Seldom is a historian also a futurist — but Riane Eisler became both when she discovered a model for a kinder and wiser society in the ruins of an almost-forgotten past. And her own history shows clearly why she would develop an interest in a future for humanity based on cooperation rather than the struggle for dominance. Escaping with her family from Nazism, Riane Eisler became a refugee from her native Vienna at age six. She grew up in Cuba in the tenements of Havana, and migrated at fourteen to the United States. After college she began law school at UCLA, but dropped out to get married.

She tried to be “a conventional wife in the suburbs,” but the role suited her badly. In 1967, within a period of three months, she quit her job, her marriage, and smoking. She re-entered school to complete her degree in law and became involved in feminist politics. A few years later, when her parents died within eight months of each other, Eisler experienced a complete emotional and physical breakdown. While ill, she met David Loye, a futurist and social psychologist, who became her partner both in marriage and in work. In the late Seventies, with Loye’s collaboration, Eisler wrote The Equal Rights Handbook, a definitive work on the Equal Rights Amendment. When Eisler began writing The Chalice And The Blade, they moved from Los Angeles to quiet Carmel, where she was able to work in relative isolation.

In The Chalice And The Blade, published in 1987 by Harper & Row, Eisler suggests that our historic era was preceded by 20,000 years of highly civilized harmony and creative partnership between men and women. This peaceful era ended 5,000 years ago, with the emergence of warlike hunters and herders who valued the vengeful blade over the life-giving chalice. This marked the rise of the “dominator model” of human relationships: cooperation gave way to control, and diversity — especially gender differences — became the basis for division into hierarchy. Today, with the dominator model disintegrating, Eisler believes we can restore the ancient “partnership model,” in which social relationships are based on linking rather than ranking, and diversity doesn’t connote superiority or inferiority.

The success of The Chalice And The Blade (now in its fifteenth printing and in nine foreign editions) has spawned a partnership movement nationwide, with discussion groups taking her work from the theoretical realm into the practical. To assist them, Eisler and Loye have written The Partnership Way, a study guide that will be published later this year by Harper & Row. In the meantime, it is available in manuscript form for $30 postpaid from the Center for Partnership Studies, 20110 Rockport Way, Malibu, CA 90265. The Center is a nonprofit educational organization that sponsors lectures, seminars, and special events such as “The Partnership Way Conference,” scheduled for June in Los Angeles.

Last November, I traveled with my own partner, Laurie Fox, to talk with Riane Eisler in her Carmel home. I’d like to thank Laurie, an accomplished poet, for venturing bravely into unfamiliar journalistic territory to help me prepare and conduct this interview. Laurie’s post-interview thoughts about partnership appear in an accompanying piece.

With her lilting Austrian accent and idyllic Carmel environs, Eisler could easily be mistaken for an upper-class theorist whose visions might soar too high above the realities of American culture. But in discussing her ideas, she demonstrates a keen eye for signs of social change at all levels of our common experience. More important, she doesn’t present the partnership future as an ideal that could embitter us by its distance. She’s eager to point out that it’s already sprouting up all around us — and that its roots run very deep.

— D. Patrick Miller

 

Miller: If the dominator model is built on competition and the partnership model on cooperation, then it seems inappropriate to think we can “conquer” the dominator model.

Eisler: We talk about transformation rather than revolution. Many revolutions are akin to teenage rebellion against parents — although bloodier and more horrible, of course. But the principle of being “against” something is the same. Just as boys rebel against their domineering fathers and grow up to be domineering fathers themselves, revolutionary movements often end up with a dictatorship of the proletariat in place of the dictatorship of the upper class.

It’s not that we don’t need to understand what’s bad about the existing order — we do need to understand what we’re leaving behind. But the focus is on the alternative.

Fox: It’s so easy to be oppressed and depressed by what we’re up against. It seems necessary to know what small steps can be taken along the way by individuals.

Eisler: One of my basic assumptions is that personal change is absolutely necessary, but it can go only so far without societal change. It’s not enough to achieve personal healing; you must be constantly aware of the goal of social healing. In fact, I don’t think genuine personal healing is possible without the larger connection.

The intersection of personal and social begins with the family. What we learn in early childhood gives us the repertoire of behaviors that we later carry into all kinds of relationships. The dominator family makes everyone tense, and that’s why so many people are working hard to find a basis of trust and partnership for the family. It’s not coincidental that many of the people who favor obedience and control in our families also talk about being “God-fearing.” As long as our churches, educational materials, or media promote this ideal for human behavior, it will be very hard for us to change as individuals.

We can also look at the handling of crisis in the family, as in divorce. In the dominator model, when children are involved, you go to court and somebody wins, somebody loses; actually, both sides lose. The newer approach of mediation, conversely, permits people to articulate their needs and to talk openly about their conflicts, so that at least some of the needs of both parties can be met. Mediation is an important trend in the direction of partnership.

Miller: Do you think that the partnership perspective will change our therapeutic models?

Eisler: I think it’s already changing our therapy. In the old Freudian model, the emphasis was on adjustment: helping people to “adjust” to society. That’s a wonderful way of maintaining the status quo. The classic Freudian analyst just sat there and grunted at you, and there was very little human interaction. The therapist — almost always a man — was meant to be remote and nonjudgemental, but in practice he was usually very judgemental. The client was given very little validation, not even a gesture of human kinship.

My own analysis was a joke. Here I was, someone who had escaped the Holocaust as a child, and the therapist was constantly leading me toward the framework of the Freudian complexes, into which my problems were supposed to fit. This therapeutic model has changed enormously, of course. I think most therapists actually see themselves as facilitators of healing today — even those who still do a lot of interpretation.

Fox: It still seems like a one-way relationship, though. The setup is that you tell your problems and get the therapist’s response.

Eisler: Until we have a much more general understanding of how to free ourselves of the control-based patterns, we will still need a model in which we approach the therapist for help in healing our inner child. We can’t really expect to be doing that for the therapist at the same time; there is a role for trained expertise. But I think an encouraging process of change is already well underway. Remember, it’s transformative that we even have therapists.

I think it’s absolutely remarkable that millions of people today are admitting, “I come from a dysfunctional family. I’ve been in denial.” This waking-up and the resultant peer and support groups constitute a fascinating development. We’re realizing this wound is so widespread that we can help each other. For the most part, I see these peer groups, self-help programs, the Twelve Steps (with some reservations), and the new awareness of co-dependency problems as part of the social healing leading us into the partnership model. They all begin with the realization, “I came from a family based not on trust but on control.”

Of course, denial and co-dependency can also be survival mechanisms. One hundred years ago in China, telling a woman that she should assert herself rather than placate her father or husband would have been telling her how to get herself killed.

Miller: This realization about our families is doubly interesting because America tends to look back on the Fifties as the placid era of the stable nuclear family. In all likelihood, it seems that the typical Fifties family was under very tense control.

Eisler: I lived as a young adult through the Fifties, and I want to tell you that it was a very, very difficult era. Some of the cultural loosening of stereotypes and roles that had occurred of necessity during the war years had subsequently been reversed, and women were being told to go back from war jobs and perform their supportive helper roles. I had completed one year of law school when I met the man I decided to marry, and I quit school. The idea that I could have an independent professional life was absolutely not permissible. In a sense, the Freudian idea of woman ruled supreme: that her highest achievement was to bear a man a son.

So now we are recognizing that this family model was dysfunctional, not “normal.” The pathology is social: millions of people share the same behavior patterns, even though therapy handles the problems on an individual basis. This brings up one of my objections to the Twelve Step program: it’s fine as far as it goes in healing the individual, but now we need further steps that deal with our common problems. Clearly our mythos, ideology, and child-rearing norms have a sickness, too. We need to pay attention to that level of our troubles.

Miller: In your book you pointed out how deeply the socialization for control is rooted, and how far back in history it goes. If the models for partnership are all in prehistory, how can we learn from them? Can we rely on an instinctive memory?

Eisler: I don’t really believe very much in instinct. It’s becoming apparent that even most animals have more learned behavior than has been assumed previously. But I believe it’s possible to regain a mythic level of consciousness. If you go to Crete and view the dolphin fresco in the so-called Queen’s Apartment, you’ll be startled by the resemblance to some modern ecological symbols. They’re almost interchangeable, but I’m certain that the people who created the recent symbols haven’t seen that fresco. Certain images are beginning to be freed from deep within our consciousness. One of them is the image of the Goddess.

Miller: In using the I Ching, I’ve been struck by what seems to be a contamination of its essential wisdom by patriarchal intervention. For instance, it objectively discusses yin or feminine energy as a “receptive” but dynamic and equal counterpart to yang, the masculine “creative.” But often the feminine principle is referred to as weak, inferior, and even dangerous. In hexagram #44, Coming to Meet, the oracle reads: “Of its own accord the female principle comes to meet the male. It is an unfavorable and dangerous situation. . . .” You begin to wonder who wrote the different interpretations, and at what point in history.

Eisler: This was one of the fascinating aspects of my research for The Chalice And The Blade. I felt like a detective, searching out the ancient origins of this kind of thinking, as well as what came before it. Once you have the understanding that there was an earlier tradition and way of life before our recorded history, you begin to recognize the overlay of dominator thinking on traditions such as the I Ching. It would be a fascinating project to unravel these overlays.

Of course, not all traditions see the male as the active element; in traditional Hinduism, that’s reversed. And in early historical depictions, the Goddess is anything but passive! She made the waves and the earthquakes, for she was nature itself.

For the most part, women have been almost totally deprived of an identification with “higher powers.” I get frustrated with the new-age idealization of Eastern religions, because they’re no better in this respect than the Western traditions. Some forms of Buddhism, for instance, teach that women have no soul. And what have the religious traditions of India done for the quality of human life there, particularly in the treatment of women? Historically women have not only been kept out of the picture of divinity, but also suffered outright vilification in the name of religion.

But I think men also need a different image of the deity. One of the great appeals of Catholicism is that even though she got “demoted” from divinity, the Virgin Mary is the figure to whom most Catholics pray — they pray to the Goddess. The point is not that we need to get rid of religions, but that we need to balance our images of the deity, so that no one feels remote from access to divine wisdom.

There will always be conflict in human affairs, because of the simple fact that I’m hungry when you’re thirsty, I want to sleep and you want to get up, I want to go left when you want to go right. The issue isn’t conflict itself, but how we deal with it.

Fox: Our whole model for theater rests on the basis of conflict as the source of dramatic tension. Would a partnership model provide a different basis for the stories we tell in drama?

Eisler: First of all, I don’t think that the partnership model is conflict-free. There will always be conflict in human affairs, because of the simple fact that I’m hungry when you’re thirsty, I want to sleep and you want to get up, I want to go left when you want to go right. The issue isn’t conflict itself, but how we deal with it.

The dominator model tries to suppress conflict; then when it finally erupts, it’s very exaggerated and often violent. And it is resolved only when one person becomes dominant over another.

A partnership model might include conflict, but it would allow that conflict to exist and evolve without having to be “resolved.” Some of that new sensibility is beginning to enter into our popular drama.

Since my book was published, I’ve been asked to consult on an astonishing number of media projects, some of them quite surprising to me. Paramount Pictures came to me for consultation on an episode of the TV show “MacGyver,” which I had never seen before. MacGyver is an interesting character — more of a partnership hero — because he never uses a weapon in violent situations. Sometimes he does hit somebody in self-defense — and I should say here that I think the partnership model is not necessarily violence-free, either — but mostly he relies on his inventiveness and creative intelligence to get out of the show’s dangerous situations.

There was a two-part show last season in which MacGyver helped a female archaeologist uncover evidence of an early, peaceful Goddess culture. It was amazing to see this on network television! One of the show’s writers had read The Chalice And The Blade and asked me to consult. The dialogue actually quoted the book several times. The show was fantasy entertainment, of course, but I was very pleased to see this openness to a new kind of thinking in the entertainment establishment.

I think some of this openness is coming about because we’ve simply reached a saturation point with violence and impersonal sex as themes in entertainment. There really is a search for new themes.

I think we can learn something positive from the socialization of little girls. There’s nothing wrong with the emphasis on service, caring, and nonviolence. What we have to discard is the discouragement of assertion that has traditionally gone along with instilling those qualities in women. Because then anger is assigned to men, and it becomes the only legitimate emotion they can have.

Miller: Does the partnership model have an innate appeal, though? If it’s up against car crashes and bad guy/good guy drama, will it win in the ratings? Or is it a matter of how it’s presented?

Eisler: It’s both, of course. I do think it has an innate appeal. I was invited to speak at Disney recently, and I really studied for that speech — I watched a lot of Mickey Mouse cartoons. I was surprised to realize how much of a partnership hero Mickey is — almost every time he tries to do the macho thing, he makes an absolute fool of himself. And Minnie’s more likely to tell him to get lost than to become his prize. She was never an equally important character, but she’s often very, very independent. So even though Disney promotes a lot of traditional stereotypes, its signature emblem — the American cartoon folk hero par excellence — demonstrates a significant appeal for a different kind of hero.

Fox: It seems, though, that Mickey is a hero of a different era, particularly the Forties and Fifties. Since then, characters who are far more violent and aggressive have taken over in their cartoons.

Eisler: Well, in any period of dominator resurgence — and the Eighties was such a period, for instance — you will see the remythologizing of violence and domination. Still, I think it’s significant that Mickey remains the primary symbol of Disney. He hasn’t been demoted, and his appeal persists.

You can also see the growth of the partnership model in the number of popular actresses we have today: Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, Sigourney Weaver. . . . The prominence of women in the movies now is fascinating. And they are strong women, not just romantic foils for men.

Miller: I recently heard an interesting analysis of “Terms of Endearment,” which was widely hailed as a “relationship” or “women’s” film because of its emphasis on feelings and the centrality of the female characters. It was pointed out, however, that we should also look at what happened to the men and women in the film. For instance, the husband who had an affair ended up with a new wife and a better job, and was essentially forgiven. His first wife, who had an affair of her own, got cancer and died. There seemed to be an implicit message, beneath all the tender relating, that women should be punished if they become as independent as men.

Fox: I don’t think that many people saw the film that way. What people talked about was the portrayal of feelings at a deeper level than Hollywood usually serves up. The emotional texture overshadowed the story line.

Miller: The point of this analysis was that the old-line studio heads in Hollywood do pay attention to plot lines, and are unlikely to approve a project in which women characters are rewarded for “acting like a man.”

Eisler: I think they pay attention, but it’s probably at an unconscious level. The decision of Hollywood producers on the appropriateness of a film project probably rides a lot on feelings such as, “This one doesn’t hit me right; that one does.” This kind of schism between plot and feeling can be seen very clearly in opera, which I’ve also studied. La Traviata, Carmen, La Bohème, — all of these dramas present a considerable amount of feeling, but in the end they’re all the same old story of dominance. We do have to pay attention to this, because feeling itself is not outside the realm of the dominator consciousness. Nonetheless, I think films like “Terms of Endearment” really do move things forward in terms of partnership and equality for men and women. We just can’t expect to have pure, uncontaminated inspiration. All of us are prone to hang on to some deep-seated ideas while we work for new values.

We need to focus on the areas where a partnership resurgence can be most easily promoted, and the entertainment media is definitely one of these. Others are education, family, and economics. Politics is a little too complicated at this time. Let politics just work itself out for a while, I think, and see what happens.

Miller: Do you think the infusion of more women into the ranks of politics will lead us toward the partnership model — or will we just end up with more Margaret Thatchers?

Eisler: You know, in The Chalice And The Blade I took a pretty rough view of Margaret Thatcher. But I have to say that I may not have been totally fair to her. She’s been remarkably accepting of what Gorbachev is trying to do — much less equivocal than Bush, for instance. While Thatcher does exemplify the woman leader who’s trying to prove she can succeed in the dominator model — that she’s tough, not soft or feminine — she has begun to show a greater flexibility and readiness for the changes occurring in Europe.

Over the short term, we’ll probably continue to see some women politicians trying to prove their toughness. As greater numbers become elected officials, we will see this change in tandem with a better understanding of the difference between gender characteristics and gender roles. Caring, empathy, and tenderness have been relegated to women, but of course men are perfectly capable of those qualities.

I think we can learn something positive from the socialization of little girls. There’s nothing wrong with the emphasis on service, caring, and nonviolence. What we have to discard is the discouragement of assertion that has traditionally gone along with instilling those qualities in women. Because then anger is assigned to men, and it becomes the only legitimate emotion they can have.

The entrance of more women into all of public life does serve to bring so-called “feminine” values into a more proper balance with those we’ve labeled “masculine.” In business, there’s an increasing emphasis on teamwork and a new vision of leadership — leadership that elicits creativity and productivity rather than controlling. And in the restructuring of the family, we’re beginning to see clearly the shift toward partnership.

Over the past few decades, the disintegration of the family as we’ve known it has certainly been a painful process. But it can be seen in the larger perspective of moving away from the model based on fear and control. This has to happen before the development of a family based on trust. A lot of the work of therapists today is to help people learn new skills and behaviors that we weren’t taught when families were oriented toward domination.

Miller: Do you think the classic “nuclear” family can serve partnership as easily as it has served domination?

Eisler: Oh, yes, absolutely. There’s nothing that says a wife, a husband, and two children has to be a dominator family. It’s up to the parents. But in the partnership model, the nuclear family is not the only acceptable family.

Miller: Is there any evidence that extended families serve partnership better? Were the prehistoric partnership societies based on extended families?

Eisler: The evidence suggests that the Neolithic societies were based on a clan system — definitely what we would today call an extended family. It also appears that the Neolithic families were matrilineal — descent was traced through the mother.

In present times, one of the most interesting effects of widespread divorce and remarriage is the unintended formation of extended families. Now many kids have more than one set of adults to relate to as parents or caretakers — as well as more relatives of all sorts. The disintegration of the nuclear family is unexpectedly giving us a broader-based social network.

Of course, you can have a dominator-based extended family: look at the Chinese family before the revolution. That was an extended family model based on tyranny. So the extended family in itself is not necessarily better; you still have to look at the nature of relationships within it.

Women who have had painful experiences with particular men may tend to generalize their anger to all men, but a better focus for that energy is the system. The anger has to be turned to creativity in search of solutions, and I think a lot of women and men are working on that.

Miller: It seems that we’ll have to outgrow the idea that “male” equals “dominator.”

Eisler: Yes, that’s very important. Of course women can be, and have been, dominators — even in the most male-dominated societies. In ancient China, the mother-in-law was often a brutal dominator. Historically, men have been the dominators — but that doesn’t mean women haven’t collaborated with, and even egged on, their violent “heroes.” I’m not negating that reality, but it is men who have violently maintained a male-dominated system. We have a tremendous amount of work to do to reverse the institutionalization of male dominance, which is expressed in the frequency of rape, incest, wife-beating, and so on.

This is a time when many women feel a lot of anger, as they first become aware that they’ve been taught to accept a role that includes punishment and suffering. It’s the awareness of alternatives that first brings up the anger. I think that anger must be honored — but with the understanding that it’s a phase of healing ourselves. Women who have had painful experiences with particular men may tend to generalize their anger to all men, but a better focus for that energy is the system. The anger has to be turned to creativity in search of solutions, and I think a lot of women and men are working on that.

Miller: It seems to me that there’s a tacit endorsement of male dominance in the natural sciences, which tend to tell us that it’s simply the way of nature, or genetically determined.

Eisler: This is a very important point. For a long time male dominance was religiously justified — it was divine law and could not be challenged. Gradually we began to see through that. But then came the scientific justification, telling us that the same situation is genetically ordained. Any controlling system will seek to justify what it does with its ruling order of thought, and it can certainly be argued that science has been a servant of the system. You can find a living model in nature to justify almost any view of human nature. In fact, if dominant male violence were genetically ordained, then all men would be violent, which is certainly not the case. It’s a nonsensical perspective.

Miller: In the recent elections in Jordan, women voted and ran for office for the first time. National Public Radio reported that most of the new voters dutifully cast their ballots as their husbands told them to, and the Islamic fundamentalists’ campaign position was that the women candidates shouldn’t merely be defeated — they should be killed. Paradoxically, the women’s vote was championed by the country’s top dominator — King Hussein.

Eisler: It’s clear to me that all forms of religious fundamentalism in our time are means of maintaining the dominator model. These fundamentalists recognize that rigid male dominance is the cornerstone of their system, which really has very little to do with religion.

On the other hand, look at what happened in Pakistan. It was the women who elected Benazir Bhutto — and it’s amazing that it happened.

We have a lot of work to do to build a democratic partnership model that can operate somewhere between the authoritarian model, which tends to discourage participation, and the consensus model, which tends toward inefficiency and scapegoating.

Miller: In our society, do you think that the rise of prenuptial and other relationship contracts shows a movement toward partnership?

Eisler: Well, I have a background in the development of prenuptial contracts — David and I have one — so I obviously think they’re a step in the right direction. It depends on what the contract says, of course. Contracts have been used for centuries to deny women’s rights, and get their signed approval of their own disempowerment. Even in California, community property laws leaned heavily in favor of the husband not long ago. A lot of people have forgotten how far we’ve come in a very short time.

Miller: Because same-sex couples have already rebelled against basic models, I wonder if they are more likely to get away from the dominator model as well.

Eisler: For the most part, gay relationships are in themselves threatening to the dominator model — but not always. In ancient Greece, the only homosexual relationship that was condoned was between an older man and a boy, with the boy taking the subservient role usually assigned to a woman. If you read Jean Genet, you’ll find a vivid portrayal of the conventional gay relationship as a caricature of the traditional heterosexual relationship, with one of the parties dominating and the other being subordinate. But I think that many women and men in gay relationships now are quite conscious about breaking out of their old role models — for example, the lesbian caricatures of the butch and the femme.

Fox: Are there any dominator values that you feel are worth keeping? For instance, many women may feel protected by male dominators.

Eisler: First of all, we’ve rarely had a pure dominator society. Partnership values have often been co-opted by dominator systems. In a society built entirely on hierarchy and violence, you wouldn’t have the caring and linking that we need in order to survive.

The virtues of the dominator society have to do with its faults: if women are being protected, for instance, from what are they being protected? From other men who would dominate them violently! In a society where women are not allowed to go out in public without a veil, you could say the veil was meant to protect them. But that’s hardly a “virtue” of the dominator system.

Miller: What kind of leadership roles will partnership create? Does it mean decision-making by consensus? In my experience, consensus processes often result in a lot of contention and very few decisions.

Eisler: There’s a lot of confusion about the partnership model’s being either leaderless or consensus-oriented. It’s neither. Consensus is a laissez-faire model, in which everyone keeps talking forever, and nothing gets done because you’re all struggling to agree. It’s certainly important to guarantee everyone input, but consensus simply isn’t efficient in goal-oriented environments, such as a business. Consensus works best at certain resting-places in a process; it’s better as a means of evaluation than a means of decision-making. We have a lot of work to do to build a democratic partnership model that can operate somewhere between the authoritarian model, which tends to discourage participation, and the consensus model, which tends toward inefficiency and scapegoating.

We need to disabuse ourselves of the notions that partnership means perfect cooperation, or that domination consists entirely of competition. Going to war demands cooperation, after all. All these things have to be carefully thought through; we can’t go on automatic assumptions.

Common sense suggests some ways to begin. In groups, for instance, we can all take turns as leaders in different arenas. And leaders don’t just give orders. Leaders provide the wherewithal to get things moving, and coordinate the contributions of all participants.

Fox: I had a partner for thirteen years in an unmarried relationship, and I always referred to us as “partners” in social situations. It seemed that people couldn’t grasp the term outside of a business context, and I was on the defensive to explain what I meant. We think we understand marriage, but intimate partnership seems like a brand new idea.

Miller: Perhaps it’s because marriage is thought of as a spiritual concept — a “mystical union” in which the separate identities of the marriage partners merge. Partnership by itself may not imply the same depth and idealism.

Fox: I think that while marriage implies union, partnership implies parity. That’s very different.

Eisler: I think we’re working toward a whole new vocabulary. Partnership seems to be the word of the hour, and it’s taking on more emotional depth as it becomes more familiar to us. We will have to make up some new words, but we will also have to regain the original meaning of traditional words. I always say that I’m very traditional — it’s just that the traditions I follow are much older. One of the most frequent responses I get to the book is, “I always felt something had gone wrong in our history — now I know what it is.” We really don’t have to proceed in the miserable, tense, violent manner that we have followed for 5,000 years.


Perhaps my first memory of the word partner is cinematic: grizzly-chinned cowboys greeting their friends (and sometimes their enemies) with a resounding “Howdy, pardner!” Although a cliché in the movies, the greeting might once have been a salutation of real intimacy, an affirmation between friends exchanged before a long ride together. Any two persons facing the vicissitudes of rough terrain and fickle weather would most likely emerge from their travels “mated” — bound by shared adventures and reciprocal support, service, and gratitude.

Or it could be that I first thought about partnership during elementary-school field trips, where I was “partnered-off” with another student. Even more exciting was the anticipation of which boy might possibly become my partner for square dancing. To this day the sense of unknown potential is still an important component of partnership for me.

Now when I visualize “partnership,” I come up with a stylized picture of two naked bodies of no particular sex, arms linked in union — a direct frontal portrait with two sets of eyes focused forward on a third thing, which might be the future, a set of principles, or simply the rest of the world. This is not a cozy image of a twosome facing themselves in mutual admiration. It’s a picture of strength that cannot be contained by either body, a symbiotic strength that arises from two partners’ sharing the naked truth between them over time. It’s the strength found in momentum, not in stasis. For if there can be such a thing as an active noun, partner is such a word to me. There is nothing complacent about being a partner. Occasional stillness, yes, but not the kind of dead acceptance in which two people hoard their love and specialness, praying only to their own subset, excluding all others.

That kind of partnership would be truly non-ecological. The arrows of interaction and service must point both inward between partners, and out into the world. In The Chalice And The Blade, Riane Eisler reminds us that the Greek word for love — agape — was associated with action and duty. Love was neither limp nor narcissistic. In contemporary terms, to be a partner — and in love — is to be in motion alongside your mate, two bodies and psyches making the journey without blocking the other’s step. Compromising on the choice of immediate route will not sacrifice the overall direction. There’s still a long ride through the wildness of nature — human and otherwise. But instead of galloping off into the sunset, modern partners need to ride with the world. We can no longer afford separateness, hoarding of affection, or safety in stasis. In a time when there’s truly “nowhere to run, nowhere to hide,” there are still plenty of trails to explore. We shouldn’t have to make the trip alone.

— Laurie Fox