The Adventure of Change

Riane Eisler | The Power of Partnership: Seven Relationships That Will Change Your Life

Twenty-five years ago, I stood at a turning point. I had to rethink everything about my life. I was the single mother of two children, working as a family attorney, doing research, writing, lecturing, looking for the life companion I yearned for, grieving over the death of both my parents, not getting enough sleep, not paying attention to what I ate, pushing myself until I nearly collapsed. I became so ill that at times I thought I might die. When I walked, my heart pounded and my breath got so short I had to stop. I hurt everywhere, so much that I sometimes cried. I finally realized I couldn’t go on this way —I had to make major changes in my life.

I began with simple things. I stopped taking all the drugs my doctors prescribed and instead radically changed my diet. I stopped eating the rich foods and pastries of my Viennese childhood: no more apple strudel and Sacher torte, more vegetables and fruits. I realized that I carried a great deal of pain that I had to process if I was going to heal. I began to meditate. I found a wonderful therapist. I became more accepting of myself and found new joy in my relations with others, particularly those closest to me.

I also began to think seriously about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I gave up my law practice and devoted myself to what I really wanted to do. For ten years, I researched a book I called The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future, which was published in 1987. It was a rereading of Western history going back over thirty thousand years. It showed that what we think of as natural and inevitable — destructive personal and social patterns such as domestic violence, chronic warfare, racial and religious prejudice, the domination of women by men — are not natural or inevitable at all.

Writing this book changed me and changed my life. The Chalice and the Blade became a best-seller translated into seventeen languages, but more significant for me was that I now saw clearly that the problems in my life were part of a much larger problem. As it turned out, thousands of readers felt the same. Letters poured in, and continue to pour in. I had hoped, naturally, to touch people. But I was astonished by the powerful response to The Chalice and the Blade — especially how women and men worldwide said it was empowering them to transform their lives. The knowledge that I was able to make this kind of contribution gave a whole new meaning and purpose to my life.

So while I didn’t know it at the time, the turning point I faced twenty-five years ago — and the changes I then began to make — eventually led to the fulfillment of dreams I hadn’t even let myself dream and of potentials I would not otherwise have realized.

You too may have been at such a turning point at some time in your life. You may be at one now. Perhaps, as I did, you suspect there must be a better way to live, that your life can be filled with more passion, joy, satisfaction, and love. You may also suspect something even more fundamental: that today we all stand at a turning point when changes in how we view our world and how we live in it are more important than they have ever been before.

Why This Book

I wrote most of this book before the terrorist attacks that have so radically altered all our lives. Unfortunately, these attacks make this book even more timely.

I originally wrote The Power of Partnership for four reasons. I wrote it because it can help people who — like me at my turning point — need and want effective ways to heal and change. I wrote it for my children and grandchildren, because I passionately want a good future for them. I wrote it because so many people have asked for practical applications of the ideas introduced in The Chalice and the Blade. And I wrote it to provide a new perspective and practical strategies for people and organizations concerned about the dangers we face in our country and the world — dangers that the terrorism on our own shores has brought home to us with deadly force.

The Power of Partnership is above all a practical book: a book to help us help ourselves, particularly at this time when so many of us feel helpless. It is a self-help book. But it is a self-help book that goes much deeper and further than the typical self-help book.

As the new reality of our lives demonstrates, the self can’t be helped in isolation. All of us are always in relationship — and not just with the people in our immediate circle, in our families and at work. We are affected by a much wider web of relationships swirling around us and impacting every aspect of our lives.

If we don’t pay attention to these less immediate relationships, then just trying to fix ourselves alone is like trying to go up on a down elevator. No matter what we do, we’re trapped and headed in the wrong direction. Many people are beginning to realize this, as they go from self-help book to self-help book and workshop to workshop. Certainly working on ourselves is essential. But it is not enough.

We all want to be healthy, safe, and happy. We want this for ourselves, and we especially want it for our children. We work hard so we can send them to college and leave them well-provided financially. But, in our time when so much is happening we wish we didn’t have to think about, many of us are beginning to realize that much more is needed.

The Power of Partnership offers a new approach to transformative change. It deals with personal change and the larger changes needed if we and our children are to have the good life we all want. It shows the connections between our personal problems and the global problems piling up around us, and how a happier self and a better world are interconnected. It provides a wealth of practical steps that will help you find more love, get along better with your loved ones, make your work more satisfying and meaningful, and help you feel more safe and live your life more fully. On the larger scale, it provides practical steps to move us toward a more secure, sustainable, and satisfying future.

The Power of Partnership deals with the seven key relationships that make up our lives. First, our relationship with ourselves. Second, our intimate relationships. Third, our workplace and community relations. Fourth, our relationship with our national community. Fifth, international and multicultural relationships. Sixth, our relationship with nature and the living environment. And seventh, our spiritual relations.

In the next seven chapters, you will see that there are two fundamentally different models for all these relationships: the partnership model and the domination model. You will see how these two underlying models mold all our relationships — from relationships between parents and children and between women and men to the relations between governments and citizens and between us and nature. As you learn to recognize these two models, you will see how both individually and collectively we can influence what happens to us and around us. As you learn to move relationships toward the partnership model, you will begin to make positive changes in your day-today life and our world.

While the terms domination model and partnership model may not be familiar to you, you’ve probably already noticed the difference between these two ways of relating — but lacked names for your insight. When we lack language for an insight, it’s hard to hold on to it, much less use it. Before Newton identified gravity, apples fell off trees all the time but people had no name or explanation for what was happening. The partnership and domination models not only give us names for different ways of relating but also an explanation for what lies behind these differences.

In the domination model, somebody has to be on top and somebody has to be on the bottom. Those on top control those below them. People learn, starting in early childhood, to obey orders without question. They learn to carry a harsh voice in their heads telling them they’re no good, they don’t deserve love, they need to be punished. Families and societies are based on control that is explicitly or implicitly backed up by guilt, fear, and force. The world is divided into in-groups and out-groups, with those who are different seen as enemies to be conquered or destroyed.

In contrast, the partnership model supports mutually respectful and caring relations. Because there is no need to maintain rigid rankings of control, there is also no built-in need for abuse or violence. Partnership relations free our innate capacity to feel joy, to play. They enable us to grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This is true for individuals, families, and whole societies. Conflict is an opportunity to learn and to be creative, and power is exercised in ways that empower rather than disempower others.

Remember how the father treated his children in the movie The Sound of Music? When Baron von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) blows his police whistle and his children line up in front of him, stiff as boards, you see the domination model in action. When the new nanny (Julie Andrews) comes into the picture and the children relax, enjoy themselves, and learn to trust themselves and each other, you see the partnership model in action. When von Trapp becomes much happier and closer to his children, you see what happens as we begin to shift from domination to partnership.

You may have worked for a boss who watches every little thing you do, who’s afraid that if you don’t follow orders to the letter everything will fall apart, who has to be in full control all the time. This is how the domination model manifests itself in management. If you work for someone who inspires you and facilitates your work, who gives you both guidelines and leeway, and encourages you to use your own judgment and creativity, you’ve experienced what happens when organizations begin to move away from the domination model toward the partnership model.

If your spouse abuses you emotionally or physically, you’re in a dominator marriage. If you’re in a relationship that gives you and your partner the freedom to be fully authentic and at the same time mutually supportive, you’re experiencing partnership at home.

The famous “horse whisperer” Monty Roberts applies the partnership model to how he relates to horses. When Roberts “gentles” rather than “breaks” a young horse, he is using the partnership model. He does not force horses to obey using violence and inflicting pain (the domination model). Instead, he partners with them in learning — and these horses regularly win races all over the world. They are also a pleasure to ride, because they are your trusted and trusting friends rather than your fearful and hostile adversaries.1

If you look at the difference between people’s lives in Norway and Saudi Arabia, you see how the partnership and domination models play out on the national level. In Saudi Arabia, where dominator habit patterns and the social structures that support them are still very strong, women don’t even have the right to drive a car much less vote or hold office, and there is a huge economic gap between those on top and those on the bottom. By contrast, in the much more partnership-oriented Norway, a woman can be, and recently was, head of state, about 40 percent of the parliament is female, and there is a generally high living standard for all.

You can dramatically see how these two models play out on the international level when you compare Gandhi’s successful nonviolent tactics in dealing with the British in India with the terrorist tactics of Muslim fundamentalists against the United States.

I will have much more to say about the differences between the partnership and dominator ways of life, about the family and social systems that support each, and about how transformation from one to the other can happen and has happened. Here I just wanted to give you a glimpse of these two models in action. No organization, family, or country orients completely to the partnership model or the domination model: it is always a continuum, a mix more or less one way or the other. But the degree to which these two models for feeling, thinking, and acting influence us in one or the other directions affects everything in our lives — from our workplaces and communities to our schools and universities, from our entertainment and health care system to our governments and our economic systems, from our intimate relations to our international relations.

Our Hidden Historical Baggage

The domination model is unpleasant, painful, and counterproductive. Yet, we live with it and its consequences every day.

Why would anybody want to live like this? I don’t think anybody really does, not even those on top if they stop to consider the huge price they’re paying. But what happens is that when people relate to each other as “superiors” and “inferiors,” they develop beliefs justifying these kinds of relations. They build social structures that mold relationships to fit this top-down pattern. And as time rolls on, everybody gets trapped in them, as these ways of relating are passed on from generation to generation.

Sometimes people blame their parents for their problems. But our parents didn’t invent their habits. They learned them from their parents, who in turn learned them from earlier generations, going way back in our cultural history.

If we look at this history, we see that many of our habits — whether in intimate or international relations — come from earlier times when everybody had to learn to obey their “superiors” unquestioningly. In those times, despotic kings, feudal lords, and chieftains had life and death powers over their “subjects,” as they still do in many parts of our world today. Think of how only a few hundred years ago, if you balked or back-talked, your life was in danger. Think of the Inquisition, the witch burnings, and all the ways people were terrorized in the Middle Ages to instill habits of absolute obedience. Think of how kings were in the habit of chopping people’s heads off, even those of their wives, as the English king Henry the Eighth did. Think of how slavery and child labor under the most brutal conditions were legal, and of how male heads of household also had despotic powers.2 Think of commands like “spare the rod and spoil the child” justifying child-beating, of laws that not so long ago gave husbands the right to beat their wives, of how husbands until very recent times were given legal ownership of not only their wives’ bodies but also of any property they had or any money they earned.

You might say that was then, and it’s different now. Certainly in the United States we are fortunate to live in a country where despots no longer rule and the human rights of children, women, and people of color are gradually being recognized. But even here, the hidden baggage from earlier times still lives on. Over and over, habits we inherited get in the way of more fulfilling lives and a better world.

Once we become aware of what we carry unconsciously, we can change. Change involves two things: awareness and action. As we become more aware of what is really behind our problems, we can begin changing what we do and how we do it. But this is a two-way street.

Awareness and action are always in a dance together that takes us farther and farther from where we started. It’s like when we stop eating junk food because we become aware that, despite all the ads about how good it is, it’s bad for us. When we change this habit, we discover how much healthier we feel, less nervous and jumpy from all the sugar, stronger, more energetic. This new awareness in turn leads to other changes, perhaps avoiding foods high in fat, eating more balanced meals, and getting more exercise.

So new awareness and changed habits go together. As our personal relationships move toward partnership, the beliefs that guide our behavior change. As our beliefs start to support partnership rather than dominator relations, we begin to change the rules for relationships. This in turn helps us build more partnership-oriented families, workplaces, and communities. We then begin to change the rules for the wider web of relationships, including economic and political relations as well as our relationship with our Mother Earth. These rules, in their turn, support partnership relations all across the board, so that the upward spiral is given yet another boost.

One of the striking things about history is how many great visionaries, thinkers, and writers have pointed to exactly what we’re looking at here. From Jesus and Buddha to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Martin Luther King, Jr., they all recognized that just working on ourselves is not enough. They point to the road from the self to society and back again — that we also have to change the cultural beliefs and social structures that imprison us in a life we don’t want. In essence, they point us to a partnership spiritual path.

The Turning Point

Martin Luther King, Jr., historical baggage, social structures, international relations — these may seem a long way from my life crisis twenty-five years ago. But they are all related and interrelated.

I know from my own experience that personal change is possible. I know from my research for The Chalice and the Blade and subsequent books that, in our age of biological and nuclear technologies, the old dominator ways can lead to disaster, even to the extinction of our species. I know from my research that the turmoil of our time, as upsetting and confusing as it is, also offers an opportunity to make fundamental changes.3

As a mother and grandmother, I feel a great urgency to do what I can to help bring about these changes. The good news is that we don’t have to start from square one. We’ve already left many dominator beliefs and structures behind and started to replace them with partnership ones. If we hadn’t, I couldn’t have written this book. Nor could you be reading it. This book would have been burned, and you and I would have been condemned for heresy.

Partnership is already on the move all over the world. In fact, the movement to shift from domination to partnership in all aspects of our lives — from the personal to the political — is the fastest-growing and most powerful movement in the world today.4

Millions of people are going to workshops and seminars to learn how to have better personal, business, and community relationships. Hundreds of thousands of grassroots organizations — from environmental and peace groups to human rights and economic equity organizations — are working to create the conditions that support our deepest strivings for love, safety, sustainability, and meaning. One of the most important aspects of the partnership movement is the search for young people for their voice. Indeed, young people are today often in the forefront of the partnership movement, intuitively manifesting partnership in their individual and collective actions, in innovations that are sparks for systems transformations.

Worldwide, the movement toward partnership is at the heart of innumerable causes with widely differing names, transcending conventional categories such as capitalism versus communism and religious versus secular. However, we don’t read about this movement in the media because it is not centralized and coordinated — and because it has lacked a single unifying name. Without a name, it’s almost as if it didn’t exist, despite all the progress around us.

At the same time, there is also powerful resistance to this forward partnership movement. And there are regressive forces pushing us back toward the kinds of relationships we have been trying to leave behind. Our future hinges on the outcome of this still largely invisible struggle.

There are those who would reimpose patterns of domination. Some are terrorists from faraway lands. Others are in our own nation. And most of us carry inside us dominator habits that get in the way of the good life we yearn for.

Gandhi said we should not mistake what is habitual for what is natural. Indeed, changing what is habitual is one of the goals of self-help.

The Power of Partnership is about changing dominator habits — both personal and social. It’s about small habits and huge habits. It’s about the underlying causes of painful and dysfunctional habits.

It’s about what you and I can do to make partnership a reality.

This doesn’t mean that every one of us has to do everything. But wherever we are and whenever we can, every one of us can do something to move us from domination to partnership.

I know from the joy, imagination, and creativity that are my grandchildren’s natural gifts — as, given half a chance, they are every child’s — that the human spirit can soar into as yet unimagined realms of possibility. We have been endowed by nature with an amazing brain, an enormous capacity for love, a remarkable creativity, and a unique ability to learn, change, grow, and plan ahead. We were not born with the unhealthy habits we carry. We had to learn them. So we can unlearn them, and help others do the same.

We can all learn partnership ways of living. I invite you to join me in the adventure of creating a way of life where the wonder and beauty latent in every child can be realized, where the human spirit is liberated, where love can freely do its magic.

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