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It is generally good advice that in a relationship that is supposed to be power-equal, if the balance goes too far towards one person's favor for too long, this is not a healthy relationship, and boundaries should be put in place. However, I have been realizing lately that even if a relationship has a balance that is roughly equal, there can still be something subtly but deeply wrong. I am envisioning a style of relationships that I will call "emotionally brokered relationships."
To come up with this term, I used a metaphor from the financial industry. I was inspired while reading Gordon White's book, The Chaos Protocols, in which he describes solutions for dealing with the reality of today's economy (the book is not really about relationships... my mind just jumped to that topic). In the first chapter White proffers a brief history of how the global economy got into the mess it's in today. In general, the main problem is that the economy is no longer operating on trading real "wealth" (physical goods and services based on human personal interactions), but is instead an elaborate system of relativity. As currency moves further and further away from the concept of actual wealth and direct transactions, more and more inequalities and dysfunctions are created. For example, a couple decades ago, the mortgage system made a shift from using straightforward mortgages to security-backed mortgages. A straightforward mortgage is simply a loan that the bank gives you to buy a home. A security is a piece of paper that gambles on the assumption that you will pay the mortgage back (with interest), ensuring future profit. They are basically IOUs on IOUs. The banks can then mess around with these IOU's and gain incredible wealth, basically out of thin air. The incentives behind providing loans then became less about offering a service to individuals who needed it, and more about hedging bets and maximizing profit in an abstract inter-bank market. As White put it, "Banking moved from being relationship-based (which enabled real investment in a real economy) to being transactional; bankers changed from being investors to brokers." In this system, even a mortgage that is technically "fair" for both the lender and the buyer, isn't truly an authentic transaction, and behind the scenes it's almost always working in favor of the big bank.
I think a similar difference can be described in how some people conduct relationships. For some, even their intimate relationships are not engaged with for their own sake, but instead are used as a form of social capital to increase personal power. Part of the psyche separates itself from the direct relationship and tries to direct and manage the transactions towards an ulterior goal. There is something quite nefarious about this mode of operating, and difficult to discern. One blatant example of this would be when people brag about how good their relationships are, as a form of ego-boosting, or to sell a book or workshop, or something like that. But there are other subtle ways that people can do this, brokering out the relationship to serve a dark ulterior set of motives. In relationships like these, even if the relational transactions are technically "balanced," they actually aren't, really. The party doing the emotional brokering is actually operating from a place of deep selfishness, and will always be looking for little ways to cut corners on the relational transactions, or grasping for subtle psychic superiority. Evil people conduct all of their relationships this way, and use every opportunity to take as much as they can, only giving back when it will lead to personal advantage, calculating every move to ensure personal psychic profit.
I said this mode of relationship is nefarious, but I am now thinking of situations where it doesn't necessarily have to be. Perhaps it is sometimes even necessary for health. When people have their guards down, and relate to each other directly, and build that balance of inputs and outputs together, there is an authenticity that leads to joy and mutual satisfaction. However, the unlucky among us quickly learn that this unguarded style is not wise to use with every person. Some people are dangerous. It can be a sign of maturity when one learns that relational transactions must be "brokered" to some extent, to ensure that you don't get taken advantage of. Part of your psyche needs to separate from the transaction, and observe it objectively, to make sure it's actually fair and going well. If that starts not being the case, that part, "the broker," steps in and takes measures to protect you. The ulterior motive here is self-preservation, which isn't necessarily evil. Indeed, it should be a given. The difference between this nicer way of brokering I'm thinking of, and evil, is that the motives are still relationship based. The players want to have a healthy relationship for its own sake, and they want fairness. They just need to make sure it's safe before they let their guards down. As opposed to the evil person I mentioned earlier, who only wants relationships if they serve the ego.
Problem can arise when a person uses the brokered mode for so long, they become incapable of switching into a direct, authentic transactional mode. Brokering is not a satisfying way to conduct close relationships, because it necessarily precludes intimacy, which brings true joy. At some point, when both sides know they can trust each other with their hearts, the relationship "broker" must be abandoned, and the two parties must face each other directly, nakedly, and authentically, and they must build something together. If one or both parties are unwilling to do this, then true love will never grow. Even if such a relationship has every indication of being a balanced one, it is not really healthy.
It's tricky to know when it's safe to "fire your emotional broker" in a relationship. Myself, I have been hurt so much, that I find myself needing lots of proof from another that they are trustworthy. I will enter relationships not fully engaged, but "trading relationship commodities" in as fair a manner as I know how, and watching to see if the other operates fairly as well. If s/he doesn't, I bolster my walls and might even go as far as removing them from my life. I think this is healthy, even if it's not as fun as falling in love every other week. I have a lot to offer; this makes me a desirable target for people who would like to take a lot. I have only a few friendships in my life where I'm operating from an unguarded position. I do wonder if I'll ever be able to let go again and relax with my full self exposed in a romantic relationship... and I wonder how hard a fight my "emotional broker" will put up, when it's time to step down. I feel like it would take awhile, given my experiences with men so far. I need to know that the other likes every last weird piece of me and would never judge me, would never exploit my weaknesses, would take a bullet for me, would help me, would listen wholeheartedly to me, and would keep my best interests at heart always. And I long to offer all of the above to someone else as well. Not just because that's only fair, but because that's what true love is. And true love is its own reward.