In every situation there is a provocateur and the provoked. I always fancied myself as the provocateur because more often than not, others lack the courage to disrupt because of the overwhelming need to be liked or celebrated. Popularity drives more actions than purpose ever will. Anyway, I’m sure most can relate to the setting where two strong characters clash because each is attempting to establish their view as being the dominant one. Sometimes this is understandable where both may have valid points around a contentious issue, but most often one is more right than the other, but ego prevents the other from backing down and accepting defeat. Perhaps defeat is too strong a term, because the reality is closer to accepting having learnt something new from someone we hoped would not be in a position to teach us something new because it implies that they knew more than us. Hence the ego kicking in.
The same plays out constantly in relationships with significant others. I recently became aware of an awkward truth, or perhaps just an awkwardness that defines a large part of my life, and probably yours. Given that I am regularly drawn into contentious situations for reasons that are unimportant at this point, it was always easy for me to assume that it was someone else’s drama that I was compelled to resolve, or at least needed to resolve. While some of that may be true, I’m quite certain that it’s not always true despite what my ego may prompt me to believe. As I took a closer look I grew more aware of this phenomenon, and I’m convinced that in every relationship, and more accurately, in every scenario in every relationship there is one that sets the tone, and the other that harmonises that tone. As an example, if I arrive home in a flustered state after a long slog at the office and just want to be left alone, my wife could either insist that I give my family their dues and pay attention to their needs regardless of my preferences at that point, or she could create a space that doesn’t place those immediate demands on me, while also allowing for a distraction that defuses the tone that I set. In that case, I set the tone, and she harmonises it.
The important thing I noticed around this is that both parties set the tone at different points, even though in some relationships one person assumes the dominant role more often, while the other is comfortable to constantly follow their lead and harmonise their lives around that tone that was set. The problem sets in when both want to set the tone, or both want to harmonise. That’s when egos are triggered, and demands for significance play out in cryptic ways that do everything but make plain the real issue at hand.
The impact of both wanting to set the tone is fairly obvious, but not so for the situation where both wish to harmonise. I’ve found this to take place at times when the usually dominant one feels the fatigue of playing the lead role and suddenly steps back hoping to be led for a change. The other that was comfortable to follow and harmonise up to that point suddenly feels uncomfortable being forced into a lead role, thereby causing them to question their competence in that setting in the relationship. It also causes them to question the value of their contribution up to that point, leading to frayed tempers and subsequent upheaval.
This may be a simplification of the dynamics that play out in relationships, be they personal or professional, but it’s a theme that is common and from what I’ve seen, consistent. If we assume that we only play one or the other, then we firstly undermine the contribution of the other, and secondly we grow oblivious to the true impact of our contribution to the relationship, both positive and negative.
While it may be true that some are naturally inclined to take a leading role, I would hazard a guess that there is not a human being alive or dead that never had a need to be led, instead of always shouldering the burden of leading others. There is much comfort that can be obtained from learning and being led, but our egos often tend to prevent us from enjoying such benefits when we convince ourselves that we are expected to know everything or lead in everything. Chances are, those expectations are entirely self-imposed, even if others believe it to be true.
Harmony is experienced when there is a mutual and willing contribution in equitable parts to a common aspirational goal. In the absence of mutuality, and more importantly willing subscription, the pursuit and the ultimate goal will always be lacking in sweetness. Perhaps this is why so many lead busy lives full of responsibility and activity while still feeling hollow and unfulfilled.