Relationship - what's in a word...

The word relationship refers to the process of connection to another, either through blood ties, a marriage, an emotional or sexual connection, a contractual agreement or friendship. Re - derived from Latin meaning to return to; ation - derived from the Latin - an action or a process; the suffix ship -  from middle English, which refers to an ability. 

Literally what we mean when we say 'we are in a relationship' is we have the ability to re-connect to another. If only that were always true!

We are all in relationships, with ourselves and others, which bring us varying degrees of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Seeking connection with others is important for our survival, we are social animals, however, there is a tension between seeking intimacy with another and maintaining our individuality which philosophers, poets and writers describe throughout the ages. 

When we are in intimate, adult relationships over extended time periods, we often make the mistake of believing we know what the other wants or believing the other thinks like me, should behave like me and be like me. In couples this is often acted out in phrases like - "He's at his computer all the time, he doesn't want to talk to me," or "She's always at me to tell her everything, it's not important to me, I don't remember that stuff!"

Gender differences often - but not always - are acted out in the following ways. The woman seeks contact and intimacy - I call it the urge to merge - whilst complaining that man withdraws. The man conversely seeks to protect in his individuality by withdrawing into 'doing' things - reading the paper, pottering in the garden shed etc, fearing the merging! 

Whilst each seek to satisfy their individual needs in this way, it fails to address the 'couple' need, which then leads to misunderstandings, resentments, arguments and ultimately to either a permanent separation OR a total fusion, requiring the submission of individuality. 

We all seek contact and fear rejection. We want to feel close to another, yet also fear being taken over by the other and thus 'losing' ourselves. It is the age old Human dilemma - how do I stay connected without merging or withdrawing? 

When our ability to connect to another fails, we armour ourselves, we build an invisible, sometimes impermeable, defensive wall around ourselves which will protect us from further injury; and/or we lash out at the other, verbally, emotionally or physically, a need to hurt the other, as we hurt. 

Contact is lost; the very thing we feared, we make happen.

Social conditioning continues to offer us only one model of relationship; that of fusion - of two becoming one. It is in our language and played out in our religious ceremonies and our social structures. It runs deep, from the fairy-tales we tell our children - stories of beautiful girls being 'rescued' by Princes and knights - to the fantasy wedding, honeymoon and home illustrated in commercials, films and magazines! 

Today the average cost of a wedding is something in the region of £5,000 - £15,000 for one day in the life of the couple. 

And what investment is made for setting the ground-rules of the relationship? Of discussing the hopes and fears of what will happen in the relationship? Of whether the couple want children? Or not? And is that OK with each? Having friends of the opposite (or in homosexual couples, the same) sex - will that be 'allowed'? Is flirting accepted or does it threaten the relationship? So many differences between us, and yet each expect the other to want the same as me? 

When you marry it is sublimely expected that things change, and they do - often for the worse. We swap the word partner for wife or husband and in the doing often swap behaviours and roles; we cease to consult and start to expect. The fun goes, the arguments start, the sex becomes habitual or fades, the monotony begins. 

What goes on internally to maintain the projection of 'we', rather than 'you and I' is less obvious. There are 3 ways of dealing with difference in the fusion model:-

  • You withdraw - when there is a difference - I lose you.
  • I eradicate difference by being like you - no more me - I lose me.
  • Conflict - we attempt to eradicate difference by you making me like you, me resisting and saying, NO you need to be like me.

What I see between the couples who come for help is that the meaning of relationship, i.e. two individuals able to connect in a meaningful and intimate way, becomes distorted. 

The outcomes are that couples either stay 'miserably married' when one or both fail to satisfy their core needs; or discord leads to either an implosion, when one submits to the other totally, as in total fusion; or an explosion, when one or other or both cease to tolerate the other's individuality and difference, resulting in divorce.

We all have core needs which are essential to our individual well-being. Our core needs are non-negotiable - this means compromise will not work! So, what else can we do?

Maintaining a relationship is hard work, though many seem to think otherwise. It is about having enough similarity to connect and share some things AND enough difference to individuate, to be able to withdraw and do things alone. It is impossible to stay permanently connected, although some do seek it. Bob Resnick* calls this 'seeking terminal connectivity'. It doesn't work as the person you seek to be connected to withdraws from the fear of being absorbed, which Bob calls 'confluence phobic'.

There is a rhythm to relating which involves how much one is able to stretch themselves to allow the other to satisfy their core needs, which differ to the originator's. When a stretch becomes too far, it stops being a gift that's offered to one's partner with kindness and graciousness and is experienced as a constraint, which cuts and injures; hence the originator becomes resentful. 

Goodwill is essential to good relating; without goodwill, resentment and anger reign. Relating IS the contact we have with each other. It is the dialogue where we express our needs and they are accepted, rather than denied. In dialogue we embrace contact, wanting to know about the other's experience, even when it leads to difference. Embracing difference, expressing our emotions, accepting them and still keeping in contact is a skill which can be learned. 

When we are not grounded in our emotions dialogue ceases and debate ensues. The one who is most practised at debate normally feels powerful, leaving the other feeling powerless, angry and resentful.

Is this really the example to show our children about how to relate to others?

*From Bob & Rita Resnick - A Relating Model for Couples.

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