• Two Ideas Why Relationships Are So Hard (Or Not)

  • You don’t have to work in a helping profession like mine for very long before, like Dr. Brene Brown, you realize that connection is “why we are here.” Connection with others is what we all seek. When our relationships function well, we function well. Yet our connections with others, particularly significant others, are often  sources of great joy and great pain. Why then, is such an important, even central, human experience fraught with conflict? A conflict that so often contains within its boundaries desire and fear?

    Connection is a concept as much as it is an experience that is not as concrete as most of us would like to make it into. To connect with another is a pearl of great price we can never possess. Like attempting to hold a cloud in our hand, the best we can do with regard to human connection is feel connected. This must be why a search for “relationship help books” on Amazon yields a mere 41,219 results. Being the betting man that I am, I am willing to bet that all 41,000 plus books will be helpful in some way in improving the reader’s relationships. Why? Connecting with others is as complex and diverse as are the individuals involved.

    In working with the concept everyday in my practice for the last 17 years, here is how I’ve come to think about connection: First, we are never really certain we are loved in the way we need. Conversely we are never really clear that we can love another in the way they need. Secondly, to be connected with someone meaningfully requires the capacity to sit with uncertainty and tolerate constant tension. In other words, to love in ways that permit empathy, compassion and emotional safety means we must tolerate tension that never abates. And here’s the thing: The tension is so omnipresent and, our brain being the adaptable “muscle” that it is, we rarely if ever, take note of the tension.

    So, what is the source of this tension? I believe it is based in what may very well be the heart of the human condition. I believe the tension is a natural result of a conflict that ignites at birth. There are two strong impulses or drives in the human being. Both are “hard wired.” That is, in our DNA.

    One is the need to attach. Infants, we know, need to attach or bond, at birth. Secure attachment is a vital necessity for an infant’s survival. The attachment need however, is never out grown. It lives on throughout the life span. In evolutionary terms, the human has needed to attach in order to survive. Attachment, in many ways, forms the basis of all human interrelationships from bonding at birth to the formation of civilization itself.

     The second drive is as robust as attachment and the two effectively have divergent goals. This is the developmental drive to differentiate ourselves from others. This is the need within all of us that is expressed as “the self.” It is the “I am me” part of who we are. This developmental thrust is also present in nascent form at birth. The “terrible twos” is typically the time when it becomes noticeable. It is linked to our identity but it is more than that. When differentiated from others we are at the same time, we face an existential separateness at the same time.

    As you might guess, the drive to attach and to differentiate are natural and inescapable. Both are as necessary to our well being as food, clothing and shelter. And, both form the basis of the tension that is constantly present in our significant and intimate relationships. If we cannot escape this dilemma of the human condition, which we cannot, we must then learn to embrace it. We must also accept that our partners too, face the same dilemma as we.

    As we come to accept this conflict within ourselves and others, our lives and relationships can become more vital and alive. We can become aware that life can be and is, a constant act of creation. That life becomes an art form. An art form that is, in very important ways, different from art that we may see in a gallery or theater. It is the the art of living and living as art. We are both the artist and the art all at once. And when we embrace the living conflict of our own humanity, it is then we truly come alive.