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.
When we were young, we asked permission quite often. Can I watch another TV show? Can I be excused? Can I spend the night at Bobby’s house? Can I borrow the car? When we had parents or caregivers lording over our choices and freedom, asking permission made perfect sense. Since childhood, you’ve probably been taught that asking permission was the polite, courteous and appropriate thing to do. After all, it seemed a whole lot more considerate–and ultimately less complicated–than sneaking out of the house or stealing the family car without asking.
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.
Many clients have been talking to me recently about their feelings of loneliness. Of course, this isn’t particularly uncommon. The desire for interpersonal connection, intimacy, and companionship are an intrinsic part of what it means to be human. Indeed, no one enjoys feeling lonely. Consequently, the question of how to transform feelings of loneliness is certainly an important one, which is why I decided to give this topic some extra attention lately.
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.
Imagine that you are about to embark on a long-distance, solo motorcycle ride across the Mojave desert. The trip is bound to be grueling and, if you know anything about motorcycles, you can be certain that your vehicle is going to break down, probably multiple times, during your journey. Since you’re going on this adventure alone, not knowing how to make repairs along the way would put you in serious peril. In fact, you’d be wise to cancel the trip entirely. However, if you are skilled in the art of motorcycle maintenance, then no problem! You can fearlessly set forth without reservation. When dilemmas and challenges arise, you’ll know just what to do to get yourself back up and running.
The issue of boundaries has long been a hot topic in the field of interpersonal psychology and, over the course of the past several decades, much has been written about this important subject. Questions about how to understand and define one’s personal limitations and to communicate these effectively to others so that these are respected and honored are valuable ones to answer. As such, the idea I am going to share in this article is not intended to completely contradict or undermine notions of “healthy boundaries”, but rather to develop this concept one step farther—toward the place where even “healthy boundaries” can be replaced with something, well, even more extraordinary.
All we do is fight—Our communication skills stink—We’ve stopped thinking about us—We can’t seem to get along—We don’t agree about anything—We’re just mean to each other—We’ve grown apart—We’re at an impasse—We need help.
I hear pronouncements like these frequently when couples first come to see me for counseling. Since both individuals are experiencing the same (or similar) strains in the relationship, it is natural for couples to perceive the “problem” as something that is “ours”, a “we-issue”. Whenever I hear partners speak of their relationship in this way—in terms of we—I learn precisely where to first direct my attention: on helping each person begin to think less in terms of “we” and more in terms of “me”. If this sounds selfish, callous or somehow unromantic, please let me explain.
Imagine that you have this great idea for a party. You plan the most resplendent décor and exquisite cuisine, lavish flower arrangements, and only the best in lighting and live music. You’ve diligently prepared every detail. Unfortunately, your party isn’t going to be much fun if you skip one essential step: sending out your invitations.