Who speaks for the relationship?

in Psychotherapy Networker (2002)

The attack on the Twin Towers and the consequent bombing of Afghanistan were stunning expressions of violent relationships in the new global order: the two poles of religious fundamentalism and rampant consumerism trying to destroy each other.  Each side is convinced of its own righteousness; each side is committed to destructive violence as its primary relational act; and each side believes they will “win.”   As the months pass, I can’t help but be reminded of Gandhi’s observation that, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

Yet what are the alternatives?  Is there any way out of this hell hole we find ourselves in?  In the immediate wake of the bombings, my own sense was that the old polarities of hawk vs. dove were suddenly outmoded, neither side being sufficient to make a helpful difference.  Somehow, the present times require us to be both hawks and doves, both fierce and peaceful, both challenging violence and reaching out for new connections.  This both/and approach calls us to move beyond identifying with one camp or another; it cries out for holding both sides, and look at the relational connections between them.

About half of my therapy practice is with couples.  The terrorist bombings and their aftermath have prompted me to see the many different ways that intimate partners treat each other as mortal enemies.  It poignantly highlights the futility of “winning” in an intimate relationship, and underlines the need for each member of a couple to not only hold the interests of each other, but to sense the needs of the relationship as a whole. 

This was poignantly illustrated in a recent case.  A 70-year old man diagnosed with cancer was struggling mightily with his on again-off again partnerof 20 years.  His illness had interrupted their “fun” social life and great sexual connection, and underlying tensions began to arise.  Both felt hurt and resentful of the other.  As I do with many couples, I asked them to sense the “minimal requirements” each of them needed to stay present with each other.  Not what they thought they needed, but what they nonverbally observed about themselves in relational connection.    Her list included commitment, more closeness, and financial sharing.  His list included connection, acceptance, and nurturance.  The sharing of the lists brought a calm, warm feeling into the room.  I then asked what they sensed the “relationship itself” needed to stay present, i.e., what did the relational self bigger than either of them need to stay healthy and alive?  As with many couples, their initial confusion turned to curiosity as they considered this question.  Responses included time together, listening without reactivity, honesty, social recognition (e.g., marriage), and touch.  I asked each of them to notice on a 1-7 scale how much they were nurturing each of those values.  They realized that neither had been noticing the needs of the relational self very much, and agreed to be attentive to them.

When I saw them the following week, they reported that attending to the needs of the relationship had helped them to become much less polarized and more sensitive to how the health of the relational self influenced the happiness of the individual selves.

The idea of the relational self means there are at least three “sides” in every conflict: the two polarities and the systemic self that holds them.  Losing track of the relational self usuallyensures ongoing conflict and suffering for the individual sides.  This is altogether apparent in our post- 9/11 world.  Perhaps the possibility of thinking of the larger self is something we therapists can bring more resonantly into the world.