This is part two of a series on women in relationships. It is following the format of an e-mail exchange between Deborah Leeds and me. Today's posting picks right up from last week's, so if you didn't read it or don't remember it, it might be helpful to review by going to
Thank you for your thoughtful response. I think you are demonstrating the very thing you are describing. That is, it seems to me you are putting aside your own strong opinion that "Nothing happens in a vacuum!" enough to hear my point that at the very least, it is sometimes necessary for the health of a relationship to act "as if" there is a temporary vacuum. Certainly wives who have been cheated on by their husbands don't want to hear something along the lines of "Yes, I cheated on you. But it's because I was feeling....." There indeed are always relational reasons for affairs, but there is also a time to step up to the plate and take full responsibility for one's actions. Period.
It strikes me that men and women have so much to learn from each other if we can stop trying to change each other. I am certainly aware of how deeply my life has been enriched, how much more I've been able to relax, by opening up more fully to relationships. I think that has been the primary contribution of feminist theory, at least in my book. And I don't think men have articulated an intelligent enough response to it.
Which isn't to say that I don't think women have something to learn from men and it is here I would like to make the same point, but hopefully from a deeper level. I think that just as women can teach men it's okay to trust in connection, men can show women it's okay to trust in separation. There is something deeply empowering in saying "I did that. I am responsible. I am sorry." Without connecting it to a whole bunch of invisible chords, explanations or anything else. It's like saying "I am capable of self agency, including the capacity to make mistakes and to hurt people. I may not want to do that, but I sometimes do that."
What I am getting from your response is that perhaps if a woman can feel understood first, it will be easier for her to take that step. What I am suggesting is that once a woman is understood, in addition to basking in the glow of connection, she risk separation by taking personal responsibility. Paradoxically, I believe nothing will help her husband feel connected to her more fully.
In connection and separation,
Well said! The ways we each experience that continuum of separation and connection can really be seen as the map of our "relational" development: some points on the map are easy, and some couldn't feel more foreign. When I consider things along the "separation" pole, I think of being able to say "yes" or "no" to my partner without feeling anxious; I think of feeling self-affirming enough to be able to voice my thoughts and feelings on a "stand alone" basis. And, if I really feel relationally mature enough, then I can make a space for the harm I have caused in my partner's world, and just own it.
What is interesting to me, as I feel into that last part, is that I can go there more readily when I feel connected to my partner. It is less about standing apart from, and more about connecting with!
And perhaps that makes sense - as a woman - to be more inclined to own something in a straightforward, nothing else to say about it manner, maybe even to feel more strength in myself, when I feel that connected to the person I love. The empathy that comes naturally in connection makes it easier to say: "Yes, you make sense to me; I can see why and how my action hurt you and I am truly sorry." Connection engenders openness to my partner's experience, and the connection actually helps me put myself aside.
When I sat down to write, I did not expect this to emerge. I was envisioning the line of a continuum. But this consideration seems to have looped into a lovely circle, in which connection grows one's autonomy, which enhances connection. Coming together "in separation" refers to individuals who are mature enough to know they do not have to be, nor could they ever be, perfect. Our humanity connects with another's humanity. Humility is a fine thing.
Next week: Josh and Deborah continue the dialog in Women in Relationship, Part III.
Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deborah Leeds, MFT, is a couples and individual therapist with offices in Pleasant Hill and Berkeley, CA. Visit her website at deborahleeds.com
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.