Thank you for deepening our ongoing conversation by bringing in the work of Tatkin in your post last week. You are raising an important question: why are we in relationship?
I think it is extremely hard to ask this question from a place that transcends the sense of “I.” Someway, in some fashion or another, even when we extol the importance of the relationship, we still get tangled up in the sense of “so that I will feel this or that.” That is, even when I recognize I have to sacrifice my own desires sometimes because I live with another person and his or her needs are also important, and even when I couple this understanding with an appreciation that learning to sacrifice for another person makes me a better person, I’m still stuck with that notion of wanting to improve myself. It seems no matter what I do, even when I take one for the team, I’m doing it in some fashion or another because it makes me feel better, or I think it makes me better. It still remains, at one level or another, all about me.
I am a beginning student of Jewish mysticism and I have found some of the cosmology depicted to be a helpful context to use for this discussion: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:1-2). It doesn’t really matter whether you view this as mythology, fact, metaphor, or fairy tale. Theoretical physics describes a similar process via the Big Bang. Both explanations describe an initial unity (in the religious perspective: God) or “singularity” (in physics/Big Bang theory) which for reasons we don’t know chose to differentiate into an ever expanding and developing universe.
A few months ago I wrote about the creation of the first human as an androgynous whole in Genesis 1:27, later split into male and female. This depicts the same process of initial oneness which is then split with the goal of later reunification (“and they shall be as one flesh”). According to the Genesis narrative, these are two opposing forces which through their opposition help each other become greater wholes.
Many of us, when we hear the word “relationship,” tend to imagine a form of fusion: two people acting and thinking as one. I think “relationship,” at its best, describes how “I”, the individual, navigate my relationship to this overall unity, including the part of the unity who is my spouse. Am I seeking to develop myself as an end unto myself, or am I seeking to develop myself to make my best contribution to this unity?
The Jewish mystic sees the initial unity dividing into the many for purposes of reestablishing a higher unity. The missing ingredient for many of us, according to this perspective, is the all important end goal. If we think we are developing ourselves to be an end unto ourselves, we have created a false god fashioned out of our own ego. If we see that we are to develop our individuality in order to make a contribution to the overall whole, if we understand that letting the unity (and our spouses) impact us as we impact them, we are acting in accordance with a plan which is infinitely greater than our ego.
I would like to invite all who are reading these columns, generously giving of their time to comment, and reading the comments of others, to see these disparate views as part of a prism reflecting, refracting, expanding and ultimately focusing the light of our collective understanding.
Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at email@example.com.
Deborah Leeds, MFT, is a couples and individual therapist with offices in Pleasant Hill and Berkeley, CA. Visit her website at deborahleeds.com
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.