Are you the gardener or the bonsai tree in your relationship? You’ll have no idea what we’re talking about unless you’ve been sucked into the second series of Feel Good on Netflix. *Slight spoilers ahead*.
In it, Mae (played by comedian Mae Martin) and her girlfriend George (Charlotte Ritchie, fresh from her turn on Channel 4′s Taskmaster) are trying again after a break-up – and having some difficulties. Mae is struggling with trauma from her past, and gets a possible diagnosis of PTSD.
George is trying to be there for Mae as much as she can, shelving her own plans to fit around her girlfriend, and turning a blind eye when she isn’t being the best partner. “She’s got a lot on her plate,” George says to her colleague, trying to justify Mae falling short as a partner during one scene.
And it’s here that her colleague, a schoolteacher named Elliott, brings up this analogy. “You’re the gardener?” he asks George. “Huh?” she replies.
“In a relationship, you take turns being the gardener, or the bonsai tree. But if you’re always tending to the bonsai – Mae – then who’s tending to you?”
George jokingly replies “porn hub”, but the metaphor got us thinking. Is this a helpful question to apply to our own relationships?
“I love gardening and flower analogies when it comes to relationships,” says Charisse Cooke, an online relationship therapist. “They are brilliant at showing us the care that is required (i.e. different flowers and plants need very different care), but this concept of being the gardener or the bonsai is a good one.”
Cooke says that in securely-attached relationships, people feel comfortable giving support and asking for support. “That means being the gardener sometimes and being the bonsai sometimes,” she tells HuffPost UK. “This shows balance and equality which is crucial for fulfilling long-term partnerships.”
“I love gardening and flower analogies when it comes to relationships.”
– Charisse Cooke, an online relationship therapist
Sometimes a rhythm can develop in couples who know when to switch from the gardener to the bonsai naturally, says Cooke. But other times, when we are experiencing difficulty, it may be important to make it clear to a partner that you’re needing their support. “Or conversely, when we see our partners are struggling, we can step in and let them know that we’re going to take over and be the gardener for a bit. This shows beautiful responsiveness and empathy and is likely to create extremely happy, mutually rewarding relationships.”
Divorce statistics tell us the majority of splits happen because one person feels their partner checked out of the relationship, and left them feeling unloved and neglected as a result. In therapy, Cooke works with a lot of gardeners – “People who put a lot of time and energy into their relationships and things have become one-sided. This can become the status quo and it isn’t healthy for anyone.”
But, she adds, we can also struggle to let people tend to us. “Many of us feel comfortable giving, and it can be hard for us to need someone else and invite them into our lives to genuinely support us,” she adds.
Some people are naturally more of a bonsai than a gardener, she says, but she encourages her clients to work on being both.
“It’s human to love and to give our hearts to other people, however it’s also imperative that we are able to receive love.”