Reflection 44: Intimate vs. Strategic Relationships

A gifted supervisor – when you can find one – is one of the great benefits of being a psychotherapist. I was lucky enough to find one in Carol Brockmon. One highly useful tool she introduced me to was the distinction between intimate and strategic relationships.

In this Reflection, I explain that distinction and elaborate on some of its more important implications.

Here is a typical interaction in a strategic relationship. Needing to make a key decision, a department head at a conventional, mainstream business convenes a two-hour staff meeting at 1 p.m. Being an enlightened leader, she encourages an open and vigorous exchange with each team member freely stating his or her beliefs. Now, it’s 2:59. The discussion ends and the department head makes her decision. Whether they fully agree or not, the rest of the staff is expected to fall in line.

Here, by contrast, is a typical intimate interaction. A husband and wife sit down at 1 p.m. to discuss where to send their son to school. Now it is 2:59, after a lot of back and forth, no agreement has been reached. What happens? A decision is deferred. The couple keeps talking.

The difference? In the first scenario, the priority is on achieving a goal – getting something done. In the second, the highest priority is on the relationship itself – on creating and maintaining an empathic, loving relationship.

Note, importantly, that these categories are not mutually exclusive. Strategic relationships work better when tools of intimacy are used. The department head could have simply sent a memo saying, this is what we’re going to do. But she understood that an open exchange of ideas, properly managed, improves the staff’s morale, its willingness to embrace the ultimate decision, and, more often than not, the overall quality of the decision as well.

Similarly, there are many strategic aspects to an intimate relationship. A decision about their son’s school has to be made. The couple can’t keep talking until November.

What makes this distinction so useful, however, is that it clarifies our confusion on both sides of the equation.


Discussions in which couples kill each other, arguing over what to do – in this situation or that – are endemic. Over and over in my practice, I remind couples that, 90% of the time, either choice is acceptable. A visit to mom or a day at the beach with the kids; how much cleaning is enough; how and when to pay the bills; the toilet seat up or down – there really aren’t any “right” and “wrong” decisions.

So, I repeatedly urge couples, put outcomes on the back burner. Remember that this is an intimate relationship and, for that reason, the far more important part of the discussion is not the subject itself but your emotional needs and those of your partner.

Viewed from this perspective, you should clean the dishes before leaving the kitchen, not because it’s the “right” thing to do but because you are stretching to love her in a way that is meaningful to her. Conversely, the reason for asking her to leave earlier for the airport has everything to do with your emotional comfort and nothing to do with good planning. After all, in all the years before she became your partner, she always managed to be in her seat when the plane took off.

When your priority is on the emotions that inform your intimate discussions, and not on outcomes, the results are dramatic. Focused on each partner’s needs and desires – yours and his – your empathy, patience, and skill at loving and being loved will grow and grow. At the same time, those seemingly inevitable, repetitive flare-ups will become less common and easier resolved.

And, guess what? Regardless of where you come out on the substantive issue – her solution, his, or a compromise – everyone will survive just fine.


On the strategic side of the equation, our confusions are just as great. What I notice, here, is the frequency with which we become wedded to emotional outcomes in situations that are plainly strategic.

The most obvious place where this occurs is at our mainstream places of business. Work could be a place where intimate relationships are the norm – a possibility I wrote about in Reflection, #43. Unfortunately, in our culture that is rarely the case. Hence that Reflection’s title: Radical Decency in Business: A Fairy Tale.

For this reason, the hypothetical that follows deals with what is – and not what could be.

Lou works in a small department and one of his co-workers – call him Fred – is harassing him. Fred refuses to provide Lou with information he needs to do his job, does everything he can to undercut Lou’s credibility with the boss, and even – deliberately, it seems – clutters their common work area with his files.

While important, Lou’s job is not his life’s priority. That would be his wife, kids, and private passions. And yet, he gets sucked into this unsolicited war, registering repeated complaints about Fred’s conduct, creating extensive written rebuttals, and obsessively plotting ways to “win” the battle for his boss’ good opinion by strategically pointing out – at staff meetings and endless water cooler conversations – why he is right and Fred is wrong.

The problem, of course, is that Lou – like so many of us – is unable to maintain emotional clarity about the context in which he is operating. At a typical work place, the priority is on getting things done and not on dealing with people’s feelings. But in seeking to win his battle with Fred, Lou is seeking an emotional outcome – an acknowledgment that is anger is justified and that he is held in high regard by his co-workers and boss. And in service of that goal, he deeply engaged at an emotional level.

Ideally, Lou would treat Fred’s behaviors as he would the acts of a stranger – unpleasant, unwanted but, ultimately, of no emotional significance. Maintaining that distance, he would no longer be caught up in responsive anger and anxiety about becoming an outcast in this work “family.” And with these uncomfortable and distracting emotions out of the picture, he could deal with Fred’s behaviors as a purely strategic challenge; crafting counter measures that, unencumbered by extraneous emotions, would more effectively neutralize the very real threat that Fred’s behaviors represent to his perceived value to the department and boss, and to his ability to do his job well.

Taking this approach is, needless to say, difficult. When we are attacked, our brain is wired to respond quickly, powerfully, and in kind. And once our fight or flight response is activated, it is exceedingly difficult to turn off. But to have mastery over our choices, we need to cultivate the ability to emotionally engage only in those situations where it is appropriate. And, while this is a difficult task, it is worth the effort. Ultimately, we will feel better and be to operate more effectively in difficult, strategic environments.

Note, importantly, that this tough-minded approach to strategic relationships in no way compromises Radical Decency. Prudent boundary setting, a cautious and measured approach to emotional disclosure in unsafe environments, and effective counter-measures are indispensable aspects of decency to self. But with across the board decency as our highest priority, we also need to remember that these self-protective choices are not an excuse to dispense with other attributes of decency – respect; understanding and empathy; acceptance and appreciation; fairness and justice – in dealing with the Freds of the world.

So while Lou should not ignore Fred’s conduct or “make nice” with him – in the name of these values – he should strive to be civil, even in the face of Fred’s provocations; to avoid the temptation to demonize him; and ideally, understand and even empathize with whatever emotional demons are driving Fred’s behaviors. His larger goal should be fair treatment all the way around – to himself and to Fred –– and not revenge.


There are, obviously, many relationships that have both intimate and strategic dimensions: The friendships that flower in work environments, the co-parenting relationships that many former spouses share; the very different sort of workplaces that Radical Decency envisions; and so on. Hopefully, however, focusing on the very different challenges, presented by these twin poles of relationship, will support us in making choices in all of our relationships that are more loving, appropriately self-protective – and radically decent.