Monday, April 02, 2007

On Relationships -- Integral and Otherwise

Last week I posted a series of articles from Psychology Today on the topic of relationships. I took issue with one of the articles because it advocated a devotion to the relationship that I felt could trap people in a situation that is not working.

Ebuddha, over at Integral Practice, posted a response to my post. He took issue with my position.
How much is longing for the "ideal", for the "integral", a function of narcissism, and how much is it a function of creating a better version of relationship?

As Bill points out, if one buys into the "practical" version too much - and as I stated - you can be in a very unhappy relationship, for years on end.

The other side of the danger, is that you ARE "seeking an unobtainable illusion".

My first round of theorizing (and again, I can easily be wrong) is that Bill is wrong here, based on the following data:

a. Based on the research, more people ARE becoming more narcissistic - look at latest C4 post.
b. Most people, who last a long time in relationship, do tend to accept the relationship "as it is", within the boundaries described by the Great Expectations article.
c. Most self-reporting on successful relationships describe coming back to appreciating the qualities of relating, and human-ness, not some extra-ordinariness.
He concludes by stating that integral relationship must be a step beyond a successful relationship. With this, I am in full agreement.

However, I disagree -- at least in my own life -- that seeking an "integral" relationship is a function of narcissism. Rather, I think the main issue for me has been a reliance on a model -- confusing the map with the territory -- rather than attending to the relationship itself.

From my experience, we need to develop a healthy relationship -- one with compassion, communication, and respect -- before we can even entertain the ideal of an integral relationship.

Theorizing about relationships is useful and valuable. But large ideals and archetypes for what a relationship can be (the "unobtainable ideal" that ebuddha mentions) really do not address the reality of living in relationship with another person. I have made the mistake of relying on a model instead of being present to the relationship itself. In this sense, if one falls into that trap as I did, the relationship is doomed. If both partners are working from ideals and not allowing for the presence of the other person as s/he is, then the whole thing will implode at some point.

I no longer hold the ideal of an integral relationship. If, looking back from my rocking chair on the porch as I sip lemonade in my old age, I can say that I lived in an integral relationship, then great. But right now all that matters to me is honoring and loving the person now in my life.

In terms of finding a place where theory meets practice, I think the bottom line is that we have to examine and expose the shadow elements that each person brings to the relationship. From a subpersonality approach, we attract partners who embody non-integrated elements (disowned selves, among other things) of our own shadows. Paying attention to that and working to identify and integrate those shadow pieces is the most important work we can do to ensure a healthy relationship.

The final place that I disagree with ebuddha is with the comment he left at the original post:
So what is it? What is the extra that you are looking for? How do you distinguish the "extra" from the "ideal"?
Actually, it's not so much that I disagree. The final article that ebuddha quotes from had mentioned that people are seeking "something more" from relationships now that previous generations were not seeking. The article seemed to dismiss this quest as not very productive in the relationship.

My position is that we are seeking something more. As we evolve (many of us moving into the "sensitive self" in some areas of our lives, especially in relationships), we must redefine what a relationship can be. It no longer satisfies many people to "marry well," meaning to marry someone who reflects well on us and can provide a stable family life. These are egoic concerns -- useful and valuable in some ways, but no longer totally satisfying for many people.

The something more that we seek is compassion and empathy, among other things. We no longer simply want to meet our physical needs (home, children, stability, and so on). I think Maslow is instructive here:

If we use this model for relationships, we have in the past been satisfied with having our needs in the first three levels met. This was considered a happy and healthy relationship. For many people, it still is.

More and more of us, however, want to meet the next two levels through our relationships. This is the "extra" or "something more" to which I am referring, at least in part (but for the purposes of this discussion, this model will suffice). We want a partner with whom we can work (and who will support us) in attaining these higher developmental needs -- and if they are not met or we do not feel supported in seeking these things, at least in part, we will probably be unhappy in the relationship.

At the top of the pyramid (not shown in the diagram) Maslow placed the need for self-transcendence. If there is anything integral in his model, it is this. He had originally theorized that only self-actualized people had these "peak experiences." But he later conceded that anyone could achieve these states. And this is the distinction he failed to make -- some few people achieve self-actualization as a stage of development, meaning that they are largely centered in this level of development. The rest of us, however, and the majority of us for that matter, are capable of having these experiences as a state experience no matter what stage we are at developmentally.

I think another aspect of the "something more" is the innate need for self-transcendence that Maslow describes. We may never get to that level developmentally, but we can have state experiences of this reality through a variety of means, including intimate relationship. The most obvious way to do so, and the one that many people focus on, is through sexual sharing. In the throes of passion we can transcend our little egos as we connect with our partners.

However, I think it is a mistake to see this as the only way. I believe that any time we place our partner's needs and happiness above our own (assuming this in no way harms us emotionally or spiritually), we can transcend our little egos and achieve what Maslow described as self-transcendence. We may not even notice this as it happens.

I don't know if any of this can be defined as an integral relationship -- that is no longer my concern. I also do not think we should rely exclusively on the relationship to meet these higher order needs -- but if the relationship is not supportive of these needs, and one or both partners feel the need to meet these needs, then there will be problems in the relationship. Again, this is the "something more" to which I think the Psychology Today article was referring (and dismissing).

Rather than simply staying in a relationship that does not support us in feeling fulfilled (and recognizing that the relationship can not be held accountable as the only source of meeting those needs), we should be able to want that support from our partners and relationships.

Of course, we have to meet all the lower level needs first -- and we have to have an emotionally healthy and supportive relationship to do so. And clearly, not everyone wants these things from relationship.

Right now, all I care about is meeting my partner where she is, supporting her needs for happiness and safety, and building a loving and compassionate partnership. There's nothing integral about that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have to say that for the first time I thought I understood what you meant by intergral. It is the achievment of an understanding beyond the normal/basic needs of human beings. I think thats right. And then I read the last bit. why isn't helping your partner achieve the "lower" part of the pyramid intergral? Are not all pieces needed to get to the "top" and therefore helping someone achieve the "lower" is intergral, isn't it?