Our “Tug-of-War”

As human beings, relationships are very important to us.  We’re social creatures, who thrive on mutual support, interaction and validation.  It’s indeed a rare and atypical person who is an “island”.

This observation certainly applies in the domain of our intimate relationships.  Staying shy of the codependent extreme, there’s truth in Barbara Streisand’s Funny Girl song lyrics observing that “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world”.

The engaging and incisive psychotherapist Esther Perel makes a key observation about our human nature:  we are torn beings. (See her riveting TED talk on the secret to desire in a long-term relationship.)   On the one hand, we strive for long-term security and stability in our relationships.  We want to be with someone we can trust and rely on.  On the other hand, we thrive on the adrenaline rush of new and exciting experiences, and we are drawn to the “forbidden fruit” of relationships outside our cozy but confining usual sphere.

This dual draw makes sense, from an evolutionary-biology perspective.  We of course need security and stability in order to prosper.  We need to know that our basic needs can be met, in a predictable way.  At the same time, our urge to explore gives us adaptiveness, such that if something in our environment changes in a survival-threatening way, our inclination to explore alternatives may give us a badly-needed “plan B”.

Our society extols the virtues of unwavering monogamous commitment to our partner.   (Never mind that few of us seem able to meet such a lofty expectation).  However, that same society demonizes and penalizes any straying from this often-unattainable “ideal”.  In doing so, we put in place cultural prohibitions and expectations that effectively deny— or, worse, repress— the experimental and novelty-seeking side of our nature.  Such a stance can only lead to problems, in the form of unmet expectations, social stigma, and personal disappointment and heartbreak.

As Esther Perel points out, it is essential to the health of a relationship that it allow for playfulness and experimentation, in some appropriate form.  Each couple must determine how to introduce the needed novelty into their relationship, in order to keep it fresh, alive and engaging.  Failure to make such an accommodation is likely to lead to a stale and moribund relationship.  Allowing for experimentation takes trust, imagination and a willingness to sometimes step outside one’s “comfort zone”.  Those can be challenging to muster.  However, the payback can be big: a relationship that adapts to the challenges that life invariably presents, and a relationship that constantly offers new things for the partners to share and enjoy.  Thank goodness for our conflicted nature— it’s a good thing!

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