Mark Greene shares a simple way to stop fighting and start having the kind of relationships you want.
For the last few years I’ve been thinking long and hard about the word “relationship.”
It is the one of the single most important questions I have ever considered. And in deciding to focus on this question, I have literally changed my life. And not in any small way. I have gone from a life of often desperate frustration and confusion to a life that I am at peace with. No ifs ands or buts. I now have a good life. If I die tomorrow, I could say to myself, “okay, I know what a good life feels like. I’m okay.”
We are all embedded in a web of relationships, be they brief or lifelong, occurring between us and dozens, hundreds or even thousands of other people every day. Consider a set of concentric rings. In the middle is family and loved ones, a little further out may be extended family, then creative partners, or co-workers, or other students and beyond that, the guy who drives the bus, the women at the diner, the audience at a concert, and even further out, the man in the White House and so on.
Every single relationship is an opportunity to either grow our joy in the world or not. For me, it’s really that simple. I suppose you could argue for designing a life in which most of our interactions do neither; that you could run some sort of neutral game whereby you seek little and express little in your daily interactions with others, but for the purpose of my theory of living, the joy of human connection has to matter.
Choosing to focus on growing the joy in our relationships may sound simplistic, but I have a clear purpose in this particular frame, and frankly, when it comes to relationships, I haven’t got the bandwidth to track a myriad of complex goals. For me a life-changing way of living only works if I can summon the concept and act on it almost without conscious effort. For this to be possible, the goal and the path towards it must be intuitive and clear. The approach I have chosen is to have more joy in my relationships with others, but it requires that I get past one simple but pervasive problem.
Individualism and the Need to Be Right
In Western culture, we are conditioned to conceptualize, speak and act in terms of the individual. We manifest individualism by taking an “I” or “me” focused stance. We are taught to value the concept of individuality above all other cultural, political or social frames. Independence and self reliance are held up as the purest expression of what it is to be Americans. The primacy of the individual permeates our popular culture, entertainment and political discourses. Our movie heroes are tough loners. Our sports events elevate the best, the champions, the winners. So it comes as no surprise that individualism informs our personal relationships as well. It manifests itself in the need to be clear, right, and in control. We think, “If I can just convince people of why I’m right about this, we can all go forward.” And so our public and private discourses are permeated with binary dialogues and the need to be right. Which is all fine and good until you try and co-exist with another human being.
In relationships, we seek to cooperate by making a case for our point of view. The back and forth is a process by which each party works to convince the other of the best way forward. This debate about which point of view is the right one can easily devolve into a loop whereby each individual’s critique of the other side serves as validation for growing entrenchment. These self feeding internal loops are poison to a healthy relationship, because in focusing on the individual, we end up masters of temporary truces that collapse at the next moment of disagreement. The fact is, winning debates can be as exhausting as losing them.
Individualism and Therapy
And so we go for help; perhaps from a counselor or therapist. We are told that we need to look for solutions inside our selves and we encourage others to do the same. Change lies within, we are told. In counseling, we spend hours talking about what we want or need, or worse what’s wrong with us, again from an individualistic stance. We hash out our ideas about how things should be done. Seeking relational points of agreement, as if there is a predetermined set of individual elements that, if we can find enough of them, will allow our relationship to thrive. The holy grail of individualism and relationships? “Look, we’re two individuals who are enough alike that our relationships can work!” Said another way: maybe we should all marry ourselves.
But we can not marry ourselves. So, after we locate and codify our points of pre-existing agreement, the rest increasingly feels like making sacrifices. We end up saying, “Okay I’ll do what you want in this case or that” or “Do this my way and I’ll do that other thing your way” Meanwhile, we struggle to manage our discontent because all these half solutions feel externally imposed and when operating from within an individualistic world view that is a negative. But that’s not even the worse part. These solutions are based on accomodating often inflexible previously existing assumptions or conditions. They are static and often already obsolete while still exerting control and influence for lack of more creative solutions. We spend our precious energies signing useless armistice agreements empowering old armies long dead from battles fought long ago. We seek to understand the frustrations we feel and we blame parts of ourselves that seemingly need to change. We seek to silence the very real and valid protesting voices inside us. Voices that are going off like alarm bells day and night. We struggle to change. And after a period of examining and diagnosing our internal architecture, a labyrinth that can seem endless, we turn our critical eye to our partner’s issues.
This can easily create the following dialogue, “I’ve changed enough, now you need to change.” How quickly in a world of individuals, we begin looking at the flaws in others as a way to explain why things aren’t working correctly. The dark side of individualism is judgment. This individualistic tendency to judge rushes in when couples, families, or co-workers or for that matter, political systems, are struggling. Never mind that individualism is actually the source of the problem. When push comes to shove, individualism falls short because it fails to offer us ways to create new and unforeseen solutions to the complex challenges of being human. When we seek solutions within ourselves as individuals and demand that others do the same, the options are just terribly limited.
Visualize Your Relatonship-What Do You See?
As we attempt to parse our experiences based exclusively on what lies within ourselves and others, we fail to focus on the third party in this dance. The relationship itself. Picture your spouse, partner or parent. Now picture yourself standing facing them. Is this how to envision the relationship? Two people facing each other? Is the relationship somehow embedded in each of you equally? Is the relationship somehow a result of who you each are as individuals?
I have always feared the implications of this model. Because I know how many deep seated challenges exist in me as an individual. I have a long history of fears and insecurities. I have a lifetime of relationships in which I was simply unable to span the gap between myself and the other. As if the effort needed was unending and the results, temporary. Are we all so self centered that giving of ourselves across that gulf becomes exhausting? Or is there something else at work here even as we are engaged full time in trying to get what we need while giving what is asked of us?
And there is where it all changed for me. Go back to the image of you and your partner, or lover, or parent, facing each other. Now, instead of seeing the relationship as being embedded in you as individuals, see it as floating in the space between the two of you. There, a third element. An independent third element which each of you effect and act on. It is not a function of who you are. It is a function of what actions you choose to take. It is not constructed of some inflexible, deeply personal web of histories and issues that go back to your childhood. It is not some predetermined monolithic structure that requires endless effort to stabilize and manage. It is a light nimble construct. It is mutable day to day. It is what you create in partnership and can be modified and altered hour by hour based on what you choose to create.
You Can Choose What Is Being Created
Furthermore, any decision point one faces ceases to be about “me” or “you” and becomes instead about “we”. When you make decisions, even hard ones, based on caring for the relationship, your efforts cease to be about any one person getting what they need as individuals, which surprisingly meets their needs in much more genuine and holistic ways. The relationship can grow based on the choices you make in partnership and these choices often become much clearer.
I actually first encountered this way of thinking in a different but equally compelling form. During my divorce four years ago, my former wife and I made our son our priority. We were determined not to make him suffer because our marriage failed. Strong and potentially damaging emotions were swirling everywhere. But by holding our son as central, our decisions about what to do were born not out of darker urges to continue the conflict, but instead out of a higher calling to create and maintain a support structure for him. In determining a goal greater than any internal agenda, we saw the path forward quite clearly. Many decisions became simple, and, in doing so, we have pushed through the challenges we face to a place where we co-parent our son and work to collaborate. It has not always been easy, but it has been made possible because in the midst of conflict, we chose to nurture something external to ourselves.
These ideas of how to construct collaborative relational interactions can apply to the full range of human relationships. Organizations like the Taos Institute and the Houston Galveston Institute have been talking about Relational Thinking, Collaborative Practices and Constructionist Ideas for many years. Thinkers and teachers like Ken Gergen and Harlene Anderson along with thousands of others continue to grow these ideas. Concepts like appreciative inquiry or AI have been moving into the business world. All of these theories are supremely liberating for me. In part, because they feel so much easier.
We do not rush to judge but instead are encouraged to stay curious and open to what might emerge when we are in relationship with others. Frankly, judging myself and others is the hardest work I can think of. I’m glad to have a framework in which I am encouraged to do as little judging as possible. Its exhausting, isolating and unproductive. I no longer rush to sort aspects of myself into categories of good or bad. Aspects of myself and others come into play contextually, and can be viewed from multiple frames and points of view. When we design relationally; when two people visualize this third element called a relationship external to themselves, what emerges is something new and fresh. Aspects of ourselves that might have been deemed burdensome suddenly prove to be assets as new practices and ways of being evolve. As we grow and change, the fluid nature of the relationship adjusts and evolves with us, no longer tied to archaic individualistic priorities.
The idea that we can best determine, in isolation, how to go forward in life is hugely challenging. It assumes the answers that worked yesterday will work tomorrow. It also assumes that the options we can determine for ourselves cover the widest range of possible solutions. They will not. The power of our internal dialogues and resources are best activated in relationship to others because our ideas and solutions take on different aspects and possibilities based on the multitude of frames that then arise. The suggestion, “how about we look at it a different way” not only changes the point of view in any conversation, it changes the aspects of all the ideas on which the conversation is based; at which point something new and unforeseen can emerge. It is a bit of interpersonal alchemy that can not be performed in isolation. We simply don’t have all the ingredients. That fresh new point of view or idea is never the result of a single vantage point. It emerges out of the willingness to remain open and curious about what the other party has in mind. It comes when we set the stage for it, by setting aside our pre-existing ideas, histories and fears.
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