Being the best partner — 06 June 2008
What does loving your partner really mean?

It is well known that after the “ honeymoon period”, couples usually evolve into what is called “the power struggle” phase of their relationship. The struggle resembles a tug of war for dominance. Why would two loving people, who start their connection with infatuation, admiration and gratitude, find themselves feuding for power shortly thereafter?

When the formerly adored and cherished partners find themselves no longer brightening each other’s lives, they both feel profoundly disappointed, let down and abandoned. One erroneous attempt to restore their own significance is by proving to the partner that they are right, smart, aware, knowledgeable, desirable, capable and thus worthy of ongoing love and attention.

Regrettably, these self-promoting efforts end up being a basis for competition and a power play. The battle of outdoing the other with one’s attributes only causes further insecurity in the mate and escalates the fights. Couples in a power struggle assume the zero sum gain, which means that if one is worthy, the other is unworthy; when one is right the other is wrong and less valued. This battle plagues some pairs for a lifetime.

Other couples graduate from this state to the third level of interaction the “compassionate loving” stage. They learn to appreciate and accept each other for all their traits and feel empathy, caring and even reverence for each other. Those who reach this stage are the couples whose love and tenderness for one another inspire all their observers.

Gender differences have been suggested as one of the causes for the power struggle phase, Common misconceptions about men and women’s different needs found their expression in commonly held erroneous beliefs. Some women believe that men are afraid of intimacy and some men hold women responsible for their quest to control and manipulate them. Terrence Real author of “The New Rules Of Marriage” wrote in his article about Relational Recovery Therapy: “Men aren’t afraid of intimacy; they’re afraid of subjugation.” He believes that grandiosity and shame are sources of great pain to both men and women, but are experienced differently. “Women in our culture tend to lead with shame. Their grandiosity, which most often shows up as managing men (rather than being with them), being manipulative and being condescending, tends to be covert. Men, by contrast, tend to lead with grandiosity while struggling with covert shame.”

All people want to be accepted, loved and autonomous. Both genders want to be connected and separate. Men and women want to be independent, not superior or controlled. How they negotiate autonomy with connection to each other determines the length of their power struggle and the pace of their achieving a loving intimate bond.

Charles M. Johnston, director of the Institute for Creative Development center in Seattle asks couples in conflict what they really want. “The most common response I get is that they want to know the other loves them. They later discover that the things they think they want, that might provide proof of that love, are things they really don’t want at all- like wanting the partner to always be there, to always think you’re wonderful, to make it so life would never hurt.” He suggests that “do you love me?” should be replaced with: “What in our relating to each other makes us each more? If we let love manifest what is uniquely alive between us, what would it look like?” His approach moves away from the need to be adored to the desire to be whole and enriched by the relationship.

• Accept that being loved begins with being separate, autonomous and respectful of your mate. Domineering or being dominated is incompatible with being an equal in a loving connection.
• In love, two halves do not make a whole. Two whole beings supportive of each other can create a wholesome love connection.
• Ownership, control, possessiveness, attempts to change are appropriate goals for physical properties, not for other precious beings.
• Battling for: “Being right” “Knowing more” “Being less blemished” are futile attempts at restoring a weak self-worth. They only diminish your self–regard.
• Efforts to quell shame, inferiority feelings or insecurities by diminishing another person only compound one’s misery.
• Accepting your partner as he or she is and helping your mate become all that he/she can be are the true expressions of love.
• In most cases, your mate’s level of joy and satisfaction in life coupled with his/her enthusiasm about you, are testaments to your success as a loving partner.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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