Real Relating  —  Some Thoughts on Relating

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Real Relat­ing

Some Thoughts on Relat­ing  —  it’s nev­er a pow­er strug­gle… it’s learn­ing to see, hear, and appre­ci­ate, while stay­ing true to yourself.

Note: If your present rela­tion­ship needs work, well…
check out The. Best. Rela­tion­ship. Ever.
It’s my rela­tion­ships book… you’ll find all the help you need!

I worked with a cou­ple that had real­ly got­ten them­selves off track. They’d “lived” in a place of ver­bal vio­lence since the begin­ning of their rela­tion­ship and, just before they came in, there’d been a phys­i­cal vio­lence episode too.

This had sufficiently “scared” both of them that they separated (OK, that part was court ordered, but both agreed) and both entered therapy individually. We worked in that configuration for a while, then shifted, after three months, to couple therapy.

There is noth­ing “easy” or “auto­mat­ic” about the ther­a­peu­tic process.

The crap from years of neglect has accu­mu­lat­ed. Ini­tial­ly, they thought they’d have to shov­el through all the old stuff before they could ever get to the “new stuff.”

One of the toughest “sells,” both in therapy and in life, is this: there is no need, nor is there any way, to resolve the issues of the past.

There is not a hope in hell that water, once under the bridge, can be pushed back upstream and fil­tered until clean. There is let­ting it go, or let­ting it own you.

Letting go of the past is neither a pleasant, nor an easy choice.

This cou­ple, in “old talk mode,” could loop back 10 years in 30 sec­onds. They’d be dis­cussing some­thing that was cur­rent­ly hap­pen­ing, and poof, back they’d go, in stages, almost year by year, remind­ing their part­ner of past sins. 

It was sort of “cute,” as they were polite enough to take turns.

I’d cut them off mid-sentence, and ask them to return to the present moment.

I’d ask each of them to reflect on their own “stuff.” I’d ask them to lis­ten to their part­ner  —  tru­ly lis­ten  —  as opposed to deflect­ing or cor­rect­ing what the part­ner is saying. 

Because part of grow­ing up is being able to lis­ten to and absorb the valid­i­ty (to the oth­er per­son) of what is being said, while not “tak­ing it personally.”

I encour­aged them to pick a cur­rent top­ic and to “just talk about it.” I then helped the part­ner to ask ques­tions designed to ask the part­ner for more infor­ma­tion and more feeling. 

When they moved off top­ic, I’d raise my hand and ask them to go back to the top­ic at hand.

Initially frustrating, this discipline is essential. What they were trying to learn was self-validation.

Often, rela­tion­ships are used (or per­haps bet­ter, the peo­ple we are in rela­tion­ship with are used) to val­i­date us. Even pick­ing a fight with some­one is a way inse­cure peo­ple val­i­date themselves. 

The incom­plete per­son is say­ing, “At least, when you fight with me, I know you care, and are still there for me (to use.)”

Another example: incomplete people often possess inflated views of themselves. They say, “See! Look how together I am! (sly look) Don’t you think? (Please validate me.)”

As David Schnarch puts it, in Pas­sion­ate Mar­riage:

Argu­ing can be a way of check­ing that the oth­er per­son is still there”¦ When we have lit­tle dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, our iden­ti­ty is con­struct­ed out of what’s called a reflect­ed sense of self. We need con­tin­ued con­tact, val­i­da­tion and con­sen­sus (or dis­agree­ment) from oth­ers”¦ We devel­op a con­tin­gent iden­ti­ty based on a “self-in-rela­tion­ship.” Because our iden­ti­ty depends on the rela­tion­ship, we may demand that our part­ner does­n’t change so that our iden­ti­ty won’t either. pg. 59

Note: dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion is a big word with a sim­ple mean­ing. Poor­ly dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed peo­ple have weak ego bound­aries, and look out­side of them­selves for iden­ti­ty, val­i­da­tion (approval) and cau­sa­tion (blam­ing.) Well dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed peo­ple are inter­nal­ly locat­ed  —  they accept respon­si­bil­i­ty for their lives, their actions, and for their side of all relationships. 

In Zen, we might say, “being present with­out ego attachment.”

In dys­func­tion­al rela­tion­ships, there is this weird thing going on. Both par­ties are say­ing, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, “Here is the way I am. You’ll just have to accept me this way.” At the same time, they add, “And here are all the things about you that need chang­ing. You’ll change, if you love me.” 

All of this is hap­pen­ing for two reasons.

  • First, the per­son does­n’t want to have to do the hard work of grow­ing up. They there­fore think that the lov­ing action is for their part­ner to accept them as they are.
  • Sec­ond, the per­son expects that their part­ner will do the hard work of chang­ing, again to demon­strate their “love.”

I find it hard to believe that anyone ever gets away with this crap, but it’s painfully common.

Any time I hear a demand (or a manip­u­la­tion) for exter­nal val­i­da­tion, then, I know the per­son is a fear­ful infant focussed on stay­ing the same.

The way out, or one way out, is through the process of self-reflective self-revelation.

Maybe if I hide, they won’t see me

It works like this: he (for exam­ple) takes the oppor­tu­ni­ty to express or vent what he is feel­ing and think­ing about a cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. His sit­u­a­tion impacts on her from the per­spec­tive of their shared life.

In the past, she’d hear what he was say­ing and think she had to defend her­self. She’d be jump­ing in, dis­agree­ing, cor­rect­ing, or pick­ing a fight to get him to stop. With dis­ci­pline, she is learn­ing to ask him to con­tin­ue, to dig deep, to tell more of what he knows.

What hap­pens is, with­out the chal­lenges and provo­ca­tions, he tells his sto­ry as he choos­es to, and notices some tears, a lot of sad­ness, and a feel­ing of release  —  doneness.

On “her side of the couch,” her job is to self-soothe and self-validate.

She reminds her­self that she is not who he thinks she is, and that her “self” will not dis­ap­pear if he is not focussing on it. His sto­ries are his sto­ries, and as such have noth­ing to do with her. Her dis­ci­pline, her “being an adult” is expressed in her will­ing­ness to do noth­ing that will bring the atten­tion off of his sto­ry, and back to herself.

When he finishes, it’s her turn to unpack her feelings and thoughts, in the moment.

It is emphat­i­cal­ly not the time to be clever, to quote a book she just read, or demand that he some­how val­i­date her. She, in oth­er words, does what he just did. She looks deeply at her­self. In that process, owns her own “stuff”  —  the things she does to remain a child.

I remem­ber work­ing with a cou­ple  —  she’d been to The Haven to do Phase 1, he to a Come Alive. She also was work­ing on a degree in coun­selling. (She nev­er worked as a ther­a­pist. Upon grad­u­at­ing she dis­cov­ered, to her hor­ror, that she’d be required to “work all the time with peo­ple with prob­lems.” But I digress.)

No mat­ter what he did, she’d cor­rect him.

We were in a work­shop I was lead­ing. They were prac­tic­ing breath­ing. He was breath­ing, she was coach­ing. I wan­dered over. He was doing OK, for a baby breather. She was sobbing.

I asked her what she was trou­bling her­self about. “He’s not doing it right! I tell him and tell him!” Lat­er, as clients, this refrain would repeat. He’d go deep (for him) and reflect on his life. She’d take on the face of some­one who was lis­ten­ing intent­ly. He’d stop.

She’d imme­di­ate­ly tell him what he did wrong, or she’d say, “You don’t under­stand how much you hurt me, say­ing that.” He’d imme­di­ate­ly move into try­ing to make her feel bet­ter. When she talked, she’d exco­ri­ate him  —  her entire mis­er­able life was his fault, includ­ing the part before he showed up.

Because she saw her­self as the great, wise ther­a­pist, she avoid­ed any form of work­ing on her­self. They were well and tru­ly enmeshed. Her job was to cor­rect him for mak­ing her mis­er­able, and he accept­ed the role willingly.

The way out is the one the couple I earlier described chose… learning to become a self-responsible, self-regulating adult.

Learn­ing to do this takes time, will, and effort. It requires a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent focus and com­mit­ment. It requires tools  —  com­mu­ni­ca­tion and inti­ma­cy tools, hon­esty and clar­i­ty tools, and a knowl­edge of how to open up and be vulnerable.

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