What Do We Mean by Relationships

Question:

Tim, I'm concerned about long-term relationships, about the institution of marriage, about the interaction between men's oppression and women's oppression. A lot of us are not completely pleased with what we're doing. People are trying different things and aiming in different directions. This area has a big influence on our lives. I suspect that we need to think more broadly about it-I don't know. I would like to hear your thoughts about relationships. This is something that we need to figure out. Figuring it out well doesn't look the same from one relationship to another-I understand that-and I suspect that figuring it out isn't necessarily going to turn out to look like what we might think it's going to look like.

Tim:

I don't think anyone has ever been free to make their own relationships. We come out of societies where there are very pronounced strictures on what kind of relationships we can have-with our children, with our parents, with our friends, with everyone. Any attempt to do anything different than the culture demands, whether thoughtful or reactive, invites upset coming in our direction, often with heavy consequences.

It's not a matter of free choice. I don't know that it's ever been a matter of free choice for people. People, up to now, haven't really had a situation where they get to think about relating to each other. It just has not existed. It's not strange we're having trouble with it. We're one of the few groups that has considered the question, that has actually thought about what it means for two intelligences to relate to each other.

We're struggling against all the accumulation of patterns we grew up with and all the isolation, so we're desperate for any relationship that gives a whisper of hope of real contact. Many of us would sell our souls for even the momentary illusion of what's really possible, because that possibility has been taken so far away from us. In the middle of all that confusion, we've been expected to figure out relationships.

It will be a while before we figure this one out. Of course, what we want is the chance to be human with each other, to have back the opportunity that the isolation has taken away from us. We haven't had real access to other intelligences, real access to our own and others' experiences, nor to others' perspectives, because of this isolation. We have gotten only the barest outlines of what other intelligences have been able to figure out for themselves. We read books. That's often the best communication we have, and that relies on another individual's ability to communicate through all sorts of struggles, so only a small sample of the writer's thinking actually gets through to where we can understand it and make use of it. Who's this person whose biography meant something to you? It's somebody you never saw, somebody you never had any contact with, and yet he or she got through to you while thousands of people around you didn't get through. Really an odd situation.

Something I've been saying for years is, "No relationship we have has to be anything like any other relationship that ever existed." It doesn't have to be-it's our choice. It can be a costly choice. We may have to fight a lot of things that come at us if we show what we're trying for in that relationship.

The other thing I have said over and over again is that no two people want exactly the same relationship. We work at it, a little or a lot, trying to figure out exactly what we're trying for with each other, and then we're disappointed. Often the disappointment interferes with the enjoyment of the rest of the relationship, and it interferes with the progress of working on the relationship.

Relationships are a lot of work, but it's some of the best work we can do because it puts us in touch with another intelligence. We actually get to see the functioning there. Somebody who's functioning intelligently cares, loves, and shows it in every way she or he can figure out to do it. The person is struggling to do that. When I say "intelligence," I don't mean some abstract thing. Having a real sense of, caring about, and being committed to someone else all rely on that intelligence. (There's a funny dichotomy between thinking and feeling in our culture that we fall into, too. They're not distinct.)

We have to face the fact that it's going to be a struggle, that we have to figure it out, and that there are no good models. There are good references-people have tried things and made them work and have been able to write them down somewhere where you can find and read them. These writings provide some contradiction to society's rigidities about the way relationships have to be, even if what they did was not that great and nothing like what you want. What's useful is that they struggled to accomplish something there, that they dared to follow their own judgment against the forces of oppression, even when their judgment was shaky. They didn't sell themselves short about what they wanted and kept trying for better relationships in the best ways they could figure out.

There's some balance needed in relationships between the enjoyment of what we have accomplished and the struggle for more. This often gets confusing. For a lot of people the struggle to have more gets so restimulating that they lose track of what they've accomplished together. They lose the enjoyment of that accomplishment. Having found the way to get the contact they've already achieved is an important accomplishment. It's a struggle against all of the misinformation, distresses, and oppressions.

People need the chance to be free to experiment with relationships, to not have to have them be perfect, to not have to have them go on forever the way they started. We need to be free to go in there, do everything we can, make our mistakes, find out it's unworkable that way, and then be free to back off and not be disappointed with each other. This learning is just the same as how young ones need to learn about everything. They need to try things out and make mistakes-not in the caring, not in the commitment to each other-but also not feel that any particular form has to exist, not feel that if you're going to care about someone it has to have a certain shape.

We get a hint of this in the Co-Counseling Communities. Any of us who becomes anything that looks like a leader is almost required to care about people in new ways that we never did before. We have to care more and more deeply. We have to be committed to people, yet have very little to do with their lives in a time sense. We may spend very little time together. Traditionally, people have used time as the measure of the relationship, that we need more time together-that that will make it better. Well, not necessarily. A certain amount of time is useful if we use it. The amount of time we have that we can use well is always useful, but time itself is not.

The moment we stop thinking, distresses start reverberating back and forth, and passage of time often becomes quite detrimental. It's detrimental when we lose perspective and can't figure out a way to detach enough, to get enough distress off to come back and move the relationship forward again.

This group has had to look at these questions. What we want to help other people do requires us to care about them and have relationships with them. Yet they can't be like any relationship we've seen before, or it isn't going to work. Most of us have made mistakes. In trying to care about people, in trying to provide reassurance, we slip over into providing reactive reassurance. It looks like it works for awhile so it confuses us. Any sort of reassurance works for awhile. When people mouth the longings for an old reactive reassurance, we get confused. We feel like that's what they need in some way. We lose track of the difference between what they're struggling with and the sounds they have to make in that struggle, and what would actually be reassuring, which is far away from those noises.

We get to struggle with it. We've got these little pieces of clarity about it within counseling. I think we do better than anyone else. And I think there's still a mess. We do not have a consistent perspective about this area. In my mind, the hallmark of where we have work to do is that the relationship seems great today and crummy tomorrow, yet nothing has really happened in between those two times. Reality doesn't flip-flop like that, but we do. That's the usual indicator that there's a lot of work to do. How do we do this work? It seems to me at this point that one direction is more explicit caring and commitment to each other. Commitment is somewhere in the foundation of it. Any commitment we make to anyone else really has at the bottom level the promise that we will make every attempt to keep thinking about them. Nothing more than that, really. The ways we put it into practice depend on the relationship, on time and circumstance and all those things, but what people are looking for is, "Will I be in your mind? Will you remember I exist? Will you remember what I am like? Will you remember that I struggle?"

Most people don't really want "help." They want someone to know the struggles that they are undertaking, to break the isolation of it. We have all sorts of recordings that say we need someone else to do things, but as people take over their own struggles, they don't need someone else to do anything like that for them. They need someone else to be aware of what they are doing. I suspect that needs to be the foundation for all the relationships we have. The active form the relationship takes depends entirely on what the two of you want to accomplish together, as clearly as you've been able to figure it out, and what the objective circumstances are. Where are you? What is the state of your life? What other things are you trying to accomplish? What time is there? What other forces and restimulations are you having to handle? These all have to be considered. However, I think the basic need is that you will be in my mind, and I will think the best I can, and I will figure out with you the best things we can do together to move ourselves forward. The particular form of a relationship makes sense when it makes both lives better. That's it-that's all you have to have. You don't have to have other litmus tests-"Does this really make sense?"-all of that. The basic question is, "Does it move both of our lives forward? Does it give us a bigger chance? Does it give us more of the world? Does it let us do more interesting things and have contact with more people? Does the world grow for us because of it? For both of us?"

Tim Jackins
Palo Alto, California, USA


Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00