Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
June 2010 - Volume 10, No. 6
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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.

Pay Attention!

Comments (4)

  • This seems to ring true today for me Wilum...Thank you for writing it and sharing it with our mutual’s been helpful for me to read....Blessings and Balance <3 Iris

    — Iris, 6/3/2010
  • I-It and I-Thou in therapy

    I absolutely love that you talk about I-It and I-Thou in the therapeutic context. You write about it here in terms of the relational aspects of the couple. I wonder if you might talk about it in terms of the relational aspect between therapist and patient.

    On another blog, I posted the following comment. I wonder if you could take the time to respond? It had to do with the nature of psychotherapy — whether the relationship is “real” or “artificial.” I posited that it’s fairly artificial. The author of the original piece wrote that he was quite convinced it was real. So here’s my comment, below the asterisks...


    Where I think our disagreement lies is in the definition of the word r-e-a-l.

    There’s no doubt that the therapeutic relationship is not imaginary. Ditto to the validity of your point that the room can be a laboratory for real life, with the additional advantage of being able to go “meta” at any time. (Avoidant or conflict rupture between client and therapist? Step back and go meta about the nature of the rupture as well as the subject at hand.) Those are typically things you can’t do in real — pardon the choice of words! — life.

    That said, I look at relationships as the great philosopher and thinker Martin Buber did. That is, the relationship can be either I-It or I-Thou. Buber had pretty strict criteria for what constituted the deepest form of a Real relationship between people — that is, an I-Thou relationship.

    You’re most likely aware of Buber’s critique of psychotherapy, particularly as you’d read it in his extraordinary dialogues with Carl Rogers. The guts of the critique is this: you can’t have an I-Thou relationship without mutuality. By design, there’s no mutuality in psychotherapy. Factor in the economic basis of the relationship — a relationship that will end ipso facto when the client stops paying — and what you’ve got left is a special kind of I-It relationship...but one which is not I-Thou, even if there are occasional moments of I-Thou connection.

    Yes, it’s real. But it isn’t Real. It is absolutely not a relationship that involves, as Buber would put it, a dialogue involving the other’s entire being.


    Yours is absolutely one of the smartest therapy blogs I’ve ever found. (Your series on Givers-Takers deserves much wider dissemination, especially the last installment, with its discussion of clinical outcomes.) I’d love to read your take on this. Whether you agree or disagree is not so important. I’ve found in life that agreement can be highly overrated!

    — TK, 6/24/2010
  • I-Thou in Therapy

    I-Thou in Therapy – a response to TK (June 24, 2010)

    First I thank you for your kind words, and for posing such a great question.

    Yes, for me therapy does have a strong I-Thou reality. And you have nicely set these terms up in order to explore what they are and where they fit in that special human relationship known as psychotherapy.

    Psychotherapy itself is real. It is a process involving two engaging parties, contained within a structure of time which has both a beginning and an end on both a micro and macro level. It is an intentional and structured relationship with a specific task and purpose. A general consensus would use the word “healing” to represent this task and purpose. But then semantics necessitates the exploration of healing from or for what? And it easily becomes captive to the medical model of ‘fixing’ something. I’ll not pursue this now because it’s not the focus of your question.

    My interest and exploration into rites of initiation, especially among indigenous peoples, provides me one of the more satisfying models for psychotherapy. And Jung’s exploration of the alchemical tradition is amazingly close to the mark for me as well.

    The purpose and process of psychotherapy is to provide a transition from one essential state to another, as for example the initiatory transition from adolescence to adulthood. This is a transition that is not provided by nature, but must come from the culture. (And psychotherapy is a gift of the culture, not just an encouragement of natural process, as for example chiropractic and many other healing arts. It’s not one of those “leave it alone or just help it along it will happen naturally” steps of normal human development.) However, I do observe that women, with the ‘natural’ experiences of their bodies, involving menstruation and childbirth, do have a one-up on men, for whom nature provides no such bridge to maturity.

    Psychotherapy at its center is a rite of passage from one state of development to another. In more traditional societies, this is called “initiation” of the “vision quest.” There was a time (a more mythic comment actually) in our own culture when this might be accomplished by a mature drill sergeant who took a young recruit, and unmade him in order to remake him into a man. And so with psychotherapy, it is a very real (specific) process.

    But let me speak further of its structure. I will often say to my clients, I give you something of value (my expertise, my time and my energy) and you give me something of value (your money and your attention to the process). One benefit of this balance of value is that it allows the I-Thou mutuality of which Buber speaks to enter. This I-Thou mutuality is itself not a value, but is a different order, an other place within the psychotherapeutic relationship. An analog is that with a married couple, the phenomenon of trust is a value, as is the value of honesty and (for lack of a better word) continence. However, the love that grows within a marriage is not a marital value, it is a different order of the marital reality, which is that other place, the place where the I-Thou mutuality lives.

    It would be next in order here for me to pursue my thesis that psychotherapy needs or is fed from the wisdom of a mature culture. I’ll comment only briefly. Nature itself does not have an antidote for the peculiar ability of human nature to divide (split) things. The rest of the natural order does not have have this dividing quality. And it seems most of the world’s creation stories pay homage to this particular human trait, such as the account of the “Fall of man” from the Garden of Eden. Good psychotherapy at least at some level, purposefully re-charts that ancient path so each individual can personally redeem it. The specific tools for this ‘work’ are relationship and consciousness.

    As I stated in the Newsletter, most (perhaps all) psychopathology can be seen as involving an injury or difficulty in relationship, or in the capacity for relationship. And perhaps it is worthy of consideration that all problems of consciousness have the same root.

    The world of relationships (where this present conversation actually began), involves the very essence of life, relationship being (as I posited) the central reality (that word again) of all things. Psychotherapy is also centered in relationship, but one which is purposefully circumscribed in time, and also has a contractual element of relationship, in which the exchange of value (money) serves to keep the relationship functionally balanced (you support me so I can maintain these skills which benefit you). Within this time and relationship, a specific depth of consciousness grows, the purpose of which is to ultimately release (as with the breaking of the alchemical vessel or ‘cooker’) the individual as more highly self-differentiated (one of my favorite $10 terms) into the world. I, as the therapist, have accomplished and finished (sealed) my work – as has the parent who raises the child for the purpose of effectively leaving home.

    One reason I don’t burn out from my work is that I have the great joy of helping fill my world, one by one, with the type of people I want out there.

    Now let me return to I-Thou, and note two of its pathways, psychotherapy and love. The former is the primary subject of this essay, but the latter, love, is its ever-unfolding gift. [Good psychotherapy makes good lovers.]

    I would consider that Buber (though I’ve not studied him extensively), from his foundation in the Hebrew Scriptures found implicit within the created order the I-Thou intentionality of God. Only human nature seems to lack (or can reject) that implicit function, as the old stories elucidate. It is the struggle of humankind to achieve that “blessing and balance” (to use an Ojibwa phrase). Perhaps it can be said that there are two pathways to this goal. One is specifically singular in time, and the other is ongoing or regular. (A Christian parallel is the once-for-all initiatory Sacrament of Baptism, and the constantly renewing regular Sacrament of love, the Holy Eucharist, the Mass.)

    The specifically singular is the ritual ordeal, the initiation, the vision quest, the baptism. And in our culture, one of the few relics remaining is the great structured work of psychotherapy. On the other hand, the specifically regular, is the experience and practice of love, in its various manifestations throughout our life. The high accomplishment of the latter is the I-Thou relationship, which in turn may become generalized throughout the fullness of a well-lived life.

    But in the same vein, the I-Thou relationship is inherent in the initiatory work of psychotherapy. A good therapist or analyst knows this, and within (ancient) guidelines, gives him or herself with an intense fullness into the inherently vulnerable life of the client for the sake of ‘making’ a fully conscious and self-defined human being. This intense fullness is not specifically that of a lover, but can have a lover’s intensity. It involves the therapist being fully there, in that specific circumscribed time, without reserve, with the ‘client.’ To answer one of your questions, this circumscription does not negate the presence of I-Thou relationship, but rather it gives place for it in this specific form which is the core genius of psychotherapy. In that place that emerges, there is (or at least can be) Buber’s “dialogue involving (each) other’s entire being.” And for me, both of these channels of human development involve that central secret of the universe, the intensity of the full relationship within all creation, inherent in the knowledge of I-Thou. It is the knowledge of Love.

    Perhaps I’ve stretched the point to fit my thesis. But with all my being I want it to be true. The passion of psychotherapy, though specifically circumscribed, is still the passionate dialogue of two fully engaged human beings. That is I-Thou. And the outcome of this great work is the full ability of each of us afterward to live “I-Thou” with all of life. That’s a life fully lived “in” love. The process becomes the result. We’ve both accomplished our work.

    An additional note.
    Within just a few days after I published the newsletter on Relationship, I realized I’ve presented only the first part of a necessarily larger frame. Deep within me there is forming another writing, which perhaps will be called “Beyond Relationship.” At this time I’m not sure what it will be saying, except to know what I’ve already written is only part of the story. I guess I can best say ‘stay tuned.’ WKM

    — Bill McDonald, 6/26/2010
  • Anxiety

    Just found your site. What do you mean “To live in an effective marriage is also to be able to live with anxiety”?

    It sounds true to me but I’d love if you’d expand upon it.

    Thanks for your work!

    — Jennifer, 7/19/2010

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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