What do we do when our relationship
with someone quits working? If that
someone is close to us or important to us, we cannot very well just forget
about it, ignore him, or pretend there is no problem. Teenagers cannot completely avoid their
parents; parents cannot just ignore their children. Husbands and wives cannot simply avoid all
contact with each other. Neighbors and
co-workers probably cannot cut off all communication. Bad relationships cannot be avoided or ignored
in the hope that they will just go away by themselves. Willingly or unwillingly, we have to deal
with the problem in some way. There are,
of course, many styles or patterns of coping with severely conflicted relationships. Some people deal with the problem by
yelling. They are experiencing intense
and uncomfortable feelings, and they try to force other people into compliance,
giving in, changing their behavior, feeling differently, or otherwise acting
like they want them to. If you would
just straighten up, act your age, not be so unreasonable, behave differently,
love me, forget about the past, be more optimistic, not always be nagging, come
home earlier, and so on; if you would just change, our relationship would be
okay. The yellers attempt to have their
way by throwing temper tantrums, threatening, accusing, or otherwise badgering
the other individual into changing.
Other people deal with unhappy
relationships by falling into the role of the pouter or stiff upper
lipper. Since things are not going the
way they want them to go, they withdraw, refuse to communicate, are unhappy,
make everyone else miserable, refuse to interact, and are usually pouting
like small children. They feel that they
have been abused, taken advantage of, and that their feelings are not being
recognized or responded to. If things do
not work out after a while, they stop pouting and take a stiff-upper-lip
attitude toward the problem. They will
go through the motions but no longer be involved in the relationship. They will fulfill their responsibilities and
carry out their duties. They will behave
as if everything is fine but will remain emotionally detached from the
relationship. In extreme situations,
they will play the role of the martyr and feel that they are making a great
sacrifice for the sake of the relationship.
In other situations, individuals may decide to terminate the
relationship through divorce, suicide, running away, firing a good employee,
quitting a good job, moving away, and so on.
Other people simply attempt to avoid bad relationships by going out of
their way to keep from seeing their former friends. Couples continue to live together but go
their separate ways. Parents just give
up on children and let them have their own way, and so on. The yellers, pouters, stiff upper lippers,
and quitters are all, in their own ways, trying to deal with severely disturbed
Perhaps as common as these coping
styles are efforts to unwind, unravel, and figure out relationships that are
approaching the point of no return.
Parents having difficulties with teenage children will attempt to
understand how the problem got started when the children were little. They will go over incidents, events, and
episodes they feel contributed to the present difficulty. Similarly, couples will look over the years
of their marriages trying to find out just where things went wrong. This usually does lead to some level of
understanding with the resulting belief that, if we had it to do over again,
we would do things quite differently.
Then things would be better now.
The people in the relationship focus on what went wrong and agree to
avoid that specific problem in the future.
Things go fairly well for a while, but then the relationship begins to
deteriorate again. Either the same
problems occur or new problems come up.
Their efforts to repair or fix their relationship have not been very
successful. Sometimes, of course, this
fixing or repairing process is effective.
In severely conflicted or extremely deteriorated relationships, however,
a small adjustment, a quick repair job, a little fixing is usually
unsuccessful. It is a little bit like
cooking stew. Sometimes the stew may
need a little more salt or a little stir.
That works quite nicely when the stew had few problems to begin with. Really bad relationships, though, are like
stews made with the wrong ingredients or burned in the process of cooking. A little fixing or a few quick repairs will
not help very much.
The reality is that bad
relationships, especially when they are close or important relationships,
cannot be fixed. They are
nonrepairable. This is particularly true
of relationships between parents and children, close friends, and husbands and
wives. Recall the way relationships
develop. First, consider two people who
do not know each other. What kinds of
things must happen to move them from where they do not know each other to where
they have a close relationship? The
development of a relationship is a complicated and complex process involving
many things. As a foundation or first
step, individuals must recognize and remember each other. Of the people you have met, how many of their
names do you remember? How many would
you recognize if you saw them today?
Next, how many would recognize and remember you? Thus, people need at least to recognize and
remember you? Thus, people need at least
to recognize and remember each other before they can develop a close and
important relationship. This point of recognizing
and remembering each other can be thought of as point one. From point one, hundreds and thousands of
little points must be reached if the relationship is to develop and grow. At each of those points, certain ideas,
thoughts, feelings, beliefs, perceptions, notions, attitudes, assumptions get
into the relationship. These may be
thought of as small elements or bits that go to make up the relationship. Children learn about their parents past
lives, their personalities, what is acceptable and not acceptable in a
relationship, and parents learn about an equally wide variety of things about
their children. Friends first meet,
recognize, and remember each other and then go through a continuing process of
adding little bits to their relationship.
The same kind of process goes on between employers and employees,
co-workers, neighbors, relatives, and so on through the whole range of
significant and important relationships.
Relationships come from a growing/developing process that progresses bit
In relationships between parents
and children an important point is relatively easy to see. Just as little bits are continually being
added to the relationship, both parents and children are growing and
becoming. If we see that along with the
process of adding bits to the relationship both people are growing and
becoming, we can see that some bits are always being dropped out or omitted
from the relationship. As a simple example,
when Lee was a baby, his mother had a bit in their relationship saying that
Lee is unable to walk and needs to be carried.
As part of their relationship, then, his mother carried Lee when they
needed to go somewhere. As he got older,
however, the Lee-needs-to-be-carried bit was dropped, and his mother no
longer carried him. When Lee was three,
he had a bit in his relationship with his mother that said she would help him
pick up his toys. He wanted to keep that
bit in their relationship, but by the time he was five, his mother had dropped
that bit and had put in a bit saying that Lee was old enough to pick up his own
toys. When Lee was five, he thought Dad
could make anything work out and fix everything. Over time, however, Lees relationship with
his dad changed, and Lee replaced the old bit with a new one that said that Dad
has limitations, too. As Mom and Dad
watched Lee grow, however, they were also growing and changing. Just as in their relationship with Lee they
were always adding and tossing out bits, in their relationship with each other
the same kind of process was taking place.
As a matter fact, it is not
difficult to make the generalization that any close and important relationship
is always changing and growing. People
say, Things arent like they used to be between us. You say, Thats normal and healthy. If things were the same as they used to be,
that would mean that your relationship has stagnated and is not a viable,
living thing. To borrow a term from the
palm readers, this growing, developing, maturing becoming, living process
within relationships can be thought of as a relationships lifeline. It moves, sometimes evenly, sometimes
unevenly, but it keeps moving. If it
stops, the relationship is, for all purposes, dead. The people may continue living together, they
may continue interacting from time to time, they may continue going through the
motions. The vital, living relationship
is, however, gone.
As we continue our focus on the
fact that severely deteriorated relationships are nonrepairable, think about
the fact that the two individuals in the relationship are also growing and
becoming. They each have a lifeline of
their own. The notion of a meaningful
relationship is becoming more complex.
The relationship has its lifeline, and equally important, both
individuals have their separate lifelines.
Their lives touch each others; they are concerned with and are about
each other; they are involved in an ongoing relationship. Nevertheless, the two individuals are also in
pursuit of their own lives.
Both people are continually
involved with and care about the lifeline of their relationship. At the same time, their humanness and
inherent nature press them toward the pursuit of their lifelines. As this life process continues, the
individuals have started at point onethey have recognized and remembered
each other. From that point on, they
continue adding and dropping bits into and out of their relationship. Perhaps most of the bits they added and
dropped were the same, and were added and dropped at the same time. Inevitably, however, some bits were
different, and the timing was not always the same. Both individuals put in and took out some
bits different from those put in and taken out by the other person. The result is that the relationship is not made
of the same bits for both people. They
do not both have exactly the same feelings, ideas, notions, perceptions,
attitudes, likes, dislikes, disappointments, and so on, in reference to their
relationship. This process of adding and
dropping bits may be thought of as the building process.
Just as the relationship has its
building processthe adding and dropping of bits over a period of timeeach
individual has his or her own personal building process. They have specific notions about themselves:
attitudes, beliefs, feelings, prejudices, biases; thoughts about how their
future will be; expectations for themselves; interests, likes, and dislikes;
and so on. As the two individuals grow
and become, they have their individual process of deciding who they are, who
they want to be, how they ought to be, why they are, and so on. They are separate and distinct
individuals. Just as they each have
their own life process and their relationship has its life process, they each
have their own building process and their relationship has it building process.
The nearly incomprehensible
complexity of relationships does not stop here, however. In the discussion of crisis communication, it
was seen that messages within crisis communication have both content and
feeling associated with them. Bits
within close and important relationships have a similar quality. Each bit has a meaning and value associated
with it. A husband may have a bit in his
relationship with his wife saying that she is a fair housekeeper. So long as the house does not get into too much
of a mess, he may not place very much value on neat and tidy houses. His bit about her housekeeping, then, also
has a value that says her being a fair housekeeper is fine with him. She may have a bit that says he is too
serious and has a poor sense of humor.
She may place a very high value on a good sense of humor and thus feels
bad about his being too serious.
The examples could be continued to
include any bit in the relationship. The
point is, though, that every bit in the relationship has both a meaning and a
value attached to it. Parents and
children may both have a bit in their relationship that says school is
necessary. The parents may place a very
high value on school, while the children may see it as less important. This value difference is then a source of
conflict in their relationship. They
agree that it is important. The
disagreement is in terms of how important.
A mother and her teenage daughter may both agree that the daughters
room should be clean. They may have
considerable disagreement, however, over the meaning of clean. The mother thinks that clean means that
everything should be put away and in its place.
The daughter feels that clean means that the dust should be wiped off
enough so that she cannot write her name on the top of her dresser. In any relationship, the meaning and value
place on the bits in that relationship are a potential source of conflict.
In addition to the meaning/valuing
process within the relationship, both individuals have their own persona meaning/valuing
process. They have their own sense of
should and shouldnt, right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, appropriate
and inappropriate, important and unimportant, and so on. They each have their life process, their
building process, and their meaning/valuing process outside of their
relationship. These three dimensions are
also an integral part of the relationship itself.
A fourth process within the growing
and becoming of relationships completes the overwhelming complexity of ongoing,
ongrowing relationships. This fourth
process relates to how the individuals put the bits together. Suppose they are sixteen and growing an
important relationship between themselves.
It is important to each of them that they put the relationship together
in a loving and caring way. With
sixteen-year-olds, it can be seen that each probably has his or her own notions
about how the relationship should be put together. This can be called the blueprint
process. The blueprint process tells the
teenagers how their relationship should be put together, what comes before
what, and how the relationship should look at each stage. Both teenagers have some notion about what
kinds of things are and are not acceptable in the relationship; and what
different kinds of ideas, feelings, actions, activities, and so on should look
like in relation to and in proportion to each other. With husbands and wives, the blueprint
process shows how a good relationship would look if they were to achieve
one. With friends, the blueprint process
has to do with how we would know a friend if we had one. At a conceptual level, the blueprint process
is the organizing, integrating principle within close and important
relationships. Of course, along with the
blueprint process for his significant and meaningful relationships, each
individual has a what, and where he is; where he is going; why he is going
there, and so on. This blueprint process
gives meaning and direction to each of his life processes. Similarly, the blueprint process gives
meaning and direction to the life process of his relationships.
At the center of a close and
important relationship, then, is the life process of that relationship. The building process gives content and
substance to the relationship. The
meaning/valuing process adds depth and character to the relationship. Finally, the blueprint process gives
structure and direction. As the
relationship grows, each person in the relationship is involved in these same
four processes on an individual level, and thus is continually growing and
becoming an individual.
As figure 6 shows, close and
important relationships involve two individuals (me and you) as well as their
relationship (us). As the arrows
suggest, the life, building, meaning/valuing, and blueprint processes merge
box, as well as into the ME and the YOU boxes.
The important point here is that when a relationship is messed up it
box that is in severe conflict or not working.
Nevertheless, the difficulty may be strictly a result of difficulties in
the relationships or it may be a result of difficulties in either the ME or the
YOU box. Alternatively, the relationship
problem may arise because the ME box has been growing and developing differently
and inconsistently with the YOU box. In
that event, the two individuals are gradually getting to a point where their
relationship does not meet their needs, meet their expectations, serve the
interest of their growing and becoming, and so on. Compounding the complexity of close and
important relationships to the final extreme, consider the fact that even if
one truly understood a relationship at a given point in time the processes
influencing that relationship are continually changing. This means that the relationship is, itself,
continually changing and is never the same. Considering how truly complex the relationship
individuals have an
box for each of their close and important relationships, the man who says he
enjoys an uncomplicated life must be unmarried, work alone, have no parents or
children, and have only one friend who just comes around twice a year for
Linda, age seventeen, is talking
about the difficulties in some of her US boxes.
You ask, What have you been doing?
Ronnie and I made up last night.
Boy, its fun to have a fight.
Making up is really nice. That
Ronnie, hes something else. One minute
he can be wrestling with me and really hurting me. The next minute he can be as soft and gentle
as he can be. [You say: You seem kind of
nervous today.] Yeah, I know Im
nervous. Ive been nervous all day. [You ask: Does your nervousness have anything
to do with Ronnie?] I dont know. It might have to do with school. I got my grade card today and got two
Fs. I may be missing too much
school. Im behind already. I dont know why I keep going. I probably should have quit a long time ago. Maybe if I quit, I could come back sometime
to night school and finish. [You ask: Do
you think quitting school would help things any?] I really want to be an airline
stewardess. If I quit school, thats
out. I think maybe you have to go to
college to be an airline stewardess.
Anyway, quitting school isnt going to help that any. I doubt if I could meet the qualifications,
anyway. Schools a big problem. I dont mind the work so much, but I cant
stand a couple of those teachers. I
dont know why I get along with some and not with others. Theres that one in particular I just cant
stand. Thats okay, I dont think she
can stand me, either. [A little later in
the conversation, you ask: What kinds of things are important to you?] Nothing much other than having babies and taking
care of my horse. I told Mom I want to
have a baby but I dont want to get married. I asked her what she thought I should
do about that. She told me if I got
pregnant shed make me have an abortion.
I sure set her straight. My older
sister got to keep her baby. [You ask:
Have you talked with Ronnie about having babies?] No.
Were not into that kind of thing.
We just have a good time, but we dont talk about heavy stuff like
that. You know what my doctor asked
me? He saidyoure not going to believe
thishe asked would I go to bed with a guy I just met? He must think Im a little tramp or
something, but Im not. [You say: You
seem kind of confused about boys, babies, school, the hassle with your mother.]
Yeah, I get confused, and I cant figure
things out. I cant talk my problems
over with anyone. Everyone always talks
to me about their problems, but I cant talk to them about mine. [You ask: Do you have any idea why it works
that way?] No. But I really get mad about it. I get tired of playing shrink to all my
friends. I listen to their problems, but
they wont listen to mine. It just seems
like everybody uses me and wants me for whatever they can get. I dont know why I keep trying. My own mother doesnt even care enough to
listen. She thinks we have this great
relationship, but its just because I sit and listen to her yak on and on. If she only knew what I really thought, shed
have a hemorrhage.
As you talk with Linda, would your
approach be to suggest that she look at her relationships one at a time and try
to repair them? Your approach would
probably be to help Linda think about her pattern of relating to people, how
she gets into certain kinds of relationships and how she should go about building
more healthy, satisfying relationships in the future. Suppose, though, that Linda were involved in
only one severely conflicted relationship.
Would you then suggest that she attempt to fix or repair that
relationship? From an understanding of
the growth and development of relationships, their overwhelming complexity, and
their nearly incomprehensible intricacy, it would be far more preferable for
you to conclude that seriously deteriorated relationships are not fixablethey
are nonrepairable. The approach would be
to encourage Linda to stop and start all over again. When a relationship is really bad and someone
invites you to try to work things out, it would be the better part of wisdom
and understanding to refuse. You might
offer instead to build a new relationship, with no effort being made to repair
the old one.