We’ve all seen them, maybe been in one or grew up in one – those relationships that arrive at a certain point in time and then stagnate, with clearly delineated boundaries and roles. At best they are the equivalent of a toddler’s snuggle blanket, making us feel warm, cozy and safe. At worst, they make us feel restricted and lifeless, as if we’ve been sealed in a box. And the sad thing is that this form of long term relationship is still the dominant one today, supported by societal norms that favor stability and conformity. Boy meets girl, boy dates girl, boy marries girl, then what? It’s ironic that the story always seems to end there, when it is after that stage that guidance would be most useful. Romantic love is not enough to create a life-long love affair. But if we find that the traditional model of getting married and settling down leaves us feeling empty, what’s the alternative? Serial monogamy? Polyamory?
The reality is that most of us fall into a relationship not always entirely sure of what has brought us together. And the tendency is, as time goes by, for us to slip into the pattern of relating that we have been most familiar with. Away from mainstream media, though, a new paradigm has been emerging. Perhaps ‘new’ isn’t the best term for it, as it has been simmering away in the background for decades. But it is new in the sense that now a significant minority is becoming sufficiently aware that new ways of relating are needed if we are to avoid the unnecessary pain that relationships have brought in the past.
We are part of generations who believe in individual self-expression, personal growth and independence while not wanting to dismiss the possibility of soul-mate love, enduring sexual passion and long term commitment. And one look at those values is enough to help us understand why many still choose to settle for the more straightforward, though limiting, model of relationship which has been dominant. How on earth do we balance a need for free self-expression with a desire for security?
The new paradigm of relationship attempts to do just that and there are some crucial differences between this new way of relating and the one which still remains dominant.
1. No-one has to compromise their integrity.
Many relationships rely on those involved in them ‘being’ a particular way in order to make them work. There’s almost an unspoken agreement which goes something like, ‘as long as you act this way and I act that way, everything will stay in balance.’ We repress certain characteristics and play up others while our partner does likewise, and that interplay becomes the essence of how we relate.
But while it may appear well-adjusted on the surface, it means that we only ever bring part of who we are into our relationships, pushing away the rest for fear of upsetting the balance.
In contrast, if I were to describe what the new paradigm feels like, it would sound something like this: “I haven’t yet grown into the fullness of who I am, so who I am will continue to develop and change. And I understand that the same is true for you. Which means who we are as a couple will keep evolving too. I value the depth that it can bring to me and to us, and will do my best to accept those changes as they emerge.”
2. Integration of light and dark.
The revelation of a dark secret has often undermined or heralded the end of a relationship, whether it’s an extra-marital affair, a taste for BDSM or addiction to porn. And, when it does, the suggestion is usually that the person involved was guilty of hurting the other through their actions.
But the new paradigm looks a little deeper. With its greater appreciation of integrity, it is more open to discussing shadow aspects of our psyche and to making space for them if necessary, either within the relationship or outside of it. It says, ‘We are multi-faceted beings, each with shadow and light sides that need to be accepted and honored if our relationship is to bring us a sense of fulfillment.’
Because of this, it is not unusual to find greater exploration of non-mainstream sexual activities within the new paradigm.
3. Less clearly-defined boundaries.
With monogamy being the dominant paradigm of our society, traditional relationships have clear boundaries that dictate how we express our romantic and sexual energies. And they are boundaries that are not expected to change over time.
For those of us exploring the new paradigm, however, the acceptance that we need to be open to our own personal growth and to that of others brings with it an obligation to consider the boundaries we place around our relationships.
We don’t want to own our lovers or be owned. We want to be free to explore who we are. And yet we also value our relationships. So how do we create a container for love and sharing that supports us but doesn’t restrict our growth?
The result of this questioning is a more fluid approach to boundaries and a willingness to re-evaluate them from time to time. The same relationship can go through phases of monogamy, polyamory and even celibacy as those involved in it change and grow. What remains constant is the commitment to love and mutual growth.
4. A place to grow.
Those drawn to the new paradigm tend to be those that place a high value on personal growth. They see intimate relationships as a place where they can explore who they are through their connection with another, growing and expanding as they do so and experiencing the pleasure of supporting another’s blossoming.
While companionship, sex and shared responsibilities are still an inevitable part of the experience, the emphasis on growth ensures that these relationships maintain a sense of respect for each individual’s unique journey through life.
This means that although we all look for a certain amount of comfort and security in a long term relationship, we place a higher value on growth and are therefore willing to accept the discomfort and insecurity it can sometimes bring.
5. The practice of unconditional love.
Although there is a lot of talk about unconditional love, it is not something that is seen all that often within the context of traditional relationships. It is much more common to witness one withholding love from another out of anger, fear or a desire to manipulate a situation.
Love is often wielded like a weapon of destruction rather than a positive force, used in emotional blackmail, passive aggressive behavior and a whole host of other unloving ways.
In what is probably the greatest rebellion against the old, the new paradigm places unconditional love at the heart of the relationship.
Not that everyone involved in the new way of relating has achieved the holy grail of perfect love. It is more that there is a conscious effort made to re-open the heart every time it closes down in fear or anger; that there is a willingness to face the difficult discussions, the painful truths and the aspects of ourselves and our lovers that we might prefer to run away from.
Unconditional loving becomes a core practice of our relationship and one that grows stronger every time we find a way to expand our boundaries, face our fears and integrate another aspect of our shadow.
6. A greater emphasis on communication.
No relationship can flourish without good communication and it is especially important when we’re entering territory where there are less defined roles and boundaries, and where the ground continues to shift.
How can I know what’s going on with you, or expect you to know what’s going on with me, unless we communicate? And how do we communicate in a way that is not misleading?
Most of us can talk relatively easily about the mundane reality of everyday life – coordinating diaries, sharing chores, discussing work. But what about expressing needs of which we are only vaguely aware? Or being able to express anger cleanly without hurling abuse?
When we move into a new way of relating, we need to find new ways of communicating, taking our time in finding the right words or physical expressions for what we want to say and being willing to sit through the challenge of hearing what another may want to share. How much of a challenge this poses depends on the individuals involved – some couples understand each other more easily than others and not all of us are blessed with being articulate.
For those more used to the old ways of relating, all this can sound very unsettling.
The world is uncertain enough, why would we want to invite uncertainty into our relationships too? What about the idea that a relationship should provide a haven from the storms?
Ironically, this is exactly what happens over time with the new relationship paradigm, except that it isn’t a security that is based on external controls or on fear. Instead, as the relationship grows to integrate change and deepens as a practice ground for unconditional love, the individuals involved feel freer to be themselves, more understood and accepted, and therefore safer in the world. Without feeling that we need to repress parts of ourselves or to perform in a particular way in order to be loved, we are more at home in the world.
And where better to get a sense of how this feels than in our intimate relationships, where we have the opportunity to express the full-color version of who we are? There will always be those who feel safer sticking with tradition, despite the evidence that it doesn’t necessarily work. For the rest of us, though, this new paradigm offers an alternative, bringing depth and vitality to how we relate to our lovers.
What do you think of this new relationship paradigm? Leave your comments below!
If you liked this article, please share it!