There’s a way out of the conflicting interests that seem to mar modern relationships. And the answer lies in looking inward
Relationships are under greater stress today because of the materialistic culture which is breeding more greed, selfishness and intolerance.
The prognosis is bad. So how did we get this way, and what is the way out?
LOSING OUR LINKS
The industrial and scientific age have re-created the world as we now know it, a world of burgeoning complexities and specialties, almost incapable of being understood holistically. Matter is divorced from mind and spirit, the earth from heaven, and man from God and mankind. With nothing to link us together, we have lost sight of the whole and slipped into the illusion that we are alone in an alien and even hostile universe.
The current impasse in relationships is further cemented by the fragmentation of social structures. The flux from agricultural to urban centers severs our links with culture, tradition and community. Lonely and lost in big cities, separated from everything that gave our lives stability, meaning and continuity, we have become more and more alienated from life and people. In the barren wastes of city life, our emotional lives dwindle and die.
Today’s man has been reduced to either labor or consumer, the earth to natural resources, countries to markets, and profit is the purpose and ultimate justification of all interaction. So where is the space for selflessness, altruism and disinterested service? Psychologist Erich Fromm notes in The Art of Loving: “Man’s happiness today consists in ‘having fun’… The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast.”
Further alienation in relationships is caused by our headlong dependence on technology. Technological inventions have ripped through our web of interconnections and established an illusion of self-sufficiency. Household gadgets have allowed for the existence of the nuclear family sans servants. Home entertainment like TV, music systems, CDs and home theatre permit us to derive our enjoyment alone at home. Automobiles let us slice through human traffic encased in a bubble of privacy, while home delivery and telescoping have further limited our interaction with people. In the computer age, we are rapidly reaching the stage when we will even be able to work in the privacy of our homes, and network if we must, with our Internet buddies.
As a metaphor for our times, Internet friendship couldn’t be more apt. Faceless; voiceless, it is possible for us to manipulate our identity, for the other person is unlikely to know which parts of us are authentic and which not. It is friendship without risk or intimacy. A virtual friendship, an illusion of one. Is it any wonder that deprived of human warmth, we are swamped with loneliness?
THE CHANGING FACE OF RELATIONSHIPS
If the advances of the 2Oth century changed the role of relationships in our lives, social revolutions such as the women’s lib, the cult of the individual, and even the human potential movement have redefined its very nature. A good relationship today is not one that just lasts but one that coexists with self-respect, individuality and the need to grow. The rules and narrow certainties of the past have given way to a more fluid, open-ended approach.
THE ME GENERATION
In search of the perfect relationship, ‘for peace, happiness and harmony, individuals meet and part, unwilling to settle for less. Often, the seeker ‘outgrows’ a relationship and must perforce let it go to continue his spiritual quest. Given these diverse and wide-ranging factors, what hope is there for relationships today? Turning the clock back is futile, but what is the way forward?
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
To make relationships work today, we have to look for a way to straddle both stability and fluidity, constancy and change. What could the way be?
FROM A LARGER PERSPECTIVE
It’s clear that when individual interests are pitted one against the other, relationships cave in. Man is pitted against woman, the parent against the offspring, the employer against the employee, capitalism against environment, and so on. The great challenge of our times, therefore, is to look for a way that will correlate individual welfare with general welfare.
The need is for a vision that will fuse the contradictions and conflicts between the two and move towards unity. Such a perspective does exist. Indeed it underlies all traditional wisdom. I refer to the spiritual understanding, which asserts that we are part of a whole. That the universe is one entity and all that is in it is intimately interconnected. Not only does this mean that we are already related, it also means that I cannot possibly act without regard for your interests, for your interests are ultimately mine. In sharp contrast to the individualistic view of life, which separates, this one integrates.
Says Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living course: “True intimacy is to take for granted that you are intimate. They belong to you and you to them. Don’t make an effort to convince the person that you. Love them and do not doubt even a little whether they love you or not.” Taking responsibility for the universe opens us to the possibility that our external conflicts in relationships are a reflection of our own internal conflicts. That it is lack of knowledge of ourselves that prevents us from seeing the other as ourselves. As conflicts are created by us and not by the external world, the solution to happy and harmonious relationships is to know ourselves.The root cause of poor relationships is inadequate knowledge of self. My true relationship is my relationship with myself—all others are simply mirrors of it. As I learn to love myself, I automatically receive the love and appreciation from others that I desire.”
Going within helps us become aware of our feelings, needs, desires and thoughts. It also makes us aware that the cause of our conflicts rests not in the events and circumstances of the outside world but in our reaction to them. When our partner throws a tantrum, we don’t have to yell back. Being aware of choices in behavior leads us to take responsibility for relationships.
When a relationship is in conflict, we check where we went wrong rather than where the other did; and we take the first step in fording the breach without regard to who is in the right. Our greater awareness of our internal states also inches us towards first accepting and then controlling them. As the conditioning obscuring our whole and perfect selves dissolves, we begin to love and trust ourselves more and more. We become more true to ourselves. Our defenses drop away and we allow ourselves to be more vulnerable.
In time, fear dissolves, allowing us to lift the barriers that separate us from others. With nothing to fear and much to give, we pour ourselves into our relationships. Complete within ourselves, we love unconditionally, wanting nothing in return. As we continue our internal journey, we reach an apex when we see ourselves in the other. There is none other than me, say the enlightened ones. All is me.
MOVING BEYOND OURSELVES
If knowing the self is one way of knowing the other, the reverse is also true. Knowing the other can be a guide to the self. All relationships can teach us about ourselves. “Love is active penetration of the other person, in which my desire to know is stilled by union,” writes Erich Fromm.
I found that to be particularly true in my own case, when the end to an for me mostly happy, sometimes unhappy relationship focused my attention so intensely on happiness that I succeeded in wresting its secret from the innermost core of my self: Our happiness lies in focusing on that of others. Focusing on the happiness of others helped me vault across the narrow barriers of personal feelings, thoughts and desires that separated me from others.
Moving beyond the ego helped me to see situations uncolored by self-interest and helped me resolve conflicts. Only by your own experiences will you one day be able to go beyond all relationships. Then you can be happy alone. And the person who can be happy alone is really an individual.
NEW AGE SOLUTIONS
In a world of flux and change, in the growing, paradoxical world of the New Age where to hold is to destroy and letting go is the only way to have, the key to a successful relationship is to move beyond the need for it. The search for completion that is behind our burning quest for love can only be over when it leads us back to ourselves. The primal union between the self and the Self, the atmaand parmatma, is the source of all completion, and the purpose of all relationships.
However, as we struggle to hold on to these blissful states by controlling the other, conflict enters and disintegrates the relationship. Romantic love, no matter how short-lived and imperfect, is the closest many of us get to the joy and bliss of merging with the Divine. It is for this reason that the West, particularly, deifies it.
In India too, they seem to be importing the western obsession with romantic love. To see romantic love as only a precursor to divine love. In new-world relationships, the focus is on building your relationship with yourself and the universe. You communicate to keep your channel clear and to give yourself more of what you need.
But how to conduct relationships is here the questions? Maybe to ask honestly for what we want and express how we feel. If rejected, we express our feelings of hurt and then let go. The bottomline, then, is that all relationships exist to enable us to grow and to know ourselves better, helping us, in turn, to develop better relationships. Seeing life as a growing process, rather than as a static state, helps us acknowledge that relationships too are subject to growth and change.
Many relationships flounder because we expect them to retain their intensity rather than allowing them to run their own course. If we tune into ourselves, trust ourselves, and express ourselves fully and honestly with each other, the relationship will unfold in its own unique and fascinating way… At times it may take you closer to one another. At other times it may take you further apart.
You have been given the idea of a permanent love which is going to destroy your whole life… real love is as uncertain as your life is uncertain. The truth, paradoxical as always, is that the more we want relationships to last, the less they will and the more willing we are to let go, the more they survive.
SPACE TO GROW
relationship counselors stress the need for space within a relationship. Space is that willingness to acknowledge the other as an individual in his own right, and not the repository of one’s own needs and desires. Tolerance, love, understanding and mutual respect as the foundation for a successful relationship. A relationship that has space would also accommodate the inherent differences between man and woman. Says the author of “Emotional Intelligence” Danial Goleman: “Therapists have long noted that by the time a couple finds their way to the therapy office, they are in a stage of engage-withdraw, with his complaint about her ‘unreasonable’ demands and outbursts and her lamenting his indifference to what she is saying.”
The reason, says Goleman, is that women have been brought up to be more emotionally open than men. The solution for men is not to sidestep conflict or offer solutions too fast, but to genuinely listen and empathize with the feelings behind their wives’ complaints. Above all, there is the need to listen to each other. He suggests a technique called mirroring, in which the spouse repeats what the other says, down to its emotional subtext.
A relationship that safeguards the other’s individuality and self-respect is what most gurus and counselors define as true love. In Be Still and Know, Osho says: “You will not depend on anyone in particular and you will not allow anybody else to depend on you. You will not be dependent and you will not allow anybody to be dependent on you. Then you live out of freedom, out of joy, out of love.”
Adds Erich Fromm: “Mature love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality.” He describes four qualities of such a relationship. They are: care (the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love), responsibility (feeling responsible for one’s fellow human beings as well as for oneself), respect (the ability to see a person as he is), and knowledge (to respect a person we must first know him).
MAKING RELATIONSHIPS WORK
How do we get to this stage? Easy solutions don’t exist. Fromm suggests the cultivation of discipline, concentration, patience and a supreme concern with the mastery of the art of forming relationships. By practicing these four qualities in all aspects of our lives, we may one day acquire mastery over the art of loving.
Richard Bach celebrates such a relationship in his book, The Bridge Across Forever. ” A soulmate is someone who has locks that fit our keys and keys that fit our locks. When we feel safe enough to open the locks, our truest selves step out and we can be completely and honestly who we are.” This then is journey’s end.
Through the paradoxical route of embracing the fluid and ever-changing nature of relationships, by letting go of the need for them or for permanence, by using them to bore into the deep recesses of ourselves, we access a permanent, unswerving love. A love that lasts, not just through one lifetime, but forever.
Not only is this an enormously satisfying conclusion, it also stresses the importance of relationships. One can wonder at our concern with amassing wealth and possessions which will not last beyond our death, when we could be concentrating on those that do: our capacity to love and our relationships with others. To come down to more mundane levels, relationships are vitally important for our earthly well-being.
Our emotional health, so intimately connected with that of our mental and physical aspects, is best nurtured and nourished through human warmth and interaction. Freud defined the mature individual as one capable of love and work. At the end of this long journey of discovery what can we take back with us?
Only this: that while the odds in today’s society are loaded against the formation of a network of intimacy, the final choice is ours. We can take responsibility for our relationships and work towards investing them with life and dynamism. We can use them to grow. Through them we can move towards health, happiness and harmony. And unravel the secrets of life and love.