Ask Vicki: Relationship Advice Using the Five Elements

When Control Can Be Good

Dear Vicki: I’m familiar with the Five Elements model and how the elements keep each other in balance by either giving energy or taking it away. And in the model, that makes sense. But when that gets applied to people, I don’t understand how controlling someone can ever be good. In fact, I think it can be bad! For example, my husband teachers third grade at a local school, which I suspect makes it likely he’s an Earth personality. I am a full-time muralist and author, which I suppose means I have a lot of Water energy, right? So that would mean that my husband’s Earth controls my Water, but I can tell you from personal experience, it doesn’t always feel very good. Can you please give some real-life examples of Water/Earth relationships that are positive? I could use the inspiration. Signed: Confused About Control

Dear Confused: This is an excellent question! Most people have a negative reaction to the idea of being controlled and that’s certainly come up in several of these blog posts over the years. Cutting something back doesn’t seem good because in our Western culture we often live by the maxim, “Bigger is better!” But in the East, where the Five Elements model originated thousands of years ago, a condition of too much is just as undesirable as a condition of too little.

As a quick review, let’s remind ourselves that in the Five Elements model shown below, there are really only two ways all of the elements relate: either via the Nurturing Cycle (the big circle) or via the Controlling Cycle (the big star). The Nurturing Cycle serves to increase energy in any element that is in a state of depletion (under energized) and the Controlling Cycle serves to decrease energy in any element in a state of excess (over energized).

Inherent in the Five Elements model is the truth that bigger is not better. Instead, when there is too much of any element, it is necessary and good for the whole to reduce that element to help retain balance. And in the abstraction of the model, that element is happy to be reduced so that the whole can remain balanced.

However, when applying this to people, we usually don’t like being reduced, especially in the West with our “more is always better than less” approach to life. But still, when we are stressed, there are times that someone stepping in to guide, protect, cool down, relax, or counterbalance us can be good. And these are all aspects of what one element can do for another in a Controlling Cycle relationship. So let’s take a look at your relationship with your husband.

To begin, let me say that I agree with your assessment regarding your likely elemental personalities. As a third grade teacher, your husband would definitely need a lot of Earth energy. Working with younger children requires patience, connection, and love, all attributes of the primary Earth personality. And as an artist and author, you would definitely need a lot of Water energy because that is where creativity, inspiration, and imagination sit. This means that you do, indeed, have a Controlling Cycle relationship with your husband.

So, let’s look at some real life examples of positive interventions in an Earth/Water relationship which I believe will help you see the value of your Controlling Cycle relationship. To do this, we’ll need to remember three things inherent in the model: 1) Earth acts to reduce Water energy only when there’s too much; 2) Water personalities connect with something greater than themselves as a way to connect with themselves; and 3) Time alone to ponder great truths and mysteries reinforces the Water personality’s sense of self.

Under stress, a Water person’s need to connect with their inner self can distort and manifest as either too great a sense of self (narcissism) or too little a sense of self (low self esteem). And if it’s too great a sense of self (meaning an excess of Water energy), that’s when the Earth personality will feel “called” to step in and guide the Water person back to a place of balance. In truth, in the world of Controlling Cycle relationships, the Water personality hit the jackpot because Earth people almost always do things in a nice way (as long as they’re balanced themselves). That’s because they love helping people.

In nature, all bodies of water have earth surrounding them; it is the natural container to help water stay in place. In human relationships, Earth people can and do gently encourage over abundant Water people back to balance. Here are a few good examples:

  • If a Water child is upset about sharing a toy with another child, the Earth mother can gently remind her that other people matter, too. The dynamic here is that children are by nature a bit narcissistic (over abundant Water) and Earth moms naturally care that everyone is happy.
  • If a Water husband believes he can teach during the day, take two important night classes each week, give free art lessons at the YMCA on Saturday, attend church on Sunday, and still be a good dad, his Earth wife can help him establish guidelines and boundaries before he spreads himself too thin and wears out.
  • When a Water artist gets carried away and adds more and more detail to a mural making it impossible for her to finish the project on time, an Earth friend can help her pare back the project’s scope by reminding her of the original assignment.
  • When a well-intended Water manager agrees to take on a colleague’s division while they are on maternity leave, then becomes uncharacteristically condescending, his Earth assistant can gently bring his behavior to his attention and suggest ways to share some of the work with other managers.

I hope these few examples help you see the very beneficial ways that a balanced Earth personality can interact with a stressed Water person and make a very definite (and positive) difference. In spite of the harsh sound of the word “control,” when someone on our Controlling Cycle takes the time to interact with us when we’re stressed, it is usually a profound gift. And while it might not feel good in the moment, your Earth personality husband likely provides guidance that helps you better express the beauty and creativity of your Water personality. Blessings to you, and him!