What is Our Part? How We Impact Our Relationships and Communities

Originally Published at Psyched in San Francisco

Author: Traci Ruble, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

IhavebigfeelingsI was having lunch today with a friend and we were talking about relationships:  the complexity of them, the hope and longing that gets symbolically wrapped up in our relating style often outside of our conscious awareness– with friends, partners, family, co-workers  and kids.  It can be hard to tolerate another human’s self-hood with all their longings, infantile wishes, hurts, depressions, insatiable needs, aggression, expansiveness, joy, entitlement and love especially when we are not in the same head space or their self-hood stirs in us things we don’t want to feel.  Being available, really available to another human, is something we are getting poorer and poorer at in this culture.  Even the personal growth movement is shifting towards ways of being and working that is about valuing some feelings over others – often the happy, loving ones and values working with darker feelings in quick fix fashion – a kind of rejection in and of itself of discomfort.
      My friend and I wondered aloud together “why is it so hard to tell the truth in relationships?”   We recounted relationships we have had where if we or the other person could have just said “I need some space” or “This scares me” or “I can’t right now” then the connection could have survived and even thrived in the midst of the potentially stinging truth but instead the there was avoidance, pulling away and abandonment that left scars instead of a sting.  In this culture we have lost the art of telling the uncomfortable but incredibly connective truth.    I have been overwhelmed by friends and they have been overwhelmed by me and in less skillful moments we have pulled away and judged the other person as “crazy” or “too needy” but with greater capacities to stay longer in the gray area of relating by bumping up against someone else’s difference there is so much more opportunity to be connected fallible silly humans.  We don’t know how to do this in this culture in most circles and it is creating more suffering.
      I am now in an unusual life’s work.  I have chosen to be deeply in relationship with others and inside with myself getting intimate with existential longings and the impact they have on life and human suffering.  Together we learn to stay longer in discomfort, get curious, stretch and grow and there together the brain gets a chance to unhinge from its old wiring of pulling away from relatedness (judgment, depression, aggression, alcoholism, busyness, phoniness, intellectualizing).  It is a life’s work and no it is not always intense.  It can be quite playful but it does require “right relationship” with people whom you are in community with who tell the truth of their experience, the truth of their needs and the truth of their vulnerabilities with compassion and heart.

“The only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid unavoidable pain”.  –R.D. Laing

     My friend and I each sighed and looked out the window, both of us mothers and I think, both of us knowing where the conversation would turn next.  I wondered aloud, what is our part in Sandy Hook?  We talked about people we know who are ostracized in our sweet little coastal community because they are struggling publicly and in ways that do not appear so “cute”.  We lamented that our collective response is to avoid the discomfort of their struggle by putting them in the “reject” category so we do not have to deal with them.   Often we don’t want to know more about that which might make us uncomfortable.   The behaviors we find unsightly and make us want to reject people outright are actually cries for help.  If we could be willing to metabolize discomfort  better we could decide to take more thoughtful and connective action or at least thoughtful and connective inaction rather than aggressive abandoning rejection.

We live in a culture that judges fear as despicable, and depression as an unpatriotic violation of the “pursuit of happiness”.  –Pete Walker, MFT

      She and I drifted into story after story of other people we know who are not seeing their part in their own lives blaming their spouse, their kid, their mother and exhaled long slow breaths of awareness, places where we do not see our part in our own relationships.   We told of times when we were depressed or struggling and our own funky behavior that impacted how others chose to relate to us in our time of need.  We acknowledged that judging someone who is struggling was easier than staying with their discomfort because if we did we would also have to be with the nuanced truth of the hurts the other person’s feelings are stirring inside of us.   I was reminded of my neighbor who died alone in his home six months ago after 20+ years of hoarding and alcoholism.  He was ostracized as an angry sick person who should be left alone by me and my community and now I am judged by some in my community because I am bothered by his death.  I still wish I had done more after my brief encounter with Bruce on the sidewalk outside my home.  When our communities and relationships are breaking down, it is useful to mine our own inner worlds for how we have a part and how we might abandon those who express their suffering in unsightly ways.  After the intensity of Sandy Hook we are called to learn how to be with those around us who are struggling in more nuanced ways by being with our own inner struggles with relatedness.   It is time, no?