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  • Writer's pictureRichard Hughes

Relationships: Only Connect

Updated: Aug 12, 2023

After three marriages, numerous high-profile lovers, and seven years of celibacy, the actress, producer and activist Jane Fonda, now 84-years-old, was asked what she had learned about love. Her answer, ‘nothing, I’m not cut out for it.’

Great answer. Though of course human beings are hardwired for connection, the science tells us that. And yet for many of us relationships are a baffling conundrum.

For some, relationships remain elusive, regardless of the effort they put in. Others struggle to bring about meaningful connection in the relationships they do have. And then, there are those who find intimacy suffocating, whilst longing for it.

The writer William di Canzio muses on the paradoxical nature of relationships: ‘in love, don’t we all want to conquer and surrender at the same time? Resist and yield, unite with the other and remain independent?’

To complicate matters, even the definition of ‘relationship’ is not as straightforward as it used to be, which can be both exciting, and a little scary. No wonder then that connection can feel like a Herculean task.

But relationships are necessary; they are good for our health, they keep our limbic system functioning, which is necessary for empathy. This is what makes us human.

When it comes to the mystery of the human condition, I cannot claim to have a panacea, and I am no expert on anyone’s else’s heart, but it was a curiosity about this very topic that brought me to practice psychotherapy in the first place. My own experience of relationships had not been straight forward, and I had reached a point in life where I needed to gain a more profound understanding of why that was, and if I could do anything about it.

An obvious starting point has to be infant and childhood experiences. Science can shed some light on this, and because of child observation studies and attachment theory, we now know that how our early needs were met plays a significant part in how we function in adult relationships, as do cultural and social factors, genetics, and our intergenerational story.

None of this is deterministic though, and the good news is that we have neuro-plasticity. Childhood deficits do not need to be our forever narrative.

So how can we do things differently to ensure that our wounds do not become self-limiting relational patterns? Because of course, regardless of the science, and all the self-help books on attachment styles and characterological traits, a lack of love can feel like a character flaw, intimacy can elude us, or feel overwhelming, wounds play out unconsciously, and all of this intersects with our fragile sense of self.

A few years ago, I saw Matthew Lopez’s play The Inheritance, and I was deeply affected by its central tenet, proposed by the character of E. M. Forster:

‘Only connect! ... Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.’

This call to action, an intention, based on a quote from Forster’s novel Howard’s End, urges us not to retreat or over-analyse when things get tough, rather ‘only connect’, stay open, feel deeply and take a risk to reach out, and when the opportunity arises, be vulnerable.

Taking a risk to develop intimacy (in-to-me-see), to be seen, heard, and loved in your entirety, is what being human is all about. When this happens, relationships not only survive, they thrive and our humanness is revealed.

Of course, much may have been unexpressed, suppressed or feel in-expressible. But, if we have the intention to stay open, curious and compassionate, relationships stand a chance. Remember, we are not to blame for our past, and our wounds did not start with us. Trauma and shame works through the generations until someone is prepared to face it and deal with the pain.

When we are caught up in shame and trauma, interactions stay in a place of two-ness. There’s you and there’s me and that’s it; this is essentially a defensive position, which may be the only place to feel safe, but eventually this will end in retreat or a power struggle. In a state of two-ness, people do not feel heard and needs remain unmet. People may experience two-ness when their wounds are submerged or relegated by another's anger, sadness and frustration. Two-ness can be experienced as an entrenched position, you may be prepared to die on your hill rather than come down off it. At its most extreme, two-ness becomes about trying to control your environment, your fragile sense of self and the other person, but at a cost to yourself and others.

The psychotherapist and writer Jessica Benjamin has written a lot about this and I give her all the credit here.

She asks us to consider ‘Third-ness’. Third-ness is about showing up, listening, and letting go of an entrenched position, and of not surrendering to another person, but of surrendering to the relationship.

Of course 'thirdness' works when there is an awareness and interplay of 'you, me and a we'. Not always straightforward, but something to consider.

Benjamin writes, ‘when you are able to express yourself in such a way ... with freedom ... where there is space between you and the other person ... where you do not feel you are being determined by them or their needs ... then change can happen.’

Thirdness is often messy. It's a place where we can try out new ways of thinking or feeling - allowing this to be - without judgement or the pressure to be fixed. There is something 'adult' about this, no one is 'rescuing' anyone. Power imbalances and co-dependencies are acknowledged.

With third-ness, boundaries, needs, and values are a starting point for compassionate communication rather than a point of conflict. Thirdness can be summed up with the question ‘how are we doing?’

Thirdness does not need to be complicated. Being playful is thirdness. If you think about it, that makes sense. When we are playful, feelings are not overwhelming, and forensic analyses is unnecessary.

And finally, one idea to muse on. Much is made of the idea that we must love ourselves before we can love anyone else. But, when we connect, we begin to find our way back to ourselves anyway.

Further reading:

Jessica Benjamin - Beyond Doer and Done to: Recognition Theory, Intersubjectivity and the Third

William di Canzio - Alec

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