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The Power of Partnership

by Scott Noelle

Humanity’s greatest potential will arise from — and give rise to — partnership culture, which is a radical paradigm shift from the hyper-individualistic, adversarial, win-lose framework of today’s mainstream culture.

The magic of partnership, in all its many expressions, is how it includes the one and the many, the part and the whole, the individual and the collective. The word itself combines partner (an individual) and ship, the vessel in which partners co-exist as a collective with a common destination.

This “common unity,” or community, is what makes the difference between a partnership and a mere assemblage of separate individuals.

In a healthy partnership, each partner has clear boundaries and a strong sense of self, while simultaneously belonging to the collective. Belonging generates feelings of connection to other members, concern for their well-being, and desire to contribute to the partnership. It also staves off loneliness and generally makes life feel more meaningful — especially when the basis of belonging transcends ideological or behavioral conformity.

The need to belong is so deeply embedded in human nature that we have evolved powerful instincts to avoid or resist disconnection, exclusion, and separation. We feel intense negative emotions like fear, sadness, anxiety, shame, jealousy, and anger when we perceive our partnership connections to be threatened or uncertain. Conversely, healthy partnership generates feelings of love, happiness, inner peace, self-esteem, trust, and gratitude.

Partnership Is Everywhere

Partnerships don’t exist in isolation; they’re interconnected with other partnerships and also nested in higher order partnerships. For example, a marriage (or any stable adult partnership) can be part of a household partnership that includes children or whoever lives under the same roof. Multiple households can partner to form a neighborhood, which belongs to a city, which is part of a country, which can partner with other countries to form a partnership of humanity, which belongs to the partnership of all life on Earth, and so on.

The nesting goes inward, too: your body is a partnership of organs, each of which is a partnership of specialized cells, etc. Even an atom can be viewed as a partnership of subatomic particles.

Given this partnership view of life at every scale, and the extraordinarily social nature of the human species, it follows that humanity has evolved for partnership. We are biologically primed for a life of partnership with other human beings and the natural world. No wonder we feel a profound sense of rightness when we visit an old-growth forest or any environment shaped by the partnership dynamics of nature.

And beyond the concrete examples given above, there are plenty of examples of partnership in the abstract, like the partnership of chaos and order, progress and tradition, nature and nurture, life and death, heaven and earth, or yin and yang. Looking inward: your inner child and inner adult, masculine and feminine sides, intellect and intuition, head and heart — and so on — can be in partnership, too.

Being aware of the interconnected web of partnerships permeating every sphere of our existence — all the way out and all the way in — gives rise to a partnership mindset or worldview. It shapes the way we see and think about life and people. The eyes of partnership can see connection where conventionally trained minds see only separateness and division.

Unconditionally Connected

The experience of separation from others — physically, emotionally, ideologically, etc. — can be devastating. Every particle of your being knows you’re supposed to feel connected.

One way to deal with separation is to resist it by manipulating the situation and getting people to change their minds and their behavior, or by sacrificing your authenticity and conforming to others’ expectations. This is essentially the plot line of all the dramas and stories that perpetuate our control-oriented culture!

Another approach involves a more subtle, inner drama: finding ways to transform the experience of separation into an experience of connection — even if the superficial appearance of separation persists. This requires an elevated state of consciousness that I call unconditionality because it allows the inner transformation to unfold without requiring external conditions to change first.

Unconditional connection exposes the experience of separation for what it is — an illusion — and taps into the powerful truth of omnipresent partnership:  We are always connected whether we perceive it or not.

Partnership Works for Everyone

Knowing we’re interconnected provides a foundation for social harmony and a powerful leverage point from which to co-create patterns of mutual workability in any partnership.

In contrast to control hierarchies that rely on fear, threats, and force, healthy partnerships are cooperative, collaborative and noncoercive. The more connected the partners feel, the more they prefer power with, rather than power over, each other. They value the sovereignty of individuals — even children — trusting their innate sociality to guide them, without coercion, toward pro-social behavior. They understand that working with human nature is easier and far more pleasant than opposing it.

When the members of a partnership are attuned to each other’s emotional states as well as their own, they notice immediately when the well-being of any partner is diminished. In other words, they know when “something isn’t working” for one or more partners. This kind of empathic connection precludes an “every man for himself” strategy. If “I feel your pain,” then any solution that “works” at your expense is simply not an option for me.

To achieve mutual workability, a partnership strategy requires creativity. When a problem or conflict arises, one or more partners begin a creative process that will continue until a solution that works “well enough” for everyone is found. The process may unfold in stages as better, more nuanced solutions are innovated and trialed. The goal is always to move in a direction that results in more workability for more partners, letting go of less effective solutions in favor of more effective ones.

Applied creativity builds collective intelligence into the partnership, cultivating harmonious patterns of behavior, communication, and affect. When done skillfully, the creative process itself is a source of satisfaction. In other words, when you’re confident in your ability to create harmony, you enjoy creating it!

Beyond Right and Wrong

A key indicator of healthy partnership is a diminishing interest in being “right” by making others “wrong.” High-functioning partners don’t waste their life energy judging, blaming, and punishing each other.

When some aspect of a partnership isn’t working, it’s only natural that one or more partners begin to feel a sense of wrongness, or even pain. Such feelings signal that the health of the partnership is at risk and needs attention.

But instead of dealing with it, we’ve been culturally conditioned to deflect and avoid the discomfort through blame: assigning the wrongness to those whose behavior is most easily associated with the problem or injury, often grossly oversimplifying the circumstances, if not outright distorting the truth.

For example, when people steal others’ property, we deem them “criminals” and punish them instead of acknowledging that we’re all participants in the system that gives rise to crime. Focusing on blame and punishment is ignoring the real problem!

In partnership, we focus on restoring well-being and addressing the underlying systemic unworkability. This approach isn’t easy at first, it requires self-discipline and courage to endure a period of conscious incompetence while you’re learning the skills of creative partnership.

Playing to Win

When you see others as partners to whom you’re deeply connected, you can’t purge a feeling of wrongness by assigning it to them. Judging, blaming, and punishing them guarantees that the wrongness will stay in the partnership, because you know you’re connected to the “bad guys” or the “losers,” and because they will likely sling the blame right back at you.

In a world of partnership everywhere — even between competing interests — the strategy of making yourself or your group “right” by deeming others “wrong” becomes obsolete.

This is not to say that nothing ever goes wrong. People are fallible. We do stupid things and make bad choices. But there is no law of nature that says the only way to rectify errors is to blame and punish those who err. In fact, punitive strategies only “work” by creating a false sense of justice through equalizing losses. Everyone loses. (“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”)

In a healthy partnership, the bar is much higher. Nobody wins unless everyone wins. So when something feels wrong, that feeling doesn’t automatically initiate a blame game. Rather, the feeling of wrongness is perceived as an indicator that the partnership isn’t working optimally and needs a “tune-up,” which could involve practical changes, improved communication, and/or healing processes. What it doesn’t involve is asking who’s to blame. We don’t care. We just need to understand what’s not working so we can enter (or re-enter) a creative process to restore harmony for all.

I win.  You win.  The partnership wins.  Life wins.

Scott Noelle is a father, a parenting coach, and the author of The Daily Groove: How to Enjoy Parenting... Unconditionally! Scott and his partner, Beth Noelle, have been married for over 30 years, and they have two adult children. ( Updated: 2022 )
© 2020 Scott Noelle.