Relationship Two Ways

Posted on December 19th, 2019

Every relationship happens in two dimensions. One dimension is our outer life of activity in the world. The other dimension is our inner life of emotional engagement.

Our outer and inner lives are both always going on, but we don’t have equal degrees of attention for them. Some people prefer to focus on activity and accomplishment. Others prefer to focus on feelings and meaning, which in a relationship is about awareness of our connection to each other. Still others work to balance the two.

Many people choose partners whose balance of attention between outer life and inner life is similar to their own. Regardless of whether their set points are more activity-focused—“Let’s plan the weekend”—or emotion-based—“How would you feel having a plan for the weekend?”—when partners agree about the set point, life is likely to be harmonious.

In many relationships however, the partners’ relative attention to outer and inner life is very different. One partner wants to jump into action, while the other partner wants to talk about how it feels or what it means. Yet these relationships can work well too, if the two partners respect and enjoy each other’s contribution to their dialogue.

The difficulties begin when two partners have widely different set points and because of this don’t appreciate each other’s contribution to the relationship. Relationships like these are usually marked by ongoing conflicts and distressing feelings of not being cared about.

For all of us, the demands of our outer lives are more incessant than those of our inner lives. Every relationship has to contend with the necessities of outer life, careers and bills and social life and parenting, and the other L word—not Love but Logistics. The risks and rewards of attention to outer life are also more immediate. Ignore the inner life of a relationship, and the two partners gradually become more distant and disconnected. Ignore outer life, and the electricity gets turned off or you lose your job or you run out of money. Outer demands can trump inner needs any day of the week. 

Because of this, cooperative attention is necessary for continually feeding the inner life of a relationship. Some couples do this through relying on their sexual activity. For others, what works is a shared passion, such as for athletics or music or travel. Still others feed their inner connection through joint parenting of children or pets. 

The task of keeping our inner lives fresh and alive is never finished. If we let ourselves get too distracted from it by the demands of outer life, we end up struggling to get reconnected. By focusing on building our emotional connection, we can develop an ongoing experience with each other which grows through these challenges instead of shrinking.

This is not one couple’s temporary problem, but a universal, ongoing one. The art of relationship is the art of balancing our outer and inner lives in a way which keeps on being satisfying to both people.

Posted in Marriage and Couples

Please remember, this is a blog. It is not psychotherapy or treatment of any kind and is not a substitute for the individual treatment you can get from going to see a good therapist.