ISSUE #015 - Jun 05, 2019

RE-PAIRING: Seven Principles for Enlightening Conversations

David Bullard

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from a book to be published in 2020: Re-Pairing: Seven Principles for Deeper Communication

Perfect love is learning to love the very one who has made you unhappy.

~ Soren Kierkegaard

Love involves the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.

~ Iris Murdoch

Hell is other people.  (L’enfer, c’est les autres.)

~ Jean Paul Sartre

Experiencing Negative Emotions is a Basic Part of Intimacy

We might all remember these quotes when having upsets with those we love and care for. The aim of this book is to help you appreciate Kierkegaard’s wisdom and hope, Murdoch’s appreciation of the challenges of intimacy, and help you transform Sartre’s “Hell” into loving and compassionate intimacy.

Thirty-five years ago, as an expectant father, I was talking with a wonderful San Francisco psychotherapist, Dr. Fran Sampson. My concerns prompted her to say:  “Well, David, you seem to be worried about disappointing your child when you are a father . . .” to which I nodded vigorously in recognition of her accurate assessment of my fear. “But don’t you know,” she continued, “that you WILL disappoint your child, and your child will disappoint YOU? And you will disappoint your wife, family, friends, and clients, and they will all disappoint YOU! It is the NATURE of things!”

After I laughed from the sudden surprise and the humor in her response, relaxation came over my body and mind as I realized I didn’t have to fight the truth of what she was saying. I found this interaction to be greatly reassuring. She made it sound NORMAL! And, it IS “NORMAL!”

If life is suffering, as Buddha’s first noble truth tells us, then certainly relationships with others—a big part of our lives—must have various degrees of suffering at times. (If you don’t agree, please go on to enjoy a different book!).

Projections of the Other

When I first began focusing on couples and sex therapy in the 1970s, a friend told me that his mentor Hal Renaud, a UC, Berkeley psychoanalyst, said to tell me that the important thing to remember about couples is: It is all projection. It has only been over time—many years—that I began to see the truth in what he meant.

The usefulness of this idea can be illustrated in the following story: Sam, a college professor, came home from work and went into the kitchen where his wife, Sarah, was cooking dinner. He started ventilating his irritation to her about the university administration, college politics, and other upsetting things he was angry at. She replied, “Shut up, Sam, before you make us both angry!”

This incident illustrates aspects of Tibetan Buddhist and Zen teachings that have informed my work conducting couples therapy over the past several years—principles that seemed to help couples, family members, or close friends with whom I worked even before I knew the terminology of this ancient wisdom.

“Don’t believe everything you think” — A Bumper Sticker Seen Years Ago in Silicon Valley

In the story above, if Sarah thought of her husband as just being “an angry kind of guy,” she might not have felt she could influence him. Instead, she might have let him rant on and might have complained the next day to her friends that “Sam is SUCH an angry guy. He ruined our supper last night by making me angry, too!” Of course, we know it wasn’t only Sarah’s responsibility to cool Sam’s anger and bad mood.  None of us should feel that it is solely up to us to change others’ bad behaviors or moods.  But we DO influence each other as relational beings!  We CAN help each other!

We often get stuck, with rigid ideas in our heads of who our friends, family members, or partners are. In fact, we might consider that we spend more time interacting with the “other” in our heads, rather than with the real person in real life. In other words, there is the “conceptual other” that we spend time thinking about (and perhaps even arguing with!), and sometimes we are surprised when the “actual other” disconfirms our stereotype and is who he is in the present here-and-now.

Each existence depends on something else . . . there are no separate individual existences. There are just many names for one existence.

~ Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

There is no Absolute Self, We All Have a Relative Self

~ Robert Thurman, PhD

One principle that the Sam-and-Sarah scene illuminates is that we are influenced and affected by our surroundings and by the others we relate with. We could presume that if Sarah had NOT told Sam to shut up, he would have spoken longer about his frustration and anger, and she might well have gotten angry as a result. We can refer to this as the “interpersonal contagion of anger,” but it can also be a contagion of anxiety or other feelings from one person to another. It turns out Sarah DID speak up, and Sam quieted down, was happy to be present with her, and they were able to have a nice meal together.

So which was the REAL Sam? An angry guy who was married to an angry woman? As Sam recounts the story, he DID listen to her and therefore he quieted down. This might also be seen as an example of “co-regulation”—a positive feedback loop between two people who care about each other. If we then observed Sam as he sat down to dinner, we probably would have seen a more relaxed guy having a nice dinner with his wife. If Sarah had NOT spoken up, they would both have been dealing with angry feelings at the dinner table, and we could have categorized them both as “angry people.”

So, it can be useful to understand that the person we see in front of us is likely to be influenced to be a certain way based on our interactions.

In a famous Jack Nicholson movie, As Good As It Gets, our hero looked into his girlfriend’s eyes and said, “You make me want to be a better man!” Dr. John Gottman, couples-dynamics researcher and couples therapist at the University of Washington in Seattle, says his 30+ years of research tells him that the happiest marriages and relationships are those where each partner is receptive to influence by the other. We can broaden this beyond heterosexual couples to state that the happiest relationships are those where partners allow themselves to be influenced or coached by each other as to what makes them happy and what makes them unhappy.

Even people who state categorically that “I am who I am and people and personalities don’t change” usually have to admit that they DO believe in “growth.”

Dependent Origination (sometimes referred to as Dependent Arising) was said to be one of the two greatest insights by the Buddha; the other was the recognition of the four Noble Truths:  Suffering is part of life, and an understanding of how that suffering comes about will help a person reduce his or her own suffering.

In human relationships, there is usually no simple cause and effect. In our example of Sarah and Sam, if she had allowed him to rant and rave for 30 minutes, it would have seemed to be Sam’s fault if Sarah also got angry. Because she was successful at getting Sam to relax and become more present as a result of her response, they each had a nice dinner. She was a contributor to their more peaceful meal, but she could have been a contributor to the opposite scenario if she had remained silent and let him continue on with his angry speech.

We can use the fact that we are relational beings, all more or less connected to and influencing each other, to help form more harmonious and loving relationships.

Confusion of Judgment vs. Feeling

Imagine another story: Sarah agreed to meet Sam for an important dinner meeting at 7:00 p.m. Sam hates to be kept waiting and often is a bit vigilant and keyed-up as to whether another person is likely to be punctual or has a track record of being late. As he waits for Sarah, and the minutes past 7:00 click by, he gets increasingly worried, then irritated, and he wonders how much he will complain to her when she arrives. She finally texts him that she is sorry, but she will be a half-hour late. He remembers some other times she was late when he hadn’t spoken up, and he feels strongly that this time he will let her know that it is disrespectful of her to be so late. Sarah finally arrives at 7:25 and can tell that Sam is in a bit of a bad mood. She has been worrying about her being late and its effect on him, but she felt good that her delay had been caused by her being able to visit and help a patient who was dying in a local hospital. She was happy that her knowledge and presence helped avert an intrusive medical test that was unnecessary and was feeling the moments of kindness she and the patient and his family had just shared.

When Sam spoke up with some irritation and sarcasm, “I’m glad I knew to expect you to be late,” Sarah felt like the rug was pulled out from under her happiness about helping the patient and her anticipating a pleasant dinner with Sam. “I know I was late, but I texted you and what made me late was important in helping someone.” He knew how irritated he was, though, and was certain she was just making excuses. “Yeah, well, I’ve noticed that you are kind of careless about being on time, so maybe you could plan ahead a little better in the future,” he said with a tone that indicated she had better do so if she wanted to remain his friend. Sarah heard this as criticism, was stung by it, and wanted to tell him he was wrong, that she was not careless, and in fact had been extremely careful in regard to helping someone who really needed it in a hospital room, rather than someone who had been kept waiting an extra twenty-five minutes in a very nice restaurant. She was irritated that he was so self-centered. “What a selfish guy he is,” she thought to herself.

Another critical source of misunderstanding that we are all subject to at times is to confuse the certainty we have about the experience of our own feelings with the validity of our judgments about the other’s behavior or words that we are reacting to. Most of the time, when we are upset, we know FOR SURE that we are upset and unhappy! Unfortunately, human nature makes us feel this certainty extends to the ideas or judgments we have in our heads that make us RIGHT and the other WRONG, which leads us to the last pattern.

Attempting to Win the “I’m Right” Award

Both Sam and Sarah had strong negative feelings, and each was convinced that the other was “wrong;” and each was convinced he or she was “RIGHT.”

It has been my privilege to hear about and learn from thousands of such stories and deconstructions of how two or more people got into a fight, had an argument (occasionally a silent argument), or otherwise felt estranged from each other. One point has become very clear to me: the confidence we have in being right—our feeling perspective—is often translated and transferred into a similar confidence in our judgment about the other person or our projection onto them of “inappropriate” or “wrong” behavior, or in labeling them as somehow “bad.”

Both Sarah and Sam suffered, as did their relationship, by confusing the true immediate feelings they had with judgments about the other person. Even when we don’t say our judgments out loud, we can’t hide our negative opinions about the other. A “message” that the other has done or said something wrong is often conveyed nonverbally or by our tone of voice. Clearly, both Sarah and Sam were right to feel what they felt; each was disappointed in the other. Life gives us plenty of opportunities to be disillusioned, saddened, and disappointed!

Because Sam and Sarah were aware of and certain about their upset feelings with the other, their confidence unconsciously swamped their thoughts or judgments about the other. Not believing everything you think, not taking the other person’s words or actions personally (but taking them seriously), not confusing the certainty of our feelings with our judgments about others, and learning to resist the seductiveness of the blame game can all serve to help us deepen our understanding of ourselves and others. When we more deeply and consistently understand this, we will be able to prove Sartre more accurate in another of his quotes: We do not judge the people we love.

It’s important to realize how these patterns of interacting with others can set up habits that APPEAR to protect us in the short term. We might defend against being criticized and dread being accused of being “wrong”—a painful, upsetting charge that we vehemently fight, sometimes as if our lives depend on disputing what had been said to us. We go on the offensive to complain about the other or make him or her even more wrong, forgetting the adage that “two wrongs do not make a right.” Two people arguing to make the other one “wrong” does not make anyone feel better.

© 2016 David Bullard, PhD. David Bullard has practiced psychotherapy in San Francisco with individuals and couples for over 35 years. He is clinical professor in medicine and medical psychology (psychiatry) at UCSF where he meets with the Symptom Management Service of the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and with the Professional Advisory Group of Spiritual Care Services. His recent presentations include the San Francisco Psychological Association and the San Francisco Zen Center [with Susan O’Connell (SFZC president); Robert Thurman, PhD, (noted scholar, author, and founder of TibetHouse.US); Thupten Jinpa, PhD, long-time translator and editor for His Holiness the Dalai Lama; and Isa Gucciardi, PhD, (Foundation of the Sacred Stream, Berkeley)]. David’s interviews (published online at psychotherapy.net ) with Mark Epstein, MD, Allan Schore, PhD; Bessel van der Kolk, MD, Thupten Jinpa, PhD; Robert Thurman, PhD; and Lonnie Barbach, PhD can be found at: http://www.drbullard.com/interviews/ . His latest publication with (the late) Harvey Caplan, MD and Christine Derzko, MD is “Sexual Problems” in M.D. Feldman & J.F. 2014. Christensen (Eds.), Behavioral medicine: A guide for clinical practice (4th Ed). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical.

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ISSUE #015

On Healing & Intimacy
Image: On Healing & Intimacy

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