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What’s the formula? Stay open and stay with it, and it works.
This is my formula for psychotherapy and relationships in general. It is simple but demanding. Being simple it means it is easy to understand and keep in your head as a reference. I find it specific enough and general enough to be useful. Let me explain each part and I think you’ll find it worth remembering.
1. Stay Open.
This means being open to the other person and ourselves.
Being open to the other person means making a genuine effort to understand ‘where they are coming from’. It means respecting them enough to listen – however much we disagree. Being open to the other person means persisting until we can feel why someone would see the world the way that they do.
Being open to ourselves means staying aware of our thoughts, feelings and judgements. If we can set these aside for a time this can be helpful. However, sometimes we can’t or don’t want to. The other person has made choices or has a lifestyle of which we disapprove, feel revulsion for or judge as unacceptable. In this case closing down this part of ourselves means withdrawing. We are no longer in relationship to the other person with all of us – and the relationship comes to an end at this point. We have also lost touch with the deepest parts of who we are: the relationship is impoverished. Instead we can let the other person know that we have problems: we don’t need to give the details – though we may want to – we can just say something like, “I want you to know that I have problems with doing that/that way of life/that choice you made”.
When we are willing to be open to ourselves as well as the other person, it may not be possible to be non-judgemental. Our option is to bring our judgements into the relationship. I don’t find this easy to do, but I have found that it can get easier and that I get better at doing it.
It’s probably worth saying that being open isn’t the same as insisting that everything is said or known. Intimacy is nourished by respecting secrets and privacy. The openness has more to do with the depth of feeling than the details of a particular experience.
2. Stay With It
“Stay With It” in some ways means the same as staying open. There are three reasons for making it a separate point.
1. To draw attention to time. A relationship or an intense conversation can be demanding and take time. Breaks can be important. Sometimes we get stuck and feel like we’re going round in circles. At this point there is probably nothing to lose and may be lots to gain by taking a break. It will at least mean that you return feeling better, and it may be that you get a fresh insight as well.
Sometimes we get tired – especially if the relationship is intense – and we tune out. We then realise that we have missed something. In my experience it has worked best to simply say that you wandered off and missed something. This may mean you need a break or that you need a change of subject.
2. To draw attention to process. Each conversation and relationship takes its own shape over time. We can ‘step back’ and look at this. This can be invaluable. Realising that, “We’ve had this conversation before (or 100 times before)” can be a very important insight. It can change the focus from the topic to the kind of relationship we are having.
3. To point out that sometimes people want to go where we don’t feel we can follow them. Some people have had truly awful experiences, and sometimes they want to talk about them. To stay with the person when they are talking about (or even re-living) these experiences is demanding. If we feel that we don’t have the energy, or that their issues might trigger past trauma of our own, I think it best to say that we simply can’t go there at the moment. They may be disappointed; but if we try to pretend and give half our attention to what they are talking about this will usually be experienced as trivialising and not caring (which will be far worse).
3. It Works
When we can stay open and stay with it our relationship deepens. This is true even when we disagree profoundly. The most striking example of this that I have heard of was from a social activist called Robert Theobald (who dies a number of years ago). He spoke of a group doing dialogue with members of pro-life and women’s right to choose groups. Needless to say the dialogues were intense. Part of the process that helped was for the participants to talk about how they came to the position that they currently held. During one of these dialogues a woman told her story of having had an abortion due to social pressure and deciding that she would never do that again. She had become a right to lifer. One of the women’s right to choose participants spoke up and said that that was exactly the reason she had become an advocate of a woman’s right to choose. This didn’t mean that these two women agreed, but they had deepened their relationship.
In my experience if we can stay open to ourself and the other person and stay with the relationship then our relationship deepens. Either in the short-term of one conversation or over the years of an enduring relationship.
Does this match your experience? Let me know whether it does or not in the comments.