The tidally-locked relationship

Have you ever noticed that we only get to see one side of the moon?

The moon rotates just like any other planetary body. But we only see one face of it. That’s because the rate of its rotation around the Earth is perfectly synchronized with its rotation rate. As it moves around the Earth, it turns at the same speed, keeping one side always facing Earth-wards and one side always away.

It’s not just an incredibly unlikely coincidence that these two rotational rates would be matched. Instead, it results from a tendency of tidal forces to cause two orbiting bodies to gradually sync up in exactly this fashion, over millions of years. This is a phenomenon known as “tidal lock”.

I’ve realized that human relationships experience something similar.

When we first meet someone, we have a lot of latitude in how we relate to them. We can easily choose the sides of ourselves we want to show them. Everything about us is new to them. We can experiment.

But if we stay close to them—if we become orbiting bodies, so to speak—we tend to sync over time. We fall into a rhythm, or a rut, with them. We gradually settle on the one expression of ourselves that they see all the time.

And if they are the largest and closest object in our personal solar system, that aspect of ourselves can come to dominate our whole personality in all of our contexts and relationships.

We are partially created by the people around us. By their beliefs and their vision of us. By what they encourage with their approval and engagement, and what they discourage with judgment or skepticism. It’s a continuously cyclical system, because we fall into a role around the people we know, and that reinforces their view of us. If you “know” a partner is going to be delighted to see you, the “you” they see is going to be excited and open. If you “know” they are going to be distant and judgmental, the “you” they see will be guarded and defensive.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, this observation gives me a lot of hope.

Of course, there is a negative side. Within a given relationship, if the tidal lock has trapped the partners into dysfunctional patterns, it may be essentially impossible to break free of those habits while staying together. And that’s pretty sad to think about.

But it also means that who we think we are may have more to do with the relationship(s) we’re in than it does with some immutable fact of our personalities. If we’re not happy with who we are, that can be a cheering thought.

I’ve experienced a lot of growth and rebirth since my divorce. But when I’m around my coparent, I feel the old patterns reasserting themselves. I see the tidal lock setting in.

And I don’t much like the person I was in that relationship.

I can feel my own locking forces that used to reach out to entrap her as well. On bad days, part of me wants to take mutual friends by the shoulders and say “let me tell you about the REAL her”. I expect she sometimes feels the same about me.

For the longest time, both while in the relationship and after, when I would start to build some affection for myself, it would be dampened by reflection on what my then-partner saw of me. “She sees and knows the real me. She knows me better than anyone… and so that must be who I really am. Anything positive anyone else sees in me is just an illusion.”

What I’ve realized is that within that specific tidally-locked relationship, the “real” me and the “real” her are distorted and elided versions of who we could be. The sides of me that other people see aren’t fake. They aren’t a facade I throw up. They are possibilities. Potentialities. They are as much me as anything else.

And if I stay around the people who see beautiful sides of me… those positive aspects grow roots and leaves and assume a central role in my identity.

I don’t know if it’s possible to avoid tidal lock entirely… to keep all the options wide-open within the context of a single relationship. Or whether tidal lock is inevitable. But what I do realize now is that I’m not constrained to be that old “real me”. I can choose who I grow into, partly by choosing who I spend my time with. And that’s an exciting thought.

(It also means that whenever I hear some scandalous revelation about what “the real so-and-so is like”, based on a story from their private lives, I remind myself that this concept of “the real person” is a construct. The stories may be true, but limiting people to who they are within a certain relationship context is both self-fulfilling and a profoundly depressing view of human identity.)

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  1. I love the deep insight and self-awareness of this. Fortunately for this metaphor, breaking away from that tight spin will be a good thing, not a cosmic cataclysm! Each of us has experienced some aspect of destructive tidal lock with someone, and despaired of ever regaining our true, positive aspects. You’ve expressed it so eloquently. I’m very encouraged to see you start to rediscover your full range of potential. I know it isn’t an easy process; some people never recover themselves.

  2. At least with the negative relationship patterns, I’ve heard the concept referred to as an “entanglement”.

    It’s talked about in depth in the book, “Conscious Loving”. A transformative book with plenty of actionable guidelines.

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