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Til Death do Us Part

Updated: Sep 3, 2021

Many people are hesitant to create their own Pie if they are in a serious relationship. Sometimes the logic goes like this: “If I’m getting my joy doing things or being with people other than my significant other, couldn’t this jeopardize our relationship? I thought being a couple came with an implicit understanding that we do everything together. If we don’t, what does that say about the strength of what we have?” More often, the logic goes like this, “Isn’t this best done as a couple’s exercise? Shouldn’t I bounce the slices of my Pie off my spouse/partner? I mean, we share everything - house, bills, parenting responsibilities, a bed, etc. And when I get very specific about what I place within each slice, don’t I need to clear these with my significant other?"

The answer is “NO”. NO! I can’t be more clear about this. Before I tell you why, you should know I’m a huge fan of committed relationships as evidenced by a 40 year marriage to a remarkable woman. And more recent wedding photos can attest that I had the biggest smile on my face the days our daughter, and then later our son, exchanged their vows with the loves of their lives. As much as I believe that marriage or any meaningful relationship is the ultimate crucible for personal growth, I also know that within this context there is a real risk that we lose touch with valuable parts of ourselves that define our uniqueness.

It doesn’t happen in all relationships, but often enough, one party or the other starts to disproportionately give up their sources of joy for the sake of the common joy of the relationship (or so they think). I’m not saying we don’t need to learn to accommodate our partners. Or that the art of compromising isn’t critical. The strongest relationships seem to have a good track record of finding common ground when each individual genuinely is coming from a different point of view. But having your Pie and eating it too doesn’t start with building a collaborative Pie as a couple. It starts by being completely honest with what uniquely brings you joy. And having your partner be just as brutally honest in what brings them joy. Those are going to be the slices of Pie. And if you are in a healthy relationship you already know there will be plenty of places where your slices will overlap. These intersections tends to be the sweet spots for most relationships. The early days of your dating is a good place to look for joy examples that are a good bet to persist over time.

Let me provide additional support for why initially “going it alone” with your Pie is the preferred strategy. When you sit down to construct your Pie, you need to imagine the widest possible landscape of personal joy. You need to be able to look back in your past to recall experiences that brought you that feeling. And then conversely you need to gaze in to the crystal ball of future joy and claim all the things that you have been postponing. These are the building blocks of Pie.

You must feel free enough to identify items that bring you joy even if you’re fairly certain they wouldn’t bring the same joy to your significant other. In fact, some of these things might actually bother or piss off your partner. Again, you are doing the foundational work of gathering the building blocks. While many ideas for populating slices of Pie suggest your individual engagement, others will require company. It could be with one other person or with a host of people. No screening or censoring should be taking place at this stage. And if you hear a small voice whispering, “She would hate that. They won’t let that happen. He is going to squash that”, you need to push through these. And if the voice says, “There’s no time for that. Do you know how much that is going to cost? What will the neighbors think”?, you need to push through those too. You’ll know you have done a good job assembling Pie ideas if you look back through your list and literally have to stop, exhale and verbalize, “Whoa”!

Let’s look at a couple of examples. Our daughter, Lillian, married a young man who she met while working at an advertising agency. Mike had grown up in Boston and migrated south to go to college. The distance from his hometown didn’t put a damper on his appetite for the New England Patriots and to a lesser degree, the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins. Before their marriage, Mike was committed to watching and on occasion attending the games of the now five time Super Bowl champs. Sunday afternoons (and the infrequent Monday evening) took on protected status. He knew when the Pats were scheduled to play and he knew he was going to be watching. Yes, he wore a dark blue #12 jersey and had a special cup for his preferred beverage when it was game time. Mike was focused. He didn’t like a lot of talking during the game.

And then Lillian entered the picture. What do you do when you’re falling in love and you’ve never watched a football game with a girlfriend? Initially, Mike made himself unavailable for those three hours when his NFL favorite was facing off with an opponent. Then he ventured in to new emotional territory when he invited Lillian to watch with him. At first it was great fun for Lillian to hang out with Mike during the game. They could snuggle on the sofa and celebrate together when the Patriots prevailed. This story has a happy ending as Lillian was the first girlfriend Mike felt comfortable watching the game with and they ended up husband and wife.

All was good for the first couple of years until Lillian realized that she really didn’t love watching football and that dedicating 16 Sunday afternoons a year to the TV wasn’t her thing. It wasn’t something she would have put on her Pie. And yet, Mike loved his team and everything about them. He knew player stats. He enjoyed talking to friends about the team or touching base with family in Boston after a win. When the couple had their first child, Mike even spent some time teaching his son the basics of football.

On Mike’s Pie, he might have actually had a slice dedicated to the Patriots. If Lillian and Mike had done a couple’s Pie, he would want to incorporate his fan loyalty and she would have no interest. They could decide to not include it and Mike would have been missing a source of Joy. They could include it and Lillian might feel obligated to participate, which wouldn’t be joyful. By doing independent Pies they realize that this is an area where Lillian knows that sports spectating is important to Mike and gives him the autonomy to watch on Sunday afternoons while she does something independent from her Pie.

Recognizing that the individuals in a couple have needs that can’t be fully met by their partner isn’t a particularly profound understanding of relationship dynamics. What is helpful here is the process where doing independent Pies illuminates areas in a relationship where each person can find unique joy without pressuring the other to pretend that it is equally joyful to them.

So I couldn’t have been more clear that I believe you have to do your own Pie independent of a significant other. But once you’ve done so, I’m not opposed to a couple taking a crack at a Partner’s Pie.

Going through the steps of identifying areas for joy is going to be valuable to your relationship. Where it will get really interesting is populating the slices with specific entries for those areas you share and those that you don’t have in common. The trick to doing this well (or at least minimizing conflict) is to enter the exercise with a healthy measure of grace. Remember, your partner’s entries can’t be wrong. A person shouldn’t be made to feel poorly about themselves for being vulnerable and disclosing where they find joy. Shaming has no place here. An inviting attitude will let each participant really explore the areas where they get joy doing things as a couple and where they get joy doing things independently. As mentioned earlier, identifying the overlap between two individual Pies of those in a relationship might actually approximate what you will create with a Partner Pie. If you are able to tease out additional areas of joy that are available to either the couple or to one of the individuals, you’ve just identified tastier ingredients for the next personal or partner’s Pie. Enjoy!

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