Relationships are easily a common denominator for most of us. Invariably we grow amidst a myriad of relationships ' each of those demanding a different part of us to show up and respond to the challenges posed. As we move along, we learn 'on the job' adapting to newer circumstance, adopting the learning from our past experiences (hopefully!), growing in ways, which we don't truly understand ' except that we expect it to be happening. However, if you look at the track record in today's world, we find that most of us are really struggling, and failing more than succeeding, in our relationships. Dysfunctional families, abandoned children and elders, sibling rivalry, violent and disillusioned youth, arrogant prosperous, abused spouses, and more, are a partial indicator of how we have faltered in the relationship arena. The problem is real. Somebody aptly described its significance by saying ' 'There is only one Ph.D. topic that needs to be researched ' Relationships!' If relationships are in fact so important, why is it that we, humans, have been so utterly unsuccessful for the most part? Is this a more recent happening or have relationships been a recurring problem from the past?
There is a very interesting graph that was recently quoted. If we plot the divorce rate and freedom available to women (plotted as separate lines) versus time, both seem to follow a very similar increasing behavior. The author of the article argued that, sure enough, freedom available to women is responsible for the increase in the divorce rate. Before all the women out there come after me for quoting such an irresponsible statement ' let me say ' this is an incorrect conclusion drawn by THAT author (NOT ME J), as I will demonstrate next.
In the past our society imposed very strict codes of behavior, biased especially against women. By imposing such constraints the number of feasible (allowed) behaviors were so limited that families and relationships were in a controlled steady state. But at what cost? Repression, dearth of personal growth opportunities, and lack of fulfillment were some of the obvious by-products. Eventually, when this antiquated outlook gave way to the more natural and liberal viewpoint, our society was suddenly confronted with a wide array of options as possible states of interactive existence - permitting very poor as well as extremely successful outcomes. This demanded that ALL OF US (Men and Women) deal with new and challenging situations that were unknown thus far, in a responsibly self-directed fashion. It called for an increased attention and effort. But perhaps we continued our old ways of taking relationships as something that needs no learning and is 'picked up' instinctively as our experiences unfold. In reality however, relationships like any other art form need training and tutelage. Current experiential knowledge is limited, random, unfocussed and simply cannot work by itself. Therefore, the high divorce rate is perhaps a surrogate indicator of how we have disregarded, as a society, the need to develop our 'relationship training manuals'. In essence, the tools and techniques to handle the challenges of freedom, especially in context of relationships, are simply not there!
It's not true however that nothing has been done to respond to these challenges. Psychologists, parents, friends, counselors, priests, social workers, teachers etc. have taken on the role of filling this void. Today, people seek the professional counsel of psychologists on a regular basis to help deal with complex family/personal issues. Priests and social elders often serve as guides and mediators to help resolve relationship conflicts and dilemmas, facilitating communication and dialog among the parties. While all these resources are invaluable, the help is invariably a reactive response to a 'problem'. What we most need is proactive relationship schooling based on sound principles that have been tested for robustness over time. Yes I can hear some of you saying, 'Yeah right!' (With a sarcastic intonation ' if that wasn't clear through this MS Word dialog). 'Relationship is not a science buddy, you are wasting your (and my) time. It is not possible.' Before you start taking over my write-up (remember I am the one writing!) let me give you an example of one such set of principles developed some years back by Carl Rogers ' an eminent psychiatrist who many consider as one of the most influential figures in founding modern day psychotherapy.
After years of working with people and testing numerous hypotheses rigorously, Carl Rogers in his book 'On Becoming a Person' proposes 3 conditions necessary (and perhaps sufficient) for a relationship between a client and therapist to be growth-oriented. First, the therapist must have an empathic understanding of the client, i.e. feel what they feel. Second, there should be a positive regard for the client independent of who they are or what they do. Third, the therapist must begenuine in expressing how they feel and not trying to hide/mask their feelings, in effect making themselves vulnerable and visible to their client. Rogers goes on to argue that these conditions are not limited to client-therapist but are actually applicable to all possible relationships. He illustrates in his subsequent books the principles of empowerment as applied to government, teaching, families, politics etc.
Before we get into the application of these conditions in our lives, let us try synthesizing their significance. Even though Rogers did not emphasize this point, but one that needs some deliberation, is the fact that all of the 3 conditions need to be satisfied simultaneously to a certain extent. Absence of one of them could produce drastically different and often counterproductive results. That is, these conditions are 'and' conditions or mathematically what would be called a multiplicative function. In other words, if one of the conditions is absent (i.e. has zero value) the net product turns out to be zero as well. One may say that this sounds good on paper, but does this really model what happens in reality? As I will illustrate in my example next, this proposed 'and' relationship function of the three ingredients, in fact, does have a sound basis.
I am a professor at a university and love teaching. Today, I am teaching an undergraduate class and have spent 1hour 10 minutes covering a particular topic. I have been noticing that a certain student is not paying attention to what I have been teaching. In the final 10 minutes of the class, after I have explained all the nuances of the topic under discussion, he asks a question that makes it obvious that he has not listened or understood a word of what I have been teaching for the last hour. I am angered because I know that I did put in a lot of effort teaching the material and most students did understand it. But this student was obviously doing 'other stuff' and did not bother to listen. What should I do in this situation? Should I show my anger and not answer the question? Should I answer the question assuming that he truly was not able to concentrate and ignore the fact that I feel that this student was being plain irresponsible? It's an honest predicament I am facing. The first response of anger means that I will be genuinely expressing my feelings to the student, but would be lacking in empathy and positive regard for the student by insulting him in front of the class. It is not difficult to see that I would be doing something that would not be helping the relationship, consistent with Rogers' conditions. In the second response of answering the question patiently I would probably be showing my regard and empathy for the student without being genuine to my feelings. Here too, by not giving my honest feedback I am breaking down the basis of a true relationship. Therefore, both responses would, in reality, be unproductive in building a meaningful relationship. So what should I do that maintains the relationship trinity in place?
This is what I did. I first told the student politely that I had explained this particular issue several times in the last hour and if it were indeed a problem to some other students as well, I would be happy to go over it again. Nobody else raised it as a problem. So I suggested that the student stop in my office after class where we could take it up one-on-one without holding the class back. I made sure that the student walked out of the class with me enabling me to develop a positive rapport with him. In my office I patiently explained the details of the topic for 15-20 minutes. Once the clarification on the topic was achieved, I asked him politely why, in his opinion, he had difficulty understanding the material during the lecture. He shrugged his shoulders. Without trying to embarrass him, I told him that I had noticed him distracted in class and asked whether there was something specific that was bothering him. He said that there was no specific reason. Then I told him that I care about him, making sure that the words spoken came from the bottom of my heart (the time gap between my initial anger and the dialog helped me put things in perspective so that I could take a more balanced approach). I told him that his errant behavior in class, besides being unhelpful to him, distracted the class and my ability to teach. He apologized and said that he would make it a point not to repeat it. We parted as friends.
By using the simple guideline of Rogers' principle, I was able to be empathic, regardful and genuine simultaneously. If I did not have these principles known to me I would certainly have responded in a way that would have hurt the relationship between my students and me. Now, of course, not all students are so responsive, nor are results achieved overnight. Nevertheless, the importance of having access to such principles can enable us to respond not merely by our instinctive emotions or using our rational thoughts alone, but by balancing our emotions with our thinking ' an approach that has greater potential for healthy long-term relationships.
The purpose of this article is not to 'teach' these (or other) principles (as I am certainly not a trained professional in this area) but to impress the need for us to methodically observe and work on our relationships. Indeed, if introspection is the pathway to growth, relationships are the testing ground for us to truly gauge how far along we have come. While there are no guarantees, by effort and taking a systematic approach we are less likely to make failures in relationships a repetitive pattern through generations, and hopefully move in a direction that is fulfilling and rewarding. Finally I share below a little poem that resonates some of my experiences. Bon Voyage!
My Flight Divine
She is my friend - a close friend - who showed me myself.
She has shown me that I am always a part of the equation inwhat happens to me.
She hurt me repeatedly BUT I let myself be hurt
She hit me without provocation BUT neither did I let her know how much it hurt physically and emotionally
I loved her like nothing else BUT I did not love myself in the process
I made her my life's center BUT forgot the center in me
She did not make conditions conducive for me to speak how I felt BUT neither did I recognize the importance to do something about it
She leaned on me for everything BUT I also let her lean on me.
She went out of control all too often BUT I too tried to control her
She made the same mistakes repeatedly BUT I also obstructed her freedom to see clearly by protecting her
She grew out of him and he outgrew her. It was the universe's giving design for bringing the two travelers together in their journeys.
He took a leap at the edge of the chasm expecting to fall and then realized he was flying; when he looked up he saw her flying higher; a miracle alright!