Three Approaches to Relationship
I’ve been thinking lately about three different ways we can orient ourselves in our important relationships – be they with family members, lovers or close friends.
We all want to belong and feel connected. And we all want the freedom to be ourselves. At some point in our lives, we’ve all felt the tension between those two desires – as if we had to choose between them. And, at different points in our lives, we’ve emphasized one over the other – emphasized being connected at the expense of selfhood or emphasized selfhood at the expense of connection.
One approach to relationship, I call fusion, emphasizes connection at the expense of selfhood. It attempts to create closeness in relationship by making two people into one. There’s a pressure toward same-ness – to think and feel and want the same things. In full-blown fusion, we dishonor individuality, either one’s own or the other’s, and disregard personal boundaries. In our efforts for two to become one, we often find ourselves clashing over which one we’re going to become.
In the fusion approach, one person’s strength and growth toward wholeness can be experienced as a threat to the relationship. Individual incompleteness is a glue that holds co-dependent relationships together. I assume responsibility for your wellbeing and expect you to do the same for me. Because my welfare is in your hands, I invest my energy in control strategies – controlling you and controlling me.
Ironically, this approach to relationship, if unchecked, eventually strangles the very closeness it attempts to create.
Isolation is a second approach to relationship. Often in our early attempts to establish boundaries or in our response to the experience of fusion where the integrity of the self was dishonored in some way, we create walls to protect ourselves. Deep connection is experienced as threatening to my personal integrity. In an effort to be responsible for myself and not be responsible for others, I may find that I’m only responsive to me and have difficulty responding to the need of another.
Isolation is a stance of exaggerated independence, in which I strive for total self-sufficiency. My wellbeing depends on not ever being vulnerable, not ever needing anyone, not ever relying on others for anything important. My walls protect me - not just from the risks of close relationship, but also from embracing parts of me I fear might weaken me.
The irony of isolation unchecked is that the self I’m trying so hard to enhance and protect eventually shrivels from a lack of the nourishment that only deep connection can bring.
The third approach to relationship, intimacy, embraces both our need for connection and our need for selfhood. It doesn’t ask us to choose. We each have our own individuality and we share who we are with each other. Boundaries are clear and respected, and we regularly connect - emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually. We take responsibility for ourselves and we are responsive to each other. We are present with ourselves and with each other. We are autonomous, whole persons and we are interdependent. We are free to ask each other for help and, when asked for help, we are free to say yes or no.
In intimate relationship, we invest energy in two primary activities - knowing and being known. Whatever the relational situation, I do my best to listen to you and see you clearly and I do my best to reveal myself to you with honesty and care. Even in conflict, it’s my job to listen and share, to stay open to what I want and what you want, and to look for win-win possibilities.
Intimate relationships – between friends, between lovers, between family members – create an energy in their “between-ness”, a synergy perhaps. Richard Moss calls this “the third”. I see the third as a “We” that exists between “I” and “Thou.” From my spiritual perspective, this “We” is the energy of Love – our contribution to an expanding Universe of Love.
The math of fusion is 1/2 + 1/2 = 1. The math of isolation is 1 + 1 = 1 + 1. The mysterious math of intimacy is 1 + 1 = 3.
Fusion and isolation are imbalanced approaches to close relationship. We all experiment with them, as we fumble and stumble in our relational lives. Hopefully, we don’t get stuck there. Of course, being human, we still find ourselves, now and then, retreating to one of these imbalanced approaches.
What helps me re-orient toward intimacy is to realize that, in every moment of relationship, I have a choice. I can invest in control strategies. I can invest in self-protection. Or I can invest in knowing and being known.
I know which investment I intend to make. How about you?