When it comes to relationships, there are many do’s and don’ts. Some are obvious, such as be kind to your partner and show them affection, or don’t start a relationship with someone who isn’t your partner. Other things are less obvious, such as accepting influence.
One of the better relationships books I’ve read is John Gottmans “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”. In the book he talks about accepting influence (one of his principles) as sharing power in a relationship and ensuring what when one person makes a decision they are taking the opinions and feelings of their partner into account. Definitely good advice.
I think accepting influence goes deeper than that though and I think it is one of the MOST important things you can do in your relationship. I see accepting influence as allowing your partner to affect not just your decisions, but also your life. This may sound crazy at first, but I see accepting influence as allowing yourself to become more like your partner. Allow me to explain…
I usually don’t talk about myself, but in this situation my story is relevant to the topic at hand.
As a child I was fairly artistic and spent a lot of time drawing (usually creatures, monsters, robots, super heroes and things like that). In elementary school I was known for being “the kid who could draw”, and it could be argued that I showed some talent or aptitude for art. Heck, at one point in my youth my greatest dream was to be a comic book artist.
Like many kids my life took a turn in my high school years. My group of friends started spending more and more time playing sports (specifically basketball) and I started playing with them. I was terrible at first. Really, really terrible. But it was fun being out with the guys in the summers and spending our days hanging out on outdoor courts.
Over time basketball and fitness became a bigger part of my life while drawing faded into the background. To understand the magnitude of this change, you have to understand that as a child I hated gym. I was always among the last kids picked when teams were assembled in gym class (which is never good for the self-esteem), and I doubt I could have done 10 pushups back then. Alright, fine. I doubt I could have done 3. Yet by the time my university years rolled around I was spending most of my free time in a gym or on a basketball court.
A few years ago I was talking to my sister and she told me she thought I lost a part of myself. She felt that I changed when I went from being this somewhat introverted artistic type to being the guy who has been running a mens league basketball team for many years. Honestly, I can see why she felt that way. The boy she grew up with always had a drawing book in hand, and at the time I couldn’t remember the last time I sat down and actually drew.
Why did I change? I will be the first to admit that initially basketball for me was all about fitting in, it was about having something in common with my friends so I could interact with them. Was I bowing to peer pressure? Was I not being true to me? No, I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time, but I was simply accepting influence. Subconsciously I said “hey, this relationship with my friends is important to me”, and I engaged in activities to help build and strengthen that relationship. And guess what, in the process I discovered a part of me that I didn’t know existed. Previously I had been scared of sports because I was the tall gangly uncoordinated kid. But I found that I loved the game of basketball.
Who are you?
So who is the real “me”? Am I the quiet boy who loves to draw? Am I the guy who loves the physical and competitive nature of sport? Is one part any less “me” than the other, just because I learned it later?
Think about what is it that makes you “you”? It is your interests? Your personality? Your hopes, dreams or fears? In an earlier post on identity I talked about how people are like gemstones. We have many sides to ourselves, and the real us is a composite of all these different parts.
One important thing to note is that when it comes to the things that make us unique, we generally weren’t born with them. Rather, they are learned and developed over the lifetime of our experiences. This means we are never a finished product, and our interests can always expand and change.
Accepting influence from your partner can strengthen your relationship. However for someone with identity issues one of the big fears about relationships is losing yourself in the other person, so this idea can be terrifying. And that definitely can happen.
Years ago I saw a Julia Roberts movie, the Runaway Bride. From what I can recall, the movie starts with Julia Roberts dating some guy, and her personality/dress/interests etc. all match his. On their wedding day she gets cold feet and leaves him at the altar. Next you see her with another guy and this time her personality/dress/interests etc are completely different. This repeats a few times, and it becomes clear that she is someone who takes on the identity of whoever she’s dating at the time.
Maybe it’s because she doesn’t have her own identity, or maybe she was simply afraid of asserting her own identity. That was a movie, but these things definitely happen in real life.
When someone is scared of losing their identity there is a tendency in relationships to split life between my thing and their thing. But you need to be careful with this. When there is a big separation between mine and yours, there is little room for “ours” and you end as two individuals living separate lives, together. In the process of preserving your identity you create walls limiting closeness and intimacy in a relationship, in turn limiting your level of happiness and satisfaction in the relationship. That is not really a great recipe for a successful future.
If you are someone who does this, keep in mind doing things your partner enjoys is not about giving up a part of yourself. Actually, it’s not about you at all. Showing interest in “their thing” is really just showing interest in them. If you want your relationship to work out in the long term then guess what, you’ll probably end up spending a fair bit of time with your partner. So shouldn’t we be doing our best to make it enjoyable?
You SHOULD enjoy spending time together, and want to do things together. If you don’t, you’ve really got to ask why you are together at all.
A Healthy Balance
In my basketball story above, I accepted the influence of my friends and did things with them that I normally wouldn’t have done. In the process, I was able to strengthen my relationship with my friends, I was better able to enjoy spending time with them, and I grew personally. I’ll admit, my buddies are different from my wife but the same rules apply. Shouldn’t our partners be our best friends in addition to being our lovers? By allowing them to influence us, we are better able to enjoy doing things together that strengthen our relationship and allow it to grow. This is about accepting each other and showing interest in each other.
Doing things with your partner that aren’t “your thing” doesn’t mean you are giving up parts of you – this isn’t an “either or” or “all or nothing” situation. No one should be asking you to change, and no one should be asking you to stop doing things you enjoy. Well, unless they are self-destructive, illegal, or dangerous. But guess what, if they are asking you to stop those sorts of things it’s probably out of concern for your well-being (and that should be a good thing).
Additionally I’m not saying you have to like something just because your partner does. What I am saying is you should be open to it, and be willing to give it a chance. Allow them to influence you. Most likes and dislikes are learned, so if you happen to find yourself enjoying something that your partner does, great. If not, that’s fine too. But don’t be resistant to something just because it’s not “your thing”.
It is important that we know who we are, and know that we are still individuals outside of the relationship. But instead of striving for independence we should be striving for interdependence, where we enhance each others lives and push each other to grow both individually and as a couple. We should strive for the situation where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and we are adding value to each others lives.
When you look at your relationship with your chosen partner, they aren’t you. They probably have some similarities as well as a number of differences. If you are in a marriage or long term relationships, hopefully that means you have found a partner who will be with you for the rest of your life. The more you are able to share, the more you will enjoy each others presence.
Going back to basketball for a moment, that is “my” thing. I play when I can and enjoy watching it. Is it my wifes thing? No. Do I expect her to become a rabid fan, and start wearing the team logos and the like? Uh, no. It’s largely something I do on my own, or with my buddies. But would I like to be able to go to a game or just watch one with her once in a while? Yeah, definitely.
She used to tell me stories that the guys at her work would talk about basketball, and she would be able to join in the conversation somewhat and knew what was going on. I have to admit, when she told me those stories it made me feel good. Not because I had turned her into a basketball fan. But because she had picked up bits of something that mattered to me. It had nothing to do with basketball, but it had everything to do with showing interest in me, and accepting influence from me. It made me feel loved, and it made me feel valued.
Accepting Influence from your Partner
If you want to strengthen your relationships, listen to your partner. Try to understand their likes and dislikes, and be willing to share them with them. Not to generalize based on gender here, but guys, go to the romantic movie, the ballet, whatever with your partner. Girls, go to the ball game with your guy. Join him in some of the things he enjoys. Who knows, in the process you may each learn to enjoy each others interests as well.
You each still need time apart with your own friends, or as individuals to do your own thing. That time apart allows your relationship to grow. But the more you are able to do together, and the more you can enjoy being together, the happier you will be.