Opinion: Relationships Are a Negotiation

Steven Ing, MFT

Most of us here in America are not big fans of arranged marriages. But, if we can be honest, there's at least one benefit to the institution, and that is that those setting up the marriage understand that the relationship is the result of a negotiation.

Virtually no one in the USA understands this, and we have the divorce rate to prove it. When it comes to relationships, we don't mindfully enter into a negotiation or discuss terms; we simply count on love to carry the day. Like a drunken Harry Potter character down at the corner bar mumbling matrimonios perfectus! into his butterbeer, we find no need for a conversation about the terms of the arrangement. Why not? Because it's perfectly clear what each of us is thinking, that is, to each one of us but to no one else.

This isn't what either of us wanted, but instead of talking it out, we plunged into the relationship believing it would magically all work out. We believed this until our partner's behavior (and life itself) beat it out of us. Had we been really thinking, had we paid attention to all the many failures out there both in real life and in fiction, we might have had a conversation about equality.

Ellie Lisitsa reminds us of an insight from John Gottman's work cited in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink:

"When you communicate with contempt, the results can be cruel. Treating others with disrespect and mocking them with sarcasm and condescension are forms of contempt. So are hostile humor, name-calling, mimicking, and body language such as eye-rolling and sneering. In whatever form, contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust and superiority, especially moral, ethical, or characterological. Contempt, simply put, says, ‘I’m better than you. And you are lesser than me.’”

Please don't miss the main point here. Treating others with contempt or disrespect is the symptom. Inequality is the disease. We don't treat people with contempt when we truly view them as equals.

From those who don't believe in equality, we can expect language about "traditional marriage" or "complementary theology." Whether we're talking about religion or a worldview of slightly less divine origin, the idea of complementarianism may sound sort of OK but it stands in stark naked contrast to the idea of egalitarianism. This way of thinking would sound something like, "You see honey, I believe God (or evolution) made us different and that we complement one another, that we are of equal value, but it's my job to [fill in the blank here with a religious or nonreligious wildcard you are not going to like—at least not in the long run].”

Here's how it might go: She says, "I believe that it's a man's job to support his family and provide for them, and my job is to take care of our home and our future children." Then again, maybe he's the one saying, "I believe that it's the man's job to support his family and blah, blah, blah." Either way, each one is consigned to a role, based on genitalia, whether it suits them or not, determined by some self-anointed expert on the actual thoughts of God or the intention of millions of years of evolution.

Hundreds of years ago, the poet Alexander Pope told us that "the proper study of mankind is man," meaning ourselves. Instead of studying ourselves, complementarianism goes with someone's guess of the actual thoughts of an invisible deity in the sky or the intentions of a non-intentional universe.

Selling the idea of equality in a relationship

So if we buy into the idea of equality, how do we sell it when the day-to-day grind of equality seems to be beyond the imagination of so many?

Equality is going to look like freedom. Specifically the freedom to be who you are. So what's in this idea for him? The same thing, except some men have never thought through the trap of "tradition." They think of marriage as shouldering a set of responsibilities akin to Atlas shouldering the world. It grinds them down.

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Photo by Pixabay with Pexels

Maybe by now, you can see that selling the idea of equality to a potential candidate for a leading role in your life should be an easy sell. Some men don't hate the idea of freedom; they just don't believe it exists in marriage. This is one reason we see all those scenes in movies where the bridegroom is pounding shots just before the nuptials. He's scared. He is not scared of the freedom to be who he dreams of being. He's scared of losing some level of perhaps adolescent freedom for a future of crushing responsibility. Convincing him a really good partnership means he'd have a true partner who would have his back requires a bit of selling. What would that look like for you two? It's challenging because when growing up, almost no one had this type of partnership modeled. We never knew it was on the menu of life.

The alternative to equality for some women is that she's with someone lesser than herself. He may be above the dog but he's below her. The problem here is eternal loneliness because she is simply never in the company of an equal, never to have that companionable experience of what Shakespeare calls "the marriage of true minds." This flawed type of marriage represents the adoption of a dependent, not the strategic alliance of two equals who pool their resources to better face life's challenges together.

The end of loneliness. A strategic alliance. A life partner. If we can't sell this idea and all that goes with it then, let's face it, we're not ready for such a relationship. Maybe we don't understand it well enough ourselves. The first step to knowing the answer to this mystery is for all of us to examine our own hearts to discover if we really want equality.

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I had a seriously messed up childhood. Like, mobster-father-shot-to-death-by-police messed up. Out of this beginning came a lifelong fascination with two questions: “Why do people do what they do?” and “How can all of us figure out how to move to what healthier families enjoy and how they get their needs for love met?” As a Marriage and Family Therapist for over 30 years, I work to help people figure out how they too can have healthy sexuality and intimacy by Managing Sexuality Intelligently™. I have literally written the book on human sexual needs, "We’re All Like This” (Second Edition 2020, Giant Publishing), with portions appearing in the 2nd edition of the McGraw-Hill textbook "Human Sexuality: Self, Society, and Culture," used in university-level human sexuality classes. My books, articles, and public presentations create conversations about human sexuality that are safe...but not too safe. My insights have led to a humane take on our beautiful human sexuality and how all the rest of us can have ridiculously happy lives (yes, and sex lives too!).

Reno, NV
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