In the course of couple’s therapy I am almost always investigating the extent to which the couple is navigating their partnership. As may be imagined, the entire model of ‘partnership’ is generally broken when a couple is in crisis. It becomes essential then to reestablish parameters and potentially renegotiate how their partnership looks and works.
First, let’s define partnership:
As a noun it is “a relationship resembling a legal partnership and usually involving close cooperation between parties having specified and joint rights and responsibilities.”
And while the definition of partnership is generally understood, I like to think about what a partner is in terms of its synonyms – consider the following:
Ally, companion, friend, participant, buddy, consort, helper, pal, playmate, sidekick, teammate, collaborator, supporter, backup, protector.
In addition, we commonly envision a shared inventory of virtues such as respect, honesty, and integrity.
So, in a romantic sense, a true partnership can be imagined as two people who come together as friends (and all of its synonyms) committing to accomplish a joint vision and common purpose while demonstrating mutual respect, honesty, and integrity.
By the time people are sitting on my couch, one or perhaps many of those defining elements is broken or missing. Let’s look at each facet.
JOINT VISION: We think of this in terms of “being on the same page”. Our expectations, what we imagine, our anticipated outcome…. They are essentially identical. I encourage clients to describe their vision in great detail down to the tiniest aspect they picture so that there aren’t any surprises and blindsides as you go along. Get in the habit of describing what you “see” in your mind.
COMMON PURPOSE: We might think of this as synonymous with joint vision but it’s not always true. It’s entirely possible to have the same vision but wanting to get there for two different reasons. That may not always be problematic but it can be when it means taking two different roads to get there. Sometimes it’s necessary to define more clearly. This was demonstrated in one couple that had a joint vision of travelling after retirement but ran into difficulty when one had the expectation that there was mostly R&R in the Caribbean involved while the other wanted to backpack and bicycle through Asia. Tough choices I know, but it was one of several misperceptions that created a landslide.
FRIEND: We all feel a little differently about what it means to be a friend but I find there is a common disparity in crisis couples and it focuses on “having my back”. This is the most common ‘hole’ in the definition of relationship friendship. For this element to fit into our definition securely, we must pay attention to how we SUPPORT our partner. Are we there emotionally?? Do we listen?? Do we prioritize them over outside friends, work, & playtime?? Do we demonstrate respect in front of others?
MUTUAL RESPECT: By definition, respect means ‘admiration’ – to ‘esteem’ someone and while that may be nice, admiring one another, I’m not sure that is inclusive enough when thinking about respect in a relationship. I prefer an Urban dictionary definition from 2005 by user peppermint_rose:
“It means valuing each other’s points of views. It means being open to being wrong. It means accepting people as they are. It means not dumping on someone because you’re having a bad day. It means being polite and kind always, because being kind to people is not negotiable. It means not dissing people because they’re different to you. It means not gossiping about people or spreading lies.”
HONESTY: From the perspective of therapy and in the context of partnerships, honesty means more than simply telling the truth. It means not withholding. It means sharing self reflection. It means being authentic. It means being vulnerable. You are NOT being honest if you withhold information or feelings because you are fearful of your partner’s reaction. You are not being honest if you keep walls up because you are unable to show your ‘whole’ self.
INTEGRITY: By definition, integrity incorporates respect and honesty but is more inclusive. For our definition it is “the state of being whole and undivided”. It involves doing the right thing or what ‘honors’ the relationship. It goes beyond ‘my needs’. It is any and all behavior / action that serves the good of the entity that is represented by the union of you and your partner. Integrity can sometimes be thought of as the choice between what is easy and what is best.
We can’t finish without speaking to the word “committing” used in our definition. In all partnerships – there is at least an implied commitment; a pledge to forge ahead. In marriage, we vow to forge ahead under duress and through challenges not until we are tired, but until all avenues to repair it have been exhausted. When we enter a partnership, a piece of the commitment is to ourselves… to behave in a way that demonstrates self respect, self awareness, and self care. Only then can we take responsibility for our role in the partnership and in its healing.
Spend time today thinking about your partnership in the context of the definition I’ve presented above and consider how you interact with the person with whom you’ve committed. Then, have a conversation about your visions – in detail and check in.
Do it often.