Are you truly open to your partner (to his/her full range of experiences and to his/her unique way of being in the world)?
Or are you open mainly to the versions of your partner that don’t challenge some predetermined status quo, the version of him/her you find acceptable and easy to tolerate?
The Patterns of You
We’re all predictable to some degree. A level of sameness allows us to be known to ourselves and others, a predictability that represents who we are. Think about this for a moment: you’re probably able to quickly describe the people closest to you, and based upon these descriptions, you expect certain behaviors from each person. And based upon these differences, you may reach out to the different people in your life depending on what you’re needing, a reaching-out that is guided by the anticipation of particular responses from each.
Our particular patterns, our likes and dislikes, what we are drawn to and avoid, our unique way of being in the world, all to a certain degree represent our comfort zone. It’s as if we all have our own emotional center of gravity that we orbit around, at times staying close to the epicenter, at other times, moving farther away. But if we venture too far out, we tend to feel the pull to return to the comfortably known.
Philosophers and psychologists explain our unique patterns with the concept of the “self.” At any given moment, you are either being “yourself” or you are acting in ways that are seen (by yourself and/or others) as uncharacteristic. In these instances, others may comment, “You don’t seem yourself, are you OK?” And the picture becomes somewhat complicated when your way of being, the self you inhabit, somehow isn’t in sync with your most authentic longings. In these instances, the self one inhabits is more like a mask that conceals rather than a manifestation/conduit of one’s essence.
Couple Patterns: The Intersection of Two Selves
Barry describes himself as a “tough person… I don’t take any crap and I call it like I see it.” What Barry wore as a badge of pride (his no-nonsense, “this is who I am, take it or leave it” attitude), his wife Samantha experienced as a rigid, unyielding way of being that often pushed her away. The only way she could psychologically/emotionally move toward Barry was to somewhat forgo herself and contort to fit into his experiential center of gravity. On those rare occasions when Barry compromised for Samantha, when he would attempt to step into her world, he would become so tense and on edge and critical that it wasn’t worth it to Samantha. To maintain her own sanity (and to remain in a marriage with Barry), she determined that she could only remain completely separate from him or fold herself into the fixed confines of his self.
When lovers first meet and they are drawn to one another on different levels, there is a blending of selves that occurs. The demarcations of selfhood are blown apart and each person intensely enters into the inner world of the other—a back-and-forth intermixing that invigorates and expands. The self you thought you were and thought you knew may feel unrecognizable during these moments, unfamiliar in an exciting way, but over time and over the course of the relationship, the self you knew (the familiar patterns of self-hood) return and settle over you.
The question becomes,
- Is the self that returns now somehow different?
- Is your self meaningfully altered because of your partner/spouse?
- Will it remain open to his/her influence, open to the continual impact of the other?
- Or will it recoil back to its previous version, a version that remains tightly bound to its own center of gravity, so close that it cannot experience the gravitational pull of the other?
Relationships exist through an omnipresent series of connections and disconnections. At times these connections seem effortless, and at other times, they require conscious effort and the clear intention to reach toward the other. When couples remain open, when vulnerability and uncertainty are allowed to exist in the space between you and your partner, when two separate selves are permeable to mutual contact and blending, then the expansion and reshaping of who you are (of the self you know and exist within) becomes possible.
Self and relationship growth is predicated upon this mutual openness—an openness that is the pathway to expansion.
It is when the self remains closed off to the other (psychologically calcified) that mutual influence is improbable. When you have to squeeze yourself to fit into the world of the other (or when your partner is forced to contort to the cramped experiences you deem as allowable), then the gifts of mutuality cannot be realized. A relationship cannot evolve when one of you seeks expansion while the other remains a fixed entity that feels threatened by change.
Relationship (and Self) Expansion Requires Vulnerability and Uncertainty
Whenever we step into the frightening waters of vulnerability and uncertainty, we unmoor ourselves (the self) from our epicenter, from the self-containing boundaries that keep us safely and squarely within the known. It is this unmooring that allows for the possibility of something different, for uncertainty, for change, for the growth potential of the unfamiliar, for the other to move us into a different experiential way of being.
If this is what true openness to the other looks like, then to be truly open is to be uncomfortable, and the impulse to shut down openness in order to regain stable footing is probably more common then we’d like to admit.
Are you ready to be uncomfortable for the growth of your relationship? Are you willing to come out of your comfort zone in order to accept the love your partner/spouse has to give you?
My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return. ~Maya Angelou