True Relating: Letting Go of What We Think We Know

“One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.”

— Martin Buber, I and Thou

In his seminal text, I and Thou, Martin Buber explored the depths of how we relate, distinguishing between the I-Thou relationship and the I-It relationship. The former is based on characterizing, labeling and experiencing. The latter is a deeper way of relating that transcends our projections.

I-Thou happens when we take the leap into the unknown, realizing that the narratives that we are constantly creating about others are solipsistic, reaffirming the idea that the only truth is the existence of our own mind. I-Thou is about letting go of the thoughts, feelings and beliefs that keep us rooted in the illusion of knowing another. The more we let go, the more we open up to deeper relating.

We also have defenses that are like computers that record threats, so that when a person does something offensive, their presence, or specific actions can trigger automatic responses of self-protection, rendering our vision more myopic, regressing back to the I-It.

I was talking to a friend this morning about all of this vis-à-vis the current political situation in the U.S., specifically how polarized we are as a nation. It’s like all of the nuance and possibility have been drained away and there are two polar opposite teams and you’re either on one team or the other. I was telling him how helpless it feels because when this happens with individuals or couples, at least there is an opportunity to process and understand why it is happening and do something about it.

This is essentially what working with couples is all about, helping them to become aware of and unpack all of the fixed notions that they have of each other based on past behaviors that are keeping them stuck in the same dynamics, and as a result feeling unknown by each other.

It’s about identifying what these dynamics are, where they come from and doing some reality checking. There is always a tremendous amount of resistance to letting go of these narratives because there is a protective element to them.

The expectations that we have regarding how our partners will respond to us have repercussions, including filtering information to conform to our expectations, i.e. seeing what we want or expect to see. This leads to reacting to our partners based on the narrative we have versus what they are actually experiencing and communicating. This often to leads to our partners responding in ways that confirm the narrative, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here’s a simple example of this:

Fred wants to spend time with his wife, Ellen. He is reluctant to ask her to go do something just the two of them because he expects that she will reject him. When he finally approaches her to tell her he would like to go out, he does it in a way that is aggressive and triggering for Ellen. This makes it hard for her to see that he wants to connect, reacting to his aggression instead, and she does in fact reject him, confirming his expectation.

The more this happens, the more it solidifies and the harder it becomes to have different experiences. This is a universal challenge for couples in long-term relationships. The more you let it happen without addressing it, the more you feed the familiar patterns.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that change is almost always possible. All you need is some recognition that there’s a problem and a willingness to engage with it. Even just one member of the couple willing to do this can make a huge difference. It’s never too late.

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David B. Younger, Ph.D is the creator of Love After Kids, for couples that have grown apart since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couples therapist with a web-based private practice, and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, 12-year-old son, 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old toy poodle.

Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on October 4, 2017.