The Goldilocks Zone of Self-Advocacy
If you push too hard for your agenda your partner loses. If you don’t push hard enough you lose. If either of you lose, you both lose. So how to navigate these tricky waters?
Mutuality is a term that is often used by couples therapists, and it is perhaps one of the best single words to describe secure function in relationships. Another is interdependence. The three-legged race analogy illustrates well how one person’s downfall in an interdependent relationship hurts both people. What that analogy doesn’t show so well are the benefits of interdependence: being able to protect each other and accomplish as a team things that are much more difficult solo, such as raising children, and facing life’s adversities.
And while dependence can be a good thing, it is in tension against independence, or autonomy. Both values are important. However autonomy is generally a more dominant value in our culture. The Declaration of Independence! In the Bay Area in California, the frontier spirit of the Gold Rush reaches a fever pitch of independence in the manic entrepreneurialism of the Tech Rush. So interdependence sometimes gets short-shrift.
Thankfully, the values of interdependence are increasingly being recognized in the workplace in terms of teamwork and emotional intelligence (see Duhigg’s article on Google’s Quest for the Perfect Team).
A common pairing in relationships is one partner who is more self-oriented (independent) with another who is more other-oriented (interdependent). The self-oriented person may embody qualities such as adventure, go-with-the-flow, do-it-yourself, and perhaps stimulation-seeking. This type of person can sometimes emphasize taking care of him or herself at the cost of forgetting about the needs of others. The other-oriented person may have nurturing, caretaking, planning and organizing qualities. This person is more likely to think about and take care of everyone else, but neglect their own self-care. Both are attracted to the other’s opposite style, but then things can polarize around the self-oriented person feeling smothered or constrained and the other-oriented person feeling abandoned and de-coupled.
The general antidote is for each person to be mindful of his or her tendencies and remember to work a little against-the-grain. So the self-oriented person has to make some effort to keep others (especially the primary partner) in mind. Taking initiative and being proactive on team-related efforts can make a huge difference for your partner. Listen carefully to what’s important to him or her and make it happen, even though planning and organizing may not be your strength. The other-oriented person has to be careful not to overwork and overextend. Relinquish control and delegate more, allowing some flexibility in how things are done. Learn to distinguish and decline unnecessary responsibilities in a nice but firm way, and remember to caretake yourself adequately so you don’t burn out.
The Goldilocks zone is a path between bulldozing and caving in.
Typically, independent partners are more likely to bulldoze and caring/nurturing ones are more likely to give in too easily. However, either type can definitely assume either role, and roles can vary depending on context. If you are pushing too hard for your agenda things can go two ways. If your partner pushes back with similar force, you’ll find yourselves in power struggle and gridlock. Or, your partner may capitulate just to keep the peace but at the price of storing hurt and resentment that will come back to bite you both. If you are the one capitulating without really owning the outcome of the interaction, then you are building your own hurt and resentment.
Over time these unrepaired hurts and resentments are what kill relationships. Be aware of the extent to which you bully or cave-in, and make adjustments. Bullies need to soften and listen more, capitulators need to stay in the tension of the conflict until they’ve gotten to an agreement they can more fully own.
With significant issues this will be a process over many interactions, not just one-and-done. In fact, Gottman’s research has clearly established that 2/3’s of couples problems never go away. They are what he calls perpetual problems. The goal is not to come to some ultimate and final resolution, but to find a way to talk about things so that both people feel understood and acknowledged for their differences, even if they don’t agree or if they have different ways of doing things.
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