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Difficult Relationships: Their Cause and Cure

How many important interpersonal encounters have you had that were not difficult relationships? Why is loving each other well so damn hard?

Do lovers quarrel? Do siblings fight? Do friends annoy each other? Do parents and their children argue? Do married couples divorce? Frequently!

It is not necessarily that love is so difficult; it’s the becoming capable of love that is so difficult.

I read somewhere that talking about interpersonal encounters is our default topic of conversation. Perhaps we talk and think about them so much because, in addition to being valuable, they are neither easy to create nor to sustain.

Why is that?

I speak from personal experience. I have been blessed with some terrific love affairs, but I am myself twice-divorced. I’ve had lots of friends over the years, but five different best friends over the last forty years.

I think many are like me. It is not that I haven’t tried hard to love others as well as possible. Somehow, though, I have managed to miss some critical, apparently hidden ingredient. I’ve thought hard about it and read many books on love (including Singer’s masterful three volume THE NATURE OF LOVE).

About twenty years ago I decided to write a book about friendship. After thinking it through, I abandoned that project because I realized that I lacked the requisite understanding.

[For philosophers only: Why? I am a nonsubstance ontologist; there are no substrata. Since selves are not substrata, friendship cannot be a relation between substrata (substantial selves). What, then, is it?]

Yet the question about the prevalence of difficult relaitonships did not go away. I just put it on the back burner.

Now I realize that certain spiritual teachers (such as Eckhart Tolle to mention an excellent contemporary one) have had the answer all along.

Nearly all of us make the same mistake and that mistake dooms our interpersonal encounters to being difficult.

It is the mistake of taking ourselves to be the narrative or story that is made up of our thoughts about ourselves. We actually believe our own propaganda about ourselves! We mistake our egocentric thoughts for reality.

That story is always incomplete; it always has something missing. There is always some problem that requires a solution, or a task that requires completion, or something else that needs to be gained. It is always a story of incessant acquisitiveness (attraction, gain, greed).

The result is that we tell ourselves that we are loving others when we are, in fact, only deceiving ourselves by attempting to use them to fix ourselves. We lie to ourselves and develop relationships based on that lie. We sometimes seem to succeed, but the reality of living together always follows the honeymoon. Yikes!

Instead of actually promoting what is best for the other, we use the other to promote what we think is best for us.

As the poet W. H. Auden wrote: “Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of goods.”

Love is selfless giving. It is not selfish taking. If so, to be loving requires being selfless. Any taint of selfishness disqualifies a relationship from being a loving relationship.

To be selfish is to be attached to one’s ego/I (self concept, egocentricity). To become selfless is to detach from one’s ego/I.

We are at our most divine when we are able to do this. As Meister Eckhart wrote, “I find no virtue better than a pure detachment from all things . . . I praise detachment above all love . . . above all humility . . . above all mercifulness.”

The good news is that difficult relationships are optional. At least in theory, it is simple to improve all our relationships. What is required is detaching from egocentricity, which is sometimes called “ego attrition.” Letting go of selfishness enables us to become genuinely capable of love. We are not condemned to lives lacking wholehearted, unconditional love.

The bad news is that, in practice, detaching from egocentricity is very difficult. Most people never do it. In fact, most people never seriously even try to do it.

That explains a lot, doesn’t it?

Posted in moral well-being

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