People enter into and remain in intimate relationships for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from the romantic to the practical; the material to the spiritual. This article is intended for those who see their partnerships as opportunities to learn and grow in love, happiness, and emotional maturity. Human beings seem to exist in a paradox, where one part wants to experience wonder, transformation, and the adventure of journeying into the unknown, while the other part seems interested in maintaining safety, predictability, and the status quo. The first part leads us to a constant unfolding of life experiences and growth, while the other tends to lead to routine and atrophy. Bob Dylan phrased it simply when he sang that those who are not busy being born are busy dying. In 2001 I decided to explore what key indicators determined the direction intimate relationships would take – growth or atrophy. Below are listed some of the key influences in most, if not all, intimate relationships. Agreement Appreciation Individuality/intimacy balance Emotional transparency The sacrifice/indulgence factor Accountability; increase of blame, complaints, criticism and judgment Agreement Entering a relationship is similar to entering a three-legged race, where one person ties their left leg to the right leg of the other, and then the two race down the field, competing against other tripod pairs toward the finish line. There is a need to co-ordinate your steps, maintain an equal stride and pace, contribute equally, and move in the same direction. A major difference between the race and relationship is that a relationship is more like a three-legged triathlon, where the finish line is not visible, and the route takes you through forests, over mountains, across rivers, and deep into the desert. Still, the need to agree on the direction and pace is essential to the experience, and it’s important that the agreement be a true consensus. Imagine a three-legged race where the partners are trying to go in different directions each struggling to pull the other towards where they want to go. Or imagine that one stubbornly refuses to go in the other’s direction and stays in one spot, while the other runs around in circles. A third possibility is that one partner lifts the other off the ground because the one doing the lifting insists that the other must “do it my way”. The couple may go in a specific direction, but the burden will tire out the carrier pretty quickly, while building up resentment in the one being carried. Establishing a relationship based on true agreement may slow you down initially, but will save you enormous amounts of energy in the long run. You may even discover that it’s best to untie your legs and let each other run freely, leaving the three-legged races to the children. Appreciation Since I could never find one in a dictionary that described what “appreciation” means to me, I discovered my own definition: appreciation = love + awe + gratitude. The wonderful quality in appreciation is that it is self-fulfilling. In other words, the more appreciation you express toward your partner, the more you will see in your partner to appreciate, and the more you will appreciate yourself. Conversely, the less you appreciate in your partner, the less value you will see in both him/her and yourself. Appreciation becomes truly fulfilling when you can look beyond your partner’s personality and see the wonderfully gifted essential being with whom you have been sharing your life. It surprised me when I realized how essential true agreement and true appreciation were to the experience of harmony in relationship with my wife and children, and, in fact, to all the important relationships in my life. If you are interested, I explore these topics in greater depths in my book, The Untethered Relationship. Part 2 of this article next week.
Most interpersonal conflicts seem to be fuelled by the feeling of being unfairly treated, being misunderstood, or both. In the outer world, or “Storyland”, there are millions of details to every conflict or power struggle, and we often explore the details constantly in our minds or through our arguments. We either use the details to come to an understanding of all the sides of the argument, or to reinforce our position and prove we are right. Meanwhile the underlying feelings in the inner world are rejected, suppressed or ignored because they seem to be too painful to face at the time. There is no “right” or “wrong” response to a conflict, but there is always a purpose, and that purpose is to help you grow in acceptance, awareness, and appreciation. Acceptance of your own discomforts and hurts. Awareness of the discomfort as an illusionary energy pattern that disguises the truth of what you are. Appreciation of the wonderful being that you are, existing just beyond that discomfort. Your heart is giving you very specific guidance regarding how to respond to the conflict, as well as how to respond to your own discomfort and pain. When an individual comes to the point of desiring the Truth more than being right, a humbling process takes over. The individual realizes that painful feelings and beliefs are the source of the conflict, and so they walk away from their position, and find that they desire truth and happiness more than they desire being right. Until then, pride overshadows all thought. About twenty years ago, a man made a comment to me that I found to be insulting and belittling. For many years afterwards, I would remember that exchange and it fuelled my dislike toward him, reinforcing my indignant rage. I refused to admit that I was just needing to feel important at the time, and that the man was reflecting my smallness back to me. Years later, I met him again, and started an argument with him about the problems in the Middle East, just so I could defeat him and overcome the smallness I felt every time I thought about what he told me! Well, just like the actual situation in the Middle East, the argument never got resolved, and so my bitterness persisted. The fact is that what the argument is about is irrelevant, regardless of how much we would like to believe that our position matters. Whenever I thought about that man, I re-experienced the suffering of humiliation and smallness, and wished that bad things would happen to him. Strangely, the more I wished bad things on him, the more successful his life became, and this fact served to further enrage me. Finally I came to see that it doesn’t matter what the “sides” are in a conflict, only what is fuelling the conflict in one’s inner space. When the hurt within me was embraced with acceptance, awareness and appreciation, the anger towards that man dissipated and the argument about the Middle East dissolved, as any argument will.
In my experience as a relationship counsellor, and as a husband of over 25 years, it has always seemed like a good idea to discuss every major issue with my partner until a truly satisfying agreement has been reached. It creates a sense of flow and intimacy, two basic ingredients to true partnership. However, there is often confusion over what “agreement” really means, and this confusion generally leads to power struggle. There are two kinds of agreement: one is personal and the other is true agreement. A personal agreement is “I want you to agree with my way.’ This is the kind that feeds discord and fighting, where you will feel that if you take even the smallest step toward agreeing with your partner’s way, you will “lose”. And you will – you will lose your way, which is safe for you. So you can make a disagreement personal, or make it about what is true. I am always tempted to make it completely personal, and ignore the greater purpose at work behind the scenes. But when I make it personal, I suffer. When I take a step toward true agreement, I experience pain, but it’s “growing pains” that come with the process of emotional maturity. The discomfort comes from walking away from my righteous position, and toward the center point where I can join with my partner. So there is some pain, but no suffering. Everyone knows how to keep making it personal – just make it all about protecting your vulnerability, insisting that your way is the right way, and demanding that your partner conform to your point of view. When all else fails, compromise, giving up as little as possible and getting as much as you can. But you really don’t know how to not make it personal, and therein lies the key. Not knowing. Not knowing if you are right or wrong; not knowing what is true; not knowing how to resolve the disagreement. In that open field of “I don’t know”, you have the chance to let down your defences and leave your position, because when there is no right or wrong, there is only, “I don’t know, but I’m willing to face the fire in order to see.” I know this sounds either idealistic or impossible, but our hearts already do this. So the question becomes this: Can I sit in the emptiness of the unknown, and trust my heart implicitly to guide me to that center point, where I can join with my partner in the peace of true agreement? Embrace transformation with transformative behaviour, not familiar, safe, or personal behaviour. Although this is typically done, while the other appears to be getting to have their way, or just hanging on to their old patterns, what appears to be doesn’t matter. Only your process of stepping into the unknown matters.
Although the word “conflict” has been shaded with a rather negative connotation, the fact is that it is through the stimuli within conflicts that life provides an opportunity for growth. There is no conflict without the presence of some degree of irritation, but it is the defensive reaction to irritation that extends the conflict and can magnify it into a power struggle — even an all-out war. Why do our reactions to conflicts so often lead to power struggles or even fallouts of partnerships? The answer can be found in the dynamics of polarization. Whenever a conflict arises the parties engaged will typically react to the inherent irritation by taking a position and then defending it. One party will want to make the problem or irritation go away by changing the situation, preferably into something “better”. This is the “positive” polarity. The Positive’s attitude is to fix it, avoid it, deny it, or make it go away. The other party will want to explore the problem, examine why it exists, and solve the problem so that it doesn’t happen again. This “Negative” will also point out what is wrong with the Positive’s plan for fixing the problem. Before I illustrate how the conflict can be resolved with an optimum outcome, with which both parties are satisfied, let me briefly illustrate a few of the characteristics of the polarities. Positive Optimist Producer Problem Solver “Loves it All” Can be Reckless Negative Realist Quality Overseer Problem Identifier Discerning Can be Overly Cautious It is apparent that when these two positions work together, they not only balance each other out, but can integrate each other’s point of view and find a completely satisfying agreement, which in turn initiates expansion. However, a true agreement is rarely reached in this day and age, due to a few factors, which include: Defence of one’s position Needing to be right Fear of transformative growth (i.e. fear of the unknown) Loss of one’s comfort zone These factors keep one locked into a position and turn the other party into an adversary rather than a partner. It is only by leaving one’s position and meeting in the center — a center that is neither east, west, north or south, but rather an integration of all points — that entirely unthought of possibilities emerge from the intuitive, creative, ingenious essence of each individual involved. There is no creativity or genius in a polarized position; only variations of habitual thoughts and reactions. When stuck on a position, aggressively or stubbornly defending it, one is too far from one’s center to access a win/win resolution, and nobody grows. When nobody grows, the company or partnership doesn’t grow. This is true in the boardroom or the bedroom, the high-school council or the United Nations. To reach the center, there are five key elements that are required from at least one of the positions in order for a transformative shift to occur. The Loop of Awareness: Listen to the other party while checking in with your own physical / emotional reaction to what is being said. If you experience contraction it is typically a sign of defensiveness growing inside you. If you do not relax, the contraction will create a filter in your hearing and you will not be open to the other point of view. Willingness to be Wrong: As long as you insist that your way is the right and only way, you will never completely leave your position. Righteousness will lead you into trying to manipulate the other party in order to bend them to your will. Temporary victories of this sort lead to eventual reprisals. Patience: True agreement takes time. It is a creative, and not only a communication, process. Supporting creative thought in the other party diminishes the conflict immediately. Accept that “I don’t know”: Thinking that you alone have the solution, or even that you should have the solution is the greatest block to your intuitive genius. Endurance of the uncertainty: Uncertainty can lead to building anxiety, but it also teaches you how to trust the process. Willingness and determination to know the truth: Compromise is not an option. We do not grow through compromise. A fifty/fifty partnership is simply a clever way to hold onto our righteousness and defensiveness. 100% / 100% is the only truly satisfying resolution, that initiates skyrocketing success. Creativity over innovation, originality over mimicry. Growth over stagnation.
How Relationships Help us to Grow Up I have begun many relationship and emotional adulthood workshops with statements such as the following: “Regardless of your age, educational background or religious / life philosophy, it is very likely that you have acted like a child from time to time in your important relationships. If you’re the boss of a company, you’ve probably thrown a tantrum or two…. If you’re a parent, you’ve probably acted the same age as your child or children… And if you’re in an intimate relationship, well… have you ever seen the way a couple fights?” As long as you are motivated by the need to belong or the need to be important – and who isn’t? – there will be occasions when you act out a behaviour such as attention getting, power struggle, revenge or assumed inadequacy.1 These behaviours are the direct result of unmet needs, and the degree of intensity they convey is directly related to the level of discouragement in the person carrying out the behaviours. These four behaviors are simply ways that we attempt to gain some sense of control over the heartbreaking discouragement that results from our needs not being met by the important person or people in our lives. The pattern of such behaviours is designed by your unique personality, but the motivation and type of behaviour is universal. The four patterns are easy to identify in children because they haven’t developed the level of sophistication required to disguise the need while at the same time trying to get it met. Let’s look at it from the child’s perspective first and see if you can identify those same behaviours and influences in your close, present day relationships. A child has a need for inclusion and a sense of significance, and grownups have a need for inclusion and sense of significance or importance. If the child feels that the need is not being spontaneously recognized or satisfied, the child experiences discouragement. Ditto for grownups Discouragement inevitably leads to various forms of manipulative behaviors that include the following: Attention-Getting Power Struggle Revenge Resignation (“Assumed Inadequacy”) In both children and grownups, it seems that the discouragement goes unnoticed, and the reaction to the unmet needs leads to habitual behaviors intended to hurt and/or manipulate the person we have made responsible for our needs. But if we were to face and accept our discouragement, we could become aware of it’s painful influence, with its accompanying feelings of disappointment, heartbreak and loss. Relaxing more deeply into the center of that experience inevitably leads to peace, the recognition that no one can give us what we think we need, as well as growth in emotional maturity. It is then that the grownup becomes an adult. Quick Quiz If you were to examine your behaviour in your most important relationship, how would you describe your actions when you are engaged in: Attention Getting? Power Struggle? Revenge? Assumed Inadequacy? Which is your most habitual behaviour when you feel discouraged?
The Expectation/Fantasy Cycle Human personalities carry with them four basic tendencies—emotional obsession, behavioral compulsion, mental fixation, and physical addiction. These four tendencies lead people into repetitive and predictable patterns of thought, emotion, and action. Once we identify with a need, and insist that this need must be met in order for us to be happy, secure, and empowered, we launch ourselves into a specific cycle as illustrated and explained below.
In close relationships, expectations are emotional stresses that are often fuelled by the expecting person’s need for belonging and importance. The expectation is often looked at as a “right” by the one doing the expecting. Examples of this include: You are my wife so you should behave in a way that doesn’t upset me. You are my husband so you shouldn’t be looking at other women. You should want only me all the time. You’re my friend so you’re supposed to take my side when I disagree with someone or something, even if I’m wrong. You’re my parent so you should support me financially. You’re my girlfriend/boyfriend so you should give me sex when I want it. You’re my employee so you should always agree with me You should remember my birthday. You should consider my feelings before making a decision. You should do what I want to do. You should feel the same way I do.
The question “Why?” may be helpful when dealing with mechanical, scientific, medical, and math problems, but it can create a huge distraction and delay when you are dealing with an interpersonal conflict in your marriage, family, friendships, or work situation, or any personal issue that has an emotional component to it. In other words, if you are confronted with a situation in which you are feeling annoyed, anxious, or otherwise irritated, asking “Why is this happening?” or “Why did you do that?” will be of little or no help to you in coming to a happy and peaceful resolution to the issue at hand.
Of the eight children in our family, my brother Douglas was the most troubling, if not the most troubled. When I was a young boy he was a lot of fun to be around—playful, generous, funny, and always coming up with creative ideas regarding games that we could play. He seemed to be constantly organizing us younger siblings into games of tag or hide-and-seek with the other kids in the neighborhood, and even organizing amateur concerts where we would sing or act out skits for our parents.
“I do not like broccoli. And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid, and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.” – George H. W. Bush 1990 When I first read the term “Emotional Adulthood” in a book by Jed McKenna, it struck a chord in me. I am still not completely sure what he meant by it, but those two words conjured up childhood memories of observing my parents’ behaviors, especially when they were upset. When I was fourteen years old, it dawned on me that my mother and father often behaved childishly when they were confronted with emotionally uncomfortable situations.
My son was unemployed and temporarily living with us. He had completed a four-year degree program at a Montreal university and then spent a year at Taiwan University to master the Mandarin language, and now he was ready to face the working world. Only the working world did not seem to be opening any doors for him and he was faced with the age-old Catch 22, whereby he needed to get a job in order to have the work experience that all the companies were requiring in order for him to get the job that would give him the experience, et cetera, et cetera.
If you think that you are missing something in your life, your attention will often be preoccupied by what you need in order to feel whole or fulfilled. This lack inside may be expressed through the search for Truth, pursuing success, attempting to heal your past or present, taking risks to increase your confidence, trying to achieve some great feat, or through any number of personal endeavors. Accordingly, the people who come and go—as well as those who stick around—will reflect your quest for fulfilment by taking on certain roles. At any given time, an individual will represent a Threat, a Cautious Friend, or a Conditional Teacher.
We are not human beings searching for a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings immersed in human experience. —Pierre Teilhard de Chardin As I type in the above quote by the famous Jesuit philosopher, my first response is to ask myself if the statement is true. More accurately, I ask myself, “Does this statement point me to the experience of Truth?” The intuition of my heart tells me that it does, although I have no empirical evidence to prove it otherwise. However, since trusting my heart over my intellect has always led me to profound life experiences, I follow it once more. Suddenly this insight leads me to look at my wife and recognize her as more than a physical entity or familiar personality, and a wonderful sense of recognition comes over me. The words appear: “I know you.”
Relationship is simple. That’s not to say that relationship is easy. Actually, I’ve found it to be among the hardest paths to follow effectively on a consistent basis, perhaps because the relationship path involves other people, and while you can share wonderful moments with other people, you also go through occasions that can be irritating, frustrating, intrusive, and challenging from time to time. The most irritating people tend to be the ones you are closest to. Typically, the most irritating person in your life will be the one with whom you enter an intimate relationship, a fact of life that often causes people to believe that they have chosen the wrong person to be their life partner. But this blog is not solely about intimate relationships or marriage; it’s about the relationship dynamic itself, regardless of the level of intimacy in that relationship.
My body is basically a system of knotted muscles that surround tight tendons or ligaments. It’s been this way since I was at least five years old. Whenever I mention that I feel as if I were made of wood, I am invariably advised to practice one of the seventeen kinds of yoga in my neighborhood. I deflect these suggestions with various excuses because… well… I realize I may be the only person in the world that’s like this, but… well, I don’t like yoga. For some reason, people who are really into yoga believe this is because I never tried it, and they insist that if I did, they are sure I would come to love it just as much as they do.