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Making It Work: Shared Power

In any relationship, problems arise regardless of how “right” we are for each other, of how hard we have worked to build the relationship, and even of how solid and stable we feel together. It can be frightening to look squarely at what is difficult and hurtful. We want to believe that we have chosen a good partner and that we have made wise decisions. To become aware of aspects we have been afraid to face, or to admit deep conflicts, may mean that we have made a major error, that it will take a lot of time to address this issue, or that it is time to move on.

While a whole and healthy sense of personal power is the necessary foundation for a good relationship, a balance of power is a simultaneous goal. Sharing power in a good relationship both requires and cultivates continual personal growth and has the potential to reinvigorate the relationship endlessly. Confronting problems and taking steps to change can be frightening, but with self-confidence and the support of our communities, and with the trust that comes from sharing deeply, men and women can find new ways of being together that feel more free.

Making relationships work requires skills. Luckily, these can be cultivated. Below are some basic skills many women and men have tried to cultivate to help make things work.

Developing Good Communication

Avoiding confrontation is more likely to result in stagnation and resentment than in keeping the peace or making things better. Conflict can be part of a creative process of working things out. We can start by identifying the aspects of our conflicts that we have inherited from society or our families, and avoid the common pitfall of blaming each other (or ourselves) for everything that goes wrong.

Questioning Expectations

Taking a step back and trying to see through our partner’s eyes--developing a sense of empathy--may help shift the discussion in a creative way. Trying to set aside old roles, particularly those that stem from social conventions, and trying to engage without assumptions or expectations may also help us to see our own patterns of relating to men. The earlier we are able to do this, the better off the relationship will be. We all come to relationships with expectations. The question is, to what extent are we willing to shift them in order to be with our partner?

Paying Attention to Each Other

So many things vie for our attention: work, friends, children, our various activities and chores. A new love eclipses everything else, but before long, it can get squeezed in between our family’s needs, our work commitments, our friends. Intimate relationships form the background and sustenance for the rest of our lives, but at times they require our full attention. That may mean having a special date once a week, or setting aside time to talk about the day and the details of what happened at work or at home; it may mean, on occasion, staying up until the wee hours trying to work out a crisis and/or making passionate love. For many of us, it means trying to be watchful, responsive, and fully present with our partner.

Enjoying Separateness

It may feel natural for many of us to go on separate vacations or to see separate friends. Others may take it as a sign that something is wrong. Sometimes one member of a couple may be threatened when a partner’s life excludes him or her in some way. And yet keeping some distinct turf for ourselves--whether it’s separate checkbooks, separate vacations, separate friends, separate rooms, or not rushing into living together--doesn’t have to threaten our relationship. It can contribute to the vitality and growth of what goes on between us.

Developing Other Friendships and Community

Sometimes couples close in on themselves. We may come to attach less importance to other friendships and let them drop. But it is unrealistic to expect that one person can meet all our needs. Our friendships and communities--religious, artistic, political, neighborhood, etc.--are crucial to our emotional well-being, happiness, and growth. Furthermore, by expanding our intimate circles, we relieve some of the pressure on our main relationships, and when times are hard, other people can then give us support. This includes having male as well as female friends.

Knowing When to Leave

If you wind up accommodating your partner just to prevent fights, rather than having some hope that it’s worth trying to work things out; if your relationship is based on evasiveness, deception, and withholding; if it is characterized by lack of room for change and growth; or if it just doesn’t seem that your life is better in the relationship than it would be out of it, then it is time to consider ending it. You don’t need to do this alone. Friends can be an excellent source of support and insight. Individual or group therapy can help, too. There are also good books on the subject (see “Resources”). As important as it is to work very hard on building a relationship, it is also important to leave before we are damaged by it. (If you are concerned that your relationship may be abusive, see Chapter 8, "Violence and Abuse.")

Getting Help

If we do not want to leave, or if we are struggling to discern whether it is time to do so, we may need help. Sometimes problems are resistant to change, and it seems as if talking to our partner and to friends and family gets us nowhere. When we feel that we’ve gone around and around on the same issues with no improvement, we may become completely overwhelmed and feel stuck in patterns we can’t change on our own. That’s when we might seek therapy, either as individuals or together. 

My boyfriend and I both grew up in abusive households. As a result, we had no models of fair fighting. Our arguments would get completely out of control--by the end of each we had exploited each other’s weakest points, and hurt each other so badly that civilized discourse was nearly impossible. Coming from South Asian families, my boyfriend and I decided to seek out a South Asian counselor -- perhaps then we would find someone whom we didn’t have to explain cultural issues to, and who could approach our problems, which extended to family, with a South Asian vantage point. [Our counselor] was wonderful. She encouraged us to draw up “boundaries” and pledge never to overstep them. When we noticed the other hedging near a personal boundary, we gave our partner notice, asking them not to go there. We also learned to “replay” our arguments afterward, creatively pondering how the other would have reacted had one partner done something differently. These dispassionate reenactments have allowed us to better understand where the other person is coming from.

While we can use therapy to help improve communication about painful issues, choosing the right therapist is crucial. It is important to find a therapist whose definitions of health and normalcy are based on a worldview that sees women as having a full range of options, not on narrow beliefs, such as the idea that women’s only role is to “service” men and take care of children.

Excerpted from the 2005 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, © 2005, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.


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