Relationship Balancing

I’m going to be continuing my thoughts on emotional life and health as we are doing preparatory work for a course on emotional and pastoral life. This stuff is all very rough-cut, as I am trying to put together some concepts from a lot of experiences. So your feedback and refinement appreciated.

Relationship balancing is a strange phenomenon. I’m sure that psychologists have a name for it, but I don’t know it. I welcome your input for a better term as well. Relationship balancing is primarily seen in marriage, but can be seen in all kinds of relationships if you look for it. Sometimes I think it is from the devil, sometimes I think it’s more of a natural phenomenon.

OK but what is it?

Relationship balancing is a “push-pull.” It happens all the time. Let’s say that I am an overactive person who wants to go places all the time. And let’s say my wife on her own likes to go places but at a more average pace. If we are married, what will happen is that her desire to go places is not likely to increase to match mine, but will actually decrease as she instinctively tries to bring balance. The more I want to go the less she will want to go. This is partly due to:

  • Partly due to me “drowning out” her own natural desire to go,
  • Partly due to her desire not to encourage something that she already sees as too much,
  • In some areas can even be due to a “welfare” phenomenon where my traveling takes away any need that would otherwise push her to travel if she were on her own.

Think of it like a see-saw. One person is way up high, and the other one is down low to balance it out. What needs to happen to move forward is to come to the middle. But often this never happens. Instead, the couple moves toward polarization. In this example, I would become more and more of a traveler, and my wife becomes less and less willing to travel.

Part of what is strange about this balancing when you experience it is that if I suddenly quit traveling, my wife’s natural desire to travel will start to come back out. The same thing happens if I suddenly “jump off” the see-saw. Let’s say that I go on a long trip. She will start to feel more independent, which will take away the “balancing” feelings that she had, and her own natural desire to travel will start to surface.

I see this a lot in spiritual relationships. When a man is unspiritual, it often drives his wife to become intensely charismatic. He is starving her out for God, and that makes her hungrier and hungrier. So she becomes spiritual enough for both of them and waves banners around. Now what will happen if he suddenly becomes the spiritual one? This is after all what she as the intense charismatic has been praying for… Well you would be surprised, rather than jump on the boat together, she may now feel the need to cool the engines. It’s hard to believe, but this is actually what often happens! This may in turn lead him to feel tired and unspiritual, which will return the relationship to its natural state where he is unspiritual, and she is spiritual. And it completely works both ways. If the process starts with the wife feeling unspiritual, then the man may become super intense.

Only very rarely do you see a couple who are both running together in the major ways that matter. Look at pastors as an easy example. Couples where both are truly a kingdom ministry force together are quite unusual. This is partly due to the push-pull. One runs and the other hangs back. One hangs back and the other runs.

The net effect of this is to create inertia. Both people learn not to run. And you end up walking. Instead of the whole being the sum of the parts, the whole ends up being less than the parts. You can have a loving marriage without breaking this, but you can’t have an outwardly effective marriage without it.

It’s important to understand the difference. A loving marriage is one where you both care for one another and produce happy children. An effective marriage is one where you are outwardly advancing the Kingdom of God into the world. Because you are in unity, your marriage causes things to happen. It’s no different with ministries. That’s why I’m convinced that breaking this dynamic is an absolute key to powerful relationship and ministry effectiveness. Instead of cancelling each other out, you start to double and triple each other’s effectiveness.


How do you break it?

Well there is one easy way to break it: by force. Many leaders break the inertia making themselves the super-pope and then everyone has to follow or obey them. This means that the only people around them will be people who don’t put on the brakes. They’ll burn through one around after another and eventually burn through themselves, but they will get a LOT accomplished because they were able to harness the power of a group.

If you don’t take that route, you have to actually work through deeper layers of things. And I don’t have the full answer. But shared values are the bedrock. You have to believe in and want the same basic things. You can’t have a high performing marriage or team without this. But many people have this but still have the push-pull.

I think the first thing you need is a leader. In a relationship with no leader, there is no power to break the logjam that arises from disagreement. And the disagreement takes over. A good flow, then means that you have some level of deference flowing from those who follow to the leader. But then it works backwards too – a good leader responds to this by defer back when his or her people initiate and that creates a sense of togetherness. Mutual deference is a significant key.

That’s where you start to move into love and trust. You have to love each other and trust one another enough to defer back and forth so that wherever energy arises, the other person eagerly amps it up. It’s almost like an attitude that sees energy as the most precious thing you can have. To kill it means you are back on the see saw.

Another ingredient is mutual encouragement. Think of a sports team. A good team is always high fiving and sending signals like “You da man!” That calls each other player to perform at a higher level and helps them feel knit together. You have to pump each other up constantly if you want to break inertia. You have to love to see your team score.

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  1. You’re onto something here, Will; I’ve noticed a similar thing, but I hadn’t seen it from this angle before. Specifically, the negative push-pull, whereby when one person is running the other wants to pull them back. In a healthy relationship, of course, the converse is the case – my wife and I (if I may be so presumptuous) find that, when one of us is down, the other ipso facto finds a burst of faith from somewhere to pick us both up. At least, I don’t think it’s just schadenfreude… 😉

    I think there’s some mileage in drawing another analogy, between the nature of a relationship on the one hand and a person standing or walking on the other. A person standing is in static equilibrium; each leg is pushing against the other in exact balance all the time. The net force is zero and the person doesn’t move. A person walking is in dynamic equilibrium; neither leg is pushing against the other, but is pushing only against gravity and the body’s weight, for half of the time; then letting the other leg do its job for the other half. Curiously, the net force is also zero – the body does not accelerate – but the person moves forward steadily. Walking is not a striving for balance, but a continuous yielding of control by one leg to the other. In fact, walking is incredibly biomechanically efficient. You can keep walking at the same speed even when you’re very tired.

    In the same way, many organisations (including churches) are a network of conflicting forces, priorities, gifts, preferences etc all striving for “balance” – i.e., to make sure My Thing gets as big a slice of the attention as Your Thing. And they may achieve “balance”, but they don’t go anywhere. Whereas in healthy group relationships, every member is free to be, wholeheartedly, him/herself, and is fully secure in the knowledge that they will not lack opportunity to contribute over the long term.

    Hmm… have to stop there as it’s time to take my daughter to gymnastics – I’ll try and round the above off properly a bit later on!

  2. Nick, I don’t think I understand the mechanics of walking as well as you do, so your analogy went over my head there, but I have used “vectors” as a way of talking about the energy in a relationship before. I definitely see this in teams. All may be running, but if they are not running in the same direction, no net motion is achieved. And you are completely right about healthy relationships — they reverse this effect.

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