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  • Writer's pictureRichard Hughes

Relationships: Only Connect

Updated: Mar 18

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.’

I suspect Jane Fonda is being a little flippant here. Human beings are hardwired for connection, that is a scientific fact. Nevertheless, for many relationships are a baffling conundrum.

There are those for whom 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 some who find intimacy suffocating, whilst simultaneously 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 important; they are good for our health, they keep our limbic system functioning, which helps create empathy. As social beings this is important, it’s 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 attachment theory and neuroscience, 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; our wounds and trauma do not need to be our forever narrative.

So how can we do things differently to ensure that self-limiting relational patterns do not get repeated? Because of course, regardless of the science, and all the self-help books on attachment styles and character types, abandonment can feel like it never leaves us, intimacy can be overwhelming, and wounds have a habit of playing out subconsciously.

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, 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 communicate.

Sharing and developing intimacy (in-to-me-see), to be seen, heard, and loved in your entirety, including those parts that you may feel are tricky or a bit unloveable, is what it’s all about. When this happens, relationships not only survive, they thrive.

Of course, much may be unexpressed, suppressed or feel in-expressible. This is trauma, which as adults manifests itself as shame, which can contribute to difficulties in creating deeper connections. But, if we can stay open, curious and compassionate to ourselves and others, relationships stand a chance. Remember, we are not to blame for our trauma, and our wounds did not start with us. Trauma works through the generations until someone is prepared to face it and deal with the pain.

When we are caught up in a place of shame and trauma, interactions remain in a place of two-ness. There’s you and there’s me and that’s it; 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, 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.

Her solution? ‘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.

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.’

With third-ness, boundaries, needs and values are a starting point for compassionate communication rather than a point of conflict. Third-ness can be summed up with the question ‘how are we doing?’ The we is the important part. I am not saying that any of this is easy, far from it; patience is a key element of third-ness.

We experience third-ness when we are playful. If you think about it, that makes sense. When we are playful, feelings are not overwhelming, and forensic analyses is unnecessary. That is why creativity is needed in our lives.

And finally, much is made of the idea that we have to love ourselves before we can love anyone else. But, when we connect, we begin to find our way back to ourselves. This does not mean we have to be with someone regardless, no one wants to be unhappy, rather, through creativity, community and connection, we can find love, purpose and meaning.

Further reading:

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

William di Canzio - Alec

Dr Amir Levine and Rachel Heller - Attached: Are you Anxious, Avoidant or Secure? How the science of adult attachment can help you find – and keep – love

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