Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
October 2008 - Volume 08, No. 10
In the best of all possible worlds, when it comes to finding a life partner, we would (a) find ourselves attracted to a person, (b) determine it’s mutual, and then (c) “live happily ever after” together.
Attraction ---> Relationship
This also assumes an individual right to choose our own partner — an idea that is still quite new (radical) in human history. Many places on our planet still consider making our own choice of a life partner as inherently too dangerous, let alone foolish. And being “in love” is even more suspect as a basis for such an important life-decision. Best leave it to elders, parents, relatives, yentas, or others who can at least see more clearly the many levels of interaction and integration that are involved.
But it’s now “the American way” — and thanks, in part, to our own 20th century cinema, the rest of the world watches in fascination — and wants us to succeed. Yes, we want to trust romance, and especially romantic love.
Yet it’s still a very new idea, and we’re still stumbling around in the dark with it — hence our unenviable high divorce rate.
For many years now I’ve routinely asked client couples what had attracted them to each other early in their relationship. The answer patterns that emerge would take more space than this newsletter allows, but what is more significant is the great gulf between that early attraction and the relationship reality that now presents itself.
And so the question — what went (or goes) wrong?*
The adult dating guru David DeAngelo (doubleyourdating.com) gives us this clue:attraction is not a choice. We are in the hands of so much unconscious material when we find ourselves attracted to another, that we can be effectively helpless in its face.
It’s almost impossible to not be attracted to certain people — deny it as we might. What we need is wisdom about what to do with it.
Attraction ---> (Wisdom) --?-> Relationship
Traditionally this was where the ‘permission’ of the parents (or larger society) came in. Some relationships (albeit where the attraction was very great) simply could not happen — or were ‘forbidden.’ The suffering and even heroism emerging from such tragedies has made for great drama through many ages. [In 19th century literature, the resolution often had to involve a death. In the 20th century, it was characteristic for “love” to prevail.]
In my clinical work, it’s not my position to ‘tell’ couples whether this attraction will/can lead to a useful relationship. Rather it’s mine to help them discern for themselves. I often call that process of discernment “courtship.”
Attraction ---> Courtship --?-> Relationship
On the surface, courtship is like “hunting.” We men are hunters — we use our skill to “bag” our prey. And once we’ve succeeded, we stop hunting. A deep inner wisdom tells us it’s now time to ‘go to work.’ A ten-year old boy may not know much about sex, but what he inherently does know is that once he has it, he’ll have to go to work for the rest of his life to support four people.
For women, on the other hand, who are also great hunters (men, never underestimate women here), the ‘after-hunting’ skills of relationship building, aren’t much different than ‘hunting’ — and so they still pay a lot of caring attention to their ‘catch.’ They frequently experience men, on the other hand, as once succeeding, going off to work and in some ways never returning.
The gene pool gives us some natural skills in the hunting part of courtship — using skill and focused intention to track and capture the desired object. Sadly, the gene pool does not give us men many skills for after-hunt relationship building. We have to learn that from the culture (i.e. from each other).
Courtship needs to involve other skills as well — especially so that the blindness of attraction doesn’t entrap us in a poor relationship choice.
Courtship must involve qualifying and testing — skills and considerations that at best need to be somewhat separate from attraction. This takes time and patience, and must be conscious and deliberate. Many will tell me “I should have known”, but they didn’t pay attention to the signals. They let that initial attraction rule the day. So often the testing and qualifying only comes years later when the attraction has long collapsed, and the promised relationship has decayed into an overwhelming unhappiness and/or betrayal.
Let me speak more about testing. Men and women need to test each other — the alternative courts disaster. The savvy car salesperson sets it up so that the ‘test drive’ takes place only after the emotional decision has been made to purchase — artfully putting the decision before the test. This is in reality not a test, just a feeling-level ratification of an already accomplished decision. If it’s not a wise decision, the outcome can become a buyer’s remorse that sometimes is too painful to consider, and must therefore go unconscious.
In any vital relationship, it’s wise (necessary) for each partner to frequently test the other. This doesn’t have to mean any lack of trust, rather an ongoing willingness to substantiate the vitality of the connection. And I’ll advise each to take being tested by one’s partner as a compliment to the self and the relationship.
My use of the term qualification is not that distinct from testing: Does this person fit my needs, my hopes, my personality, my plans, my life circumstances and even my life purpose? Each of these is then tested. It also involves a test of oneself
I willing to change my own … in order to build or allow a vital relationship with this person?
These are some of the considerations in marriage counseling. What work was not accomplished in the beginning of the relationship? It’s in facing those unanswered questions, and perhaps facing them together, that (1) can allow us to grieve and bury the old relationship, and (2) allow a new and stronger relationship to emerge. This involves a new set of testing and qualification work — essentially the reverse of the original diagram.
The new Attraction isn't so much the “not a choice” of the initial experience, but is wrestled out of mutual reality, and sometimes suffering. I frequently call it “ordeal.” And because it is wrestled out, it is no longer as blind. I’ll also call it ”Life.” And it can be more trustworthy as the basis of a life-decision.
It’s usually good when this new Attraction can be with the same person (partner) as the initial attraction. Deliberate attention to the skills of Courtship helps here. Courtship tests Attraction, and when we find an Attraction that passes the test of courtship, then Life (with its struggles and joys) is on our side. So,
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