experiences, appetites, attitudes, and opportunities. We come together from different angles, not perfectly aligned. How do you handle the inevitable incompatibilities? Two ways: Negotiated compromise or “parallel play,” doing things separately. Either you’ll compromise to do what your partner wants or you’ll do your thing while your partner is off doing their thing. There’s give and take compromise, or give and take space from each other. Don’t look for other options besides these three. There aren’t any. Don’t wish your partner was more compatible. Accept it and either compromise or do things apart. There’s freedom to be gained by not wishing things were other than they are.

4. Freedom to contract: Partnership is a choice, not an obligation. A relationship is one of many things you can do in your free time. No one owes us partnership and we don’t owe it to others. Still, once you’re in one, you will have contracted for certain obligations. It is your moral responsibility to fulfill your contracted obligations. For example, if you have kids, they really are your moral duty. There’s no such thing as an ex-parent. If you are pledged to monogamy, it’s your moral obligation to stay faithful. But should you contract? That’s a preference, not an obligation. Be careful therefore what you contract for. Be true to your contracts and be true to yourself before you contract.

5. Don’t moralize preferences: Don’t let your partner shame you for your preferences. Don’t guilt-trip your partner and don’t be guilt-tripped. The biggest buzzkill burden in partnership comes from a natural human tendency to automatically translate our disappointment into shaming, and our preferences into duties. It’s insidious. It happens under the radar. It feeds a sense of claustrophobia like your living with your grandparents. And such moralizing will happen. Our first gut response to disappointment is “you disappoint me,” as if our moral obligation to each other is to never disappoint. Our first response to our desire is “you owe me,” as if it is our duty to delight each other always. Resist moralizing your preferences. If you fall into it get out of it quickly. Don’t go there. When you’re negotiating beyond your contractual obligations, you’re negotiating preferences; you're not priests or ethics professors debating moral duty. Do not preach at each other or allow yourself to be preached at.

6. Be clear about what you will and won’t do: Out of respect for your partner and yourself, be decisive when you know what you will and won’t do. For this, some negative role models, people you don’t want to be like, are good to keep in mind:

Your friend is late. You ask how long they’ll be and they say, “I’ll be there soon,” because they don’t want to disappoint you by saying that really, they’ll be another hour. That’s tacky.

Your partner stopped loving you long ago. They’re on dating sites but it’s easy enough to string you along, they pretend they’re still all in just to keep their options open. When the truth comes out they say, “I didn’t want to hurt you.” That’s tacky.

Don’t be like that. Out of respect for your partner send clear signals.

7. Own the incompatibilities within yourself: We often seek compatible partners when actually the incompatibilities are internal. Do you want a partner who is your equal or your subordinate? Maybe both. Resolve that internal incompatibility because you can’t have both. Do you want a partner who is always there for you, or do you want a partner who leaves you alone? Resolve that internal incompatibility because you can’t have both. You can’t get everything you want when what you want is at odds with itself. Don’t blame your partner’s incompatibility with your internal ambivalences.

8. In partnering, seek compatibility in how you negotiate your incompatibilities: We seek life partners but often paying attention to the wrong cues. Like “I want a best friend for life and my standard for finding them is that they have to have a cute butt.” What are the right cues? One might be finding someone who negotiates the incompatibilities in ways that are compatible with how you negotiate them. If you don’t want to bog down in the buzzkill of automatic moralizing, don’t partner with someone who auto-moralizes and then moralizes at you about how moralizing is the right thing to do.

9. Partner with someone you trust to decide fairly who to trust: No one owes us trust. We have to earn it ongoingly, even with our partners. We don’t get to say to our partners: “You must believe me always. That’s your duty as my partner.” Still, look around: It’s obvious that people end up gaining trust they don’t deserve and not gaining trust they do deserve. “The customer is always right,” is a good attitude even though the customer isn’t always right. What does all that mean for partnership? You’ll have to earn your partner’s trust so pick a partner who you trust to be a good judge of character, someone you trust to judge well whether to trust you or not.

10. Give and take: With freedom comes responsibility, not just the responsibility to use your freedom well, but also responsibility for granting others equal freedom. It wasn’t always that way. In traditional societies, the husband was the master; the wife was the servant. Chances are you don’t live in such a society. If you want the freedom to follow your preferences, you have to grant that to your partner too.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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