by Jonathan Eli Herrick, LCSW
For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.
From the beginning of love, through the passing of the years, five truths describe and explain the world of committed, intimate relationship. When everything else is stripped away from the confusion and stories surrounding the life of a couple, five truths remain.
These principles lead developmentally from one to the next. The first truth is that relationship, by its very nature, consists of struggle and suffering.
The second truth is that our fundamental fear and need are the cause of struggle and suffering in relationship. On the psychological or human level these underlie everything else: fear and need drive us; and fear and need drive relationship. The third truth is that all efforts to resolve struggle and suffering begin with awareness: awareness of our needs and fears and of how we interact in relationship. A key element of awareness is the development of emotional literacy: learning how to read our own feelings and mental processes. The fourth truth is that self-care, the compassionate tending of our own neediness and fearfulness, of our over-all vulnerability, is essential to genuine, healthy interaction. The final truth is that the ultimate capacity for deeply satisfying relationship is a seeming paradox: it is the capacity to manifest personal power in combination with genuine selflessness.
The third, fourth and fifth principles of love all point to the way out of struggle and suffering. Through greater awareness, self-care, and ultimately dynamic personal power and selflessness, we slowly move out of struggle and suffering into an unsurpasasable fulfillment and joy. Although it sometimes seems that we are making absolutely no headway in our couple relationship, the very commitment to successful relationship leads us, inch by inch, away from struggle towards personal power and selflessness. This is because no matter what other, more comfortable strategies we try, nothing else works. As a couple we are two creatures in a cosmic maze: we keep running down different pathways, such as the anger pathway, the blame pathway, the pathway of force, the avoidance pathway, the emotional bribery pathway, the shutting down pathway, the running away pathway, and the pathway of fantasizing another partner. But the only passageways that lead out of relationship suffering and struggle are the passageways of awareness, of self-care, and of personal power and selflessness.
The modern view of couples, derived in part from understanding computers, is that couples are a system or loop, where one partner’s condition directly affects the other’s: if one partner is depressed or having an affair it is not an isolated incident but relates to the other’s behavior or emotional configuration. Partners are not two islands but two points on a single circuit. One practical application is that a couple therapist can intervene with either partner to affect the couple as a whole, or intervene with the couple as a whole to heal one partner. However when couples attempt to fix themselves, each half generally tries to get the other to change, which only produces resistance. The reader is encouraged to see relationship as a single loop – but a loop where the most effective point of entry for change is yourself. Change yourself and you change your partner. This book helps understand how to do that.
The Heart of Relationship is divided into two parts. The first section, Five Ultimate Truths, explores the truths mentioned above; it includes anecdotes from my work with clients and some from my own marriage. The second section, Twenty-five Suggestions, is a series of very specific recommendations that take these truths into account. These suggestions incorporate every emotional tool wehave ever found useful in clearing my own way and in guiding others to clear their way through the vines and thickets of intimate partnership. Each suggestion concludes with an exercise or series of questions to consider. My hope is that this work illuminates the very difficult, very wonderful journey of loving partnership wherever, along the way, the reader may be.