The Nurturing of Connection and Collaboration in Relationship
by David A. Yeats LCSW

It is surprising for a lot of couples that the idea of connecting with each other causes quite a bit of anxiety, and also, that when it comes down to trying to “connect” with a partner, we aren’t exactly sure what that means.

Partners can be terrific at taking care of the business of life, dividing up what needs to be done, pursuing it independently, and at the end of the day, feeling like a lot has been accomplished.  Often, couples take comfort in the believing that they are working together toward a common cause—a house, kids, economic well being, planning the ski vacation, pursuing sports or art or friends or hobbies—yet still complain that they don’t particularly feel close to their partner or have much of an idea about what their partner thinks or feels. It can appear that they are close, like two rails moving along together toward the horizon, but unless they find ways to connect emotionally, they will never touch—just as two rails in parallel never touch, even though they seem to be one stream of glistening metal in the distance.

Sharing experiences does create some degree of closeness, as does moving toward common goals.  But when two people’s lives are so intertwined that their future, their plans, and their wishes, hopes and dreams depend on each other, it takes more than acting together: it takes sharing everyday thoughts and feelings, noticing each other, tuning into each other periodically, respecting each other, and developing the feeling that they “have each other’s back.”

Many of us were raised in environments in which, although we may have felt loved and cared about, we didn’t get much practice interacting with others or seeing modeling about how two people show their caring over long periods of time, such as when a parent was frequently or always absent, when family members were private and /or not expressive, or when our bonding or attachment with our parents was less than ideal, and so on. Since we have had limited experience with a close and dynamic interactive relationship, we tend to do what we do know.  We are private, or keep our thoughts to ourselves, or don’t really know what we feel, or what we think, or how to express it, we feel awkward or uncomfortable or vulnerable when we do, or we fear a partner’s dismissal or rejection or anger.

There are lots of reasons it may feel easier and safer just to not engage too much, to keep our distance.  Couples who have played out the power struggles in their relationships over a period of time can be even more guarded about sharing anything that feels vulnerable. And yet, on a level, we all know that if we want more, we have to put in more.  Not only do we have to invest more in our relationship if is it is going to feel better, we usually have to invest differently, that is, to change our paradigm, our M.O., our presumptions and assumptions.  We have to dare to do it differently.

When I, as a partner in a relationship, come to the realization that to go forward in a positive way I need to do something besides continue to be reactive or triggered and do my usual self protective behaviors that keep the painful cycle going, the moment may come when I internally stop, sigh, and begin to accept the truth: I need to act differently with my partner.

With little information in my experience about alternative ways of being in relationship, even though I may want to try to behave and think differently, I am not sure how. But we have information about couples who have gone through this process of moving from merger, through power struggle, to collaboration—from the stages of Urge to Merge and Urge to Diverge, to the Urge to Converge Stage of relationship. It is possible—there are ways—to dissolve power struggles and create a mutual and rewarding option where life together is easy and satisfying.

For most of us, if we are reminded of our courtship days, we remember and we realize we related differently.  We were deeply entranced in the Urge to Merge Stage of our relationship. We were so eager to be with our partner and to hear what our partner thought and had to say.  We deferred to our partner’s needs.  We asked our partner for their preference and tried to set aside our own desires to make our partner happy. We were ever attentive, and wanted to be kind, thoughtful, and considerate.  Because we were so responsive and so tuned in, it would have been very difficult for our partner not to be charmed and seduced.  The promise of a life embraced in this delightful dance was intoxicating.

But then, we grew, changed, evolved.  We found ourselves in the difficult power struggles of the Urge to Diverge Stage of our relationship.  And things changed in our interactions.  Kindness, politeness, consideration could more quickly go out the window.  Listening intently to and deferring to our partner  could go by the boards, replaced by a fear that we’d lose our independence, our preferences, even our sense of who we knew ourselves to be. We could fight to hold onto our uniqueness and to keep a sense of control— and often that would mean overriding our partner and our partner’s wishes and concerns. Or on the other hand, some of us, unable to tolerate conflict (due to our particular childhood experiences), could accommodate our partner,  more and more, at any cost,  silently, and at the expense of our own thoughts, feelings, self.

Neither strategy could succeed.

Only when we become clear about our boundaries, and defend them, and only when we encourage our partner to honor their boundaries as well, could the ever-present conflict of our power struggles abate.  We learn we are two separate people, and we have an obligation not to confuse who we are with our partner and visa-versa, to clarify and establish and honor the boundaries that separate us, and thus, to not abandon or betray either ourselves or our partner.

From that place of self affirmation and clarity, between us, we could finally be able to fairly and respectfully (and pleasurably) collaborate, like team members, to define and agree on, and to reach toward, our common goals.  Only then, out of a mutual defining and respecting of ours and our partner’s autonomy, could we enjoy commonly tending our Partnership Garden.

It is at this point, the beginning of the Urge to Converge Stage of our relationship, that we can nurture the sense of connection and collaboration in relationship.  When we reach this threshold, we act differently than we did when we were competing with each other— and we have different assumptions, interpretations, and goals with each other which now allow us, as two separate and unique human beings, to choose to dance together.  (See the posts on Specific Self Care Strategies and Communication Strategies).

Here is what our life together can look like when we arrive at the Urge to Converge Stage of our relationship, when we have moved to true Partnership and collaboration between each other:

-We have the feeling, much of the time, whether together or apart, that we are connected at a
deeper level, a soul level.
-We consciously work to create a safe, welcoming, and nurturing environment for ourselves, and
for each other.
-We have a sense, generally, that we are interacting as confident and empowered and respected
and cherished equals toward a common and joyful goal.
-We say what’s true to each other, one at a time, allowing what’s true for each of us to be
expressed.
-We listen to our partner, even when triggered, compassionately.  We stay present in a way that
we “hold” our partner while they are speaking.  We may not agree, but we hear and honor
our partner’s perspective, and we acknowledge and accept what they say as the best that
they can come up with in this moment.
-We are willing and able to share what is true for ourselves with our partner, and trust that
they will be able listen, hear, honor, and respect us also.
-We both acknowledge what our partner has said, with empathy.
-We are aware of our individuality and our autonomy, gently and consciously maintaining and
honoring the boundaries necessary between us.
-We speak what’s true in a way that identifies the issue (neutrally), and share what is going on
“inside our skin,” that is, what we believe, what we feel, how we interpret—expressed
clearly as our own truth, our own experience, our own conclusions, and not THE truth. We
speak for ourselves, neither indicting nor placating.  As best we can, we try to speak to our
core issues, avoiding diversions and distractions.
-We take responsibility for our own sense of security, and deliberately intend to speak from
the part of ourselves that is whole, intact, and feels well being—not from our fears, doubts,
inadequacies, or neediness.
-We regularly build bridges of connection, support, acknowledgement, and care toward each
other.  As we talk together, we will “pass the baton” to each other, sharing in a mutual way,
and often segueing to the other with a question or invitation to share more.
-We maintain an energy (that we both feel) of good will toward each other. We are aware of
each other’s triggers, and work to soften our own reactivity, and our partner’s as well.  We
approach each other kindly and gently. If needed, we take frequent and early Time-Outs
(with a Caring Plan to Reconnect).  We work to not just avoid, but to eliminate “you”
messages, shaming, blaming, and  critical, labeling, analytical good-bad, case building, and
judgmental speech and behavior—any action that violates the Separate Garden of our
partner.
-We make requests (not demands), and in the process, give information to our partner that can
help them understand why a given request is important to us.
-We manage our lives and our time responsibly, and work to create a balance within and between
ourselves about all aspects of our lives.
-We focus on creating and co-creating joy, peacefulness, and well being personally and in
partnership.

These attributes of a true Partnership are always in the process of being created. It’s never a “done deal.”  They represent possibilities that can more or less become realities in our life as we consciously and deliberately work together over time. 

For these bits of wisdom, I am indebted to a host of clients I have worked with, mainly in a couple’s therapy context, who have shown courage, caring, and dedication to shaping a partnership relationship that is more hopeful, joyful, and rewarding. They are the ones who have demonstrated what is possible.  May we all move more and more in that direction.