The Absence of Rigidity: During a two-week vacation, my husband and I spent time with three couples, who ranged in ages from late 40’s to 60’s. The couples had been together between 8 and 25 plus years. What was most telling for me, as both a student of couples’ relationships as well as a couples therapist, was the fluidity and flexibility of the interactions amongst the partners. Sometimes the absence of something tells the story. What was missing here was rigidity. Rigidity of roles, attitudes and positions. Not that each couple didn’t have the typical yin yang going on. One member may tend to be more loquacious; another leans toward a serious stance; one is more intellectual in presentation, the other perhaps tending toward the playful position. But threaded through all the interactions was humor, and a striking ability to yield, back off, lean in, take charge, or defer, in turn. No rigid or fixed leader/decider. No rigid or fixed follower.
As with our physical selves which benefit from flexing and stretching muscles, challenging limbs to climb, bend, and lift, the Coupledom, that domicile of the relationship, too needs to move, bend, yield, and shift positions frequently. Any rigidity of roles will lead to an arthritic and ultimately immobile Coupledom, brittle and breakable.
Rigid Roles Rot Out Love: In the clinical setting of a couples’ therapist office, I witness this rigidity and strive to loosen up the roles. If there is a fixed way of making decisions, fighting, choosing restaurants, religious activities or family outings, then the relationship may rot from disuse of some parts of the body, and overuse of others. By shifting who is responsible for certain chores, bookkeeping, vacation plans or holiday activities, marital muscles loosen and release the build up of tensions and resentments. Stepping back to leave room for the other to step forward, bending one’s will to allow one’s partner to lead the way, or loosening up one’s vision to allow room for the other, all create flex, limber relationships.
Shared Passions: Another characteristic that enhanced these relationships was a shared love for something beyond the relationship, beyond the family. In one case the dedication to the arts, both professionally and personally. Another the powerful commitment to serve the medical needs of others; for a third, a deep and abiding appreciation for the natural wonders of life and profound joy in finding happiness in each other later in life after disappointments and loss. Though these “passions” don’t have to be perfectly matched, they do need to be respected and valued by the partner. If in the Coupledom there is respect for what the other values, and a willingness to join them at times in their “world” of interest or profession, then both partners win. Cutting off that passageway of sharing stunts the Coupledom and ultimately causes fissures in its walls.
Generosity of Spirit: It is very easy to be annoyed and bothered in the Coupledom by partners’ eccentricities, obsessions, and weaknesses. Whether it is a hearing problem (a characteristic of all “maturing” Coupledoms), a physical awkwardness, poor cooking skills, loud laughter, allergies, or bad joke telling, the opportunity to nail or ridicule the other is noticeably absent in a “Limber Coupledom”. Humor is offered and accepted as something different then ridicule. Humor is a powerful glue in any relationship; and the ability to join your partner in laughing at yourself is an acknowledgment that “imperfection is acceptable”, no need to feel ashamed. Even when these “weaknesses” impinge on the partner, harsh or humiliating words do not follow. There seems to be a basic trust that the other is not intentional in their behaviors. That is who they are, and though the inference is that these behaviors do have their downside, there is no exploitation or manipulation to make the partner feel badly about themselves.
Loosen Up the Joints: It may be one of the Coupledom’s great ironies that many relationships start off limber in their courting days and over time fall into rigid and unyielding positions. Frequently these rigidities are rooted in learned postures from families of origin and sneak up on a couple to steal their spontaneity, flexibility and generosity. “Set in Our Ways” could be the unfortunate motto of the many couples who unwittingly fall victim to this invisible menace.
Do The Check Up: Check in with your partner and read this piece together. See if you two can stretch and loosen the marital muscles, shift postures, roles and positions and become that Limber Coupledom again.
©jill edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2010