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Tension in Your Relationship Is Good

Tension is how individuality and togetherness co-exist in a relationship.

Key points

  • Partners must negotiate for the things they need in order to keep the relationship working.
  • Often, couples negotiate with the intention of “fairness,” which only encourages partners to maximize their own gains regardless of the impact.
  • Holding the simultaneous perspective of being both an individual and a couple is key to managing a relationship.

I am going to introduce you to a different way of thinking about the tension in your relationship. It’s not conflict between you and your partner. It describes how individuality and togetherness co-exist in your relationship. It is the push-pull between what you and your partner want as individuals and what you want for each other, the sense of caring for and about each other—the togetherness. How well you manage this tension will define your relationship.

Why Describing Your Relationship as Tensional is Important

Understanding your relationship as inherently (it comes with the territory) tensional helps you with four major aspects of what makes the relationship satisfying and sustainable. These are:

  1. Keeping a simultaneous perspective
  2. Being aware that negotiation is the way to manage both joint and individual interests and activities
  3. Defining what characteristics partners need to keep the relationship working
  4. Helping you figure out what’s not working

Keeping a Simultaneous Perspective When You Negotiate

Creating and sustaining a satisfying committed relationship like marriage means you must negotiate the things you want in life with the things your partner wants. You must negotiate joint activities like doing housework, caring for children, having fun together, and your sexual enjoyment. You must also negotiate individual activities like maintaining a productive work life, enjoying your individual friends, individual sports activities, etc. Negotiating while keeping a simultaneous perspective is different from the way couples often think of negotiation.

Negotiation is often viewed like a business transaction—a quid pro quo. This approach is often used to create “fairness” in a relationship. It doesn’t work this way because it focuses on each seeking to “maximize” his/her gains regardless of the impact on the partner. In the long run, it builds resentment, which undermines the togetherness aspect of the relationship.

Nor can working out individual life plans together be organized by gender role. Historically, it has been the wife who carries out the togetherness functions of the relationship, i.e., being the primary one who cares for family members. The husband has been assigned the function of having an individual life plan that financially supports the family. This approach “constructs” your lives for you in such a way that devalues creating togetherness as equal individuals.

Qualities You Will Need to Maintain a Simultaneous Perspective

There are two fundamental qualities each partner needs to keep a simultaneous perspective on the relationship: self-awareness and valuing your significant other as an equal partner.

Self-Awareness is when you become the focus of attention.1 While self-awareness is central to who you are, it is not something you are focused on all the time. Self-reflection, which involves the conscious consideration and analysis of your beliefs, actions, and motives in order to learn about yourself is the key to self-awareness. Reflection gives your brain an opportunity to pause so that it can sort through your ongoing experiences to consider various possible interpretations of what is happening.

Self-reflection allows you to know your own wishes and wants, and how your personal issues and insecurities play out in the relationship.

Valuing your partner as an individual is part of the tension that defines a committed relationship. When we first meet and through dating, we are acutely aware of how we value and admire our partners as individuals. It is important to always see our partners as the wonderful, separate, individuals they are outside of their role as husband or wife.

Examples of Couples Negotiating From a Simultaneous Perspective

Here are several examples of how to negotiate using the simultaneous perspective of being both an individual and a couple.

Negotiating When You See Things Differently

Sara and Lucas disagreed about where she should park when she drove to the mall. Lucas did not want her to park in the garage, which was her preference. A mundane but important difference to them. Here is an outline of how to go about negotiating issues when you see things differently.·

  • Identify what you want to talk about and set a time to do this that works for both of you. Think clearly about what you want and why. Remember, these are preferences not self-centered demands.
  • When you talk, each must have a chance to express what is important to you and why. In this case, Sara wanted a convenient place to park to get to appointments on time. Lucas was concerned about the car door getting scratched or dented because of the narrow spaces in the parking garage.
  • Remember, “every concern of yours is a concern of mine." Do not criticize or argue against your partner’s preference. Do not privilege your own preference. This will damage the togetherness of your relationship.
  • Create a plan of action that responds to both of your concerns. In this case, Sara agreed to park on the upper level of the garage where there are fewer cars. To avoid the parking garage, Lucas will drive Sara to appointments when he is working from home.

Negotiating a Sensitive Subject—Like Sex

You have come into your relationship with a sexual history, values associated with sex, and culturally ingrained ideas about what sex means to men and women. This means you both must take time for self-reflection about what you bring to your sexual relationship with each other.

The two of you having general discussions around your prior sex lives will better prepare you to negotiate the specifics of your sexual relationship—the how often, what sex acts you want to have, where do you have sex, etc. There will be other topics, like finances, about which you can use the same process of discussion followed by negotiation.

Negotiating Joint Responsibilities With Individual Life Plans

This is a big one. It’s about each of you having productive individual lives while being committed to being together, creating a household that must be managed and having children (if you so choose) who must be cared for.

Keeping in mind the need to keep the tension between being independent and being together will help you negotiate and renegotiate how to organize taking care of joint responsibilities and your responsibilities to yourself.

Here are several important takes on how to go take this wonderful and challenging journey together.

  • Lisa Belkin wrote an article about Marc and Amy Vichon who are committed to the idea of equally shared parenting. Take a look at their arrangement.
  • Noah Betlatsky tells us to avoid splitting household tasks evenly because marriage is not about obligations that result from a quid-pro-quo, business-like, transaction.
  • Jennifer Petriglieri studied 113 dual-career couples whose ages ranged from 26 to 63 and wrote about how dual-career couples make it work. A great article about how you negotiate with the person you love and value over the many life transitions. Worth the read!

Factors That Will Disrupt the Simultaneous Perspective in Your Relationship

There are several things that make keeping the tension between being an individual and being in a relationship that you want to pay attention to.

Valuing Togetherness Over Independence. This happens when one or both partners value togetherness over individuality. A codependent partner will defer to their partner at the expense of their own individual wants and desires. Over time this builds resentments, often because the one who defers covertly expects his/her partner to reciprocate.

Valuing Independence Over Togetherness. Some partners over emphasize their independence or autonomy over the togetherness of a relationship. They may feel threatened by negotiating their individual wishes and wants.

Gender Stereotypes. Men’s and women’s capacities for independence and togetherness can be shaped by their culturally defined sense of themselves. As noted, women are vulnerable to overplaying togetherness and men are vulnerable to overplaying individualism.

Marriage can become a gender trap if you don’t challenge old ideas about men and women around household chores, the importance of work, and sex. When life changes occur, like having a child, you run the risk of falling back into old ideas about gender.

Embrace the Tension in Your Relationship

In this post, I have asked you to think about your committed relationship as inherently tensional. This is a good way to understand the push-pull between being individuals and being a couple. Always keeping this simultaneous perspective in everything you do will help you create and maintain a relationship that is not only satisfying but sustainable through the many transitions you go through during the marriage.


1. Cherry, Kendra. “Self-awareness Development and Types. Verywell Mind. July 14, 2020.…