The Marital See-Saw

At one time or another, most of us have played on a see-saw. If used by one’s self, the see-saw is relatively harmless, and in turn, very little fun. But when used in tandem with a playmate, the see-saw presents a unique challenge. In fact, no other piece of school yard equipment offers two people a chance to work together in such an intimate fashion to achieve such a challenging goal. That goal is balance.

Balancing a see-saw is in fact a lofty endeavor as far as play-grounds go. It demands complete attunement with your partner, the see-saw, and your own body. The shifting of weight must be both intentional and intuitive. A see-sawing couple must have a well thought out strategy and be ready to react at any time should a moments imbalance demand it. This of course is because being unbalanced on a see-saw can lead to rapid descents and painful landings for both partners. The price of mis-attunement while see-sawing can in fact be serious injury.

However, one of the most fascinating things about the art of balancing a see-saw is that in the absence of an agreed upon strategy, simply being attuned can frequently lead to failure. By way of explanation, it is important to understand the following two principles: 1) The art of balancing is in fact the art of making constant compensations for your partner’s movements, while trying to keep your own movements to a minimum. 2) The closer two people are to the center of the see-saw, the easier it is to maintain balance.

Let’s say Johnny and Gina start out balancing quite nicely in the center of the see-saw. Johnny happens to notice a robin eating a worm on the ground next to him and without realizing it, shifts his weight ever so slightly backwards. Gina, in an intuitive attempt to stay balanced, responds by leaning back as well. Without intending to, both Johnny and Gina have begun to move further apart, thus making it increasingly difficult to maintain their balance. The further apart they get, the more likely it is that they will fail to stay balance. This tendency to move further and further apart is what see-sawers call “polarization”.

An experienced see-sawer knows that the only remedy to polarization is to do something that feels quite unnatural and is completely “counter-intuitive”. To put it plainly, when Johnny senses that Gina is beginning to polarize, he will feel his body’s natural desire to seek balance. While intuitively he will want to move away from Gina, he must overcome this urge to compensate and intentionally lean in toward the middle. Although this will create a moment of profound imbalance, Johnny is making it possible, even natural, for Gina to begin moving back toward the middle again as well. It is this counter-intuitive, anti-polarizing movement back toward the middle that is in fact the key to successful balancing. What makes this maneuver doubly difficult is that one must have faith in their partner to respond in kind. Should one’s partner not respond by quickly moving back toward the middle as well, the balance would not only be lost, but the couple would in all likelihood be headed towards a fall.

To be in a relationship is in many ways like attempting to balance a see-saw. Without realizing it, most couples are intuitively maintaining delicate balances in their relationships, constantly responding, reacting, and adjusting to one another in an effort to keep things from feeling unsteady or imbalanced. Couples often come to a therapist when they find themselves at opposite ends of the see-saw, completely polarized and struggling to maintain what has become a very delicate balancing act. They might be able to identify different “issues” that have crept up between them, but they will be at a loss as to how they have ended up so far apart on these issues. As they explore their presenting problems in therapy, most couples find that it is their inability to move back toward the middle that is making their problem so difficult to resolve. Both tend to fear that if they stop compensating for the other and actually begin to lean in the direction their partner is leaning that the see-saw will fly out of control in the partner’s favor and that they will be sent sprawling. Both will also tend to distrust the notion that their partner will respond intuitively by moving towards them in turn. It is this intuitive fear of loosing balance paired with a lack of trust in the other’s response that keeps couples polarized.

Quite often, it is the therapist’s job to assist a couple in developing a “counter- intuitive” strategy aimed at taking the initial risk of “leaning in” toward one another. Therapy becomes a series of delicate exercises in rebuilding trust in the other’s response. Over time, couples are able to inch back toward one another and re-establish themselves in the middle, where keeping balanced is not nearly as difficult. Here at Alcorn & Allison, we value this process and we feel privileged to accompany couples on that journey back toward the middle of the see-saw.

Seth Allison MA, LCPC