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Analyzing The Clintons: What Bill And Hillary Teach Us About Relationships

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's anger over a mistranslated question about her husband's view has become another one of those Clinton stories that enthralls us voyeurs -- whether as zealous demonizers or avid defenders -- of one of the paradigmatic power couples of our age. Beyond the vicarious thrills that come with analyzing the Clintons and their never-ending mix of juicy gossip, this story reminds us all that in every genuine and loving relationship there are times when one person feels overshadowed...when one person feels the other is taking up too much oxygen or taking up too much space. This can happen at a dining room table when our mate does all the talking at dinner and we can't get a word in edgewise as well as with celebrity power couples in the public eye, like the Clintons, whose dinner unfolds in front of the entire world. Hillary Clinton's irritation about her husband's reach happens between people in any serious relationship as there is no relationship in which there is always a perfectly equal distribution of power. One of the ways we develop greater intimacy is by working through the periods in our relationship when we need to rebalance who we are with each other and with regard to the world. This tension around giving each other space and the consequent need to recalibrate is exacerbated when both people in a couple are high powered and ambitious in the same area -- as in the case of the Clintons in the public and political arena. This is further exacerbated when, as it is for many men and women, women have for some period of their life put on hold their professional ambitions whether to raise children or to support their husbands career. It is a perfect storm if the two people are both always under a glass bowl and so it is with the Clintons.

For any couple to deal with this sort of issue requires honest communication and the higher-powered the couple -- the more ego , determination, single-mindedness, and capacity -- the greater than average communication skills necessary. Actually in this last period it seems the Clintons have done extremely well which is why Hillary's spontaneous outburst of anger drew such attention. The President seems to have given her space and stayed out of the limelight -- surely stayed out more than many of us would have expected. But this last week we were all reminded and Hillary most of all that Bill Clinton will for the foreseeable future be one of the most powerful, charismatic and influential people on the planet. Not surprisingly, after the Former President's headline making success in North Korea, Hillary was on edge and showed a bit uncharacteristically some public anger about what will never be a fully resolved issue. What we all got was a glimpse of what is and will be an ongoing struggle in the lives and relationship of these two powerful people and which is on a lesser level an ongoing struggle in our own relationships. There come points in every marriage where a couple needs to ask tough questions like:

Are we committed to help each other realize our potential?
Are we committed to help each other experience and exercise the full dimensions of the power and talents we have to contribute to the world?
Do we celebrate each other's successes?
What do we do when we feel overshadowed and crowded out by our spouse or resentful or envious of our spouse's success ?

Ethical rule number one is that the more power someone has in a relationship the more incumbent upon them it is to make room for the other: To do what Jewish wisdom calls tzimtzum -- self contraction. Having power and empowering are twin requirements in any healthy marriage and getting the right balance is always a dynamic and moving target -- all the more so if you are one half of a high-powered couple with a marriage constantly under scrutiny.

One of the seeming truths about the Clintons' relationship, of which both Bill and Hillary are surely aware and which will always create a certain amount of anxiousness or what I call sacred messiness if they use it to help each other grow and develop their relationship, is that no matter how hard Hillary works and no matter how smart and successful she is Bill Clinton was once the President of the United States -- an office Hillary Clinton wanted but could not attain -- and is one of the most powerful and influential people on the planet. So even though, right now, Hillary actually has more power and is more important as she is the Secretary of State and reports only to the President of the United States she will at times reflexively feel surges of insecurity about her importance and her husband's overreaching. She will, as she has done quite well, need to continue to learn how to recognize those feelings for what they are and not let them make her bitter or resentful or keep her from recognizing how successful and powerful she indeed is. By the same token Bill Clinton will inevitably overreach but if he does love his wife and does want her not only to succeed but to feel successful he will have to continue to be ever aware that his very presence on the international stage always has the potential of crowding out his wife and therefore he will need -- again if he genuinely loves his wife -- to regularly step back and contract to give his wife the space she needs to be all she can be. We have no idea what the former president was feeling the weeks before he went to North Korea after not being on the front page of a newspaper in a while and not having the TV news following his every movement. But when he is called upon to be front stage to do what perhaps only he can do given his role and his abilities both he and his wife will need to communicate knowing the buttons that will inevitably be pushed. In doing so they have the potential to heal each other's Achilles' heel -- Hillary will come to realize that her worth, power, success, is indeed not relative to her husband's, and Bill will come to realize that genuine love and the deepest power is often expressed by making space for others to flourish.

In truth, we never know what is really going on in another couple's relationship. After all, aren't we often surprised when a couple we know so well tells us they are having problems or are getting divorced? So we have no idea what is really going on in the Clintons' relationship and it may well be because their relationship seems so complicated we are fascinated as to how they hold things together -- whether because we envy them or because we can't believe it. Perhaps, we would be better using our interest in this story as a mirror in which to see our own relationships. Where do we not give our spouse, lover, partner the space to shine? Where do we take up too much oxygen? Where do we feel envy or resentment of our spouse's success? How can we better support each other to succeed even when that success may trump our own? I know, at least for myself, that it is allot easier to be tantalized by and take sides in the Hillary-Bill relationship than it is to look at my own relationship and acknowledge where I need to redefine my role.

Precisely at those difficult moments when we don't understand each other and our emotions spill over is when we need to remember that it isn't that we have to understand someone in order to love them but that we have to love them in order to understand them...and loving someone is always messy.

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