Ever have the feeling that the friction between you and your partner is bigger than the two of you, like it is a drama as old as time and as big as the universe? A minute ago, you were just two people trying to decide where to go for dinner, and now you are Order and Chaos, duking it out for the fate of humanity.
Like the physical yoga most are now familiar with, relationship is a yoga - a dance of polarity - that stretches us, growing our capacity to hold paradox.
One such area of paradox that’s at the heart of relationship is the clash of Desire and Boundary. How these two aspects of being often pit us against ourselves and against each other is as maddening as it is enlightening. The paradox here leads us all the way from the most practical ‘nuts and bolts’ level of relating through everyday life to the most esoteric levels where the practice points us to life’s profound insights.
First, some working definitions to get the discussion going:
Desire is our capacity to say “yes” to things that life offers us (or their possibility).
Boundary is the structure defining what we say “yes” to, and what we say “no” to.
The Dance of Polarity
We are basically always negotiating a dialogue or tension between desire and boundary - within ourselves and in our interactions with the world. Every diet, exercise program, spiritual practice, ethical dilemma, and personal growth project has this at its core. The advantage of working this polarity consciously in partnership is that when brought to the surface, we stand to have more perspective and nuance with it. Rather than feeling all the push-pull within ourselves, we can work it in stereoscopic vision - with two people seeing and expressing an issue from different angles.
Committed relationship is being willing to change more than you thought possible and less (or at least slower) than someone else would like.
As partners, it is our sacred duty to want things of and for each other. As individuals, it is our sacred duty to discern between where we can grow and where we must lovingly disappoint our partner.
In navigating a late-pregnancy move with my wife and preparing for the recent birth of our second child, I’ve been surprised with how simply our dynamic can often be addressed. Because moving and birth both seem to bring everything to the surface, apparently it took both to remind me of this:
The game of mature relationship is finding the request each of us have for one another in a given situation (our desire), and collaboratively working the tension between what is wanted and what we are each willing to give (our boundaries) in response to that ask.
From the intersection of requests and boundaries, we can find the wiggle room where authentic compromise is possible, or acknowledge compassionately when it is not.
Where you tend to find conflict in relationship, what is the request that is looking for clearer expression? (See more on transforming conflict in Connection in Conflict)
The process of asking for what we want and negotiating the result begins so early, and yet most of us continue learning well into adulthood! I’ve been making frozen berry pops for our 2-year old daughter to eat in the afternoon when it is hot. Often though, she wants one in the morning (who wouldn’t?!). So I try to hold two things simultaneously: first, the legitimacy of her desire, and second, the boundary that berry pops are for afternoons.
So often, desire and boundary are pitted against one another in opposition and we kill one off out of convenience, especially in moments of stress. We do it with our partners, with our kids, and with ourselves. Either squash the desire to cling to the diet/schedule/rules/etc., OR let desire override the boundary and descend the slippery slopes of impulse-chasing.
But….isn’t there a way to hold both in fruitful tension? After all, it’s learning to befriend the point(s) of tension that grows us.
Okay, so what do we do, practically-speaking, to weave boundary and desire together in our everyday negotiations with our partners, kids, supervisors, clients, etc.?
The SMART ‘Yes’
The trick to leading in this dance is finding a compelling“yes” within the boundary that meets the desire. If my answer to my daughter’s desire for a morning berry pop is “no”, it’s on me to find something that gets a “yes”. I have to be as specific as possible, since “later, sweetie” is technically a “yes”, but because it’s not specific, is not compelling. “How about I give you a yummy breakfast now and a berry pop when we get home this afternoon?” That worked.
A silly little example you say? This same process is at the heart of most of the big disagreements adult couples get into.
A compelling “yes” follows the basic SMART criteria of any effective goal. While a two year old may not be up to rattling off business school acronyms, she’s actually really keen at giving strong feedback when my offers don’t stack up. So here’s the recipe for strong requests (or counter-offers):
- Specific: what you’re offering, with as much detail as possible (a frozen mixed berry popsicle)
- Measurable: pick a unit of quantity or progress (in this example, 1 popsicle)
- Achievable/Assignable: and who will fulfill it (mama or I will give you the pop)
- Realistic: can I actually provide what I’m proposing (I’ve already made the pop, and it’s in the freezer)
- Time-bound: the sooner and more specific, the better (“when we get home this afternoon” is better than “later”)
This process of refining is equally useful whether you’re the one making the request or the one responding to a request of you. Focusing your requests also stands to grow your capacity to lead interactions, from parenting to professional settings.
Strong leaders are those who consistently make clear requests of others, and respond to others’ requests of them by actually leading the interaction toward the outcome they envision, while including the desire and conditions of those they’re leading. Watch someone who is really good at this - they do it powerfully and lovingly, whether it is with their partner, their child, an employee, or a horse (yes, I've seen it.). The point is this: if you work at building this ability with your partner, it will positively impact other relationships in your life.
Go Forth and Stretch Fruitfully
Practicing the yoga of relationship is just that - a practice. Learning takes many iterations over time, with plenty of do-overs. The simple art of the request can often address the places where our clashes become cosmic in proportion, and offers the vitality afforded by making space for both what we want and the limitations that we need.
How can you look to the desires and boundaries expressed in your couple dynamic to inform each other, maturing you in the process? Where you get most triggered, can you find evidence of desire that wasn’t allowed to live, or of boundaries that weren’t respected? Try pausing to take note of these, acknowledge them to yourself, then see if you can steer things toward an outcome that is good for you and your partner.
May you grow rich with the insights born of your relationship, and may your tension always prove fruitful!