Relationships and the Truth of Change

                It is in our human nature, in the structure of our brains, to create as much certainty as we can. Certainty provides security; knowing what to expect offers some safety and predictability makes our future easier to plan. On the other hand, we know that things change, that nothing stays the same. We ‘get it’ — this notion of impermanence. We accept the validity of the adage “The only constant is change.” Whether it’s the weather, the international arena, our domestic politics or my pet’s aging—-the scene is always shifting and we have adapted more or less to the uncertainty and the unease that accompanies those shifts. Though we can be shocked by unexpected twists, that they occur at all is not a surprise to us. So at one level, we understand the truth of change.

                Wisdom traditions teach that there are three levels of “knowing” or understanding a fundamental principle like change or impermanence. First, there is the conceptual level. The idea of it. An impersonal, intellectual awareness that makes common sense. The second level is that of coming to ‘know’ the validity of the principle for yourself; this means having a direct experience of it in your own life.  The third way of knowing is the realization of the principle—-the integration of the ‘knowing’ into your daily life such that you embody the knowing and are changed by it.

                In our search for certainty and safety, we humans have exercised our extraordinary capacity for problem-solving to create an array of safeguards against many of life’s dangers. We have seatbelts and airbags; we have airport security checks, we have the FDA and EPA and CDC. These measures help. And they contribute to the sense that we have some degree of control over events. But when I first began thinking about this topic, I was reminded of something that I came across years ago describing the Buddhist perspective on relationships; that perspective has since been underscored when I moderated Tara Brach’s on-line course on mindful relationships.  In essence, the lesson from both sources is that while we ‘get’ the principles of change and impermanence abstractly, in the context of our relationships, we don’t seem to get it at all.

                One of the teachings that Tara offers in this program has to do with the strategies that many of us use to control our experience in a relationship. These are tactics we develop to protect ourselves from being hurt or wounded by someone else, much as those seatbelts and airbags protect body parts. She names three of these basic strategies:

  • Pleasing: changing ourselves to conform to what we think another might prefer; wanting attention and acceptance and being chameleon-like to get it.
  • Withdrawing: withholding our feelings; not speaking our truth.
  • Aggressing: blaming, judging, using anger to deflect.

We develop these tactics as children in response to our needs to be loved and to be safe.  They become prolonged past their usefulness because they are what we know; they are deeply conditioned and automatic. In my marriage, for example, my husband and I have favored the strategies of aggressing (his) and withdrawing (mine). For us, these began as reactions to certain triggers and were formed long before we met; they were unskillful habits carried into our relationship; they continued for years, creating problems and pain every time they were enacted. It has taken intentional effort and the practices of mindfulness (especially, it’s not personal) to minimize the impact of our bi-lateral reactivity. 

                We all have a strategy of our own and each of us probably employs a mix of them to hide or shield our vulnerability. The exercises in Tara’s program were designed to bring these patterns to the surface; then methods were offered for working through them to establish a more open, authentic and caring relational style.

                The point, though, is that the fixed nature of the patterns stands in opposition to the reality of change—- the realities that we change over time, that our circumstances change over time and that the other person changes over time. That is the first level of ‘knowing’ impermanence. The Buddhist perspective, mentioned earlier, names this: “the challenge in a committed relationship has to do with how you are going to face change.”

                So- even though- as my husband would say- we would get it right on a True/False test- of course it’s true that everything changes- nevertheless we fail that test in our personal lives by remaining unaware of how, by ignoring the truth of impermanence, we can and do infect/affect our relationships.

                To move to the next level of ‘knowing’ with respect to relationships, we can start by posing a question to ourselves: “How do I attempt to create certainty in my relationship?” And inquiring as to whether that strategy is necessary or useful at this time. Maybe it is. But because of the fluidity of circumstances (job changes, parenting challenges, etc.) and personal development in our own life and our partner’s life, it may be worthwhile to check in this way from time to time.

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