THE RELATIONSHIP RULE OF THIRDS
In my therapeutic work, I often find some version of this question arises: “How do I create and maintain a relationship that is fair for me, my partner, and our relationship?” While the answer is distinctive to each couple I work with, there is a rule that I have found to be useful in all cases. I call it ‘the relationship rule of thirds’: 33,333% my responsibility + 33,333% my partner’s responsibility + 33,333% our relationship responsibility = 100% healthy, whole relationship.
What makes a healthy, whole relationship?
The simple answer to this question is that it depends on the couple. I think we can live in a world where we are free to decide what type of relationship works for us. We all need relationships and we all have our non-negotiables in relationships; however what these are can differ from person to person. For some, monogamy is non-negotiable, but not for others. For some couples, spending time together and sharing a common interest is vital. Yet, other couples may pursue and enjoy independent time apart. Healthy relating is the meeting of three ingredients:
- The willingness and interest to know oneself (the first third)
- A partner who is willing and interested to knows themselves (the second third)
- The space for the relationship to grow, change and adapt (the last third)
The first third: my responsibility
I’m sure you have heard somewhere that “the relationship you have with yourself sets the tone of every relationship you have”. While I believe this to be true, you are only ONE ingredient in a healthy, whole relationship. But you are also the only one ingredient that is 100% in your control.
In an ideal world, we would be aware of and in control of our own emotional reactions, process and heal from all our traumas, and be able to show up in our relationships with openness and vulnerability. While these things are ideal and necessary for healthy relating, we are not perfect and most of us struggle with our relationships with ourselves in our own particular ways. That’s okay. No relationship is perfect and no people in relationships are perfect. Still, you are responsible for you. You are 100% responsible for what you bring into a relationship, with all your mess and imperfections. For healthy relating, accept full responsibility for yourself and invite the lifelong journey of getting to know yourself and why you act and react in the ways that you do.
The second third: my partner’s responsibility
Just as you are responsible for knowing and communicating your own needs, wants, imperfections and mess, your partner is 100% responsible for themselves. This is the second third that contributes to a healthy, whole relationship. This is a tough one to accept as 33,333% of your relationship health depends on your partner and is out of your hands. Your ONLY control is your decision to choose your partner.
You do not have control over trying to change, better, or make your partner more self-aware. As soon as you step into that territory of their 33,333% responsibility (and some partners may even welcome or encourage that violation), you are in relational trouble. Your partner is responsible for themselves, just as you are responsible for yourself. Choose each other every day, support each other often, share your lives and losses, but do not confuse this with taking responsibility for each other’s imperfections or messiness.
The last third: our relationship responsibility
The final 33,333% of what contributes to a healthy, whole relationship rests upon both partner’s agreement that the shared relationship needs space to grow, change and adapt. This final 33,333% is constantly changing hands.
There have been times in my relationship with my husband where I have not been able to think of anything but myself and my 33,333%. Like when my father died, I did not have the space to think about what my husband or our relationship could need. For a time, he carried 33,333% of his responsibility for himself (as always), as well as took on 33,333% of our relationship responsibility. There’s been times when I have carried much more than my 33,333% as that is what was needed. I’m sure there have been some times when we carried the share 50/50. But most times we are constantly shifting in our capability to show up and give that extra effort to our relationship. The health and wholeness of our relationship over time has been our ability to share the responsibility for this last 33,333%.
Space for all of the thirds
Part of what makes this relational rule of thirds helpful for me is that there is space for the needs of each person, as well as space for the needs of the relationship as a whole. Healthy relationships require flexibility to meet everyone’s needs and that responsibility is shared. Some of that that responsibility is 100% in your hands, some of it is 100% out of your hands and 100% in your partner’s hands, and there is this is space-in-between where every day you can take on a little bit more or a little bit less, depending on everyone’s needs.