I understand that I'm going against a lot of conventional ‘wisdom’ in focusing on the importance of the collective context for relationships, and pointing out that failure in relationship is often to do with a lack of adequate collectivity. So now I would like to address these conventional versions of wisdom, pointing out where I see the potential for a view of collectivity to move beyond the restrictions of convention.
I mentioned before the 3rd order perspective with its emphasis on traditional values and norms. Here, there will be an assumption that there is one ‘normal’ way of doing things, and here in particular there is an imaginary ‘rule book’ (which everyone is supposed to understand, even though it is not written down anywhere) and if you haven't learned the rules, or if you dare to break them, then it is not a surprise that you fall out of right relationship.
In this view, one function of the collective is to help reinforce these rules through social pressure. Anyone who transgresses is called out, rebuked, and ultimately disowned, outcast, isolated. Social death. But the collective is unlikely to be setting itself up as the source of authority here. It's more likely to be a leader figure, a founder figure, or perhaps an actual book, authored by generations of leaders who buy into the same story, and that authority gives the definitive answers.
If we talk about the kind of general social norms that we experience today, they are so different now to a couple of generations ago, but no authority has approved these changes: they have just evolved. This is different in some closed communities, who maintain their own authoritarian social norms, expelling those who choose to live outside these norms. I think of Hutterites, with a fascinating history, now mainly in Canada. How many people, I wonder, who were brought up outside that community, would choose to live in it, if they were given the opportunity? I doubt there would be many. Quite apart from anything else, collectives based on central authority often dictate who is allowed to relate to who else. While most often this is restrictive, I have been aware of a couple of collectives where it is the other way round, that everyone is expected to relate to everyone else! Either way, I don't see people these days accepting the kind of collectivity where the collective is in awe of, or under the control of, some authoritarian figure who dictates the norms for relating.
There seems to be a curious irony here, too. If you ‘play by the rules’, you should be able not only to love anyone, but also to have a good long-term relationship with anyone. (More about this in the next approach.) Can we, then, leave behind the unattractive elements of this view, while keeping the aspects and characteristics that many people admire, or even envy, of this rather old kind of collectivism? Can we see the thread of collectivism that is present in the old, and from which we can weave a richer fabric of the new?
At the root of the modern world view is the idea that individuals are the authors of their own identities, and they are not trapped by tradition. We are all responsible for our own fate, as well as our own feelings, and we do this at least partly by deciding how we will live our own lives.
This is no longer simply a case of not conforming to social norms. In this worldview, we are expected to question norms. So what then could be the cause of not being in right relationship? No one would immediately think that it was a lack of collectivity, because all the emphasis is on individuality.
This idea that you're simply not relating to the right person seems to me to fit in well with this world view. Both of the relating people can be ‘doing their own thing’, being self-authoring; and if that is the case it doesn't seem surprising that people can either fit in with each other or not. This is in contrast to the earlier view that there is only one set of social norms to fit into.
Matchmaking for romantic relationships goes along with this, even though it seems rather confusing at times. One common approach of dating sites is to fill in detailed questionnaires, which can then form the basis for an evaluation of compatibility, and thus recommendations about who you could try relating to. The strange thing is that you may also be asked what kind of person you would like to relate to. (And this isn't limited to romantic relationships.) The assumption is that you not only know, but can specify, the kind of people who will be compatible with you, and satisfy your needs. What about their preferences, though? You may be able to find ‘the right person’ based on what you think you want, but are you the right person for them? Taking the question of matchmaking further would be to touch on the system of CHOICE concept, so I'll leave that there for the moment.
The difficulties with this approach seem multiple.
We dealt a little with some of these issues before, when going over adult development. But more generally, it seems to me that one of the big misconceptions of our age that we actually know what is good for us, and can choose appropriately. It's not difficult to see influences in that direction, from our consumerist, unequal, competitive, status-oriented society. Some dating services, and much spam email that I have seen too much of, play into this same absurd egotism – that there are real people out there who are ready and willing to fill whatever fantasy roles you have in your dreams.
How might we stay with the general idea that you might have the wrong person, while not falling into these cultural traps? We could imagine a very wise matchmaker, who can see into people's hearts, and has the wisdom to choose well. This would be the best possible kind of arranged marriage. I strongly suspect, though, that the age of personal matchmakers has passed, partly because of the same issues raised earlier, around the increased complexity of our society as a whole, and the individuals in our society. So, again, the only real hope of good matchmaking would be to have a collective act as the matchmaker. That collective would need to have sufficient internal closeness to develop their collective powers of wisdom, and also they would need to know the potential partners very well. It reminds me also of the saying by the recently deceased Thich Nhat Hanh, who authored the saying The next Buddha will be a Sangha. Let's return to this later.
This view strikes me as the most potentially misleading, because (ironically) it has plenty of truth in it. It is abundantly clear to those who have studied relationships that adverse childhood experiences often lock people into trying to find people who remind them of unsatisfactory roles (typically parents), while never being able to resolve the underlying issues. ‘Developmental trauma’ is a term sometimes used for the kind of formative experiences which lead to this. And it is clearly true that relationships that are patterned in this way are very unlikely to be both happy and lasting. So it is indeed a good idea to resolve these hidden patterns of trauma before getting enmeshed in relationships, and this goes for relating both as couples and elsewhere. For instance, people who have unresolved childhood issues with authority will typically fare badly in authoritarian structures, even while they are drawn into them, with the misguided idea that they will be able to transform the way that authority is exercised.
If it's a good idea to resolve these trauma-related patterns, how does one go about it? And here come the real challenges. If it were easy, how come that, however old you are, it is easy to find people you know who have not escaped from such patterns? So-called marriage guidance, and couple counselling, easily become little more than forums for attempts to minimise collateral damage while helping couples to separate. Why? Because such healing is very, very challenging. And if it is challenging for trained and experienced counsellors, how much less likely it is for people to heal themselves by taking some course, learning some new skill, or reading self-help books.
I suspect that the best chance of this kind of healing will come through a close-knit, trusting collective, whether it is towards individual healing, where the individual would ideally be embedded in the collective, or where it is relationship healing for two people, also where the relating parties are at least well-known in the collective. I can't see any other way that the wisdom of the collective can effectively be brought to bear on this kind of issue.
It may be worth reflecting on stories of people healing by themselves, or couples who have problems coming back together, apparently without external help. In such stories as I have heard, there is often a history of, for example, prayer within a faith community. Whatever your view of the efficacy of prayer, what there probably is in these cases are many small nudges, small interventions, which separately may seem insignificant, but may themselves be guided by collective wisdom. The interventions may be so much ‘under the radar’ that they don't look as if they have contributed much.
But who knows what they may achieve together?