By Stan Tatkin //
I watched the popular TV show Madam Secretary, and there was a moment when the central figure got a mini lecture from a Nobel laureate mathematician about negotiations. The character stated that the key to getting disparate parties to agree on peace is to illuminate their interdependence.
I won’t say I got the basic idea for this blog from the TV show, but I was inspired to write after watching it. Interdependence means, in the case of couples, that each partner has a stake in something. We could say childrearing is one such shared investment, although having a child is not sufficient to keep couples together. Just look at the stats. Because many partners do not function securely together to begin with, they tend to become increasingly insecure when they add children. They resort to childrearing as a separate endeavor and not as lovers collaborating in a family enterprise. The demise of their relationship should not be a surprising outcome.
But there is another common tie that should bind partners together: survival. The ground-level purpose for pair bonding, other than procreation, is survival—two people bound together by a mutual interest to be safe and secure in the world. This sense of safety and security starts with the unit of a couple (in adulthood as well as in infancy). If partners don’t understand that their principal function is to keep each other safe from each other and from the outside world, they will dismiss their interdependence and therefore trivialize the meaning of their partnership.
Many partners claim that their purpose is love. But what do they mean by the L word? Love is entirely subjective, and the experience of love changes as we move through time. The addictive form of love, which is marked by passion, infatuation, anxiety, and sometimes lust, wanes in a predictable fashion and according to a relative timetable. But is love the reason for or is it the result of a fully interdependent relationship based on collaboration, cooperation, respect, and admiration? You might argue that it is both reason and outcome. However, as a couple therapist, I often hear people say that love is the reason they stay together (“We love each other”), but I see little evidence of a loving outcome (in daily deeds). Secure-functioning partners, however, who put their relationship first and practice radical loyalty and devotion to mutual goods, can co-create a type of love that consolidates their sense of purpose as a couple through actions.
Without a common purpose that serves both partners and not simply their children, all partners may be at risk for self-selecting out of the relationship, either during childrearing or at the commencement of an empty nest. One possible prophylactic against falling into the parent-only role is for partners to remain boyfriend and girlfriend (change the gender combination for same-sex partners). Doing so can keep your focus on the romantic partnership that drives your parenting role. Often, partners quietly conspire to drop their identity as romantic mates in exchange for “Mother” and “Father” (again, alter for same-sex partnering), identities meant for parent-child relationship, not lover-lover.
I don’t wish to confuse you by using the term lover. To be clear, I don’t mean the type of lover found in many romance novels; I don’t necessarily mean sexual, lustful, or torrid. Rather, I suggest you think of yourself and your partner as lovers in a deep friendship that is simultaneously flirty, admiring, amorous, connected, attentive, sensual, seductive, persuasive, and yielding. Think of yourselves as being sweethearts.
Yes, you may be romantically connected, but you are also, at the very least, a survival team. You are fierce protectors of one another, protecting each other from yourselves and everyone and everything else. You’re a mutual fan club, advocates representing the best of your union. You have a shared mission and vision of your purpose as partners. As a couple, you’re a force to reckon with. Together, you survive and thrive. Your children, friends, family, and associates benefit from your harmony. Your interdependence is based on reason and enduring purpose, and therefore your relationship is more likely to exist in the long run.
About the Author
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT Clinician, author, PACT developer, and co-founder of the PACT Institute, Dr. Tatkin teaches at UCLA, maintains a private practice in Southern California, and leads PACT programs in the US and internationally.
Featured image by by Bryan Apen on Unsplash