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The Relationship Secret We All Need to Know

How to manage expectations in your relationships.

George Rudy/Shutterstock
Source: George Rudy/Shutterstock

Relationships are complex — the ones with your spouse, partner, colleague, boss, best friend, parent, child, and so on. When two people come together, there are differing expectations, backgrounds, and differences in power and responsibility, depending on the relationship. A boss will have responsibilities towards you, but also more power than you in the relationship. A child will have very little power in any relationship, and any adult has quite a set of responsibilities towards a child. These may or may not be exercised, but they exist.

We need to be careful in our relationships so that no one feels completely powerless — otherwise, an imbalance occurs and the relationship sours. People thrive when they have a degree of autonomy; this is true both professionally and personally. People in top management jobs (who are often stressed) still have healthier outcomes than those in menial positions. This is because they have choices — and we would do well to remember that in our relationships. A small child ordered to hurry up and get dressed may balk at the command. But change it to, “Do you want to put on your red top or your blue top?” and you may well find that recalcitrance disappears. The same is true of most adults: We don’t like choices being made for us by others.

In an adult friendship or romantic partnership, power needs to be negotiated between the two participants. If you seek all the power — or are too rigid or controlling — you will find it difficult to have a satisfying, grown-up relationship. That said, many relationships exist quite happily with a power imbalance, because it suits both participants. However, if you constantly throw up arguments or resentments in your relationship, or one of you feels uncherished, listen up.

The most important secret about relationships, which is well-known by psychotherapists and psychoanalysts, is that relationships contain an imaginary thread of elastic between the two people . Once you have consented to be in a relationship with somebody, this thread will appear. The trick to keeping the relationship healthy is to observe and acknowledge this, for each pair’s elastic is different in length and strength.

If you are an extrovert in a relationship with an introvert, you may find that the introvert will need to keep moving away. This causes the “elastic” to go slack. Rather than moving forward into the space that the introvert has created for themselves, you, counterintuitively, need to move back. With two extroverts, the elastic will be quite short, as they get their energy from each other; with two introverts, it may be longer, as they need more space to re-energize by themselves. Acknowledging this maintains the desired tension in the elastic. The other will let you know if the elastic is slack or too taut by moving closer or further away. In this way, the two of you can work out how long your elastic connection needs to be for you to thrive as a couple or in friendship. If you fail to recognize the other’s need for space or, indeed, intimacy, either your elastic will go slack and trip you up, or it will snap in your haste to move further and further away from each other.

Many people in new relationships will panic if the other withdraws, casting around for clues as to what went wrong. In most cases, nothing went wrong — you just got too close too quickly, and the other person needs you to withdraw. It never hurts to ask early on just how much a person enjoys their own company and downtime to read, listen to music, or just hang out with a different group in order to recharge and be ready for a relationship with you. To imagine that we can be the “entire event” for another human is short-sighted and arrogant. It would also mean that we and/or our partner are prepared to live a small life with narrow interests and few connections.

However involved we are in a friendship or romance, we need to remember that we are multi-faceted beings. This is what makes us interesting and desirable. We’ve all seen the couples in a restaurant who have nothing to say to one another or seem to be more involved with their phones. If you are not mixing with other people and doing other things, what will you have to talk about? My partner and I leave our phones at home when we go out to dinner and talk about the things we have done separately, so that we bring each other up to speed about what we’ve been doing and who we’ve seen. In that way, the partnership remains alive, with the elastic shifting backwards and forwards to maintain a tension unique and suitable to us.

So embrace the fact that your partner or friend needs time alone, and make sure that you use that time to enhance your own life with interesting people and things to do. Don’t allow the elastic to become too long either, by failing to check in or let each other know the agenda for the day or week or whatever. Connection and communication is all. When you feel acknowledged but not smothered, free to be yourself, both singly and in partnership with another, you will have found your perfect elastic connection — so enjoy.