Saturday, January 28, 2006

Preliminary Observations on Integral Relationship, Part Two

["Hieros Gamos" by Joe Xuereb]

Part Two: Toward an Integral Model

[Please see Part One before reading this entry. Thanks to Kai and Kira for their ongoing conversation around this topic. If you haven't been keeping up with the conversation Kira and Kai are having in the comments section, you're missing some great insights, observation, and sharing.]

Disclaimer: As noted in the title, these are preliminary observations toward creating an integral model for relationship. I do not claim to have all the answers. I hope to generate a dialogue that might move more people to consider the implications of integral theory for the realm of intimate relationship.

Relationship has a tendency to mirror the parts of our lives that need attention. In choosing a partner, our psyche often pulls us toward the person who can best help us grow past our limitations. How this happens is a mystery, but it seems to be true more often than not. We discover our limitations through relationship, through intimacy, through making mistakes and experiencing conflicts. Holding this purpose of relationship in our hearts and minds might be the most important first step toward having an integral relationship.

From this vantage point, relationship is an important part of our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual practice. Living an integral relationship requires a shift in consciousness about how we view relationship. For our primary relationship to be integral, it cannot be separate from our connection to our body, our emotional/shadow work, our psyche and its needs, or our spiritual path. All these parts of our lives (and more) are interconnected, and we must live in this awareness.

So what does this mean in terms of integral theory? I propose that at least five lines are necessary (but not sufficient) to having an integral relationship. I would argue that highly developed morals (Kohlberg), affect (emotional intelligence), gender identity, cognition, and empathy are all necessary for an integral relationship. Certainly, the presence of higher development in other lines would also contribute to a more integral model (especially care, creativity, and role-taking). Finally, we must have access to that part of consciousness which is able to observe itself--the observer self, or witness. Without the observer self, none of the rest of this is possible.

In terms of moral development, any relationship benefits from both partners having attained the post-conventional stage. Further, level six (universal human ethics) or level seven (transcendental morality) are the only truly second-tier moralities, and having attained these levels of moral complexity allows for the transcendence of ego needs (which I maintain is the hallmark of an integral relationship).

In an integral relationship, concern for the other's growth, happiness, needs, and safety transcend one's own ego concerns. For the first time, partners place the other's needs above their own. The approach is similar to being of service to Spirit in that we act in service of our partner, who in our eyes manifests Spirit. This does not mean we ignore or reject our own needs but, rather, that we seek ways to transcend purely egoic needs in order to serve a higher purpose (a soul-level relationship, our soul needs, and the soul needs of our partner). Even if we can't live in this elevated moral position every minute of every day, we must be able to access it in times of conflict. The ability to hold a transcendent moral stance in times of conflict is what allows us to place the spirit of the relationship above our own ego needs.

Being able to separate from our ego needs, which are usually tied to emotions, becomes central element of an integrally oriented relationship. Emotional intelligence (affect), as defined by John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey and updated by Daniel Goleman, is crucial to a healthy relationship and, therefore, the foundation of an integral relationship. Goleman outlines five basic competencies:

  1. The ability to identify and name one's emotional states and to understand the link between emotions, thought and action.

  2. The capacity to manage one's emotional states — to control emotions or to shift undesirable emotional states to more adequate ones.

  3. The ability to enter into emotional states (at will) associated with a drive to achieve and be successful.

  4. The capacity to read, be sensitive, and influence other people's emotions.

  5. The ability to enter and sustain satisfactory interpersonal relationships.
All of these skills are important in an integral relationship. I would add to this list the ability to detach from our intense emotional states and take a step back to observe them--this is another place where the observer self plays a crucial role.

We must have access to and an understanding of our own emotions if we are to feel empathy for our partner. Without empathy, we will never be able to reach the moral stages described in the previous paragraphs. Without empathy, we can never experience our partner's point of view in a situation. Without empathy, we can never really transcend ego concerns in our relationships.

As we saw in the first post on this topic, gender identity is essentially fixed until individuals reach the high Orange and Green stages of development. However, I suggest that an integral relationship requires a fluid sense of gender identity. The outward manifestation of this fluidity is in one's ability to assume different gender roles, while the inward manifestation is actually an absence of attachment to any one gender identity, a form of androgyny. In the purest form (causal level), androgyny does not refer to the mixture of masculine and feminine traits, but to the transcendence of specific sexual/gender traits--the androgyne.

This second-tier conception of gender identity allows either partner to assume the masculine or feminine energy in the relationship. Further, it's not a problem if both partners assume male energy or female energy. At higher experiential states (tantra in the traditional sense), the gender energies become archetypal in nature--as ego recedes--and can result in gender union (a kind of hieros gamos). At the highest levels, gender dissolves completely, along with ego.

Cognitive development is essentially a movement through Wilber's fulcrums of basic structures, which combines Piaget's early stages with Aurobindo's transrational stages. As Piaget's stage model ends, Wilber adds a transformation stage (vision-logic) before moving into Aurobindo's conceptions of psychic, subtle, causal, and nondual. Vision-logic corresponds to late Green/early Yellow in the Beck Spiral Dynamics model. The hallmark of this stage is the ability to hold and compare differing perspectives or points of view.

In the language of Spiral Dynamics, one must be able to read the whole Spiral and assume the worldview of any of the first tier vMemes at will to be truly integral or second tier. This is the "necessary but not sufficient" element of integral consciousness. There is more to being second tier than intellectual development, but second tier won't happen without the mental capacity to assume various and conflicting worldviews.

Development of the Self along the Spiral requires an ability to intellectually conceive of new ways of seeing the world. This is not to say that an integral experience is not available as a state of consciousness, because it is, but integral consciousness as the foundation of a worldview must be solidified as a stage and not a simple state, which is available to anyone at any stage of development.

So this brings me to what I think is the most important element to an integral relationship: the ability to access the observer self. The observer self is the part of ourselves that can step back and listen to our minds obsess about finances, or an annoying coworker, or whatever the wind of the mind is blowing into consciousness--to observe our own interior monologue. This part of our consciousness is more of who we really are than the stream of words we call the interior monologue will ever be. The observer self is the first authentic approach to finding the higher Self that resides beyond the realm of ego (Wilber's "witness").

If we meditate or see a good therapist, the observer self is one of the first skills we will develop. It’s that important. Without that part of ourselves, our monologues will keep arguing that their version of reality is the only version, and we will keep believing them, living our lives as though the monologues are the only truth, feeling confused when the world disagrees. Further, the observer self allows us to look at our behaviors and our egoic needs as though from a distance.

This skill is invaluable to a healthy relationship. When we are in the midst of conflict, or bumping up against one of the many times that our intimate relationships will reveal our wounding, we must be able to detach from the shame, guilt, anger, fear, or any other strong emotion that might surface, and to create some space to observe the emotion, its source, and how we might learn from it. As I noted above, relationship often serves the purpose of revealing our flaws and wounding to provide us with an opportunity to work on them. Without an observer self, this is not possible. If we cannot detach from our emotions when we need to, an integral relationship will not be possible.

It must be noted that the observer self is not limited to second tier or integral stage development. Anyone at any stage can learn to access the observer self as a state of consciousness. An exercise to learn this skill is available in a previous post on this site. However, a truly integral-stage person will have access to the observer at will.

These are my preliminary observations on integral relationship. I welcome objections, corrections, and continuing dialogue on this topic. As is my nature, this post has been extremely theoretical and intellectual. So what does an integral relationship, or the attempt to have one, look like from the inside? In my next post, part three, I will try to present some of my personal experience with my attempts to co-create an integral relationship.

Go to Part Three.
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