Water is water.
Are you thinking, “Of course water is water. What else would it be?”
Perfect. If you’re thinking that, you’re already on the right track to understanding human behavior and what it means for partner rules of engagement. What do I mean by rules of engagement? Rules of engagement refer to the set of rules a person follows when engaging with a particular target. The target discussed in this article is a person’s partner.
What does the expression “Water is water” have to do with the rules a person must follow when engaging with their partner?
Well, water is a chemical substance that can exist as a solid, liquid, or gas. Water is an odorless liquid at ambient temperature and pressure—the typical temperature and pressure of the surrounding environment. Essentially, water’s natural state is liquid. But when you lower or increase the temperature or pressure, it can change into another matter state. If water is cold enough, it can turn into ice. If it is hot enough, it can turn into a gas.
Our Natural States of Being
What do water and human beings have in common?
Just like water, we have our natural states. But we can exist in many emotional and behavioral forms—depending on the emotional temperature or life pressure placed on us. For example, you may be sitting on the sofa frustrated that your partner (or child!) will not help you clean the house unless you get into an argument and make ultimatums. You become frustrated each time you have to do this, but you are equally frustrated when they go back to their natural state of not helping you clean up until you again put pressure on them.
Water is water.
You may be upset that your partner does not plan romantic dates. While this is upsetting on its own, you are more grieved at the realization that the only time your partner does plan a romantic date is after you have a heartfelt discussion about unmet needs in your relationship. After some time passes, your partner goes right back to the state of not planning romantic dates.
Just like water, we have our natural states. But we can exist in many emotional and behavioral forms—depending on the emotional temperature or life pressure placed on us.
Water is water.
You may be a newly engaged partner struggling with your partner’s constant tardiness. You have tried to deal with your partner being late to everything in the past. But now your partner is late to what you consider one of the most important moments of your life, planning your wedding. You are concerned that, unless you get upset and draw a line in the sand, your partner will not show up to planning sessions on time. To make matters worse, you just know your partner will only be punctual a few times after an argument and will shortly go back to being the late-to-everything partner.
Water is water.
New Rules of Engagement
Even when certain facts impact behavioral change, a person’s natural state tends to remain the default. Of course, it is possible for a person to change, but this change generally comes from within.
What can you do about this?
You can try out new partner rules of engagement. These three rules can be established at any phase of the relationship.
- Be a partner researcher. Have you heard the saying, “The best defense is a good offense”? While dating, become an investigator of your partner’s natural states. Dating is an environment that can change the temperature and pressure of the surrounding environment. When a person says their partner was “not like this when we were dating,” that is often quite true. The pressure of being a good candidate can push someone to temporarily behave in a way that differs from the way they might typically behave. A person might be on their best behavior while dating, in other words. But as dating continues, the changed temperature and pressure in that environment becomes more ambient, or typical. A person’s natural tendencies may be more apparent than tendencies under pressure. Determine what their natural states are. If you are already in a committed, long-term relationship, examine their natural tendencies as seen across the relationship.
- Analyze your partner data. So you’ve determined your partner’s natural states. What do you do with that information? It helps to take a step back and determine what “pressures” tend to change their matter states. For example, you determined your partner seemed more spontaneous early in the relationship but is not naturally spontaneous. When you go to your partner and express your desire for more spontaneity, however, a change happens. They engage in more spontaneous behavior for the next few months. This tells you your partner can engage in behavior change and is willing to try to meet your needs when these needs are communicated.
- Interpret and make decisions. You recognize your partner has some great natural states and others that might bother you. Do you feel connected enough to your partner that you can accept all the potential existing states? Or are some of the natural states unbearable? You might recognize that no one is perfect and feel able to commit to working together with your partner, accepting all of their natural states. Or you may have determined that although your partner has some great natural states, you do not want to have to continually adjust the temperature or pressure, so to speak, to get your partner to engage in desired behaviors more often. After you have decided your level of commitment, you can decide if you can continue on in the relationship. Before you can make this decision, understand your partner is likely to go back to their natural state when the pressure become ambient. If you feel the amount of persistent pressure you would have to maintain to get more of what you need may be too much of a commitment, you may choose to move toward other partnership opportunities.
The principles of these rules of engagement don’t only apply to romantic relationships. Remembering “Water is water” can be helpful when you experience frustration with the natural state of a parent, child, friend, or coworker. The ability of humans to evolve and change matter states is truly marvelous. But we all have our default, or natural, states.
Under pressure, and in the right temperature, we can engage in behavior change. But we always have the potential to go back to our natural state. Both empathy for a partner’s natural states and love through all the states enable us to maintain long-term commitments. You may be able to adjust both pressure and temperature in your relationship, but you cannot change anyone but yourself. Applying the partner rules of engagement can help you determine if you can accept and love your partner’s natural states.
The next time you feel disappointed when your partner does not help with the kids, clean the apartment, take the trash out, or plan a romantic date, say to yourself “Water is water” and talk to your partner about how you feel. Couples therapy can also be a great place to process relational dynamics and determine action steps both of you might take to create change in your relationship. If you’d like help processing what “Water is water” means in your relationship and exploring action steps you might take based on your analyses, reach out to a qualified counselor in your area.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.