Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
June 2010 - Volume 10, No. 6
It’s the Relationship
Sometimes the message is clear and overt: “Please fix her, she’s driving me crazy.” Or, “See if you can get him to pay some attention to me.” The hope is that I’m a ‘wise elder’ who can teach my client couples the subtle secrets of paying attention in ways that can bring more satisfaction to the relationship or the marriage.
From psychotherapy, to sub-atomic physics, to the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico, there’s a realization that it’s not all about the thing (object) or just the person, but its relationship of things and people that’s the primary reality. I encountered this years ago from the philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) with his philosophy of dialogue, centered on the distinction between the I-Thou and I-It relationships. Many of my client couples come to me as “I-It” relationships, but still with a vague hunger for more. BP may treat the Gulf of Mexico as an “I-It” relationship, but once we begin to see the suffering and dying sea life, our heavy hearts know it’s a whole lot more.
When I work with a couple, I make it clear from the beginning that I’m not working with just two persons, I’m working with the relationship. It’s the relationship that is technically my client. And there’s a reason for this, as well as simply legal clarity of what we’re doing.
I’m realizing more and more that the secret of all life lies in relationship. Indigenous peoples have long learned this by studying the natural world. There is no real life without relationship, the balancer of all things. And, in terms of being human, there is no meaning of life without relationship. Most of the diagnostic labels that we psychological folks use echo people’s difficulties or impediments in relationship ability.
There’s a certain sadness about the mental health field’s insistence on diagnosis and medication. The relationship between the therapist and the patient is easily lost. Many psychiatrists seem duty bound to offer medication. That’s the way they think, or from their medical training, perhaps that’s all they know anymore. The doctor’s relationship is not with the patient but with his prescription pad. And many diagnoses you can get now from an online questionnaire. No human being necessary.
I find the same sadness when religious leadership has more to do with right individual morals than spiritual connection (community, relationship). Conversely many people eschew religious community but claim the right to individual spiritual connection. You get the (I-divine) vertical goodies without any messy horizontal (I-neighbor) relationship matters.
I tell my couples that I see three entities, a man, a woman (assuming a heterosexual couple), and the relationship - as that protecting or unifying umbrella above them. Now consider that the man may have some information that he’s hesitant to share with his partner, because it would hurt her. Men will often say “what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” And same with the woman’s temptation to withhold information. When this happens the other may be spared discomfort or even great pain, but the relationship dies just a bit. Sadly many couples have little background in honest marital conversation or problem solving. Communication starvation becomes relationship starvation, the corpse of which is sitting in my office.
Many men are completely surprised that women can be more hurt by lies than unfaithful behavior. Lying is as or more damaging to the relationship than infidelity. Women, with their higher sensitivity for relationship, understand this well.
Conversely, when couples can communicate openly and honestly (often a major part of their original attraction), the relationship is strengthened. I encourage couples to ‘feed their marriage’ so that the marriage is strong enough to support the two persons in honest conversation (even if it might lead to the dissolution of the marriage). When you just ‘take care of each other’ the return is diminishing. But when you ‘take care of’ the relationship, the return increases many times over. Any outcome can then be win-win. (This is why in some situations, the dissolution of a marriage can be the healing of the relationship, and those for whom the relationship cares.)
The purpose of relationship is healing (the same roots as wholeness, health, holiness, sacredness), so that the greater whole can exist in balance and blessing. Marriage, at one level, can be for the purpose of healing loneliness, healing the hunger for another, healing the isolation, and from that healing can come forth gifts for the couple and the larger community. The world needs good marriages. Some clients tell me they’ve never known any happily married persons. Sadly the narcissist (who by definition can only relate to him or herself), is psychologically barred from knowing true relationship hunger, and therefore virtually cannot ever feed a marriage. To live in an effective marriage is also to be able to live with anxiety (which the narcissist cannot). Sorry about that.
Religion (my other hat) isn’t primarily about sins, but about the healing of broken relationship with the world, the neighbor, and the divine. Religious fellowship is about healing the world, not dividing the world into right and wrong, good and bad. Psychology isn’t just about mental illness, but about healing the hunger for wholeness in broken or injured people or populations. One primary psychological relationship is that of psychotherapist and patient - a relationship of care and respect, of mutual regard and openness. It’s not always efficient, but when it’s a real relationship, it works. Human relationships and efficiency are not same-page concepts.
I know an organization, the primary tenet of its decision making is “does it build community?” Decision making may take longer, but its purpose is clean and its people are above all loved and valued.
I invite you to consider that in everything you do, that the heart of it all is relationship. Sub-atomic physics has discovered this. The natural world has always known it. Only the human world is resistant. But when we tune our lives to the healing balance of seeking, being in, and feeding relationship, that relationship will feed us in turn beyond all that we can ever want and desire. Bet on it.
I-It and I-Thou in therapy
I-Thou in Therapy
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