Can you imagine what it must have been like to be in a committed relationship 100 years ago?
First of all, unless you were really brave or duplicitous, your options were limited to marriage with the opposite sex. The word “boundaries” was not yet a household term; women’s feelings were also know as “hysteria,” and it was taboo to have an open conversation about sex (well, that one can still be pretty difficult for some).
Phew. Sure glad we don’t live in that time. Clearly, that relationship model stopped working a few decades before the feminist revolution gleefully upended it.
Like most institutions going through revolutionary change, marriage — or at least the committed relationship — has catapulted in the opposite direction. Due to the popularity of personal growth prophets and relationship gurus such as Oprah, John Grey, Sue Johnson and the Gottmans, people in relationships no longer need to be shackled by gender roles, shame and silence; they are instead encouraged to pursue the love they want and deserve. Those who are invested in deep and authentic love relationships can openly discuss boundaries, feelings, triggers, and all sorts of issues, and in the absence of traditional role models and societal expectations, many choose to base their relationships on personal or spiritual growth.
In 1979, psychologist Alice Miller published her seminal book The Drama of the Gifted Child, about sensitive children who were narcissistically wounded by parents who neglected them emotionally, treated them with contempt or co-opted their dreams. Miller prescribes therapy as the way out of the stark loneliness and depression of the now-adult child, in order to help him recover his true self from the false persona he developed to meet the needs of his parents.
Because relationships bring up so much stuff from childhood, many growth-oriented people have consciously or unconsciously selected their primary relationship as the arena for this deep healing. I call this the Personal Growth Model of relationship, or alternately, The Drama of the Gifted Relationship.
The ‘Gifted Relationship’ or Personal Growth Model
The Personal Growth (or Spiritual Growth, depending on what mindset / language you embrace) Model of relationship honors the reality that becoming intimate with another person naturally brings up deep fears and wounds from the past. Intimates can “work through” these fears and wounds together, ideally helping each other grow and experience more of the love and acceptance they have always craved but have been blocked from. There is an emphasis on becoming aware of and expressing feelings as they come up, so that the healing can happen and the relationship does not recreate an emotionally repressed environment from the past. Each partner can then experience being authentic and authentically loved.
The Benefits of ‘Gifted Relationships’
The Personal Growth model for relationships necessitates a lot of safety and emotional intimacy. You get to reveal many sides of yourself and frequently experience your partner in deep states of vulnerability, which ideally strengthens the bond between you. It can provide an experience of a deep love that one didn’t have as a child, which can be very restorative. There is a lot of intensity and aliveness as new levels of self are revealed and deep feelings are expressed.
The Drama of the Gifted Relationship
Here’s what I’m noticing. We may be outgrowing a Personal Growth Model of relationships. Click To Tweet Here’s why:
1. It Takes a Certain Type — The Personal Growth Model of relationship doesn’t appeal to everyone, especially those whose prefer to nurse their wounds in private (this is true for a lot of men in particular)
2. Transformation is Not Guaranteed — Although emotional processing and psychological insights may help partners feel compassion for themselves and each other, they do not necessarily create behavioral shifts. This results in frustration.
3. Exhilarating / Exhausting — When wounds are triggered repeatedly and couples are scrambling to work though the emotional debris, couples suffer from burn out. Some problems from the past cannot be healed by your partner. Confusion about this can lead to frustration, despair, and talking about the relationship and its issues all the time.
4. It’s Regressive — The Personal Growth Model of relationship, with its emphasis on the acceptance and understanding of feelings, puts you in touch with your inner child. Nearly any relationship (even with your friends, or your boss) will at times call up younger parts of yourself, but if you have no self-care around it and are constantly interacting with others from a young wounded place, you unconsciously invite others to play the role of parent, which your partner will inevitably fail at. Besides, the role of parent and the dynamics it creates in romantic relationships is ultimately not great for chemistry.
5. It’s Counterproductive — There are times when all the effort towards “trying to clear the air” and “trying to work your stuff out” detracts from the very intimacy both are seeking.
You know what I mean if you have once thought or now relate to any of the sentiments below:
If I have to listen to his /her feelings about this part of my personality one more time . . .
If we made love for as many times as we fought about whose turn it is to [fill in the blank], we would be the happiest couple on the block
The day got off to such a good start, what happened???? How the hell did we end up here . . . again??!!!
Some people who have been enduring the Drama of the Gifted Relationship have simply tired of it. They want their relationships to be based on and about something else. Something like pleasure, or creativity, or both.
We need new models of relationship. The models need to pull from psychology and spirituality, as we learn to understand ourselves and our partners and the dance between us, but also provide something different.
I propose using basic business and leadership skills to take the drama out of relationships and grow with your partner towards something that you build together. When you co-create with your partner a vision for the relationship — like raising a family with integrity, celebrating creativity, or supporting the fulfillment of professional potential — and you both hold each other accountable for moving towards that vision, you create new guidelines to help you establish what’s really important, when you are going off the rails and how to use your leadership to bring yourselves back on track.
Additionally, each partner needs to cultivate a discipline of self-leadership and learn, as one might in a professional setting, to manage their own emotional responses and sort through them before introducing them into the dynamic.
Do you resonate? How do you lead in relationship? Leadership skills can help reduce drama and increase fun, creativity and satisfaction in our relationships. Want to learn how to stand in your authority in intimacy? Check out my partnership services for couples and singles looking for love.
Excellent post Blair.
The spiritual life coaching school I attended focused on the same or similar approach for having conscious relationships. The school termed it a ‘spiritual relationship’ as the new world model that was no longer needed for base survival.
While some of the premise and foundational ideas were sound. You’ve touched on the main ones already with the intention of creating emotionally safe spaces to relate in. People won’t feel safe enough to be honest unless they trust the person they are opening up to. And this DOES require a great deal of maturity in both people to handle all levels of honesty.
The ‘problem’ with the model is it can be taken WAY too far, which is what it seems like you are saying.
Sort of along the lines of what I shared in your last post in my comment. We can easily make the art of relating way too complicated. And just as soon as we turn our love relationships/marriages into a therapy/support psyche group, we quickly begin to turn it into an amateur clinical experience rather then a natural, flowing loving relationship. We don’t want to be ‘on’ in therapy mode 24/7. We don’t need to sit down and have a 2 hour ‘discussion’ about feelings over every little thing.
We can take the wonderful pieces that make for a great foundation; the learning good communication skills, learning how to OWN our own feelings and behaviors, we can learn to be assertive and loving with one another at the same time. And we can learn to do this as part of a natural flow in our day to day lives that doesn’t always need to result into heavy duty ‘picking’ at old wounds, regression, rehashing every jot and tittle of every relationship.
If something comes up naturally, it’s great to explore that. FORCING it can be not only traumatic but can defeat the purpose as it creates too much stress and ‘drama’ that doesn’t NEED to be there. (all of the time)
Again, great post Blair.
Thanks Samantha! You make some great points, especially about the difference between flow and forcing things.
I think that couples want to start having different conversations. Some couples may need to have the conversations about the wounds that are pricked. Others may really enjoy it.
But for some, the talking has not been woking for a while. Connecting through touch and activities is more effective. And when these wounds get activated, each can step back, take some time with it, let it work its way through, and weigh what actually needs to be discussed by returning to the purpose of their union and seeing if the conversation fits with the join mission and that moment.
Thanks for this wonderful post, Blair. I always enjoying reading your work, but this one struck me as particularly relevant as I see these issues coming up all the time in my own practice. Keep up the great work, colleague. Hope to see you at the NADTA conference.
Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I am very glad it resonated. This piece has been the culmination of so much study and thought. It’s great to know it hits a nerve.
Another home run, thank-you for sharing your wonderful insights. It’s important for us all to remember, the relationship we have to work on first is with ourselves.
My dad often says, relationships aren’t 50-50, they are 100-100. We need to be true to ourselves, what’s important to us, what drives us, what makes us happy, or that 100 we offer others can start to wane.
Well said, Kneale! Thanks so much for your comment and for stopping by.
Looking forward to the upcoming posts! John Gottman, in Science of Trust, hit on two things that were good indicators of healthy relationships:
1. Shared Vision
2. Ability to repair negativity in conflict.
Of course, he had much more, too – but those two things stuck out for me as being important tools in leadership as well.
Love Gottman, and yes, shared vision is also one of the things I write about in terms of leading in love.
I also like his theory of bidding — that a relationship success relies a lot of the bids we make for affection and how our partners respond to those bids.
Repairing negativity — SO CRUCIAL. The rupture is going to happen — so it’s all about rupture and repair! Thanks for being so active on the blog.