Rock The Boat
By Resmaa Menakem, M.S.W, L.I.C.S.W.
When you and your lover were dating, before you made a long-term commitment to each other, you probably had an unspoken agreement that either of you could end the relationship. It would hurt, but each of you would be all right. Both of you had the option to leave.
But once you both said through your actions, “I’m all in,” suddenly your and your partner’s choices became intertwined. The things you wanted started rubbing up against the things your partner wanted.
This happened with almost everything that affected both of you. Whatever bothered or worried you before about your partner was now in your face on a regular basis—and whatever bothered them about you ended up front and center for them. In this process, the two of you became deeply vulnerable to each other.
From the time you said “I choose you,” you had to consider your partner with everything you did and every decision you made. All the things you used to do to take pressure off yourself became things you had to negotiate. You couldn’t quit your job, or move across town, or buy a new bicycle, or run up a big credit card bill just because you felt like it. This made you even more vulnerable.
As soon as the two of you made a commitment to each other either—through a ceremony, a legal document, or an emotional choice—they changed, you changed, and everything changed. Your options shrank and the pressure on both of you rose.
Here's what's happening:
In your cortex, your thinking brain, you love your partner. But beneath your cortex, toward the back of your skull, is a part of the brain that we humans share with Godzilla. This back part of our brain—our lizard brain—only understands protection: fighting, fleeing, or freezing.
Your back brain loves whatever protects you and hates whatever makes you vulnerable. This part of your brain hates your lover because you’re vulnerable to them. That same part of your partner’s brain hates you for the same reason. To your lizard brains, your love for each other is an ongoing source of stress. In fact, the closer you and your partner get, the more vulnerable you become to each other, and the more scared your lizard brain gets. Ditto for your partner’s. Its logic goes like this: I hate you for loving me and making me vulnerable. If you really loved me, you wouldn't make me vulnerable by loving me. The fact that your partner makes you happy makes your Godzilla brain unhappy. What makes our heart swell is precisely what makes our back brain tremble in terror.
The paradox of intimacy is that the more important someone becomes to you, the less willing you may be to show all of yourself to them, because it terrifies your lizard brain. This is why people will sometimes tell their deepest secrets to a stranger in an airport or a bar, but will hide them from their beloved partners.
It's an act of deep integrity to show all of yourself—including all your warts, fears, dreams, and desires—to your partner. This always involves risk—and often pain. But if you’re able to do this, while standing on your own two feet and staying calm and anchored, something interesting may happen. Whether your partner admits it or not, or is consciously aware of it or not, they may develop trust and a deep respect—though not necessarily admiration—for you. When they see you being honest and strong about your own stuff, they may begin to think, Maybe my mate can be honest and strong about other things, too—including me. And maybe I can show them my warts, fears, dreams, and desires. In fact, maybe now I have to.
Conflict is a natural part of any intimate relationship. Yet most couples either avoid it or try to smooth over their differences. This results in at least one partner compromising their integrity—and stunting their own growth. Gritty, often irreverent, and always practical, Rock the Boat challenges couples not to flee from conflicts, because the emotional stalemate that conflicts produce creates an opportunity for profound transformation. This transformation affirms each partner’s individuality while forging a more mature intimacy, a greater trust, and a deeper bond.
Rock the Boat challenges the idea that conflict between partners is unhealthy or something to avoid. Instead, it encourages both people to stand by what they need and who they are—but to do so with compassion rather than competitiveness or vengefulness. This is the purpose of an intimate relationship: to create an atmosphere where both people learn to grow up and mature in their relationship by appreciating each other’s individual needs in a caring and mature way.
Author Resmaa Menakem, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in couples therapy, addresses key factors in making this happen, including accepting discomfort and uncertainty; honesty and openness about sex, money, kids, and in-laws; recognizing when conflict might escalate into violence or abuse; and, when appropriate, finding and working with a good therapist.
Rock the Boat is not about ideals, or what we hope or imagine relationships to be. It's an honest, unflinching look at what actually works.
Resmaa Menakem, MSW, LICSW, is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in couples therapy and domestic violence prevention. He has served as the director of counseling services for Tubman Family Alliance, a domestic violence treatment center, and as the behavioral health director for African American Family Services in Minneapolis. He is a former radio talk-show host who has appeared on Oprah and Dr. Phil as an expert on domestic violence and couples in conflict. From 2011 to 2013, Resmaa was a family counselor for civilian contractors in Afghanistan, managing the wellness and counseling services on fifty-three U.S. military bases.