1997. Fall. Just looking for a little down time, I stroll alone into a small arthouse movie theater in the Castro district of San Francisco. I’m not intent on seeing a specific film and select a documentary called Waco: The Rules of Engagement (probably due to a convenient start time). Roughly two hours later, I leave the theater literally sobbing, my heart feeling violently cleaved in two by what I could only describe later as a loss of innocence. For the first time in my life, I became genuinely suicidal, my mind swimming with a furious tempest of questions and doubts and frustrations, uncertain whether I could foresee myself willingly participating in a society so cruel, so senseless, so (for lack of a better word) evil.
Relationships are the stuff of life. Quite literally, nothing in the universe exists that isn’t in a relationship to a whole bunch of other stuff, not to mention (indirectly) everything else in existence too. Of course, we homo sapiens, when we discuss relationships, we’re usually referring to the face-to-face, human-to-human variety, which are by far the most complicated of them all. In this article, I’ll explain what makes our interpersonal interactions just so mischievously difficult, and what to do about all those threesomes in which we keep unwittingly finding ourselves.
People can be real jerks. They can be rude, condescending, insulting. They can be greedy, selfish, egotistical. They can be stubborn, narrow-minded, hard-headed, and sometimes just plain mean. You probably know a few people like this, people you avoid as much as possible, those sundry unpleasant sorts you’ve come to regard as, well, assholes. Chances are you’re not even the only one who thinks of these particular individuals in this way. A lot of folks likely consider them assholes too, probably for the exact same reasons you do. Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely if such people didn’t exist? Wouldn’t it be simply stupendous if the world we live in was suddenly completely free of assholes?
Manipulation gets a bad rap. In The Two Truths About Love: The Art & Wisdom of Extraordinary Relationships, as well as in my counseling sessions with clients, I explain how each and every one of us has 99% control of every relationship. Upon occasion, a client will remark, “Oh, but I don’t want to be thought of as controlling.” What a travesty! Such a person has yet to awaken to the limitless rewards that come from being manipulative. My goal, as a therapist, is to help people realize the essential role that skillful manipulation plays in our pursuit of success and happiness.
One of my fondest memories is from one night in Thailand. I was alone at a café on the banks of the Mekhong River, looking across into Laos on the other side. The weather was perfectly clear where I sat but, over in Laos, a storm was moving slowly along the river’s edge. Peacefully, I watched the storm safely from afar, the moon overhead in an otherwise vacant sky. While I sat comfortably sipping my coffee, I marveled at the storm’s hundreds of lightning strikes as it crept, like a mythical goliath, across the far off shore. It was a truly beautiful hour of my life.
Of the many people you know—family, friends, co-workers or classmates, neighbors, the locals at your favorite restaurant or bar or café, the people who work at your most frequented stores, and everyone else who has crossed your path at one time or another—each has their own perspective about who and how you are. You have, whether you like it or not, a reputation.
When people tell me that they no longer have a relationship with someone, I know this is untrue. No matter how great the gap that divides two people, no matter how vitriolic or rare their interactions, even if these interactions are basically non-existent, the truth is that the relationship persists. It may not be a great relationship or be particularly rewarding for either member, but it continues to be there, if only barely, nonetheless.