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First Date and First Diaper Change

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Kids can be challenging. So can our adult love relationships. But are they one and the same?

woman holding a baby

Dr. Wendy Walsh: In many ways they are, and what we learn from one kind of relationship, we can apply to the other. The common link is emotional intimacy -- and the big tug-of-war in every intimate relationship is the struggle between independence and union.

Independence and union are the yin-yang of human connections. Being in union with another fills us up with security, confidence, and heals our feelings of loneliness. And sometimes being together can also feel like suffocation and imprisonment. Independence can help us feel powerful, free, and proudly self-sufficient. But independence can also bring feelings of isolation, fear -- and, with no cheerleader, insecurity.

Every intimate relationship is a live action game -- with partners on the same team with (hopefully) a common goal. Like basketball, sometimes one partner runs with the ball and scores, and other times is happy to assist or play defense. You steer the parent/child team when you make a firm rule. Your child steers the team when he/she blurts out unadulterated insight at a family dinner, creating awe and amazing you, and you change your behavior based on it. In an adult relationship, you may choose to lead by instituting firm boundaries between work life, couple-hood, and family life. Your mate leads when you all move to a new city for his job and know that the long-run win will be family harmony.

The biggest difference between parenting and adult love is the direction separation runs. When you meet a stranger and fall in love, your journey together is one in which you continue to grow closer and closer to create deep intimacy. A mother/child relationship runs the opposite course. You begin, literally, as one body. And your journey is a long, slow separation from womb to dorm room. Both kinds of relationships share this: on their journey together, each partner's needs for closeness and autonomy will wax and wane as emotional needs ride the waves of daily life stresses.

Some people might think that another huge difference is that kids can't leave. They are wholly dependent on their parents. But I beg to differ. Although kids may be financially dependent on their parents, they can emotionally leave the relationship. They can check out if their well-timed calls for some autonomy are not heeded. They can check out if they are given too much independence, and feel unprotected by their parents. Lovers can do the same thing. They may leave physically or emotionally.

So, how can we honor the struggle between our desires to be an individual and our desires to be a partner? The answer is always to talk about it -- to have empathy for another's autonomy and not "take it personally," to voice our own needs for autonomy or closeness in a non-threatening way. The road to intimacy is a prickly path. We will often make mistakes in judgment, or act from a place of fear. But the other wonderful thing about all relationships is that they are alive and growing -- and there is always room for repair. And in that very process of repair, where we may use empathy and humor, we will feel in union -- that is, until the next time we feel smothered.


next: Mourning an Absent Parent
1 comments so far | Post a comment now
tabletki na pryszcze April 3, 2011, 7:27 AM

It’s good too read your site again buddy, i see some interesting updates here…


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