In a relationship, does 1+1=3?
It’s a whole new kind of math. Well, maybe not entirely new but certainly different. And no, your elementary arithmetic teacher wasn’t wrong. It’s just that in relationships, the additions and subtractions are a little distinctive. For many of us, this type of thinking is new, if not completely foreign.
Maybe we can begin to think of it this way, whenever we enter into a committed partnership certain rules become established, some explicit and some become silently woven into the fabric of the relationship. Each person also has their individual notions of what they want and need, their expectations, and how to go about receiving these things. We all have our own idiosyncrasies, and because of this we also have our own ways of relating with another person.
It is this ‘relating with’ each other that throws the traditional mathematical formula on its proverbial head. I’ll use myself as an example—I am newly in a committed relationship. I bring myself and all that goes along with me into meeting and joining with my significant other, just as she does. What grows out of this, when we connect and communicate (which is a whole other animal, see HERE), is something bigger than our individual selves. A third entity is created: the relationship.
So the math looks like this: my partner (1) plus me (1) equals me, my partner, and the relationship (3). Hence, 1 + 1 = 3. There is more to consider than just the two people, there is also the relationship; and yes, this is an entity in and of itself, but it cannot exist without the two individuals. This, I believe, is called synergy.
The American Heritate ® Dictionary defines synergy as, “The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects.”
Building upon this we can look at the coupling process as adhering to the rules of a psychosocial system, where the functioning of one element (one partner) becomes secondary to the establishment of the connections or threads that weave between two people to create a relationship.
This is not meant to imply we give up our individuality for the sake of the relationship. Certainly not. There is a balancing act that takes place simultaneously. As many of us are aware, a relationship can take on either healthy or unhealthy characteristics, and more often than not, it has elements of both.
When we talk about those healthy characteristics, however, perhaps it is a notion accurately addressed by family therapists and authors Irene and Herbert Goldenberg (2004), who put it this way: “Ideally both partners need to feel they are part of a ‘we’ without sacrificing an ‘I’—a sense of self as separate and autonomous while remaining in connection with the other.”
Within this balance between ‘we’ and ‘I’ is a particular responsibility. We are no longer caring and fending for simply ourselves. Selfishness subsides and gives way to an awareness that what we do, what actions we take, directly effects not only our partner but also the relationship that is growing. We have a genuine want to take into consideration the feelings, tendencies, and idiosyncrasies of our partner. It’s the embraced mutualness of this respect and acceptance that froths and fosters a deep caring and love for someone.
Yet, this desire to take things into consideration can stray too far and end up in the realm of protecting our partner, perhaps attempting to shield them (and even ourselves) from hurt. For instance, if a partner is unfaithful, that infidelity will not only create pain for one’s partner, it also undermines the trust, care, and respect that are inflating the relationship.
At this point maybe the question becomes, do we have a responsibility to not hide this from our partner in a heartfelt yet misguided attempt to protect them? Whether shared or not, such an act changes the relationship. Remember, painful openness is still openness and can help to nurture what remaining semblance of respect there may be. That is, if salvaging anything from the relationship is even desirable. Also, not talking about it continues to mask whatever the real issue is, as well. Infidelity is a symptom. Just as a rash indicates an irritation or allergic reaction, so can cheating be indicative of a breakdown in communication, an uninterested sex life, or even mere boredom within the relationship.
Granted this is an extreme example. I do wish to impart that fidelity, or the lack thereof, is the only way to paint a picture of the synergistic relationship. Responsibility and protecting happen in many facets of a relationship, and most of us are aware of the larger sticking points: finances, making the relationship a priority, finances, sex and communication. And finances.
I can use myself as an example again. My partner and I have both been guilty of not fully listening to the other, that veritable breakdown in communication. We have expectations of what we want and need, and sometimes assume because this is so, what we want is what will happen. My partner wanted me to come visit and see her play in a golf tournament, and I was telling myself there will other tournaments. No biggie. I heard what she said while overlooking the importance of what she was asking of me.
I could have selfishly and inflexibly said, “I just can’t do it,” and cited work and money and any other benign reason. Which I did. When I finally stood back, got off my stubborn pedestal and truly heard what she was saying, I realized this was a priority to her. As my defensiveness melted away, I found it was a priority for me, as well.
I believe this is the mutualness that is healthy and feeds a growing relationship. We each voiced what we wanted and needed for ourselves while realizing there was more to it than simply what ‘I’ want. There was both an emphasis on the ‘us’ in the relationship as well as on our own individuality. While our communication took a circuitous root, the act of compromise and support encouraged the connection that is growing between us.
We are so often monitoring the state of our relationships, and both consciously and unconsciously providing input to return it to a balanced state should missteps or excesses threaten its steadiness. Just where this balance rests and what lengths we take to return it to this balance is often dynamic, and can take on positive and negative pressure.
Think of it like a teeter-totter, you on one end and your partner on the other. Sometimes, you have to use your legs to propel your end up in the air, and at other times you are exerting less energy while on the ride back down, or while simply floating there is a state of balance. Balance here is not meant to mean ‘perfectly level,’ but rather a fluid and intentional state that may have a slant to it depending upon who is voicing their needs and wants, and who is listening at that particular moment.
We do our part to arrive at a place of balance, trust, safety, and care, and so much of this requires effort and awareness when being in relationship with someone. We listen. We take chances and feel vulnerable. We take into consideration the relationship as well as our partner and ourselves. And sure, sometimes the feelings that go along with all this can be unpleasant, but with communication—true communication—the unpleasantness can be brief. It is a shared experience, and the happiness we seek in connection with another is rooted in the sharing of the beautiful as well as the ugly, while being as open as possible to both.