Transform your relationship

This counselling blog, explores why trying to fix our partners, rather than ‘meet’ them, causes a breakdown in trust and empathy. It proposes that curiosity is the antidote, to this judgemental way of being with one another. For if we are to live wholeheartedly in our relationships, we need to give vulnerability space to thrive; by meeting our partners with tenderness and genuine curiosity. No simple task.

Purity and impurity belong to oneself.

No one else can purify another.


The Dhammapada

On 5 March 2014, I heard Kathryn Ryan (Nine to Noon on RNZ) interview, Graham Long, Pastor and CEO of the Wayside Chapel in Sydney. Graham talked about the impact his son James's death had on his life, how it changed his whole perspective, moving from being what he described as "a legend in your own lunchbox", (worrying about where he lived, what he drove, what people thought of him), to a man who realised people were just people. That his "superman" status driven way of life, though outwardly successful, was a very lonely and draining way to live.

A statement he made has stuck with me over the ensuing years:

“ The trick is to understand, in our culture we treat each other as problems to be fixed rather than people to be met. If you can do this it will transform all your relationships.”

It sounds simple enough to just ‘meet’ people, rather than see them, as problems to be fixed, but when we think about what this might look like in actual practice; we will need to accept our own faults and limitations, stop seeing others through a critical judgemental gaze, stop projecting our own issues, thoughts, theories and beliefs on to others and maybe most importantly refrain from trying to recruit (control) others into our messed up formula for life. For truly ‘meeting’ people, means creating a space for vulnerability, where we are connecting with them, by being in their company, listening without judgement, listening without being triggered by our own past, whilst being curious and inquiring, as we get to understand what is going on for them. Ahh!!! essentially the practice of empathy.

I have been a counsellor for over twenty years and a mindfulness meditation practitioner for over ten years and yet I periodically feel compelled to intervene, in my wife's, our two adult daughters, our families and friend's lives, with unsolicited advice on how they should be living their lives. The roles I have assigned myself have clearly not been negotiated with any of them and yet I still act as a coach, counsellor, teacher, lecturer (the giving of lectures), prosecutor, judge and critic. Although, from my point of view, these interventions are informed with good intent, they frequently but not always seems to backfire. This approach to the people I love, creates angst, hurt, defence and counter interventions, resentment, shutting down and withdrawal. When really all I want is to love and be loved and to live with a sense of connection and belonging.

Interestingly while reading, 'In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts' by Gabor Mate', I discovered an idea that confirmed observations, that I already had about my interventions; that there was something about them which if anything escalated the problems, pressuring me to intervene again and again. We think we can increase another persons motivation and will power by cajoling, challenging, manipulating and confronting them, even if they are not ready to take responsibility for managing themselves. However not only is this unlikely to succeed, but we can also trip people into acting in completely the opposite way, what Dr Gordon Neufeld has described as counterwill. He proposes that "human beings have an ingrained opposition to any sense of being forced, an automatic resistance to coercion. It is triggered whenever a person feels controlled to do someone's bidding ---- and we can generate counterwill even against the pressure that we put on ourselves." So even my well intentioned endeavours to change and modify another person via pressuring or lecturing them, is more than likely, to be sabotaged (even subconsciously) by the person, leading to more wounds and hurts for both of us.

Should one of the advantages of marriage really be, that I now have someone else to blame for wrecking my life. In my counselling practice, I am repeatedly invited into witnessing, this get acted out. I see partners, focus on the other, blaming them for their misery, pointing out their faults and inadequacies, telling me how they ‘should’ be thinking and behaving. That their project, to make their partner fit their formula has been a failure. This approaching the problems of the relationship, as if they are the ‘victim’, rather than taking responsibility for their own attitudes, beliefs and behaviour, is often sadly a major cause of the relationship breakdown. This way of criticising another to bring about change, leads to defensiveness, bitterness, resentment and at some point complete withdrawal of intimacy. The problem is that their solution, to fix the problems is to become more critical, to intervene even more, rather than take the opportunity to reflect and become curious about themselves and their partner. These couples have swamped their love story, in this drama and even if there are moments of connection a wedge of criticism forces them apart again. I wonder what would happen, if they just paused and became curious with one another? Asked each other, what is it like for them? Do they miss the love they used to experience? Do they miss parts of themselves? Do they miss the tenderness that had for each other? What have they learnt about themselves during the relationship? What weaknesses and strengths have they discovered in themselves? How have they learnt to cope? How have they learnt to protect themselves? What they scared about? How has resentment impacted their quality of life? Do they still have hope? Etc etc.

It is only after compassionate self-inquiry (often after I have intervened), that I realise I've acted self righteously, presenting myself as right or the good guy and they are in the wrong or the bad guy. A recipe for disaster. This insight focuses me for a period, where I more mindfully approach others, but after a while the compulsion returns and the cycle begins again. I could feel deeply shamed for revealing this, but I think this approach to each other, is ubiquitous and it feels more natural to do than the more focused mindful approach.

As Graham Long stated, we now live in a culture of judgement, that has become pervasive. Even if we try and truly 'meet' somebody, the compulsion to see others in one of the following judgemental frameworks; win - lose, right - wrong, better - worse, ahead - behind, with me - against me, you - me or love me - abandon me, keeps on influencing how we approach each other. To truly ‘meet’ our loved ones, we need to reject the way our culture, gives us the un-negotiated ‘right’ to value or disvalue them; their body, their achievements and failures, their attitudes and beliefs, their choices and lifestyle. For we also forget that we ourselves are confronted with the same analysis of our lives. These little dramas get acted out day after day, with people pretending all is OK, whilst in reality they become anxious in their own skin. If we are truly to meet our partners then we need to approach each other with tenderness as we learn to accept our loved one's and our own weaknesses.

This way of critiquing one another opens us up for repeated spikes of shame, creating wounds that we then defend. Rather than being open, we instead as Brene' Brown states "armour up" ready to protect our wounds, often to our loved one’s detriment, creating an escalating cycle of blame, defence and counter accusation. We become distressed at how much the relationship is struggling, we then try and fix the relationship, but quickly fall into the trap of finding fault and floors in our partner - the I'm right, you are wrong dynamic again. Creating an environment where resentment festers, waiting to pop out its ugly head, in the next argument, producing an atmosphere that is toxic, for vulnerability, love and connection.

To have a wholehearted relationship, both parties need to be able to be vulnerable, tender and curious with one another. How do you do this? Well when I reflect on myself, and when I'm more likely to be engaged in this approach, it is when I'm practicing mindfulness meditation, not only the actual practice of sitting and meditating, but when I bring mindfulness to my day to day life. This sort of creates a gap between stimulus and my response, where I can catch myself, before I begin lecture number 1052. In this space I have the opportunity to:

  • Just leave it alone

  • Mind my own business

  • Walk away

  • Remind myself that I am not a victim of my partner, that she isn’t to blame for how I feel?

  • Be patient and wait for a window of opportunity to present itself (maybe weeks later).

  • Self compassionately reflect on what is going on for me, am I being triggered by my own life? What am I not dealing with? Am I projecting my own issues on to her?

  • Has self righteousness snuck into my life again?

  • Will this feedback (criticism) be unsolicited?

  • What is the problem I am trying to fix and is the way I am thinking of approaching it likely to resolve it?

  • What is it that I really want to know?

  • How can I tenderly frame a curious question?

  • Listen.

  • Arrive to the interaction with a true desire for connection and understanding, rather than winning.

  • Wait to join a conversation rather than lead it.

  • Have the courage to lead with my vulnerability.

If I practice my life from a curious inquiring place, others around me can be vulnerable and therefore have the chance to live a more wholehearted life. I am going to try and I will let you know how it goes.

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