The Dance of Relationship

Shall we dance, or please stop stepping on my toes

Posted Jul 22, 2016

Relationships can be compared to doing a dance. It’s an easy metaphor to visualize. Of course, there’s singular dancing that involves just one person and then there are those dances that allow for many to join in. For the sake of describing relationships, let’s talk about the kind of dance involving only two people. Dancing is comprised of a series of movements that are combined and often repeated where two people move in sync with each other’s steps. The result is a coordinated effort that often looks easy and effortless, but where you know that that look mostly comes about when people are familiar with each other, are in agreement to be in sync with each other, and have practiced the dance long enough together to where it becomes second nature.

    As a psychiatrist of many years I’ve acquired quite a bit of experience about the workings of relationships. But recently, in conversation with an old friend I had an “aha” moment where my understanding about how people “dance” with each other was bumped up to a new level. Of course, there are many different kinds of relationships and each of these has its own “rules of engagement.” And, as you might expect, the more intimate or close the relationship is, the more complicated and detailed are the “rules of engagement.”   

    Similar to learning and practicing dance steps and moves, the “dance” of relationships, how we engage and interact with another, has its own set of steps, tempo and rhythm that are necessary in order to negotiate the moves between people. Sometimes these steps are verbalized, openly stated so that the people involved understand what is expected of them in the relationship. Sometimes these steps are never discussed, so it’s the actions between people that define what is going on in the relationship. 

    Understand that partners may not want to, and shouldn’t be expected to, want to dance with each other all of the time. Sometimes, partners have to go it alone for a little while. But, in most healthy relationships, partners eventually get back on the same page, get back to dancing together.

    Problems will inevitably arise when the actions of one partner are out of sync with the other, when there is disagreement or conflict over issues considered to be essential to the relationship, when partners are unable or refuse to communicate, or worse, when there is a total breakdown in communication; in other words, when one partner is constantly stepping on your toes, or when they have stopped wanting to dance altogether. When there is no resolution several things can happen—a.) the relationship can end, b.) people can live together, stalemated, but often in a state of discontent, dissatisfaction, frustration, and anger, or c.) they can go back to the dance floor and make a concerted effort to get back on track with or without intervention. 

    But wait, and this was my “aha”, what happens when the “dance” in relationship has nothing to do with learning a specific set of steps designed to produce/create a  coordinated dance involving two? What if each of the partners, or sometimes just one, had something else in mind, something quite different than being on the same page, or dance floor, working toward a common goal? 

    What if one or both of the individuals involved had their own unique agenda, one they are consciously aware of or maybe not aware of at all? What if one or both individuals say they are willing to engage in the necessary steps to move the relationship forward in a positive way but a.) are in conflict about moving the relationship in a new and different direction, b.) are hoping that while playing the game of looking as if they are engaging in the “dance” they will be able to move their own agenda forward (by buying time and hoping to break the other person down from their position), or c.) are getting some kind of “secondary gain” by not resolving the differences between the two; in other words, the inability to resolve differences/conflicts is providing some kind of emotional/psychological charge that one of the individuals needs and is loathe to give up.

     Beyond the surface appearances, interactions, and words that seem to imply the desire to work things out, all too often people hang on to old beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and agendas, and the inability to openly expose these in an effort to build something that is mutually satisfactory has the real potential to get in the way of partners learning to successfully dance in a healthy relationship that is fulfilling to both. 

    All too often I’ve seen people talk around an issue for years. They talk and talk and seem to get nowhere different or better. The emotions around this talking is often very loaded. While not intending to offer a therapeutic solution here I feel strongly that by paying more attention to, and exposing the underlying dynamic(s), there is a much better chance of breaking through to what the real issues are and to ultimately, achieving resolution.

    For those interested, there is a new website dedicated to replacement children for the sharing of information and for anyone to contribute personal stories and articles.