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Dear Josh: Does One Person Always Have To Be The Reliable One In The Relationship?

Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, offers advice on forging great creative relationships. Today: does one person always have to be the stable one?

Dear Josh: Does One Person Always Have To Be The Reliable One In The Relationship?
[Falling Rocks: Gunnar Assmy via Shutterstock]

From August 4 to 8, Fast Company is hosting the Creative Counselor, who offers advice on how to forge and maintain great creative relationships. The Counselor, aka Joshua Wolf Shenk, is the author of the new book, Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. He’s spent five years studying the most famous and productive creative partnerships, from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to Marie and Pierre Curie, comparing the common points of these stories with the latest in science and psychology. And now, he’s here to help you make the most of your creative collaboration.

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Here, one team member has occupied the role of “the rock,” but now wants to be the volatile artist. Is it possible for both parties to be the volatile creative without causing chaos?

Dear Josh,
I’ve been happily married for more than 20 years and I have three children with my wife, who I adore. She’s an accomplished artist. I’ve been a media professional for my whole career, but I wouldn’t have called myself an “artist” (in part because it sounds pretentious, but in part because my work was more about delivering information and ideas).
But over the last few years, I’ve felt the bug to capital-C Create and have had some success. Along with that, I feel more and more swing-y emotionally, meaning: I have my ups (exhilaration when the work is great, or when people respond to it) and my downs (dejection when it’s lousy, or when people don’t).
The trouble is, my wife is used to me being the stable one, so that she can have HER swings. We have an implicit agreement that we will never go south at the same time. Our house isn’t big enough for more than one pissy or dejected person, forget about full-on meltdowns. But she’s used to getting the lion’s share of those moods. I feel like I’ve come late to a party, and the guacamole is mostly eaten, and there’s just no way I’m going to get my fill. And I want to have a meltdown about it.
Yours,
Mr. Stability

Dear Stability,

It’s huge that you and your wife have this equilibrium. It’s as important to a relationship as homeostasis is to the body. I mean, in the same way that the body naturally adjusts to heat by sweating, or to a bacterial infection by warming up to kill off the bugs, people play off each other. Many pairs do switch emotional positions pretty fluidly. My friends Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, co-creators of IdiotsBooks, are like this. “And it’s incredibly helpful,” Matthew told me, “because the one who remains on the shore is always able to throw a life preserver to whoever goes under water.”

But over time, certain patterns emerge in many pairs, and they can be hard to change. Theo van Gogh was enormously sensitive–but he was the stalwart to his brother Vincent. Paul McCartney has a devilish streak but he was the one who kept John Lennon in order. We become ourselves in relation to others, and sometimes it writes our code. This is all to say, if your wife has been the diva for some years, and you’ve been Mr. Stability, you may keep playing these parts whether you want to or not.

But–a big but–Mr. Stability is a role you play vis-a-vis her; it may be encoded in the relationship, but it’s not encoded in you. I’m almost always the shaky, sensitive, needy one in relation to my oldest brother, but I can quickly become steady, cool, and generous in relation to students who bring their needy side.

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So if she’s the diva and you’re Mr. Stability, go find someone with whom you can reverse roles. The nice irony is that, having spent so much time in your role, you really know how it gets done well.

Warmly Yours,

The Creative Counselor

Questions for the creative counselor? Leave in the comments below or email tiezzi@fastcompany.com.

Read more from the Creative Counselor on chemistry, idea vs. execution, consensus, and credit-taking.