Saturday, February 3, 2018

My Philosophy on Relationships

In my mid-20s, I enjoyed poring over the Chicago Tribune ever Sunday morning. My husband and I spread ourselves and the sections of the paper across the living room floor. As the rays of the sun, which shone through the patio doors, slowly inched their way from morning to afternoon, we read every word in every section of the paper. I remember those mornings fondly.

One Sunday -- I recall it being near Valentine's Day -- I opened a section of the paper to a two-page spread. The author had interviewed various Chicagoans asking "What does love mean to you?"

Abbreviated responses were encapsulated in speech balloons and suspended across the pages.

    "Love is patient."

    "Love is kind."

    "Love is all you need."

    "Love is looking in the same direction."

As I read the quotes, a warm'n'fuzzy feeling filled my traditional heart.

But that warm feeling quickly turned to repulsion when I read the balloon that had sunk deep into the crease at the foot of the page: "Love is not meant to be shared with the same person forever."

That was fifteen years ago. My husband is no longer my husband. In the years since, I have been in and out of love numerous times. I, apparently, was not meant to share my love with the same person forever.

Of all the responses to "What does love mean to you?," that callow definition, the one that repulsed me for so long, has come to embody the most sensible meaning of them all.

The Relationship Paradigm

I recently read Eli Finkel's "The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work." In his book, Finkel imposes the paradigm of marriages (which I am genericizing as "relationships") atop Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Finkel's relationship paradigm imposed atop Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

According to Finkel, there have been three eras of relationships. The first era of relationships, called "pragmatic-based relationships," served to meet the lower tiers of Maslow's Hierarchy. These relationships enabled partners to fulfill their physiological and safety needs. As societal advances allowed for pragmatic needs to be more easily satisfied, "love-based relationships" evolved into the middle tiers. These relationship fulfilled the human needs for belonging, intimacy, and self-esteem. Today, relationships have ascended further up Maslow's Hierarchy. These "self-expressive-based relationships" are centered on the needs partners have to achieve their full potential.

It's important to note that the existence of a relationship at a higher echelon does not preclude the necessity for a relationship to fulfill the more basic needs; it simply recognizes the hierarchy of human needs.

Not all contemporary relationships are self-expressive. Obviously, some relationships continue to be bonded by pragmatic forces (for example, those in which economic security is fundamental to the relationship) and others are fueled by love (for example, those in which sexual intimacy is at the relationship's core). But the presence of self-expressive relationships in present-day society is becoming more common.

I've thought a lot about relationships over the years. I've thought about my wants in a relationship. And I've thought about my needs. I've thought about why it is that I haven't been able to love the same person forever.

It wasn't until I saw how Finkel aligned his relationship paradigm with Maslow's Hierarchy that I was able to understand my needs in a relationship. Finkel's book was to me as the apple was to Newton. Finkel provided the "Aha!" that enabled me to realize the following: because my life is focused on Maslow's top rung, I need for a relationship to be supportive of my quest for self-actualization. With this nudge, my relationship philosophy gained form.

My Relationship Philosophy

A relationship must enable me to thrive rather than merely survive.

I am an independent and self-sufficient person. I am capable of fulfilling my pragmatic needs on my own. As a self-assured introvert who values solitude and who has a gratifying close-knit group of friends, my belonging, love, and esteem needs are adequately fulfilled. I have the basics covered (and then some); I need to thrive rather than merely survive.

I devote a good deal of my energy towards identifying my unique strengths and leveraging them to maximize my potential. Self-exploration is important to me, as is autonomy, expression, and living in-the-moment. While a relationship must innately satisfy my deep-seated, biological needs for safety, security, familiarity, and predictability, I need a partner who similarly embodies a drive for self-fulfillment and who can relate to the uncertainties that result from stretching one's abilities. I wholeheartedly agree with author and philosopher Howard Thurman, who once said about relationships, "I want to feel completely vulnerable, completely naked, completely exposed, and absolutely secure."

Both partners must enter the relationship already whole.

I'm a firm believer that you can't be true to another person if you can't be true to yourself first. To be in a healthy relationship, one in which both partners can freely give love that is unencumbered by attachments, both partners must be individually whole -- independent, self-reliant, and equal. Both partners must be comfortable with themselves and love who they are before they can truly love each other.

If a person isn't individually whole, they are often looking for another person to fill a gap. This brings with it a slew of ulterior and often subconscious motives, which in turn often leads to insecurities and clinginess. There is nothing that is a bigger turn-off to me than codependence. (Interdependence, on the other hand, is quite attractive.)

This isn't to say that I or my partner is expected to be rock-solid 100% of the times. I occasionally get off-kilter and need to re-center myself; I would expect the same of everyone. If we remain unbalanced for too long, however, resentments and sacrifices can accumulate and undermine the foundation of a relationship. As such, it is essential that both my partner and I strive to sustain a healthy, whole, and independent identity.

A relationship must complement my introversion.

I am an introvert ("loner" might be more apt). I appreciate huge gobs of time to myself. I have no problem keeping myself occupied in solitude. For what it's worth, I'd far rather be alone than with someone who is a less-than-ideal fit.

As an introvert, I am in tune with my energy levels. When I spend time with a friend who emits a more intense degree of energy, I tire easily, and I need to invest overtime in that friendship to recharge my batteries. On the other hand, when I spend time with a friend who has a similar energy level, I have a far greater tolerance for that person's company.

In light of my introversion and in acknowledgement of my energy, it is important that a partner and I have similar energies and share a mutual appreciation for solitude and/or parallel play.

I need a partner who is psychologically androgynous.

I embody certain feminine traits. For example, I smile a lot, I'm in touch with my intuition, and I lean into vulnerability. I exhibit masculine traits as well. I'm good at problem-solving, I'm forthright, and I enjoy rigorous outdoor activities.

We often think of masculinity and femininity as two opposing ends of a spectrum, where masculinity represents strength and assertiveness, and femininity represents domestication and compassion. As gender-based responsibilities are dissolving, science is acknowledging that people who are in touch with a healthy dose of both masculine and feminine traits tend to be better adjusted and have higher emotional intelligence.

I need a partner who, like me, is psychologically androgynous. Sure, I appreciate when a partner flexes his arm muscle, but I'm far more impressed by the flexing of his emotional muscle. I don't need a partner to hunt a bear or to ward off neighboring tribes; I need a partner who is in touch with his feelings and who values communication. (Bonus points if he knows his way around the kitchen, cuz I sure as heck don't.)


As is the case with any relationship, self-expressive-based relationships have a unique set of challenges. These challenges make it difficult to create lasting bonds. But if and when those bonds are brazed, that are incredibly strong.

The Porcupine Dilemma

One challenge of self-expressive relationships is what Sigmund Freud dubbed as the "Porcupine Dilemma." Imagine two porcupines who are cold. They wish to come close together to benefit from each other's heat. However, in doing so, the porcupines need to be mindful of their quills so they don't hurt each other. This Porcupine Dilemma illustrates the predicament of achieving a deep level of intimacy while also maintaining independence.

One of the ways to overcome the Porcupine Dilemma is to "live apart together." This can take a multitude of forms. Perhaps partners reside in separate homes. Perhaps partners share the same home but have separate workspaces. Or perhaps partners regularly spend structured time apart from one another. The form of living apart together is not important. What is important is that partners have the support and space to maintain their own individuality within a relationship.

Self-Expressives Are Constantly Changing

Inherent in their path towards personal growth, self-actualizers are constantly changing. When you have two partners who are constantly in flux, there is a good chance that the partners may grow apart.

In order to remain together, two self-expressives must harmonize their growth. Negotiating compatibility can be a wonderful thing as long as both individuals continue to journey along their respective paths of self-exploration. But if enduring compatibility requires one or both partners to stray from their paths to self-fulfillment, then the relationship is no longer mutually supportive.

The constantly changing nature of self-expressives has, unfortunately, brought demise to many of my relationships. I am not the same person I was when I was married fifteen years ago. Nor am I the same person I was ten years ago. Or even five years ago. And so it should come as no surprise that I haven't loved the same person forever.

Who knows what the future holds. Each relationship is a function of its unique partners, particularly so for self-expressive relationships. As no two people are alike, an infinite array of relationships is possible. It's exciting to ponder. But also exhausting. Sometimes I wish my needs were lower on Maslow's Hierarchy, where love is simply patient, kind, and all that you need.

Update 2/19/2018: Thanks to my friend, Forest, for pointing out the recent Hidden Brain episode on NPR called, "When Did Marriage Become So Hard?" This episode touches on many of the points discussed above.


  1. "Interesting post," says Tio Ramon. I especially like your "Self-Expressives Are Constantly Changing" section. My experience suggests that each person in the relationship must make clear her goals and the other person must compromise to help achieve those goals. But we can't compromise forever. Perhaps schedule a months long block during each year when a particular partner's goals are the highest priority.

  2. Wow... there is so much, SO many could learn from this one post...

    1. Everyone is entitled to their own philosophy. While I could see some people learning some things, I imagine there are very few who embrace an identical philosophy.

    2. I see that as the beauty of the post, nowhere did I see you trying to get anyone to do as you do. You just shared some very personal and inciteful bits about yourself. That is much more important and I truly appreciate getting to know you better,

      Though in all honestly, nuthin you said surprises me after riding in your saddle bags these years

    3. I'm not surprised that you're not surprised. Your spidey-senseometer seems to be pretty dialed in. 😁

    4. Ah, Tony, you're so sweet. [hug]

    5. Hey Sarah,

      After reading your take on relationships a few times I figured I'd give you the perspective that 10 years of re-singledom gave me. As a fellow seeker and learner,I celebrate your embrace of self-expression as I do agree that many of the best relationships are between partners who enter the relationship already whole.

      I do, however, see this as an endmember of good relationships, one advocated by David Schnartz (sp?) in his book "Passionate Marriage" which stresses continued individuation. There is another endmember proposed by John and Julie Gottman, and elegantly stated by Sue Johnson in her book "Hold Me Tight", which accepts and celebrates the human history of partnerships.

      I do think there is a level of existence above the me-oriented top of the Maslow's Triangle. John Welwood expressed it well in his concept of a "relationship of communion". He also saw, as I do, relationships as "crucibles" that brings up all of us and provides a means for growth and healing. Thus, I think relationships can also be a path to wholeness if both people are committed to (1) their own personal growth, (2) witnessing and encouraging their partner's growth, and (3) the growth of their relationship. As Anne pointed out, if a good relationship requires 2 whole people, there would be very few good relationships as wholeness is more of a path than a destination.

      Moreover, as pointed out by the "Marriage Minute" that I got today from the Gottman Institute, it is important to consider the larger view:

      "In Man's Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl describes his experiences at Auschwitz during World War II.

      He concludes that the difference between those who lived and those who died came down to one thing: meaning.

      The pursuit of meaning in life is more important than the pursuit of happiness, because it is more enduring — connecting us to the present and the future.

      That’s why Create Shared Meaning is the highest level of the Sound Relationship House. A healthy relationship involves building a life together that is full of meaning and purpose. It encompasses your beliefs, the stories you tell, and the culture you create.

      As Frankl said, “The meaning of life is to give life meaning.”"

      Gottman's relationship house can be viewed at:

      It is not for everyone - I do know happy couples who choose to live mostly-separate lives in different towns. For myself, however, creating shared meaning is a goal more than worth the effort it requires.

      Keep on seeking, learning, growing and smilin', Eric

    6. Thank you for sharing your perspective, Eric. I'm always curious to learn what others have learned about relationships and what they seek in relationships.

      I wholeheartedly agree about our search for meaning. And I certainly see the value in creating shared meaning. In my mind, however, shared meaning need not necessarily exist within the confines of a "romantic relationship," which is at the heart of my philosophy above; there are many relationships upon which we can find and create meaning.

      Isn't is a wonderful thing that we can have so many different types and depths of relationships that give us meaning? Some of the most meaningful events that have happened in my life have occurred in fleeting moments, where I hardly even knew the other person.

    7. I do agree, Sarah, that relationships come in all shapes, sizes and colors. In Fisher divorce classes, they talk about "growth relationships", ones where you are encouraged to grow, and encourage the growth of others. I have come to conclude that all of the best relationships are growth relationships. They are rarely easy, but their learnings stick with you and guide you forward.

      IMHO, there are friends and there are true friends. I would always advise my graduate students to seek out their true friends to proof read their theses - IMHO, you learn little from those unable or unable to challenge you. I worry about the prevailing thought that the primary role for friends, parents and colleagues is to support you.

      For me, I find commitment to people, truth and personal integrity gives me peace. From this, I find the strength to, as Anne would say, "be the light" for others.

      Be well, Eric


I would love to hear your comments on this post!