A NHNE Special Feature
By Linda O'Keefe & Lance Botthof
The Potential of Human RelationshipsAs the request for an article on the potential of human relationships came out of David Sunfellow's mouth, smiles with the same meaning spread across our faces. We looked at each other knowingly, and memories of our wedding day flowed freely. On that day, we spoke our vows from "A Course In Miracles", which boldly states that "holy relationship" with others is the highest form of honor to our spiritual growth. As we all know by now, that growth includes sifting through the unhealed parts of ourselves which always seem to be waiting just outside the door of our consciousness for acknowledgment. The Course states that as long as we are committed to hide none of ourselves and heal the woundedness within the boundaries of relationship, the energy of God is conspicuously present, almost as though a third entity has been created. Interestingly, this concept appeared in the best- seller "The Bridges of Madison County" as a way to help the characters know and love each other their whole lives, though physically apart. The book had incredible mass appeal because it dealt with two themes that most everyone could relate to: lost potential in love and the power of human/spiritual connection which can outlive circumstances, illness, distance, death -- everything. Sadly, true love is still frequently "misplaced" or destroyed by people unwilling to see the nature of its true power. Its true power lies in its ability to carry us through the dark, hard lessons of life and turn even their grit into something of courage, honor and selflessness. In an effort to understand how any of us misinterpret this gift, we'd like to speak realistically about the stages of relationship we all pass through, and would sometimes like to pass up!
First, of course, is the "honeymoon", the recognition and celebration of connectedness with another that we would love to feel forever. This stage is recognizable to everyone as the couple who "can not keep their hands off each other," are frequently gazing into each others eyes, feel they can hardly live without the other and infrequently experience any form of conflict. During this time, each individual looks and feels more vital, attractive, open and generally loving towards everyone. The decision to have a committed relationship usually takes place, marking the beginning of the end of this stage. Though we are speaking mostly of romantic relationships, any relationship where two people are "attracted" to each other (friends, business partners, etc.) may experience similar dynamics.
The next stage is "familiarity/conflict", where the couple begins to run into possible conflict or disappointment over issues of living together, different habits, beliefs, or methods of raising children. Family of origin issues have usually entered the picture, in more ways than one. It has been said that when we marry or commit to another, we get much more in the bargain. How that person was raised, family traditions, connections (healthy or unhealthy) to other family members or friends, etc., all have an effect on how issues are viewed, communicated and/or resolved. If we carry repressed woundedness from our past, communication and resolution of issues may start to feel hard. Both people may begin to feel that they are not completely understood by the other. Some disappointment sets in, and a growing tendency to blame each other for it can begin here.
Next is the "power struggle" stage. This is where many people get stuck and spend the majority of their relationship. Because most of us did not have role models for healthy conflict resolution, there is a stuck point when both people feel their position is not being heard or respected. Actually, that is the reality because both have come to an impasse with themselves. This usually includes the inability to know or be honest about their own feelings, an unwillingness to "look deeper" into themselves for those insights into the perception that their partner does not listen, understand and/or care. This can be a very quiet power struggle. Many of us may cope with internal or external conflict by "shutting down", and withdrawing. To add to the confusion, most couples are made up of two individuals with opposite reactions to conflict. The power struggle then may sidestep the original issues and become about each person's "right" to do it their way. If we are not aware of these normal stages in relationship we are likely to "settle" in this constant power struggle or end the relationship altogether. Those that do break through, move on to the next stage: "resolution & transcendence."
The power struggle is resolved by both people putting down the weapon of "their reality," and moving to the vulnerability that is underlying. When we establish a pattern of expressing our vulnerability and a commitment to look inward first, the power struggle can be transcended. Then, miraculously, the "honeymoon" stage starts showing up unexpectedly again. A new level of trust has been reached and curiously, it is not so much about each other. It is about trusting self.
This is the divine gift that relationships can give us: A path through the thorns and brambles of woundedness to an understanding of ourselves we could not have reached alone. And with the support of our transcended partnership, we are capable of true miracles towards whatever our life's purpose is calling us to do.
Recipe for Relationships in the 21st Century:Let's face it, without honest communication, our relationships are doomed to be confusing, at the very least. Yet forthright, direct communication does not come easily because, for most of us, it didn't exist in our families and wasn't taught to us as children. Many of us learned that it was wrong to steal or tell lies, but how many of our parents supported us in emotional honesty? The accepted, often times only permissible response to, "How was your day at school," was an automatic, "Fine." Even as adults, how do we most often answer the question, "How's it going?" There simply wasn't and isn't full acceptance out in the world for us to be emotionally honest. So most of us are still struggling with the definition of emotional honesty, much less have the tools for practicing it in our relationships.
Ingredient #1: Honesty
First, let's look at why this kind of honesty is vital to experiencing true intimacy in relationships. Our natural connection with God, ourselves and others is spiritual in nature and the way we experience this connection is through our feelings. This is obvious while experiencing our joy, hope, love and sense of wonder about our connection with the universe. Less often do we connect God with our anger, shame, fear, guilt and hopelessness. It has been said, though, that God needs all of us. This is true in our intimate relationships as well. The degree of intimacy we can expect to enjoy with others is in direct proportion to our ability to share the fullness of who we are. So if we're asked, "How's it going?," and we reply with the well rehearsed "Fine" when we're really feeling sad, angry, hurt or something else that could hardly be defined as "Fine," then we are leaving God, ourselves and the other person. Obviously, in order for this honest expression to take place it's necessary to be aware of our true feelings first.
Our feelings are energy, so even if we're not in touch with what they truly are, we're still projecting them in communication with others. Since we're always feeling something, this leaves us with two choices: to be in touch with all our feelings and communicate them directly, or to project our feelings and communicate something else, which creates confusion and misunderstanding. Most of us respond to what others are feeling/projecting, not what is being said. The obvious trick here is to know what we really are feeling. This is where our intimate relationships can provide a valuable mirror if we are willing to look at what is being reflected to us. A large part of self-honesty is being open and teachable about seeing what feelings we may be projecting that we're not in touch with. Many of us just have a difficult time in saying "Ouch" when it hurts instead of going into anger, explanations, rationalizations, protecting others or a hundred other defenses.
In short, emotional honesty is an acquired skill that doesn't come overnight and requires practice and patience. One suggestion is to reflect back on our communication in intimate relationships and ask the question: "Did what I say accurately express all of what I was feeling? Did I say 'Ouch' if it hurt?" If we keep our focus here and are open to new information, a higher level of honesty will develop with ourselves and others.
Recipe for Relationships in the 21st Century:If we've heard it once, we've heard it a thousand times, "Why can't I be accepted just for who I am?" We all hope to feel safe in our relationships and not be judged by our partner(s), friends, family, etc. It's been said that of all the fears that people face, non-acceptance by others ranks number one. Yet we know that "self" acceptance is the foundation of true peace. Why, then, is it so difficult to achieve? Maybe it has to do with our limited definition of acceptance.
Ingredient #2: Acceptance
Acceptance is a process that begins with acknowledging the fact that we are all affected by the corruption of the world we live in. We were fed judgment and limitation, weaned on co-dependence and schooled in self-hatred. We were not raised to know and love ourselves, quite the opposite. So our lives stretch before us as an uncertain discovery of who we really are, both spiritually and emotionally. We can do our best to avoid the destructive presence of fear and pain that abides in us, or we can view our relationships and our external world as institutions of higher learning that can teach us about the wholeness of ourselves. Initial acceptance must be of the fact that we do not know ourselves and that our lives are a quest for that knowledge. With this in mind, let's talk about what happens when we do not accept this fact.
Most of us learn at an early age to judge and deny those parts of ourselves that we've been told are unacceptable. Over the years we learn to project these "unacceptable" aspects of ourselves onto others, and then fine-tune this skill to the point that we don't realize we're doing it anymore. Judgment of others is merely self-judgment turned outwards. Once we realize this, we can see that the judgment we feel from others is really their self-judgment projected outward. This knowledge is not as valuable if used to gain complete detachment from the judgment of others. Instead, we can use those judgments that trigger us emotionally to gain understanding of where we are not accepting of ourselves. This is the true work of intimate relationships--the continuing challenge to see our own stuck points.
Those of us working toward higher consciousness may also protect ourselves from self-judgment through a pattern of "over-understanding" others. In our quest to be unconditional lovers, we miss expressing our own hurts because we rationalize others' behavior. Understanding why people act as they do is helpful, but it can also serve to keep us out of our own real hurts, angers or fears that lay dormant underneath. Intimacy requires that we share our hurts with each other so that we can learn from them. This is the way we work through to the other side of our emotional stuck points, to acknowledge and release them. It takes a lot of courage to remain open enough to accept those parts of ourselves that are hard to look at.
Recipe for Relationships in the 21st Century:What is freedom? Good question. A movie we recently saw summed it up for us as "that out of the park home run over the fence, reach for the stars, bigger than life" kind of feeling we get when we're just being ourselves -- and it's alright just because. So how do we create that feeling of freedom in our relationships with others? Another good question. Although easier to write and talk about than to integrate into our behavior, the answer is probably already on the tip of your tongue. Right?
Ingredient #3: Freedom
If you're anything like us (and you probably are since we are all in this relationship thing together) you undoubtedly spend a good part of your day dealing with the demands and reactions of others. But how often do we honestly allow ourselves to say "no" or just become aware that we are putting the requests or demands of others ahead of our own needs. There are some fairly fancy words for this, but suffice it to say that most of us bleed off a lot of our energy in the pursuit of making others happy. We're not suggesting that you tell your boss or your aunt Sarah or your spouse to take a flying leap. To the contrary, much like you would balance on a log while crossing a fast moving stream, we must all learn how to assert what's important to us without dishonoring the other person with whom we are in relationship. Some logs are skinnier than others, but with awareness and practice we can make a self empowering stand for ourselves, while at the same time respecting the ability of others to do the same thing.
Imagine being in a relationship with another human being who is trying their hand at the same sort of self care. The result can create true miracles. Suddenly, we don't feel blamed because we no longer have a reason to blame others. We feel safe because we're able to share ourselves honestly and hopefully listen to others while they are doing the same. We are getting a real taste of "being" who we are and eliciting the support of others to follow our lead.
As we've said in previous columns, most of us didn't experience this kind of role modeling when we were growing up. Therefore, it entails learning some new behavior dictated by a strong desire to live/be in life more fully. Once we realize and experience our ability to express and "care for" ourselves emotionally, even before we witness the same in others, we will feel a freedom that is unparalleled.
Linda O'Keefe and Lance Botthof together have nearly 20 years of personal recovery and counseling experience. Their marriage partnership is founded in a deep commitment to continued personal growth. They seek to share their inspiration with others interested in discovering the power of relationships. Their "Options For Growth" site on the World Wide Web is dedicated to empowering others towards this end. Included therein, is information on a "Relationship Help Line", designed to help callers with relationship concerns and "Life Shift", a two to four day personal & spiritual growth intensive held in Sedona, Arizona. Linda and Lance can be reached at the following:
Options for Growth
P.O. Box 65145
Tucson, AZ, USA 85728-5145
Phone: (520) 615-1449
Return to NHNE Miscellaneous Archive