Close and intimate relationships are fundamental to personal growth and maturity. To be valued by those whom we value, and to be understood by those closest to us is the psychological air promoting health and well-being. Consider the other end of the continuum of the warmth and responsiveness a significant relationship provides — abuse and neglect — and we can understand the depth of the core need of belonging.
Significant relationships in adolescent and adult life provide the support and challenge for interpersonal and intrapersonal growth on many levels. These types of relationships expand our perspective, deepen our understanding of reciprocity, and help us to move beyond our own needs. It is in this dynamic connection where we can see the value of accord and conflict. While romantic love and “the fall” still get center stage in the world of entertainment, in the real world of private life it is in the small moments and the seams of the ups of downs of two individuals committed to something more that we find the substance for becoming more differentiated and integrated beings. Here are three things to consider when looking at relationships through a developmental lens:
Trust and Psychological Autonomy: Close relationships provide the holding environment to develop our sense of self and the shared internal experience of intimacy. Over time we move from being the relationship to having a relationship, which represents an important developmental milestone. When you are embedded in the relationship you are unable to hold your feelings as separate from the feelings you experience within the relationship. When things are going well, you feel well; when things are in discord, your sense of self is threatened or compromised. As trust builds over time, the relationship and each individual can mature to the point of having both developmental paths of differentiating and integrating. Both our sense of self and our sense of relationship becomes deeper and more complex.
Why does this matter? If the health of relationship is defined by the initial feelings of falling in love or the excitement of romantic love, then the inevitable challenge of commitment and building the relationship will seem like an ending rather than the beginning of a new phase. Borrowing from the classic work of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, a mature and resilient relationship has the quality of connections and space. These words, written nearly one hundred years ago, ring true today:
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
1 +1 = 3: In the first stages of relationships, 1+1=1 developmentally speaking, for it is what the individual is getting from the relationship that is front and center. The individual walls of ego collapse, manifest in the dizzying sense of excitement and the constant intrusion of the other’s being on the present situation. Love songs nail this experience of “You are always on my mind” for with the crumbling boundaries there is no sense of me without you. While it is not as poetic to sing about differentiating and integrating a more complex sense of self, with time, energy, trust, and as Paul McCartney says, “a little luck” we can work this out.
1 +1 =3 when we are able to have a relationship rather than be embedded in it. In this new developmental space, there is a you, a me, and the relationship. We can sense the relationship as a living and breathing entity as much as we are individually. And we can draw on its strength during good times and troubled times. Which leads to…
Conflict = An Opportunity to Grow: With self and other awareness, we can develop to the point of understanding that we see the world not as it is but how we construct it based on our sense of meaning. This process is a never-ending unfolding for as you increase your awareness, you see the world in a more complex manner, and therefore exhaust your current level of understanding. In this space a new, more complex vision can be accommodated. With development, you constantly push the edge of awareness/ignorance and perceive greater complexities — but still this vision is incomplete. This process underlies the statements from diverse sources, from the business world to scripture:
You don’t see the world as it is, you see the world as you are. (Stephen Covey, 7 Habits)
The map is not the territory. (Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity)
Men do not attract what they want, but what they are. (James Allen, As a Man Thinketh)
For as he thinks in his heart, so is he. (Proverbs, 23:7)
At the edges of our development, relationships become mirrors for our inner desires to grow and become more. The ego/self is inevitably touching ideas and actions that do not align with our current sense of reality, and often this occurs in the ups and downs of the relationship. No need to chase problems, for they occur often in the authentic living (differentiating) and belonging (integrating) based in meaning and values. Within this sphere, conflicts become projections of our deepest desires and inadequacies. “If only you were more…” whether thought or spoken to our significant other, becomes a clue to something in our own sense of self that requires attention and introspection. And with time and effort (something one never sees in relationships on the screens), one can mature to the self-awareness of embracing the conflict as an opportunity to increase one’s depth as a person and partner.
Relationships are more than a basic need. They are crucial to development and broadening of our sense of self, others, and how the world works. Seen through this developmental lens, for better or worse are parts of the relationship process. With the vision of growth and a deepening connection in mind, the natural ups and downs within relationships each have value in the developmental process.
Christopher, J., Carson, W. & James, M. (1972) Always on my mind. (Recorded by Willie Nelson, 1982 on 45 RPM vinyl) Columbia Records.
Gibran, K. (1923). The Prophet, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. New York.
Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lennon, J. & McCartney P. (1966) We can work it out. On Yesterday and today (Vinyl album) Columbia Records.
McCartney, P. (1978) With a little luck. On Wings Greatest (Audio CD released 2018). Capital Records.
Panepinto, J.C. (2017). The Arc of a Meaningful Life: Developing a Life of Purpose, Fulfillment, and Integrity. DX Sport and Life, Inc.