Table of Contents
2. Why is right relationship so hard?
What do I mean by ‘right relationship’? Well, I'm not implying that any relationship is ‘wrong’. It's more like the way that the poet T. S. Eliot used the word ‘right’ in Little Gidding:
[…] And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
I guess a poet-musician could write something similar about notes in place of words. But if you put ‘person’ in place of ‘word’ or ‘note’, it's surprisingly close to what I am meaning by right relationship between people. After all, arts of all kinds can be very soulful.
I could write ‘good relationship’ in place of ‘right relationship’ but that is too vague: I don't just mean relationships that feel good in the moment. Or I could use terms like ‘co-creative’ or ‘generative’, but those have more meaning in particular circles, and I want to aim broader than that.
In my last piece I sketched how several of my relationships were not ‘right’, in this kind of sense. Now I want to look at this from two perspectives that could be called ‘theoretical’: the perspective of complexity theory; and the adult development models of Robert Kegan. Kegan's ideas are not unique, but I find his approach makes most sense to me.
Complexity in relationships
I was in a circle very recently where it was pointed out that humans are extremely complex, and therefore any one human is beyond the capacity of any other to understand fully. And I fully agree with that, adding that I am beyond my own capacity to understand fully. That goes along with similar ideas, such as Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety. How could a system possibly fully understand a system of the same complexity as itself? Instead, we all work on the whatever simplified models we have of others. Some models that people work with are very crude, behaviourist even; while other models are more sophisticated. But none could possibly model everything in another person.
If a system of equal complexity cannot fully understand another, then what could? The obvious answer is a system with greater complexity. And what could that be? Well, maybe also obviously, I'm going to say ‘a collective’, but what do I mean by that? The literature on collective intelligence hints at the way in which decisions made collectively can be better than those by individuals, but says little about how to arrange a collective to allow this improvement. It seems to me that, when a group is communicating well, when the people are (as Ria puts it in her book) ‘truly present together’, things emerge, as we tend to say, ‘from the middle’. The word ‘emerge’ links to the phrase ‘emergent properties’: what only appears when the pieces are joined together, not when they are analysed apart in a reductive manner.
In Collective Presencing, what I imagine as happening is that people are getting beyond ordinary, rational, verbal communication and somehow (I haven't seen it explained well anywhere) tapping into communication channels that convey far more than the bare words. It is this – a group of people in that kind of connection – that seems to me to constitute a system of greater complexity and variety than an individual.
I've seen something that I feel reflects that in Dominic Barter's ‘Restorative Circles’, which are largely based around reflective listening and NVC. One person speaks while the others in the circle listen. After that person finishes, all around the circle speak what they heard the first person saying. I found it amazing that while one person's reflection rarely catches all the vital points, the combination of what everyone picked up is often very full. It's like: the circle as a whole hears you very well, even if no individual hears you fully. That level of being heard often has a huge positive impact on people.
Adult development and Kegan's orders of consciousness
One angle on this, which I find very perceptive and helpful, is from Robert Kegan, particularly in his book “In Over Our Heads”. He outlines five ‘orders of consciousness’, though the first two appear mainly in childhood, and his analysis is loosely based on systems and complexity. His ‘third order’ refers to the traditionalist world, where individual behaviour is socialised – regulated by social or cultural norms. His ‘fourth order’, suitable to the ‘modern’ world, brings self-authorship. His ‘fifth order’ relates to the post-modern world, extending to what others have called ‘metamodernism’, and Kegan calls it ‘reconstructive’ postmodernism, to distinguish it from the intermediate phase of deconstructive postmodernism.
I have my own version of an analysis of how personal relationships, particularly couple relationships, work at these different orders.
If people conform to widely accepted social norms, their behaviour becomes predictable. When one person can reliably infer that another person's actions are to be interpreted in the way that is normal in their shared culture or sub-culture, then ‘right relationship’ consists in living up to the cultural norms and expectations. A good marriage, as traditionally imagined, is entirely possible in these circumstances. If a relationship had difficulties, it would be seen as one or other partner not ‘doing their duty’, or not doing the right thing, or behaving improperly.
In this order of consciousness, people are self-authoring: they are choosing which norms to adopt and which to reject, and thus creating a personal story that does not necessarily fit in with other stories. They are at least choosing, if not actually making, their own meanings in and of life.
It seems to me that partnership in this consciousness is by nature unstable. If you happen to fit into my self-authored story, then fine, you can stay around. But if my story changes, and you no longer fit – or if your story changes and you no longer fit into mine, or I do not fit into yours – then the partnership seems bound to end.
In self-authoring their lives, people in this situation remove the simplicity of accepted norms, and thus in effect add complexity to the lives of others, even as they may choose to simplify their own. One can imagine stable long-term relationships mainly in terms of one person subjecting their life and will to another, or living through the other. These days, many people regard that as unhealthy, as it seems to prevent the development of that person's authenticity. I don't know if this is always true, but certainly this arrangement has a lot of danger.
Others have observed happy long-term relationships where both partners seem to be mutually adjusting to the other, perhaps still within the frame of 4th order consciousness. I find it hard to know whether this is still self-authored or not, and whether there really is an equality of control and self-authorship, or whether there just appears to be equality. Could this be a case where they are both being supported and nudged by mutual friends? To me, that would be really interesting, even if not purely 4th order self-authorship.
Kegan's 5th order of consciousness is characterised as self-transcendent, where people's identities become more fluid. Instead of defining oneself purely in self-authored terms, each individual can also see the characteristics of others as latent, undeveloped or repressed aspects of themselves. I no longer define myself in opposition to what I am not, but rather as living one particular potential among many other valid ones. One's full potential, one's full complexity, is seen not as embodying everything, but as playing one's own part in a greater whole. Personal pride (or ‘hubris’) may lead us to imagine that our full potential embodies everything, but this seems obviously unrealistic to me. Our imagination can potentially embody everything, though even that is hard, but in terms of living, even our fullest potential can only be partial, only one role in the bigger picture.
I see two ways in which this relates to relating. First, a close-knit trusting collective would seem to be a great way to expose oneself to the identities of other individuals, and through dialogue, to practice the fluidity of seeing oneself in the other, and developing towards one's full complexity. Individuals can mutually encourage each other to become more fluid. If this can be transferred to pair relationships, then there is the promise of being able to take different roles at different times, both to be many of the characters that contribute to the other's development, and to recognise the fluidity of the other as needing other others sometimes. One no longer has a need to understand the other completely, instead recognising that some aspects of the other will only be understood through others, and that for the other to find a sense of that full understanding, it needs a close-knit, trusting collective, not just oneself.
The second way I see towards this development is through each one of a pair being supported by others in a close-knit group to understand what is happening between the pair. Why am I with this person now? What is our developmental agenda? Why was I drawn to this person, in terms of my own past patterns, pleasant or unpleasant? It is this kind of insight that seems to me part of the move to 5th order. It is often in couple relationships that the most sticky issues emerge, issues that don't disrupt less close relationships enough to require change.
Bringing this together
These ‘theoretical’ considerations make sense of my observation that relationships, beyond 3rd-order ‘normality’, are more possible, and will thrive much better, in the context of a close-knit, trusting collective.
I want to continue, next, with looking at some pointers towards that kind of collective.