The Two Kinds of Partnership

There are two kinds of partnerships we can make: a pact with death or a pact with life. The former is based on a fantasy bond, an idealization that is often a projection of what we need to develop in ourselves.

If you believe you are not a solid enough person, for example, you fall for someone who appears to have it all together. Lack of confidence blinds you to the truth about that person, and to your own capabilities. When your partner fails to live up to your unrealistic expectations you take it personally, as you did when you were a child.

If you do what it takes to believe in yourself you realize you fell in love with a part of yourself that will help you reach your full potential: the risk taker who does what scares you. Taking back the projection allows you to see the ambivalence you had about the responsibility that goes with commitment, thus the ambivalent partner.

Shakespeare and Love

Shakespeare poked fun at the emotionally fused version of love in his moonlit play, A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

Oberon, the King of the Fairies is mad at his Queen, Titania, for what he believes are her infidelities. He is also jealous of her attachment to the young boy who is her devoted attendant. To get back at her Oberon instructs Puck, his mischief-maker in chief, to put the juice from a magical flower in her eyes as she sleeps. The love potion will cause Titania to fall in love with the first person she sees when she wakes up.

As it happens, a group of rustic laborers are practicing their parts in a play in the woods nearby. Puck decides to improve on his instructions from Oberon by working a charm on one of the players by placing a donkey’s head on his shoulders. This is who Titiana sees when she opens her eyes. She falls madly in love with an ass, and Oberon has his revenge.

The play is a comedy so order and sanity prevail in the end. This is not the case with Shakespeare’s tragedies. By the end of those plays, the main character’s fatal flaw litters the stage with bodies.

The Enchanted Forest

And so it is when we live in The Enchanted Forest. We wander around in a fog of our own making. The longing to stay in this leafy glade is fueled by the all-too-human need to ward off death anxiety; the knowledge that life is finite and we are going to die someday.

Stifling the feelings is the most effective defense against the fear of endings. When we don’t feel we can live in the illusion that time is not going by and we are not getting older. When reality intrudes we go back to an earlier stage of life, or we use distractions to avoid the discomfort of growth.

Leaving the Forest

My job is to drag people out of emotional deadness and into the world of feelings. You can imagine how popular this makes me. The resistance to leaving the world where denial is the norm can be intense. As my clients say to me when I challenge their illusions, “but how do I know you are right?”

“You’ll know because life will start working.”  I say.

Which brings me to the pact with life, the often gut-wrenching process of differentiation, as the late psychiatrist Murray Bowen called the journey to becoming a self-validating individual.

Relating to others while maintaining a sense of self is the opposite of the stuck together relationships immortalized in I can’t live without you songs. When you are a separate and whole being who is aware of your rights and needs, that lyric changes to I can be content with you, and I can be content when I’m alone, and I want the same freedom for you.

Differentiation gives you the ability to resist group pressure to conform, to soothe your own anxiety and to avoid being infected by others’ anxiety. You nourish and encourage, but you do not cut short the struggle that leads to emotional maturity.

David Schnarch, a clinical psychologist and the author of Passionate Marriage says differentiation is a process that increases with practice. “You can connect with your partner without fear of being swept up in their emotions. You can evaluate your emotions (and your partner’s) subjectively and objectively. You have feelings but they don’t define you or your sense of self.”

By contrast, lack of differentiation causes you to betray yourself to keep others close to you, relieving them of the consequences of their poor choices.  Accepting bad behavior tells a partner–or anyone–that is what you think you are worth.

Partnership With Yourself

Remaining calm in the midst of others’ disapproval can look like indifference, but it is the highest kind of love. You don’t have to have the answers. All you have to do is quiet down and listen. Then the answers come.

Paradoxically, it is only when we can be trusted partners to ourselves that we can be a trusted partner to anyone else. Until we can live without the need for agreement we are at the mercy of our own and others’ fear of what others think. Strangely enough, approval comes when we no longer need it.

The Crucible of Growth

It has been said that God enters into a partnership between two people who know and trust themselves. I believe this is because intimacy provides the crucible each needs to confront the fears and insecurities that block the soul’s deepest desires.

By contrast, a casual relationship does not bring up these fears because it is so easy to leave. This also applies to our work: Commitment to what we love forces us to master what is difficult.

As Shakespeare knew and expressed through his great art, the pact of life takes courage and faith, since when we care deeply we are simultaneously aware that who and what we care about will end some day. This knowledge is the bittersweet yet necessary ingredient to a fully lived life.

Becoming an honest, direct individual is not easy. Sharing the journey to wholeness with those who have the same goal will make the trip an exciting adventure.

Nancy Anderson is a career and life consultant based in the Sacramento/San Francisco Bay Area and the author of the best selling career guide, Work with Passion, How to Do What You Love For a Living, and Work with Passion in Midlife and Beyond, Reach Your Full Potential and Make the Money You NeedHer website is

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