This year we've heard a lot from women about the need for us to "lean in" to leadership roles. But this article is about leaning in of a different sort. As a leadership and intimacy expert, I suggest men and women cultivate "leaning in" as a leadership skill, not of career development, but of intimacy. Below is the story of Amber and her boyfriend (names have been changed), and how she was able to use the tool to improve her relationship.
Amber is a high-minded entrepreneur. She has big ideas and the connections and expertise to put them into place. She loves her job. She also has an amazing boyfriend. He thinks the world of her and loves how she is trying to impact the world with her vision. They even moved in together into an apartment with an office space for her.
Pretty soon after that, Amber reported having a negative reaction every time he would walk in the door after work. She felt as though he would come barraging into the space, expecting something from her. She was still in work mode, and this dynamic made it difficult for her to concentrate and be productive. Luckily, Amber is good at communicating. The couple talked it through and established new ways for them to make the coming home transition easier for them both: he would say "Hi", but give her 15 minutes before seeking attention. Already, here we notice some leadership actions: defining the problem as a systems issue (not a personal one), and creating a new structure for better functionality.
It worked... for a few weeks. Even though she deeply loved this man, Amber still cringed upon his return. It seemed crazy: what was going on here? There was still a deeper question for this couple to consider. Perhaps, we explored together in counseling, it was how he was approaching her. Lo and behold, she felt as though he wanted the type of comfort that made her feel maternal, a role which she found unsexy and cumbersome. She wanted none of it. And so they talked it through.
He stood his ground, and in an inspiring display of stereotypical gender role reversal, stated that he simply wanted to reconnect, cuddle and be close with her after a hard day's work. Take note of these leadership actions: clarifying relationship roles and needs, and negotiating them.
Amber knew his requests were not unreasonable. After first looking at the systems in place, and then the roles, we concluded that the issue was hers. This was where she got "stuck". We looked to her psychological history and found a few enlightening connections, but none proved transformational. She stayed cool and distant long enough so that he threatened to leave in search of a more reciprocal relationship. He was understandably sick of feeling rejected and having his needs neglected. Leadership action from him: moving in a different direction for better results and progress.
At this point there was only one thing for Amber to do if she wanted to keep him in her life — which she really, really did: Lean in. Lean into the discomfort of comforting him. Lean in to the discomfort of connecting even though she didn't feel like it.
Now, for those of you who don't want to do anything you don't feel like because you think "it's inauthentic", I would direct you, as I did Amber, to the authenticity in wanting to take care of the relationship. Amber understood that in going against her immediate feelings, she was serving the call of the heart and being authentic to her values. And ultimately, keeping him in the game.
At first, when she opened herself to connecting with him on workday evenings, she would have a major tantrum inside, but she reminded herself of what life would be like without him, and she breathed through it. He was very responsive to her affection. And quickly, almost magically, it became easier, and then natural to connect with him at the day's end. Predictably, he appeared less needy to her, because his needs were being met.
She had mastered one level of "leaning in" to intimacy. By addressing relationship issues in terms of vision, roles and systems, and by having a partner who is interested and able to negotiate, couples can learn to co-create a working team, and get closer in the process of doing it.
What aspect of your relationship could you simply lean into? If the actions of leaning in, identifying relationship problems as solvable systems issues, clarifying roles and negotiating in a healthy way in order to make your relationship satisfying are interesting and appealing, or you would like to learn how to co-lead in love, check out the variety of courses and options for study of leadership in love on my site.
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