The Tennis Match: How to Balance the Power in Your Relationship
Couples often come in to my counseling office soon after they move in together, because they’re arguing about differences in design and life styles. Whose furniture to use, where to put it, who can use each room, or how to work out the division of labor. These squabbles are often symbolic and mask the real anxieties of the partners, which have to do with intimacy, space and closeness.
Partners who have trouble talking with each other about simple differences and can’t negotiate quickly become frightened that they won’t get their individual needs and wants met, and their fear causes them to become reactive and combative, so they argue rather than solve problems together.
Each person in a relationship has individual needs for closeness and personal space as well as needs to feel nurtured, understood and autonomous within a relationship. Individual people define their freedom in very different ways. Some want the freedom to be close and comforted; others want the freedom to be autonomous and unfettered.
Boundaries and Taking Space
When one of you doesn’t get enough space or enough closeness, you will begin to struggle within your relationship. One of you might feel unappreciated for being caring, while the other feels oppressed and smothered. One of you might be alert to your partner’s moods—often walking on eggshells not to upset him or her. The other might threaten to leave in order to get his or her way. One of you will want more together time while the other wants more space—and neither of you are satisfied with the compromise. Struggles like this lead to resentment, hurt and arguing.
When you struggle with a partner, the flow of love between you will be blocked—even when you truly love one another. If you learn how to achieve balance and end the struggle, you’ll create the love and partnership you deeply treasure.
The Tennis Match: Volleying the Conversation, Balancing the Energy
Knowing and communicating what you want and what you feel are the basic skills for creating a mutually satisfying intimate relationship. I recommend the tennis match approach to help you understand and honor each other’s needs for space.
The tennis game approach is a flexible process that you can adapt to almost any situation. To keep your relationship in balance, especially if it’s new, neither you nor your partner should do all the calling, all the planning, all the talking, all the giving, and all the chasing. You can’t play tennis if only one of you is hitting the ball.
Instead, make a move to show the other person you’re interested in being close, then sit and wait for your partner to make a move in return. For example, make a phone call to invite him or her for coffee, or to join a group going to the movies, and then let him or her make the next invitation. This is like making a serve, then waiting for your partner to return it.
This is often difficult to do, because the natural tendency when you’re interested in someone is to be active. But being too assertive in the relationship may push the other person away, or may disguise a lack of enough interest on the other person’s part. Don’t keep hitting balls over the net if they’re not returned.
On the other hand, if you never hit the ball, but always wait for the other person to do it; you aren’t playing a very good tennis game, either. It’s essential that you do your part, because passivity is easily interpreted as a lack of interest, and can shut communication down. The tennis game metaphor is useful, because if you compare what has gone on in the relationship so far to a tennis game, you will quickly see if you’ve been either too passive or too aggressive.
The tennis match is so central to moving the relationship on to new levels that I’ve developed some guidelines you can use to show interest, understand and promote intimacy. Demonstrating that you are interested in what your partner is saying, and want to hear more, is essential.
Whether you’re online, on the phone, or face to face, you need to keep your conversation going back and forth—keeping the tennis match going in a balanced way.
Tennis Match: Guidelines for Understanding your Partner
• Take Turns: Leave room for your partner to open topics, to express opinion, to gather thoughts and express opinions. Don’t jump right in to a silence if it’s not your turn.
• Concentrate: Listen carefully to what your partner is saying—don’t wander off mentally into what you want to say next.
• Volley (Respond): After your partner says something, respond directly to it, letting him or her know that you heard and understood what was said, and, if possible, that you have similar thoughts or experience.
• Don’t Argue: There is definitely a place for spirited discussion in good conversation, but be careful not to get too oppositional. Your objective is to establish understanding.
• Return the Serve: At the end of whatever you say, invite a response by adding “don’t you think?” or “What do you think?” or, make your response a question.
• Serve Again: If your partner drops the ball, ask a question about something that was said before, and give your partner plenty of time to express his or her opinion.
Let your partner know if you would like more space or more intimacy; and listen to the response. If you work together, you can achieve a good balance.
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California, with over 30 years experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction (New Page); How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free (New Page); The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again (Wiley) and The Real 13th Step: Discovering Self-Confidence, Self-Reliance and Independence Beyond the Twelve Step Programs (New Page); Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, The Commuter Marriage and her newest, Lovestyles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. She publishes “Happiness Tips from Tina”, an e-mail newsletter, and the “Dr. Romance Blog.” Online, she is “Dr. Romance” with columns at Divorce360.com, Wellsphere.com, and Yahoo!Personals, as well as a Redbook Love Network expert. Dr. Tessina guests frequently on radio, and such TV shows as “Oprah”, “Larry King Live” and ABC news. She tweets @tinatessina and is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tinatessina and http://www.facebook.com/#!/DrRomanceBlog
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