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.


Anonymous said...

At the risk of sounding facetious or disingenuous, can I ask you: exactly what is an integral relationship? I mean, as you personally define it. Above, you've begun considerable analysis into what is necessary for one, but I'm not really clear on how you're defining it in the first place (with the same clarity you defined relationships of the previous memes). So it makes it hard to think and talk about, when I'm not sure what "it" is.

Kai in NYC

WH said...

Hi Kai,

Thanks for commenting. You raise a valid point, to which I can only say, "exactly." As much as we try, Kira and I don't have an integral relationship. No one that I know does. The reality is that anything in the second tier, relationship or otherwise, can only be an approximation because it is still new, and there have not been enough people living those realities to have created a solid pattern of expectation. Those of us who are working in this area of our lives are laying the groundwork for those who will follow.

For example, Green did not become solidified as a vMeme until the Babyboom generation. Beck believes that particular vMeme is still being formed as the exit strategy into second tier begins to take shape for more and more people.

From what I can see--and intuit--an integral relationship will have its center of gravity for the five developmental lines I propose in the second tier. But that does not say what the relationship will look like. The question I ponder is what it looks like when two people hold the relationship from a second tier perspective. My guess is that the relationship will assume its own unique identity that transcends the individuals involved--a kind of synergy. The relationship would become an energy that can pull the individuals out of their ego concerns if they surrender to its power. As such, the relationship becomes a catalyst for increased growth and more rapid evolution.

I don't pretend to know any of this as truth--I only hope to generate a conversation among those who care about this topic. I can say that my relationship with Kira has catalyzed the individual evolution of both of us. Maybe others have had similar experiences and will contribute to the conversation. Your own description of your relationship with your partner sounds extraordinary to me and I would welcome you to submit a guest post if you are interested. If so, contact me at


kira said...

I feel prompted to weigh in on the discussion with two thoughts. First: I think it can be a bit of a trap to be wondering, "Is my relationship integral?" I think it's possible to hold it a little like wondering what "cool" is and then trying, or hoping, to be cool. Second: I suspect that having an integral relationship does not signal the end of all conflict or places where two people "miss" each other. I think of it kind of like that old saying: Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

What I know that feels more relevant to me than any "Have I arrived?" wonderings is that Bill and I are learning to relate to each other with greater awareness, compassion, and intention--with regard to ourselves, each other, and the relationship as an entity. Where we're at now is waaaaaaay ahead of where we were five years ago, or four, three, or two years ago--or even six months ago. Holding the intention to have a conscious, loving, mutually respectful relationship is a catalyst that supports our evolution. Sometimes it's smooth (with some little glitches), sometimes it's hard, sometimes we take short breaks from each other if we're not in a good space to be together, and once in a great while we have a crisis that feels like hell and eventually leads to a breakthrough and new possibilities.

I don't expect that cycle, or those variations, to shift at some point when we achieve a Truly Integral Relationship and everything becomes easy. We're doing the work, we're growing, we're sharing many deep and joyful times (and some light and joyful times, too), and we seem to recover from the snags more quickly and more consciously than we used to. I think we have many essential elements of an integral relationship, but I don't know that it's an "it" to achieve, like climbing Mount Everest or something.

Anonymous said...

I hear you, Kira, and I agree. I hope I becoming more adroit in dealing with the problems that arise, and more adequate in my responses, but the problems--new ones, mostly--continue to arise. Reading your post makes me realize that Integral (at least when speaking of relationships) is not an arrival, it's a direction, an orientation of the energies of the partners.

What do you think of this Bill and Kira: an Integral relationship is one in which "the ultimate concern" of the partners, at least in the relationship line, has become second tier. Or, rephrased, an Integral relationship parodoxically holds as its highest concern (including all the first tier ideals--pleasure, reciprocity, individual fulfillment, stability--but also) a supra-egoic commitment to the evolutionary process (things are going to change; we will grow; we will go where we need to go, even apart). That could be phrased more elegantly (or accurately) but you all see where I'm going. It occured to me, Bill, that the relationship lines you mentioned above could all be present at a second tier level in a relationship that was nonetheless 1st tier (I'm thinking of, especially, certain blue couples) so I tried to think of a quality unique to Integral couples. Of course I'm ready to be corrected.

Kai in NYC

kira said...

Kai, I think you said it rather elegantly, actually. After I posted my last comment, I was thinking about how a relationship, like an individual or a culture, has a center of gravity -- and in the case of an integral relationship, the center of gravity is Yellow or beyond. That doesn't mean Red, Blue, Orange, or Green won't ever show up -- it means that the momentum in the relationship, and the capacity, skills, and vision, are second tier. There's an ability to return to that place, kind of like an internally (within the relationship) motivated course correction.

WH said...


I think it's fair to define integral realtionship, at least in part, as you have defined it above. What Kira said is also important -- that it's not a destination that once reached means everything will be smooth sailing. It will still take work, just as it takes work to avoid attachment or other ego drives.

Ego never goes away, we just learn to separate its voice from the voice of the higher self (witness). We learn to be nonattached to ego. It will always be work.

Same is true in relationship. Ego will always have its wants in a relationship. What allows for an integral (second tier) relationship is that we can hear the ego's wants and make an appropriate choice based on trans-egoic values.


To a certain extent, Kai, you are correct about the lines possibly being present in a first-tier relationship. But if each of those lines has reached second tier, the likelihood is that the relationship will have second tier elements.

However, it's the old ego thing again--if the couple can't be unattached to ego concerns, both individually and as a couple they will not be able to function at a second tier level. Obviously, ego concerns do not go away, as I mentioned, but we must be able to isolate that voice from the voice of the witness.

Thanks again for being part of this conversation.


ned said...

"My guess is that the relationship will assume its own unique identity that transcends the individuals involved--a kind of synergy. The relationship would become an energy that can pull the individuals out of their ego concerns if they surrender to its power. As such, the relationship becomes a catalyst for increased growth and more rapid evolution."

Very nicely put.

Bill, I'm really enjoying your posts on relationships. If it's okay, I might quote some of your points and link to your posts from my blog.