Yes, I’m being dramatic and the title probably borders on clickbait. And yet it’s true. When I refer to partnership, I mean the idea that two people join equally at all times, make decisions equally in all things, and that no one ever dominates. It’s a beautiful utopian idea, post-modern gender roles, where neither “partner” does more than the other. It just doesn’t exist in reality. For the purposes of illustration, I write about roles here in a heterosexual male/female relationship, though this is all easily applicable to same-sex couples.
Perhaps there are moments when two people are in absolute sync, thinking and functioning as one, and do things at the same time. But that’s something else, rather than a partnership.
A partnership doesn’t involve two people “equally” making decisions. To illustrate how a partnership really works, let’s look at the image we hold (or maybe just I hold) of the 1950’s stereotyped household. The husband earns money via his job, the wife takes care of the home. In this model, the man is authoritative, the wife somewhat submissive. Really this somewhat suppressive dynamic existed through a lot of history, even in hunter/gatherer and child rearing roles. It was functional. It served its purpose. For a time, both sides knew their place in the dynamic. In modern society though we have higher standards for a relationship. It becomes uncomfortable to be stuck in a single dynamic permanently.
In reality there is always someone dominant, or someone taking the lead in a situation.
This person is the more active member of the dynamic. Watzlawick talked about this role as the “one-up.” The complementary role would be the “one-down,” or passive role in a relationship.
The giver and the taker. The giver and the receiver. The leader and the follower. The dominant and submissive. The talker and the listener. The caregiver and the sick one. The rescuer and the vulnerable. The leader and the participant. I could go on for quite a while about how these dynamics help us to have purpose, and how we may stumble upon these in our youth. Maybe we began this with our parents or someone else, and then get pulled emotionally into them again and again in other relationships. They become comfortable for us. We know how to function in them. It’s a functional dynamic, in that it works.
In a healthy relationship, though, one person will not be the active or dominant person in the relationship all the time, in all areas. There has to be switching, ways for people to have time in both the active and passive roles.
In a conversation, for example, there could be a designated talker and listener. That’s a functional dynamic. It can work for a while. Eventually there needs to be a switch, though. The listener needs to have time to speak. That’s what makes it a real conversation and not a monologue. That’s what makes it a healthy relationship.
So here lies the distinction between a functional dynamic and healthy partnership. A functional dynamic involves two people taking their two sides, the one-up and one-down in some area. Both people know their place and can engage in that. They work well together in this single situation. It’s functional in that they cooperate to get things done. If this is fixed and pervasive, though, then it becomes unhealthy.
What if there was literally a dominant and submissive role at play here. The “wife” who manages the house goes shopping and she has to get approval for every little thing she buys at the store. What kind of eggs. Whether to buy milk or not. Everything. While this seems to continue the stable dynamic of her being submissive, its pervasiveness could be stifling to the wife. It might be equally be exhausting the husband, to have to make every decision for her. She has to have some room for freedom. She has to have an area where she can be active and in the “one-up” role.
So a healthy relationship often has designated areas of responsibility. Separate areas where each person is the more active member, and their partner becomes passive in this area. And then there’s role reversal. This is a particularly healthy strategy for a partnership, when both have some investment in an area and want to participate actively. It’s simply to take turns, as in a conversation. In the first instance the husband takes the lead, in the second the wife takes the lead.
An easy way to illustrate this whole process is in sex. While it’s beautifully (or tantalizingly) portrayed in movies that when two people have sex they’re enmeshed, they both feel all the pleasure at seemingly the same time, and they climax simultaneously, reality is much more clunky. In a heterosexual relationship, if the man orgasms first, the woman may never achieve an orgasm. This is a stable dynamic (meaning some people do this for years), with one side basically taking and the other side giving. It leaves the woman unsatisfied. He may even be oblivious to this. An alternative could be making sure that the woman orgasms first, and then the man. They take turns, to make sure both receives what they want. Now of course this requires each person to be willing to take their turn “being selfish.” With oral sex this is even clearer. One person receives and the other gives. The receiver is allowed to be selfish during that period, knowing that the roles will be reversed in the future.
Now let me add one additional layer. No dynamic is ever fully one or the other, but can have both sides co-existing. The man giving oral sex to his female partner is giving rather than receiving, but can take satisfaction in the process of giving, in causing pleasure in his partner. The partner who is receiving may feel guilty about receiving, about being “selfish” and just feeling pleasure for what it is. The receiving partner can know though that while they are receiving, they are serving their giving partner by allowing their giving partner to feel good about giving. Giving can feel good all on its own. We’ve all met people who are seemingly selfless in a relationship. That can be nice for a time, but ultimately a source of burnout if it isn’t reciprocated.
Because in truth a single dynamic never serves all the sides of someone. A dynamic can be stable, for a time. But if there is never any changeover, it will become fixed and thus prone to break should any outside pressures get involved. What happens if the active gets in an accident? If the passive member of the relationship has never had to be active ever, they might fall apart. We want to encourage opportunities to experience both sides.
The more we’re stuck in only one dynamic, and unable to try out reversing roles in some contexts, the more fragile the relationship. This is usually not about subverting or taking advantage of the other person. Not usually. As long as the needs of both individuals get met, and the roles are not especially rigid.
So having a “healthy partnership” really involves some agreed upon designated responsibilities for each, where each person is the more active in that area, and there are times set aside for taking turns in other cooperative areas. When full agreement has to occur in an area of conflict, it’s important both sides can feel they’ve had a turn at the active role. Both people have had the opportunity to talk and have the other side listen.
The dysfunctional alternatives not mentioned are when both sides try to be active (or dominant). This leads to a continual escalation to try to assert authority. It becomes a competition, rather than a partnership. Or just as bad no one makes a decision or takes an active role, and the couple is paralyzed by inactivity.
Keep an eye out for this in your relationships with friends, family, and even professional relationships. How could the partnership be shifted to make sure everyone feels like they have had their equal time and roles in the relationship? Is your partner uncomfortable taking the other position in an area? Might they secretly like to take turns in something? Just more food for thought about relationships.