Getting Your Relationship From Cruise Control to 5th Gear

If you’re like most of us in the US, you were influenced by culture to view intimate partnership more as an achievement or commodity, than as a pursuit in personal development. It’s the simple American bias heavily valuing outcome over process, extrinsic over intrinsic, and destination over journey, and you’re not alone! In my experience, the most rewarding relationships tend to flip these biases on their asses!

For me, the concept of relationship started making major changes when I realized I was “car shopping” for a partner. I wanted a sleek figure, smooth shifting, flashy colors, power steering, and lifetime maintenance! Somehow, if I could just custom order my “vehicle,” I would be happy, because it’s certainly not about me growing and changing, it’s about finding the “right” fit! Like you, I test drove a few models, even leased a few, til eventually I saw them as “broken down,” or, more likely, they drove off in search of a new “garage.”

Okay, excusing my crude car metaphor here, I hope you get the point. When I looked at the world to conform to me in order to meet my needs, the joke was usually on me. And for those of us who deny our sense of feeling like a walking punchline, we have two choices: 1 – blame anything and everyone else and get angry, or 2 – start to do our own work.

If you’re somebody who’s ready to peek behind door number 2, please play with the following tips and make them your own!

Get Engaged

Funny how we use this term as a traditional form of marriage commitment, yet its meaning can go so much deeper than the verbal commitment! What I mean here is to get out of cruise control and start naming that you’d like something in your relationship to shift. Unspoken experience in partnerships is like mold in a basement; let it fester long enough and eventually the entire house falls apart.

Speak from your experience only

This is just a small – albeit, important – part of differentiation in relationship, which is the process of accessing and owning our whole selves in relationship with another. Make no mistake, we are a culture of co-dependence as much or more than we are a culture of fast food and obesity: just because it’s the “norm,” doesn’t mean it’s healthy! So, work on identifying your personal experience at any (and every) given moment, in terms of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and own them with compassion. Realize that your needs are related to your internal experience and entirely not related to other people’s actions. I run an open, donation-based NVC Experiential Group for people wanting practice relating in such a way, in case you want extra challenge and support, as this again, is sadly quite radical.


This is one I know I struggle with in my partnership, as I think my “adult” mind struggles to make room for what play can look like nowadays. Scientific evidence supports the notion that human bonding happens around play, and I’m sure most of our personal experience would support this. Think about your intimate partnerships for a second…how much time and energy did/do you and your partner spend on play in the early stages? In the middle? Towards the end? Every sustainable partnership needs a certain amount of play and fun not only to deepen connection, but also to release tension, move our bodies, and fan the flame of adventure, at least in a small way.

Romeo and Juliet is a myth

The Romeo and Juliet us-against-the-world template for romance may sell box office tickets and books, but is completely unsustainable in the real world of relationship. The truth is, we all need support, as individuals, groups, families, communities, and as partners. It seems like our culture – especially in Portland – is pretty accepting of support for the individual and the community, and certainly in more progressive businesses I see acceptance for support of group culture as well. However, family and partner support is still pretty taboo. The “behind closed doors” attitude is still pretty strong, and it’s killing our most important relationships. If you’re part of a couple, try treating your relationship as a 3rd entity (another great practice in differentiation), meaning that it’s not a personal mix of you and your partner, it is a third entity formed by the union of you and your partner’s full selves. Choose a couple you think can hold space with you and share with them a little about your relationship. Be willing to listen to them if they open up, and see what happens! Again, this can bring so many nasty shadows into the light and take away their power.

If you need support your friends just can’t provide, work with a professional who you think might be able to support you. As I’ve suggested in at least one previous article, I recommend seeking this support early, when the energy to grow is greater than the desperation to get in gear that usually drives people in when the car is about to fall apart. Happy driving.

Read about Jesse’s Relationship Coaching Services

Other Suggested Reading:

Non-Violent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg

Passionate Marriage, David Shnarch