I confess to being seriously steeped in an existential approach to life—to the world, to myself, and to relationships. How I found my way to this philosophy is somewhat of a mystery. Maybe it was all those hours spent alone driving a tractor on the Kansas plains when I was a kid.
I tend to think much about how the way we live is determined by our awareness of death. This isn’t morbid. It’s just acknowledgment of the truth of the human condition.
What I see is that we spend a lot of energy fighting against annihilation. For example, I can’t allow myself to lose the argument I’m having with my wife because losing would be symbolically accepting my own death.
That sounds a little crazy, I know. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to people express their astonishment at how hard their partner fought over some “little” issue. Evidently, for the partner, that “little” issue wasn’t little at all. The argument was, in some way, a “life and death” struggle.
I have come to believe that everyone who stays in a committed relationship eventually says to themselves, “If I stay with him/her another day/week/month/year, it will be the death of me.” Or thinks—and occasionally even says—things like “I can’t take this anymore!” or “You’re killing me.”
Symbolically, it’s often true.
Paradoxically, the willingness to lose often precedes a meaningful gain. When we experience the “lethal” aspect of our relationship, the question that should arise is not “How can I arm myself better so I can survive?” or better yet, “How can I do him/her in?”
The relationship is better served by asking the opposite: “What in me needs to die so something new and better can be born?” Or: “What kind of surrender do I need to embrace for something better to come into our relationship?”
It takes a lot of courage to allow something that seems important to die. It feels unnatural. But if we keep doing what comes naturally, nothing changes.
Before embarking on marriage, a common piece of advice is, "Don't try to change your partner." I've spent a lot of time puzzling over that suggestion because I've never met a couple who was able to follow the advice. Maybe the couples who are able to avoid trying to change each other never need a therapist. My hunch, however, is that I haven't met a completely accepting couple because that couple doesn't exist. Most of the couples I see have spent months if not years trying unsuccessfully to change each other. And, I can't think of one case in over 35 years where the effort was to change things in a negative direction. Everyone wants their partner to be better, not worse. They want to improve communication, expressions of affection, money management, parenting style and much more. These are all areas that deserve attention and improvement.
So, my advice to couples is, "Go ahead and do your best to change your partner for the better." It's not whether or not we try to change our partners because we inevitably will. It's all about the method. If we do it lovingly, respectfully, empathically, gently and patiently, our partner will likely experience the effort as supportive. If, on the other hand, our efforts are characterized by exasperation, annoyance, impatience, condescension and disrespect, we will likely experience resistance and rejection.
The next time you try to change your partner, notice how much love and respect are in your efforts. Chances are, if your efforts are unsuccessful it's because you've "lost that lovin' feeling."
Not a week goes by without hearing questions like, “Is it normal to…?” or “Am I normal?” I suppose most of us want to know we are normal. And, if we’re pretty sure we’re normal, we want to know if our spouse, child, parent or friend is normal. We need reassurance relative to normalcy when things are unfamiliar, new and unpredictable. Getting the reassurance we need is often difficult and confusing because there are several good definitions of “normal.”
First, normal can be defined as average. So, if most of the people on my block are smoking crack cocaine and I spoke crack cocaine, then, I’m normal. Or, if most 60 year olds have arthritis and I have arthritis then I’m normal. I conform to the average life experience on my block.
Second, normal can be defined as asymptomatic…having no symptoms. As long as I am symptom free, I’m considered normal. So, although I have an undiagnosed brain tumor, if I don’t have headaches or blurred vision, I’m normal.
Third, normal can be defined as functioning optimally or, above some predetermined level of functioning. In modern psychiatry, panels of experts convene periodically to draw lines between function and dysfunction. So, if you meet the set of criteria the professionals decide are necessary then, you’re normal. If you don’t meet the criteria then, you’re not normal and need treatment.
Fourth, normal can be defined in transactional terms. So, what do we call it if I am in bed with the covers pulled over my head, in the fetal position, crying my eyes out? Clearly, I'm not "average" because it's unlikely many around me are doing the same. There's no doubt that I have symptoms and I definitely fall below most experts' definition of normal. But, if my loved now died yesterday, I'm normal.
The important thing to remember when wondering about normalcy is that there are several definitions. And, they are not always compatible with each other. So, pick a definition and check yourself out. If that doesn’t work, pick another definition. Eventually, you’ll come to a clear determination of your normalcy.
One of the most difficult spots in couple therapy occurs when both partners are convinced they know each other. They say things like, "I knew you were going to say that." Or, "I know how you'll respond if I do that." Or, "I know what she thinks about that." This stance poisons efforts to change. It locks the relationship in repeated, unproductive interactions. Conventional wisdom suggests it's important to know your partner. I'm not so sure about that. It seems to me that it's important to try to get to know your partner. It's important to always help your partner get to know you. But, to arrive at "knowing" is to arrive at a dead end. Doing new things in a relationship (a prerequisite to changing anything) doesn't make sense if I "know" how my partner will respond. So, it seems important to actively cultivate a sense of "not knowing" if improving the relationship is a goal. "Not knowing" may bring with it a degree of uncertainty and anxiety. But, it also brings with it a real opportunity for change. It creates a space within which new things are allowed to emerge.
The conflict couples experience typically has a natural progression. Understanding this progression can help efforts to manage and reduce the conflict.
Ordinarily, conflict begins with an attack on the issue. For example, a wife might say to her husband, "It really bothers me that you leave your dirty socks for me to pick up and deal with." If her husband can respond appropriately to her addressing the issue, the conflict will likely be resolved. If, however, he chooses to ignore her efforts to attack the issue, eventually she will take the next step in the progression.
She will attack the person. She might say something like, "I've asked you several times to clean up your dirty socks and you won't do it. You're such a slob!" She has progressed from attacking the issue to attacking the person. Sometimes this escalation prompts a change for the better. More often, it just creates defensiveness. Over time, repeated, failed attacks on the person prompt the final step in the natural history of conflict.
This is an attack on the relationship. She might say something like, "I've asked you repeatedly to clean up after yourself. But no, you're too lazy. You're just a slob. I can't live like this anymore. This relationship isn't what I signed up for." Once a couple progresses to attacking each other and then the relationship things are headed in a very bad direction.
Anything beyond attacking the issue is destructive and will eventually weaken the relationship bond. Pulling back from attacking the person and the relationship can be an important step in improving a relationship
Some years ago I noticed that almost everyone I work with for a significant amount of time eventually says something like, "I feel like I'm going in circles...not making any progress." At first I found the comment disturbing, almost embarrassing. After all, isn't it my job to make sure there's always a sense of forward movement? I spent a good bit of time struggling with the fact that it was hard to maintain a consistent forward movement. Eventually, I noticed that there's a lot of circularity in life. Seasons come and go in a circular way...it's not like once we are done with winter we never have winter again. Looking at this more carefully, it became clear that there is going around in a circle and then there is going around in a circle. The kind of going in a circle that a top does is really pointless. It doesn't get anywhere. But, the kind of going in a circle that a screw does is very different. Each time a screw goes around it is in a slightly different place.
So, it has become important to remind myself and those I work with that circular movement is probably natural but that it doesn't necessarily mean we aren't getting somewhere. It's very helpful to notice the subtle ways in which this time I encounter the problem is different from the last time I encountered it. That's where the progress is located.
I suppose I shouldn't be but, I'm always a little startled by how intensely people want to feel special. It makes sense that a generation of media efforts to boost our children's self-esteem would result in the deeply held belief that we are unique and therefore special. Indeed, it's good to remember that we are special. But, it seems equally good to remember that we are pretty completely ordinary. Ordinary is what connects us to others. Ordinary is what guarantees similarity of experience. If each of us were completely unique, we would have little, if any, overlapping experience and therefore little to generate connection.
It's interesting to me that one of the most complimentary things you can say about someone you have believed to be special is, "He/She was so down-to-earth.." Although we often long to be special to someone, we also look forward to those times when we notice the "ordinariness" of those we have made special.
Just as it feels like a gift when someone notices the ways we are special, it can be gift to others when we notice the ways we are completely ordinary.
Some time ago I was introduced to a book entitled, The End of Your World: Uncensored Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment by Adyashanti. It's an interesting book that has the potential for changing one's perspective pretty radically. The following passage struck me as one of the things I want most in a relationship but have a great deal of difficulty achieving. I guess that's why it takes so much work to achieve enlightenment.
"What would it be like if we didn't avoid anything we knew to be true? What if we came out of hiding in all areas of our life? What if we completely stopped avoiding ourselves, because that literally is the awakened life?
The next day there was a meeting with a question and answer session. An older gentleman raised his hand and said something really beautiful. He said, 'I was listening to the talk last night about truthfulness, about being honest, about having a willingness to face one's self as one is and not hide in some past realization.'
'My wife and I have been on the edge of a divorce for quite some time now. When we went home after we heard the talk, we just sat down and started to tell each other the truth. We started to tell each other what was true for ourselves.'
He went on to say that it wasn't like when they used to tell each other the truth, which was more like trying to convince each other of the truth. It wasn't about one of them being right and the other being wrong. It was just telling the truth, very simply. It was confessing exactly what they had been experiencing for a long time, confessing the fact that they felt separate and distant from each other, confessing the very secrets that were causing them to feel separate and isolated. 'We actually just sat there and told each other the truth,' he said. 'I would tell the truth and then allow her to tell the truth.'
He said it wasn't that they were working anything out or trying to come to conclusions; they were simply coming out of hiding. He finished by saying that it was the most extraordinary evening of his entire life: just that evening of truth telling. Not asserting truth and not denying truth--just simply telling it in a very sincere way, coming completely out of hiding."
.Most couples cite honesty and trust as essential to the stability of their relationship. When a couple experiences a crisis, especially a crisis that threatens their ability to trust each other, the truth often acquires a particular importance. This kind of crisis often injects a huge dose of fear into the relationship. And, many people correctly believe that the primary antidote to fear is the truth. People will say things like, "If I just know what's really going on, I can deal with it." Or, "If he would just tell me the truth I think we would work this out."
In the rush to manage fear, couples quickly latch on to specific truths. For example, "I looked at your cell phone and you called him three times yesterday." Or, "You haven't wanted to make love for the last several months. Something must be very wrong." While these events are certainly true, they represent only a truth. The crisis is made substantially worst when the truth that's been discovered gets translated into the whole truth.
Translating a truth into the whole truth is the shift from viewing something as an act to viewing it as an example of identity. It's the move from noticing what a person did to labelling who the person is. So, Bill says, "I looked at your cell phone and I could see that you called him three times yesterday." If he follows that truth with, "You are a cheater!" he has taken a truth and turned it into the whole truth. The question is, does doing something automatically determine who you are? Perhaps, but not necessarily. When a truth is translated into the whole truth, meaningful conversation becomes almost impossible for most couples.
In these circumstances, the goal is to recognize a truth and remain calm and steady until the whole truth has a chance to emerge. This takes courage and compassion along with a willingness to see beyond the event. The goal is to remember the aspects of your partner you fell in love with.
Most important life experiences are rooted in paradox. They have the quality of giving and taking simultaneously. Having children, for example, gives great pleasure and meaning while, at the same time, reducing familiar pleasures and generating routines that are often difficult to find meaningful. Marriage limits freedom while creating a depth of freedom that can't be found anywhere else.
Paradox offers a wonderful opportunity for personal growth provided we are willing to hold both sides of the paradox equally. In other words, if I devote all of my attention to the limitations that marriage brings and none to the freedom it offers, I will develop a skewed sense of the experience of marriage. I have to hold limitation and freedom in the same space and time in order to deepen my understanding of marriage.
Genuine growth, particularly in the realm of relationships, requires an ability to embrace the intricacies and complexities of an experience. Paradox is, necessarily, characterized by intricacy and complexity. It is, therefore, an ideal environment within which personal growth can take root. To avoid the experience of paradox in favor of the illusion of clarity is to avoid an opportunity to deepen one's life.
Jake Thiessen, PhD
I've been working with couples for a very long time. And, I love it! This blog is my attempt to communicate some of the things I've learned over the past 40 years.