The Three Gardens of Relationship
by David A. Yeats LCSW
The “Three Garden” metaphor is a simple and clear way to look at boundaries in relationship. Unlike the traditional language of past weddings, which promotes an idea that the best of a relationship results when “two become one,” the “Three Gardens” describes the separateness aspect, as well as the connection aspect, that are central to any healthy, functional, satisfying relationship.
“Two becoming one” is a prescription for disaster! It remains from a time when men were the providers, breadwinners, and unilateral heads of family, while women were relegated to roles of housewife, caretaker, and maid. It was a time before the women’s movement, a time when women were seen as less than men, and the handmaiden of men’s desires.
What changed was the social movement toward equality, and that was spawned by the economic reality of families who were no longer able to survive with only one breadwinner. It became necessary to collaborate and to negotiate as partners in a team if the financial well-being of the family was going to be maintained.
“Two become one” means that one person is in charge, one person’s needs, will, ego, agenda, and values will dominate. “Two become one” means that someone is going to be psychologically annihilated. The only question is who.
And, of course, since survival is the absolute core need of each of us humans, opting for passive annihilation is not a possibility: all that is left are competition and war.
“Two become one” does not mean that we move through life smiling and giddy, and that we are so alike and so in love that there will not be any conflict—that picture describes the first stage, the “urge to merge” stage of relationship, the “honeymoon phase,” which typically lasts about six months for most people. It is a beautiful, ecstatic time in life, but it does not and cannot endure, and it can’t be the basis of a long and mutually joyful relationship.
Why not!? Because we are not one: we are two. And sooner or later that separate individual self (who is born into the world alone, and who leaves the world alone) needs to reassert its own identity, its own wisdom, and its own creativity. That self, each of us, needs to carve its own way through life, find its own truths, and seek its own learning, becoming, and enjoying.
A committed relationship that seeks to merge two into one cannot have room for the individuality, autonomy, separateness, or differentiation that the reality of life requires. The “urge to merge” has to be superseded by the “Urge to Emerge,” and it is that impulse in us humans that can result in the greatest joy and the highest possibilities!
The Urge to Emerge: The Three Gardens of Relationship
Before we meet the one who we will choose to love, honor, and cherish, we are on our own. The bachelor and the bachelorette. We seek our own pleasures, act on our own goals, define our lives in our own terms, and make our own choices. We pick our friends, our interests, our preferences, our pursuits, and whether constructive or not, they are our creation.
In the old “two become one” model, we would understand that this separate garden of ours would be merged with the garden of our mate’s, creating one larger, and presumably richer garden. But that meant giving up or abandoning our bachelorette or bachelor autonomy, preferences, and pursuits.
But that’s a good thing, right? We invest ourselves in our partner and trade the benefits our separateness for the delight of our becoming one.
You see where this is going: No, it is not a good thing—because relationships require, for their surviving and their thriving, in this world, pretty much equal parts connection AND separateness. Too much of either means not enough of the other, and either the individual or the relationship starts to die.
Instead, we—each of us—need to keep that Separate Garden of our single days. We need to cherish it, grow it, spend time in it, and tend to it. We can and will choose different things we may want to grow in it in time, but we need to remain unilaterally in charge of it, autocratically, dictatorially! We cannot give up our autonomy about our own Separate Self (the one that is born and dies alone). We still have the job, despite our great love for another, to assert our own identity, our own wisdom, our own creativity, and to carve our own way through life, find our own truths, and seek our own learning, becoming, and enjoying.
Some of that we will do together, as we travel through life as companions. Some of that we will do alone. Two of the Three Gardens are the Separate Gardens that each of us must honor and tend. And when we decide to marry or to combine our fortunes into one household, what we are saying is:
“We are not abandoning our Separate Gardens by loving each other: we are creating a new, a third garden together, a Partnership Garden. This new Garden we will honor and tend together with as much commitment as
we give to our Separate Gardens.”
This new Partnership Garden is our relationship. It is our co-creation. We work in it together, as equals, as partners, as teammates. Everything in this Garden is negotiated. We collaborate, we make mutually beneficial agreements, and we are only satisfied with a Win-Win. Nothing in this Garden is decided or done unilaterally (unlike in the Separate Gardens where everything is done unilaterally). We decide what to plant, where to plant it, in rows or circles; we decide when to weed, and when to water, and when to harvest, and we do so together. We both spend equivalent amounts of time in our Partnership Garden, and we each do our fair share. We are each committed to its fullest possible lushness, richness, and beauty.
The most difficult skill that is required to together tend to each of these Three Gardens is getting clear about which Garden any issue belongs in.
If I can be clear that this concerns my becoming, my interests, my growth and my preferences, (that is, my autonomy), and it does not have hurtful ramifications for my partner, than I act autonomously. I take responsibility for my responsibilities. If I can be clear that an issue affects us both, that our relationship is impacted, than that issue (or at least parts of it) are the property of our Partnership Garden, and the decision and choices are made collaboratively. Knowing which Garden tends to clarify our approach.
When we get to a win-win in our Partnership Garden, trust, safety, feeling seen, heard, cherished, honored, and loved results. That’s a lot to gain.
Similarly, if we are able to recognize who we are as individuals in our Separate Gardens, and advocate for what we need, then self-respect, self-care, satisfying times can result, and the better and more empowered we feel about ourselves: the more we gain.
And together, if we understand and support each other in actively tending our Separate Gardens, and honor each other’s autonomy there, we create opportunity to grow and thrive as individuals and in relationship.
Enjoy the Dance!