Which Version of You Shows Up to Your Relationship?
The great spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti once said that true liberation is freedom from our own automatic responses. In our culture, our relationship to relationships tends to be passive. We get what we get, and then we react to it. Most of us try to get more of what we want from our partners by complaining when they don’t get it right. That’s got to be about the worst behavioral modification program.
This reactive approach to relationships is inherently individualistic. We have lost us consciousness, an appreciation for the whole, and instead we have shifted into you and me. We have moved out of our Wise Adult into our Adaptive Child parts. The present-based, most mature part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, has lost connection with the older fast brain, the subcortical limbic system. Without that connection, you lose a pause between what you feel and what you do.
Over time, with training and practice, we can change our responses. We can shift from being reactive individuals to being proactive teammates who, in cooperation with our partner, intentionally shape the transaction between us. This everyday practice is relational mindfulness—stopping for a brief moment and centering ourselves. Observing, just as in all forms of mindfulness, the thoughts, feelings, impulses that arise—and choosing something different.
What follows is a journey toward mastery, from reactivity to responsibility, in those moments of choice. But that journey has a price of admission. Embarking on this path requires that we give up many cherished concepts of the world and of ourselves as individuals, starting with the notion that we are, indeed, individuals to begin with.
The Myth of the Individual
More and more literature has emerged on the interpersonal nature of our brains and nervous system. Are we individuals? Yes, in a way, but at the same time we are utterly interdependent, neurologically entwined. We are individuals, yes, but individuals whose lifeblood is connection. As the neurobiologist Dan Siegel puts it, “The brain is a social organ, and our relationships to one another are not a luxury but an essential nutrient for our survival.” We are individuals whose very existence is predicated on belonging.
In the early 1950s, the psychiatrist René Spitz was asked to consult at a number of orphanages with unusually high death rates in the infants in their care. These babies were regularly fed, changed, swaddled, and burped. But Spitz found that the babies were never spoken to, jostled, or played with—in a word, they never emotionally synchronized with an adult. Failure to thrive syndrome was the official name for what happened. In plain English, these babies died from loneliness.
Our nervous systems were never designed to self-regulate. We all filter our sense of stability and well-being through our connection to others. And yet the culture of individualism saturates our society. The idea of a freestanding rugged individualist is a cultural story having little to do with the truth.
Learning to think relationally means living each day with the realization that your relationship is your emotional biosphere, It’s the environment we live in and depend upon. Sure, you can choose to pollute your biosphere over here with a flare-up of temper. But you’ll breathe in that pollution over there in the form of your partner’s withdrawal.
You are connected, you and your partner; there is no escape. And delusions of being unaffected, above it all, are not merely insensitive but sometimes downright dangerous. The people we know and love are literally inside us.
The people we know and love trigger the deepest wounds and insecurities in us, and at the same time they provide the greatest comfort and solace. Thinking of ourselves as individuals who are apart from or above all this is a delusion. And believing in that delusion can breed disastrous consequences. For good and ill, in how we are treated and how we treat others, in the very structures of our brains, we do not stand alone.
Start Thinking Like a Team
You may not be able to directly control your partner, but you may be able to influence your interaction with your partner by changing your own behavior. This is called working on your relationship. You can come home after a long day at work and rail at your partner for the chaos in the house. Or you can walk in with a thoughtful little present, a babysitter in tow, and tickets to a show. Which of those two evenings would you rather inhabit? Well, okay then, get to it. Stop thinking like an individual and start thinking like a team. Us consciousness says, “We’re in this together.” You and me consciousness says, “Every man for himself.”
It’s easy to see how couples who think of themselves as two individuals can end up in escalating conflicts. Thinking that your partner simply is a certain way conveniently removes you from the picture and leaves little room for you to change or repair the relationship. The usual escalation goes from some particular incident to trend thinking (she always, he never) and from there to essential character (she just is cold, he just is a child). Once you’re convinced you’re dealing with a character issue, you can do little but plead with your partner to change who they are. Good luck with that.
What’s missing here is the simple but demanding skill of learning to stay particular. Here’s something to remember: Functional actions in a relationship are moves that empower your partner to come through for you. Dysfunctional actions are those that render your partner paralyzed. In a conflict, the farther your accusations stray from the particular, the more impotent your partner will feel, and the dirtier the move. It’s fine to cast a cool eye over your whole relationship and deal with patterns you see, like “we’re drifting apart,” or “you’re too angry at me too much of the time.” These macro-level analyses are fine—if you are in your Wise Adult self, your prefrontal cortex. Remember this: Don’t jump from a microlevel upset to a macrolevel analysis when you’re triggered. Just as you shouldn’t try to process deep issues when you’ve been drinking or you’re stoned, you shouldn’t do so when you’re hurt and angry.
Take a break, throw some water on your face, take cleansing breaths with long exhalations, go for a walk. But don’t try to grapple with relational issues from your Adaptive Child. Get yourself reseated in your Wise Adult before attempting repair. Ask yourself which part of you is talking right now, and what that part’s real agenda is. If your agenda in that moment is to be right, to gain control, to vent, retaliate, or withdraw—then stop, call a formal time-out if need be, and get yourself recentered. The only agenda that will work is the one about finding a solution. Only then will you have any luck using your newly cultivated skills.
You Cannot Love from Above or Below
Our society is built on the idea that we are all created equal, with each person afforded one vote, and one rule of law for everyone. At least that’s how it goes in theory. We all know that equality doesn’t play out anywhere close to perfectly in any human society. And therein lies the rub. Because while we all possess equal and irreducible value, it’s hard to see that equality in everyday life. Whether we allow ourselves to acknowledge it or not, most of us have an exquisite sense, in any setting, of just where we are in the pecking order. And where everyone else is as well. The only problem with that type of judgment is that it’s one hundred percent nonsense.
You may be a so-so tennis player who gets routinely beaten. You pay for lessons, you practice and practice, and six months go by. One day you beat the pants off the guy who had previously been beating you. Do you feel fantastic? I hope so. You earned it. You are now a better tennis player than your nemesis. Congratulations! You are not, however, a better person. You can be smarter, you can be richer, you can be short or tall—all that matters to a degree but none of it matters essentially. Essential worth comes from the inside.
The world of us, of interdependence, rests on a foundation of collaboration—collaboration with nature, with one another, with the inspiration that sometimes passes through us. The world of us is a realm of innovation and abundance. The world of win-win. But individualism rests on a foundation of competition—competition with nature, with one another. It bestows a lordly sense that you are your own source of inspiration. It’s the world of win-lose. In our daily lives, the world we inhabit at any given moment depends on which part of our neurocircuitry we’re in—left or right hemisphere, cortical or subcortical parts of the brain, sympathetic approach or parasympathetic avoidance.
Leaving Our Kids a Better Future
How can we as individuals escape the contempt that lies at the heart of the Great Lie, the myth of individual superiority or inferiority, when it surrounds us all like the air we breathe? The answer: we cannot escape as individuals. Our trauma, with rare exception, is relational, a rupture in the intrapersonal field. And so too our healing must incorporate the relational—a healing of the torn field between us. Healing demands that we learn how to be intimate with one another. We must also start listening and responding to the various clamoring parts of ourselves. But to respond in the present, we need to learn not to be overtaken by past traumas. Our traumas can either teach us or run us, depending on how we handle them.
The real work of intimacy is not day by day but rather minute to minute. In this moment, which will you choose: vulnerable closeness or protected distance, your right to express yourself or our duty to find a workable solution? Will you choose you or us? As the German mystic Thomas Hübl says, in such moments, urgency is our enemy and breath is our friend. Slow down, dear reader. Slow down enough to catch up with yourself. Slow down enough to think for a moment of your partner’s experience—beyond right and wrong, beyond “objectivity,” and beyond you and your self-centered concerns.
For some of us, taking good care of our relationships will mean standing up with love for ourselves. For others, it will mean learning to stand down. Both require stepping into increased vulnerability. Really mastering this relational technology, speaking with some fluency, takes a good two to five years. But don’t despair. These techniques and this new way of thinking are both so powerful and so superior to the mores of the culture at large that even doing them badly has the power to utterly transform your life and your relationships. And guess what? You can start doing them badly today.
Start with this. Swear off unkindness; swear off disrespect. Before you open your mouth, ask yourself: “Does what I am about to say fall below the line of basic respect? Is there a chance my the listener will experience it that way?”
There is no redeeming value in harshness. There is nothing that harshness does that loving firmness doesn’t do better. When you speak, lose the chip on your shoulder. Angry complaint will most likely get you nowhere. The research is clear: hard emotions—anger, indignation—predictably evoke anger back or else withdrawal.
In your relationship, you may need bold assertion to get your partner’s attention. The unflinching exercise of soft power is critical in that first phase of getting what you want—the daring-to-rock-the-boat phase. But once your partner has heard you and is willing to try, then stop thinking of yourself as an individual, and pitch in like a good team member. Help them. Show them what you like, and reward their efforts. Centered in the best part of you, reach for and connect with the best part of your partner. Love demands democracy—between us and others and between our ears.
Start by stepping into your own citizenship, your virtue, your us.
Intimacy—the thing we all long for, if we’re really honest with ourselves, the touch of human connection that heals, that fulfills, the only thing in our lives capable of rendering us truly happy, intimacy is not something you have; it’s something you do. And you can learn to do it better.
You can learn to do a better job of asserting your rights with love, cherishing the relationship even as you stand up for yourself. You can learn to let go of the trap of “objective” reality and tend, instead, to your partner’s subjective hurts or longings, listening, really listening, with compassion and generosity rather than defensiveness and self-centeredness. “I’m sorry you feel bad. Can I say or do anything now that might help?” will often point you toward repair instead of escalated distance or warfare. Self-protection; self-assertion—there is a golden door to walk through that takes us beyond me, me, me. Not that there shouldn’t be a me. Traditionally, women have been taught to submerge their me to the we. But we is not relationship.
Intimacy is not some blended egoless amalgam. Intimacy is an endless dance of I and US, the needs of each vital part of the relationship called myself or yourself as those individual wants filter through the needs of the relationship itself.