Sunday, August 3, 2014

Post Modern Relationship

Postmodern Relationship?

Have you wondered about why marriage and long-term partnerships are so difficult for so many?  Perhaps you, like many, are questioning whether marriage makes sense at all in this day and age.  I think it does, but, like many things in this complex culture, it takes some learning to implement the skill set.

Our culture sends mixed messages about how two people should behave in romantic partnership, what personal needs a good relationship should fulfill, or even if we should be seeking long-term monogamous relationships at all.  The scripts for gender roles and appropriate relationship behavior that our parents followed no longer seem relevant for us, but we have not developed a new model regarding how we should act now.

While psychology (and spirituality) are a long way from consensus regarding the direction for primary relationship, or what healthy relationship requires, it seems to me that there is a solidifying common understanding that revolves around personal development within relationship.  It is up to us to solidify the structures for relationship that will support individual fulfillment within our culture and will, at the same time, be a part of cultural maturing.

In this article, I offer an overview of Erotic Partnership including why the integration of sex and friendship is so important in relationship.  I outline a role for pair bonded relationship that fits modern culture, fosters increased psychological development and provides a balance between stability and experimentation that I believe is necessary for cultural health.  I will not address the issue of pair bonding for life, but will show how individuals in a committed couple can find satisfaction within a container of learning how to manage personal psychological stress.  

"Erotic Partnership" (how to be a friend, lover, companion and partner with one other; within a widening circle of community)  is an experimental model for modern couples that fosters personal satisfaction, as well as articulating what it means to be in relationship in today's culture.

All mammals (and birds) are born unable to survive on their own and so depend upon attachment between newborn and parent.  Each individual goes through a developmental process of becoming increasingly able to feed and care for themselves.  In human beings, psychological development (learning to speak, emotional development, adaptations to culture and the process of developing an individual identity) is part of the developmental process.  Bowen, Mahler, and many other psychological theorists, describe in detail how each individual human child moves from being completely dependent to relative independence.

As we move toward adulthood, we move away from the parental bond and toward the larger community.  As adults we maintain strong impulses toward the safety of attachment and look toward primary relationships to help balance those needs with our needs to explore and create.  We bring these conflicting needs into primary relationship in many ways including the tension of how to fulfill our desire for passion and the need for safety.  
Stephen Mitchell, and more recently, Ester Perel have shown (as well as have many others) that there is a built in tension between the passion of sex and the safety of attachment that can be difficult to integrate.  The more safe we feel, the more novelty is diminished.  Without conscious intervention, sameness and safety lead to lack of passion.  This has always been true, but in the past there were cultural roles and expectations regarding monogamy and fidelity, as well as gender roles, that helped bind the tension by providing scripts for how a partner was expected to be in relationship.  Modern relationships have transcended old scripts for how to behave, but have not yet developed clarity regarding what the next step is.

Erotic Partnership is an attempt to formulate post modern relationship skills based on understanding ourselves as individuals in relationship.  Personal development provides the necessary ability to bind the tension that Gilligan and Perel speak about.  Partners must strive to be conscious.  We must be able to sense and tell the difference between our sensations, emotions, and thoughts and come to know what underlying needs drive specific impulses or desires.  We must understand our authentic underlying needs and sort through our conditioning so that we can advocate for what will bring us fulfillment.  

Primary relationship in the 21st century relies on partners who understand and can articulate their experience, and stay interested and open, even when conflicting internal demands arise or, even more importantly, when conflicting internal demands are triggered by emotional pressure from others.  (e.g., when your partner says he or she wants you to go to an event that is important to them and you do not want to go.  You are torn between wanting to please your partner and wanting to do what you want to do.)   

Post modern relationship scripts require that each person in the relationship be self-responsible.  We must each assume responsibility for how well our life is working — as well as understanding that we are responsible to others.  

Having developed a strong sense of self, we can be much more open and loving with others.  Because we are securely attached, we are not afraid to face how our actions impact others and are able to genuinely collaborate.  We are able to make necessary changes to habitual ways of acting in order to support our partner or the relationship — without sacrificing our sense of self.

We must understand the truth of our dependency on others and be willing to balance our personal needs with those of others.  By understanding that we are choosing relationship, we can cultivate caring for others as opposed to trading favors for future advantage.

When we learn to identify and tolerate the tension of internal and external differences that can lead to abandonment or conflict, 
primitive impulses evolve into sensibilities that demonstrate compassion and loving kindness for others.  The sense of being on the same team, faithful to each other helps bind the tension so that new things can emerge.  This is what Jung referred to as the "transcendent function."
In terms of gender, post modern relationships honor and work with differences in masculine and feminine traits, regardless of the gender of the person who displays those traits.  Partners work for equality through collaboration and functional differentiation without sacrificing (sexual) polarity.  
On optimistic days I see our world attempting to make the shift from a commodified and consumeristic model for seeking happiness based on individualism, to a more sustainable full aliveness found in individuation that is in harmony with the evolutionary needs of the whole.
Currently, we have developed a culture that has maximized creativity and possibility in many ways.  But too often in ways that harm others.  We often feel entitled to our individuality in a way that fails to acknowledge how dependent we are on those around us.  We must come into harmony with the earth and with all of the life that we are part of, even as we develop our individual being.

Here is one small example that has to do with the erotic aspect of relationship.  Lets say you feel good and strong in your body, have some time on your hands, and want to spend the afternoon pleasuring and being pleasured by your partner.  But when you approach him or her they have a different idea and say no.

Ouch.  Our biology is primed and ready to go.  Our love is being rejected.  It might trigger childhood trauma or a cultural belief that if our partner truly cared for us he/she would want what we want.  Perhaps it throws the whole relationship into question because there is a belief that we should be able to find someone who matches us in such a way that this won't happen. It hurts be "all dressed up" with nowhere to go.

Our inclination might be to say "fine" and walk away, to manipulate or cajole to get what we want, or some other variation of acting out our hurt.

This is where consciousness and self-responsibility need to come in.  Whatever our reaction is, it is understandable.  It may not be helpful though.  Immediate reactions are often based in past conditioning, unreasonable fears, or immediate concerns without regard for our overall goals.  We must be able to note our reactions and sort through these considerations to decide the best way to communicate.

In this way, the relationship can provide an arena to help work through reactivity that was conditioned in childhood.

Research shows that for the long-term health of a relationship, the ability to stay connected, communicative and collaborative in a situation like this is essential.  In order to do that, we need the psychological skills to stay conscious in emotionally difficult situations as well as to communicate effectively.  The "rejecting" party will strive to be clear that it is the offer they are refusing, not the relationship.  And the party being rejected will demonstrate resilience and playfulness.  (For a good overview of research on "lust and love" check this out:)

Ultimately, our biology, psychology and spiritual values must align.  We need to have a sense-of-self that is strong enough that we can genuinely consider the other even while we stay connected to our desire and needs.  This requires some understanding about development in general, practice differentiating personal experience (thoughts, feelings, sensations) and communicating with others about that, as well as an integrated sense of what makes it worth it to do.  We need to have embodied knowledge about how our relationships are us.  In order to do that we must have a community that supports our ongoing transformation into being relational. 
While I would like to say that if you do this work you will always feel happy and fulfilled, the truth is that it is magnificently difficult at times.  But I can also say that it is so worth it.  I can say for myself, personally, that I never imagined life could be so fulfilling.  Part of it is that I get much of what I want.  But more importantly I am helping to create a healthier world.