Non-Expert Relationship Advice: We Are Five People.
Updated: May 24, 2020
Let's start with the basics: I am not an expert. I am a person sharing my observations after years being in a relationship (twenty one), raising children (four), working in law firms (five-ish), and ingesting "relationship advice" (including much garbage and some excellent material by the very intelligent Esther Perel). I got married at eighteen (well, technically nineteen but it got backdated because it was a Declaration of Common Law Marriage in Texas). I have been with my husband since I was fifteen. There is much painful growth that takes place when you go through relationships in your twenties. That growth and pain is not avoided by being with one person--it just means the two of you have to grow and live those painful transitions together, and then forgive each other for being immature and selfish (within limits!). I am writing this in reaction to the COVID-related relationship articles, especially this one which made me particularly irate. So I thought I'd share my own little system of understanding human parenting and romantic relationships. This is not heteronormative (although my experience is) but it does assume a couple with children to take care of.
There are five facets to our roles within a relationship: 1) life partner; 2) friend; 3) sexual partner; 4) co-parent; and 5) parent. Nobody is perfect in all facets. In fact, you may find a partner that sucks at one facet (or more). But if it's one you don't particularly care about, then it doesn't matter--which is why people have different tolerances and put up with different things. Understanding my relationship in these terms has helped me articulate when I get frustrated because it allows me to pinpoint how something is failing me. It also allowed me to understand that I have no tolerance for failure in certain areas and that I value certain areas much more than others. In other words, if someone is checking certain boxes (four, actually) it makes me happy and fueled enough that other boxes (one) are less important. (And yes, that makes me a demanding partner and I've found someone who has met those requirements for two decades so "oh well").
Life partner focuses on the term "partner": earning an income or otherwise contributing to the relationship, being loyal, being reliable in emergencies, handling finances together, standing by you when "stuff" hits the fan, and taking the steps to actively support your partner in their professional goals (not as a cheerleader but in a practical sense). This role includes the household logistics such as laundry, loading and unloading a dishwasher, cleaning the house, and taking care of surroundings. (While this task can be outsourced, it's something a partner would ensure is happening for the good of the unit). The idea is that each partner should be using their skills and abilities, whatever they may be, to help rather than hinder. This is the person who helps you keep the house intact, calls the plumber, and makes sure things get fixed. It's not so much about love; it's about duty, honor, and commitment. It's about having a "partner," like business people have partners. This one is critical to me. This is the one that triggered me to write this post after I read the article above (which was the cherry on top of many more pieces I read before). What I see is partners, unfortunately often men, not being partners to their wives, when they fail to be a partner in life. A friend of ours once jokingly asked me, "Why do you stay with him?", referring to my husband, and I answered something in jest but it made me think. My answer, internally, can be summarized as follows: beyond loving him and feeling like he is part of my very being, my husband is fiercely loyal, adores me beyond measure, and is a phenomenal life partner. When I need him, he is there, solid as a mountain ready to go to bat for me, no matter what, no matter the odds. He is a life partner.
Friend is the cheerleader, the playmate, the fun person, the drink getter, the restaurant goer, the scuba diver, the sailor, the gardener, the show watcher, the book lover, the dog walker, and whatever else is fun for you. The friend is the person you call with your problems who tells you, "Yeah! We HATE that person," even if you don't really hate them but that's what you do for a friend. It's the person you tell your secrets to. It's the person you talk to when you're feeling terrible or amazing. It's the person you go watch your favorite movie with when it comes out. It's the first person you want to call when your mind gets blown by something (good or bad). Are you always best of friends? No. But you are always partners, and that's what gets the couple through the hard parts. When your partner is being a jerk (any gender), you can figure out if they're just being a crap friend or actually a bad partner. My husband and I are best friends, truly. And sometimes, we're not nice to each other. And sometimes we get selfish. When that happens, it's not my marriage is "in trouble"; we're just being crappy friends. This aspect is critical to me.
Sexual partner is self-explanatory, kind of. It's about intimacy, compatibility, excitement, novelty, boundaries, degree of monogamy, and the such. It is obviously affected by the other facets but has a role on its own. How much this aspect matters can vary from couple to couple but I have rarely found therapists and counselors say that if the partners disagree on the degree of importance, then it's totally cool. Some partners like more of this, some partners like less, some partners like none. Different strokes for different folks. This one is critical for me.
Co-parent is the way in which the partner cooperates in parenting. This is where women take on a huge amount of labor. This is the labor that has been thrust on women for centuries: making plans for activities, organizing homework, cooking meals, This is what the COVID articles regarding motherhood are really focusing in on. It's where men have fallen and failed. It's the part that is left to women in hetero couples, unfairly so. Interestingly, it's the facet I care the least about in my own life. I was and am glad to take this role. I wondered, for a very long time, if that made me weak, or a bad feminist, or a failure in some respect. If I was a real feminist, would I not demand it from my own partner? I really grappled with that feeling of failure. I eventually made sense of it: I don't care about this aspect because my partner more than fulfills every other facet, all four, in magnificent ways.
I should add that I also like parenting, a lot. I'm suited for all this organization and hustling and logistics. Also, I simply cannot demand that a partner excel in everything, every day, in every way. That would be unfair. But again, I am demanding in every other aspect. However, we confound co-parenting with partnership and, unfortunately, end up letting men off the hook as being "bad co-parents" when they are actually being bad partners. When a partner forces (forces) you to give up a career, or a business, by being petty and refusing to co-parent, it's not the co-parenting piece that is failing, it's the partner piece. I would find that unforgivable.
Parent is the relationship between a parent and their child. Often, especially in family law--which I practice--I ask my clients to differentiate whether the person was a good partner (usually not) and whether they are a good parent (this can go either way). Nearly the same letters, but not the same concept. A person could have been lacking at certain other aspects (within limits!) and yet be a good parent. A good parent can play with their kids, care about their emotional well-being, engage them constructively, and foster a relationship of trust and love. They teach them to swim or spend hours reading the same book over and over or take them on walks. We may not always agree with each other's methods (within limits!) but parenting, good parenting, comes in many different forms. This aspect is non-negotiable for me. It is, luckily for him and my children, an aspect my husband excels at.
In these COVID times, more than ever, couples need to be partners to each other. The accounts and articles I am reading show a complete lack of partnership. In my view, that is unforgivable and it has nothing to do with being bad at "Mommy duties"; we just keep conflating the two.