Once again, let me say that while it might seem the height of chutzpah for a married male to write on this topic, it is in no way intended as a negative judgment about unpartnered women. Much of what I am offering can just as easily apply to women or men of either circumstance. The central aim of these pieces is to offer some possibilities to consider that might provide food for thought leading to some kind of healing integration and the lessening of suffering.
Over the last year or so, I have had contact with an increasing number of single women who have disclosed a preference to me that they wish they weren’t. They are all lovely, intelligent, spirited women, thus I found their struggle somewhat surprising. In contemplating their situation, I’ve come up with six uncommon possibilities I thought might be worthwhile offering for consideration. Rather than simply offer six capsule summaries, each week I’m offering a different possibility in depth…
Possibility Number 3: We Never Learned How to Be Brave Companions
In Act I of my life, what I mostly learned about relationships was how to manage and organize them to best serve my own, seemingly never-ending personal needs. Fulfilling needs may be an important part of the developmental journey: I need to be deeply connected with and within myself before I can begin connecting deeply with another. Think of it as ego-strengthening. But ego-strengthening is not the be-all and end-all of relationship growth and maintenance (Nor is having 25,000 Facebook friends, as this Atlantic Monthly article so potently reveals).
As the environments we hang out in begin to mold and shape our brain, we learn different ways of being in relationship with others. One environment that I know profoundly shaped by brain was the 25-plus years I spent as a volunteer grief counselor.
Grief training has explicit protocols: our job is not to fix other people; it’s not to make their pain go away; it’s not to project or overlay our own personal preferences or value judgments onto others, especially people in deep pain. The job of counseling people in grief is essentially to show up and shut up, to be someone offering gentle, trustworthy presence. It’s to honor each person’s unique personal journey as they struggle to integrate loss. It’s to show up and be present to one rimed and ravaged heart after another the best we can. We are essentially called each time to be a brave companion of the heart.
Companioning Lets It Happen
Unlike Facebook Friends, companioning is a very special way of showing up in relationship to other people. It requires us to be more than what MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle calls “sociable robots.” Below is a list borrowed from grief educator Alan Wolfelt, Ph. D. that describes some of the qualities that make up the warp and woof of companioning…
• Companioning is about honoring the spirit; it is not about focusing on the intellect.
• Companioning is about curiosity; it is not about expertise.
• Companioning is about learning from others; it is not about teaching them.
• Companioning is about walking alongside; it is not about leading.
• Companioning is about being still; it is not about frantic movement forward.
• Companioning is about discovering the gifts of sacred silence; it is not about filling every painful moment with words.
• Companioning is about listening with the heart; it is not about analyzing with the head.
• Companioning is about bearing witness to the struggles of others; it is not about directing those struggles.
• Companioning is about being present to another person’s pain; it is not about taking away the pain.
• Companioning is about respecting disorder and confusion; it is not about imposing order and logic.
• Companioning is about going to the wilderness of the soul with another human being; it is not about thinking you are responsible for finding the way out.
Mismanaging the Goldilocks Effect
Ideally, I want my interactions with other people neither too hot nor too cold. To avoid too hot, I’m often willing to settle for contact in lieu of true connection, i.e. massive numbers of Facebook friends. I greatly fear interactions in which I can’t manage my anxiety, where I might end up being more vulnerable than I can easily manage. I become uncomfortable in my own skin, because I can’t control the thoughts that arise from the depth of my feeling, right brain unconscious. Unfortunately, I can distract myself from such discomfort. One way is by flooding my life with busyness. A life filled with busyness is severely handicapped when it comes to authentic companioning. It does not allow me the time needed to practice in-the-flesh skills for such connection.
While companioning is not about conflict, most relationships, if they’re to be authentic, are going to have conflicts arise. That said, a great many of us are very uncomfortable with disagreement and conflict (me included). In part because we haven’t received much practice or experience or understanding concerning a significant unconscious purpose in such encounters: healing integration. Without that awareness, together with skills to actually facilitate resolution and integration in ourselves and in a committed partner, conflict is probably wisely avoided. To do otherwise risks doing additional damage: piling trauma on top of trauma. The bind though, is that avoidance isn’t optimal either – it rarely leads to healing.
Part of what often makes fighting so challenging for people partnered and unpartnered is usually one or both people have little experience, and thus great difficulty readily self-regulating in the aftermath of a disagreement. My daughter attended a K-8 school where conflict was openly encouraged and worked with until resolution (or at least restored peace) was the ultimate result. So, from kindergarten on she was exposed to both conflict and its resolution. Today she is very comfortable both engaging in conflict and hashing things out to peaceful restoration. She has taught me a lot in this area, mostly in learning how to feel okay in letting the other person help with restoring feelings of safety and security.
So, the work often in relationship is to avoid ending up in a double bind: discovering issues surfacing from implicit memory involving earlier trauma that needs addressing and resolution, but we can’t address and resolve them because attempting to do so will make us too upset. It also risks simply unskillfully reenacting the original trauma. What to do?