I don’t often write about this sort of stuff, but there are no hard and fast rules for this blog so this is about relationships. A lot of my thinking lately has been about the whole process of letting go. Letting go is not about abandonment, nor is it about detachment, it’s simply about connectedness without attachment to outcomes.
My old friend Servan wrote a great blog piece a few months back about what he calls ‘the breath’ of relationships. Servan is one of the most thoughtful people I know and straddles both technological and philosophical spheres in a way that few people do. I don’t think he’s always right but that’s fine. No one ever is. The point is to think.
For some people the point of thinking is to reach a conclusion. (I was recently encouraged to look properly at the Myers Briggs tests for the first time and was intrigued by the split between Perceiving and Judging – between those who like to arrive at a more definite conclusion (judging) and those (like me) who feel that there is no end point. For me things are constantly under review. I proceed on the best available information and accommodate the possibility that my conclusion may need to be revised. I reckon the point is never to stop thinking, nor assessing, though that’s not intended as an excuse not to make a decision
But I digress. Servan’s thoughts are good and I suggest you read what he’s written for yourselves because my interpretation of what he says may not be exactly what he intends.
However if I were to summarise them I reckon his thoughts run along the following lines:
What he calls the breath of a relationship is akin to a cycle of birth, growth, plateau, decline and death, but rather than focusing on the big cycle – the beginning, middle and end of relationships in the macro sense – he sees birth, consolidation and death sub-cycles within the life of the relationship. Unless these are allowed to play themselves out it can kill off the relationship proper.
What he calls the birth phase I think of as essentially a phase involving growth through exploration. It’s the first phase of most new relationships. During this period we experience;
“the fresh and exciting ‘shared’ discovery of new territory through reflection. (By reflection I mean seeing new/deeper aspects of oneself through experience with another who communicates it in some way, often non verbally).”
So yes we are discovering new things about another person but we are also discovering new things about ourselves. This is one of the most exciting aspects of a new relationship; the possibilities it offers for personal development.
For instance it often prompts us to re-examine our own beliefs, tastes and ways of being and behaving. We might well adopt some of our lover’s beliefs, tastes and ways. It could be as small a thing as liking a turn of phrase they use, or perhaps we discover new writers, music, movie directors and TV shows, take up a new hobby, visit new places. We can get a fresh perspective on the familiar leading us to appreciate some things more and jettison others as outmoded and redundant.
Quite often we learn from our lover’s habits and behaviour in areas where we feel a lack; so a disorganised person might try to pattern their behaviour on their mate’s organisational skills or someone who feels awkward socially might enjoy evenings in the thick of things with a mate who is socially outgoing and confident and who breaks the ice for them.
We don’t necessarily go for opposites. Indeed we often like the company of people with similar world views or primary modes of interaction. But thereafter we may well seek out people who complement or even, for those who feel a strong lack, ‘complete’ us (though getting too hung up on the notion that we are incomplete of ourselves is very problematic of itself).
This initial phase can be quite intense. It’s very exciting. Sometimes we can get so absorbed in this voyage of discovery that we don’t want it to end so we postpone moving to the consolidation phase, soometimes indefinitely. We perhaps fear that consolidation will turn an exciting, stimulating, freeform relationship into something mundane and humdrum. And if one cannot embrace the cycle of birth, consolidation, death and rebirth it can indeed become stale.
Then again some people don’t wholly give themselves over to this growth and exploration phase. One never knows where it might lead. There’s the risk that in the process of discovering one might turn up something one doesn’t want to find; something that acts as a dealbreaker, something that casts the hitherto shiny and near perfect relationship in a new light that is not only imperfect but unsustainable.
So there can be a temptation (often born out of fear or the suppressed realisation that there is indeed a problem) not to look to hard nor to explore too much but to rush forward into the consolidation phase where we settle down and find our groove. And if something unwanted pops up its ugly little head it’s just swept away, out of sight. It’s at this point that people can make premature commitments and promises, start to plan, dream and become attached to outcomes out of a desire to stabilise a situation, at best, whose very joy comes from its unpredictability or, at worst, is inherently unsustainable.
However at some point it’s natural to move forward to consolidation (the emphasis being on finding the point that is natural) – there’s a lull in the discovery, you know one another, you’re ready to explore a new mode of being together, one involving togetherness and mutual support. This period often involves planning. It’s as though ‘we know who we are now so we can start thinking long term’. This is where we set up routines or even set up home together.
However we should be mindful of the fact that commitments and promises are often influenced by social norms. People ask themselves what it is they’re supposed to offer to demonstrate their commitment; it could be a home or financial support. It’s very often fidelity. Indeed fidelity is often demanded as a sign of commitment. For some people they look for even tighter ways to bind themselves to another; marriage or babies. The former is dissolvable, the latter forever ties two people together and even complete absence never breaks that bond. And, yes, there’s often a lot of planning involved. All of this feeds hopes, dreams and expectations.
Now there’s nothing wrong with any of these however fear of losing the relationship often leads people to commit to things they don’t truly want and that in turn leads to dishonesty. In deceiving the other person it allows them to develop hopes, dreams and expectations and that gives them something to lose. Sometimes people won’t admit to their hopes and dreams and expectations. Perhaps they fear their lover won’t share them. Perhaps they sense that the relationship won’t see those fulfilled. So they commit to something else because commitment to something seems better that commitment to nothing. Again a lack of honesty simply prevents the reality of the situation being addressed.
Moreover two people, neither of whom want all of the things they’ve offered and have started to plan around, can often find themselves putting them on the table as a token of commitment and they’re often accepted by the other out of a fear of not appearing committed enough. Thus two people who would be happy without all these promises, plans and commitments, and through fear and lack of honesty, are unwilling to come clean. They manage to entangle themselves in ways neither wants. And now, having something to lose, the focus can shift from the enjoyment of what is to the fear of what might cease to be.
Then we get to the death phase. We’re often very hung up on the death phase because we can’t see past it. Yet it’s because we can’t see past it that it should be embraced because there is often something better on the other side. I’m going to quote Serv here because I like what he says;
“How many drama addictions in relationships are really just about this avoidance [of the possibility of a relationship’s ending], creating an energy dynamic to try and feel more alive, while death is creeping in all the time? If one or both of you are brave enough to consolidate consciously and not avoid the natural time for an ending, then death will come, and it can come strong and unpredictably. This death can be the most transformative and rejuvenating time for a relationship if you make it through, but to make it through you both need to be able to be present with the possibility of a real ending of the whole thing.”
This is what Servan calls ‘the letgo’. For me letting go means the acceptance of the fact that all those hopes, dreams, plans and expectations, and all the modes of being that you and a.n.other have developed for convenience and mutual sustenance could be swept away.
Your plans for a holiday next year; your house you’ve bought together; the fact you take it in turns to cook, clean, shop; your dreams of (or reality of) a child and their need for parenting – all these stand to be transformed or obliterated because the relationship dies. And yet fear of facing up to this possibility prevents us from looking at our relationship(s) properly and that in turn prevents us from addressing its needs.
So people get stuck in the consolidation phase where planning and stability and routine take precedence over growth and development. And yet people continue to grow and develop. But if the framework in which they exist doesn’t change to accommodate that growth and development then, at some point, they find it no longer fits. Thus by clinging too tightly to plans and dreams and promises, and through fear of facing the possibility of an ending to that relationship, we effectively kill it off through avoiding reality and the changes that new reality demands.
For me letting go is partly making peace with the possibility that the fixed points in one’s life and relationships may all dissolve. It’s also acceptance of the fact that hopes, dreams and expectations are all means by which we are seduced into living in the future rather than in the present. The future is illusory until it becomes the present. The present is real.
So by refusing to cling too tight, by accepting that life makes us no promises, we can get enough distance from our circumstances to let our relationships die. That can bring us to an ending.
If the relationship really had run its course then allowing it to die creates the space for new relationships to form and for new personal growth.
If the relationship is fundamentally good (or at least the positives heavily outweigh the negatives) it brings us back, full circle, to the point where we were at the beginning where we encounter that hugely significant someone afresh and so we can be reborn as a couple (or more). Then when the new cycle progresses to consolidation that consolidation is around two people as they are now, not as they were back then, and so when the death phase comes again it can hopefully be navigated once more to bring us once again to rebirth.
Thus rather than there being a single beginning, middle and end to the story of a relationship it can have an extended or even continuous cycle of birth, consolidation, death and rebirth each time accommodating the ‘new’ people within that relationship.
Of course when you’re bound together by economic circumstance and the need to survive this can become very difficult. But putting off change doesn’t make it any less inevitable, only more destructive.
I should add I don’t pretend to have mastered this but I can see how important it is. It forces us to confront reality – reality as it is rather than as we want it to be. And dealing with real life means we’re able to make real rather than false choices – and that can’t be bad. Letting go of extraneous hopes, dreams and fantasies can allow us to enjoy more fully what actually is – and right now what actually is is pretty damned amazing.