“I don’t have any solution, but I certainly admire the problem.” ~ Ashleigh Brilliant
As a coach and human being, I often see people (including myself) wrestle with tough questions such as:
Should I choose commitment or freedom in relationships?
Should I focus on caring for myself or for others?
Should I focus on nurturing my relationships, or on getting things done?
However, when we ask ourselves questions like these we tend to fall into a trap.
Humans are natural problem solvers. Our species has found solutions to severe medical conditions, tricky transportation challenges, and even minor inconveniences such as boredom (reality TV and such!).
Yet ironically, our great problem-solving skills can sometimes cause us problems.
This is because when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But not all our challenges are actually problems. Some challenges belong in an altogether different category.
Allow me to introduce you to one of the most important distinctions I have ever learned about: the difference between problems and polarities.
This distinction is crucial in the context of our relationships because it helps us determine if a relationship challenge we face is solvable (indicating a problem) or only manageable (indicating a polarity).
For instance, the question “Should I propose to Lucy?” indicates a solvable problem. The same is true of the question: “Should I break up with Lucy?”
Problems tend to have an either/or answer. You either decide to propose to Lucy or not. You either decide to break up with her or not. Proposing or breaking up with someone is a concrete action step that you can choose to take or not.
In contrast, the question “Should I focus on commitment or freedom in my relationship?” has a both/and answer. It is not solvable because one would ideally focus on both commitment and freedom in a relationship.
This question does not indicate a problem, but a polarity—the polarity between commitment and freedom. Unlike problems, polarities are ongoing. For as long as you are in a relationship, there will always be the apparent conflict between wanting to be close to your partner (committment) and wanting to be your own person (freedom).
While there is much more to be learned about polarity management, here are a few simple steps to get started when you are presented with a seemingly unsolvable challenge in your relationships:
1. Identify if the relationship challenge is a problem or a polarity.
As was explained above, problems typically have an either/or answer, whereas polarities have a both/and answer. Problems are typically limited in time, whereas polarities are ongoing. Problems can be solved, whereas polarities can only be managed.
If you want to spend your summer vacation in Greece this year, but your partner wants to stay home, it’s a problem.
2. If your challenge is a polarity, identify the two poles of it.
For instance, if you feel conflicted in your relationship, you may be dealing with the polarity between closeness and freedom. (Note that both poles have a positive or neutral label. This is intentional, because both poles are important.)
3. Identify which pole you generally tend to gravitate more to.
Oftentimes, when we are presented with a polarity, we tend to favor one side over the other. For instance, you may be a freedom seeker and avoid getting close to your partner, or you may be so close in relationship that you almost merge with your partner.
4. Identify the negative effects that come from focusing on one pole.
When we focus too much on one side of the polarity, we make things harder than they need to be. This is because polarities tend to be interdependent, not oppositional.
If we ignore one pole and go overboard with the other, both poles suffer. For instance, if you are in relationship with a partner and only focus on closeness, at some point you may start to feel as if you’re losing yourself. You may then become resentful towards your partner and withdraw. Thus, ignoring the “freedom” pole may have a negative impact on the “closeness” pole, too.
5. Start focusing more on the other pole—without overdoing it.
In contrast, if you took adequate (as opposed to excessive) time and energy to have your own life and your own interests, it would be hard to feel trapped in relationship. Thus, by adequately dealing with the “freedom” pole, the “closeness” pole also benefits.
Just remember to not go overboard with it.
Author: Bere Blissenbach
Image: Movie still, The Graduate
Editor: Caitlin Oriel