This Field Note is a co-authored dialogue in which Heesoon and I engage in an exploration-and-discovery conversation about relationship. More than being “about” our relationship, this dialogue bears fruit from and for our relationship. I certainly made some discoveries as we proceeded with this process. We offer you this open conversation not so much as a window into us rather as a possible window into yourself and your own close relationships.
I imagine most all of you are familiar with the agony and despair of running into the same patterns of behaviour time and time again in your interaction with your partner. Let us call this the There-you-go-again (TYGA for short) syndrome. (Newly constructed here!) This syndrome invariably shows up after the initial luster has worn off your relationship, as it almost inevitably will or has done, and you cannot in any way deny that your partner has certain ways of being, habits, talking to you, not talking, withdrawing, engaging, and avoiding that rub against the grain of who you are, or at least who you think you are. Sometimes it will occur during the earliest days of dating. More often it takes some time, and what really takes the time is your/our reaction to this recognition. It becomes most difficult to escape once a couple is living together.
I am so glad that we are doing this co-authored Field Note on a topic that has intrigued, and I must admit, at times terribly distressed me for a long time. What is it about?!
HEESOON: Indeed, the topic for us is certainly not just an intellectual intrigue. We have both experienced dismay, curiosity, and even amazement with our experience: There have definitely been some “infuriating” experiences, and we both have been driven to and beyond our limits at times. For example, you have expressed repeatedly your despair at my behaviour of moving things about in the house and you not being able to find them. Part of your despair is that you have asked me not to remove or move things, especially things you use in the kitchen. I can well imagine how frustrating that must be when you need ‘right now’ and you cannot put your hands on them!
And yet, I have never been able to eliminate my behavioural pattern, and in truth, I don’t want to! Not only that, for my part, I tried to “teach” you a “searching” behaviour: looking effectively here and there, to find things. Items are all “there,” within our small kitchen, but you just can’t find them! If an item has been moved a few inches away from its “last placed position,” you can’t see it! That, of course, exasperates me at times; at other times, it fills me with curiosity and wonder! “How could you not find something that’s just been shifted a few inches?”
Reflecting on the dynamics surrounding this particular TYGA issue, two points come up and are relatively clear to me. 1) You and I are put together very differently (with many exclamation marks here), which can be a good thing, even if at times this can be very distressing. For, diversity is fundamental to the ecology of life. 2) Each of us (not just you and me but everyone) is largely made up of conditioned habits, which is also a good thing. Predictability is a basis of learning and growing to put it simply. As well, without a good measure of predictability, human interaction would be most challenging, if not impossible. Just imagine having to approach every action, interaction, and understanding as if each time was the first time!
AVRAHAM: I appreciate your willingness and readiness to dive right into the heart of at least one issue that is representative, though certainly not the toughest, of any and all issues that we have faced in our many years together and that have certainly been a sufficient frustration to lead to some difficult interactions. I also appreciate your ever readiness to theorize about everything!
I guess I could say it’s interesting that your formulation of this problem even to this moment is somewhat different than how I would describe it. However, I don’t want to get into the argument here again; so not more TYGA!
HEESOON: Hahaha, count on me to theorize anytime!
AVRAHAM: Sure! Let me be direct. I am curious why you don’t want to change…
HEESOON: I guess you are referring to my earlier point about my not wanting to “eliminate my behavioural pattern” regarding putting items back exactly where they were found or not moving them at all, yes? I think this clarification is important in our conversation: otherwise, our readers may think that I am against changes at all. In fact, I am all about changes! I am constantly making small changes, which is what drives you mad!
What I see happening is that I am making changes that are not the kind of changes you want, namely, putting things back exactly where you have left them or where you expect them to be. And, also, I don’t change my overall pattern of liking to move things, namely rearranging things to suit my sense of aesthetics and optimization.
I think what is happening is like this: it’s true that at times, I just don’t recall exactly where it is that you want me to place things or where you have left things. You remember and you are clear, but I don’t remember. That’s one sub-issue. Another sub-issue is that my unconscious expectation is that you would see or find things that are moved around “a bit.” For you, it turns out, “a bit” is not a bit: rather it is too much. For you, my moving something a few inches away at times might as well be a mile away, to exaggerate a bit!
And since it is not just one item but quite a few items in the household, the combined effect is just too much for you, yes? And then there is also the issue of my not remembering after a while where I ended up relocating items for optimal household organization! I do find them, at least most of them that I have put away, and after searching for them, which is not a big deal to me at all but is to you. I am very used to looking for and finding things.
Over the years, I am coming to see and understand, increasingly, just how difficult my habitual patterns are for you to cope with. People talk about empathy as a skill. (I am not a fan of skills talk, but I will adopt it here.) Perhaps my empathy skill has not been sufficient for the degree of differences that I encounter in how you are. That is, what I am seeing is that you and I are so differently conditioned (cultured, trained, practiced, “wired,” etc.). What is not a big deal, ‘normal’ or ‘usual’ to me is not so to you. And vice versa.
I ‘kinda’ knew all this, but I can say in retrospect, that I didn’t really know it sufficiently to the degree of enacting it, that is, applying my knowledge to practice so that this will make a difference to our living together. I could have increased the depth and scope of my empathic understanding so that I could really see through your eyes and understand what it is like for you to cope with my ways. But instead, I tried to teach you to search better, which has not been too successful.
Avraham: I have improved my search-and-find skills, but at times they fail me. To your credit, you are now much more mindful about putting things where we have agreed is their ‘home.’ I also have learned the three or four most likely places where certain things will be. And truth be told, you are far better at finding things than I am. It is certainly one of my ‘lesser’ abilities.
For sure, my skill improvement has not become totally sufficient to cope with your pattern. Be that as it may, it occurs to me, as we speak, there is something more important that is surfacing up as an issue. What has always been important to me is the sense that you and I are without fail focused on looking after the relationship. This does not mean that you should indulge my weaknesses, namely, in the current discussion, my insufficient ability to search for things in the house. What tended to happen in the past is that we got trapped in haggling over our divergent behavioural patterns, trying to “teach” each other to change them. Basically, each of us wanted the other to change!
Of course, I am not saying that the learning and changes that we each could make is not necessary, useful, or even important. These changes, and learning to effect them, are all good in and of themselves. But it is when I have felt that you lost sight of our relational goal of looking after our relationship in our haggles over our differences that I became despondent about our relationship. Or to be more precise, it is when my call to you to look at what is happening to our relational dynamics rather than our haggling and negotiating over our divergent patterns of behaviour has not been responded to sufficiently, at least in my view, most times I f have felt hurt and alone.
I will add that this latter is what I feel has been a most challenging point for us, which, not surprisingly is the same as what I see in most couples with whom I work. Underlying the actual event that is the ‘flash point’ is the reality that this particular issue, whatever it is, has occurred many times before. So, the content and the pattern are very familiar. This very often compromises the ability to actually see any difference in the experience, subtle or not so subtle, and the repetition ‘burdens’ any ability to deal with the current issue.
It turns out I am faced with my inability to see and accept how entrenched these patterns and behaviors are, how very deep the roots run, my own helplessness to do anything about the repetition, the associated wounds, and the felt sense of being alone and lonely.
Heesoon: Yeah, I see that . . . more clearly now. I was busy fixing practical problems, while neglecting how you were: that you were feeling hurt and alone. You have noted before, repeatedly, this tendency of mine. In fact, here, too, our differences in how we are oriented in our life patterns come up. I would say, you are far more relationally minded than I am. In this instance, the difference between us is not something that can be settled with an acceptance that we are just differently oriented. It is not the case of, for instance, your liking frozen berries and my disliking them. We can let each other have our preferred way and be content with that. However, in this case, our different orientations result in your feeling alone (and at times hurt). It has become clear to me that it is not sufficient to leave the matter just at saying: “Oh well, we are different!”
Avraham: I appreciate the distinction you have made between how something is done and the overarching orientation to the communication about the particular issue, whatever it may be. As I said already what matters most to me is a strong and ongoing felt sense of connection. I have had this high dream in my life probably from before I knew what it was. I do remember driving my mother crazy with my constant comments and accompanying despair: “Nobody understands me!” This was certainly true.
As a teenager and on into young adulthood, I continued to feel afflicted and unhappy, at least for the most part. As I grew older, I began to hear myself differently. It is true, or it is a fact, that many people around me did not understand me, including my parents, and it began to dawn on me that I had to find a way to live with this reality. However, rightly or wrongly, I had the expectation that, at least in our relationship, things would be different and that I wouldn’t have to live with ‘this reality.’ What hurts is when I have felt that you prioritized your views, behavior, and so on, over the preservation and nurturance of our relationship and our relational field. I could not just see the issue between us as, and as you have stated being that of, for instance, my liking frozen berries, especially frozen blueberries, and your disliking frozen berries.
HEESOON: Yes. I think a big part of our being “put together differently” has to do with the way we experience ourselves and the world. In watching you, and hearing about you, feeling alone and feeling the disconnect, at times, within the context of our relationship, my first ‘reaction’ is still a bit of surprise, and something of a question coming up: “Why would you feel so alone and disconnected?” It used to surprise me a lot more in our earlier days of being together. (I wasn’t a therapist then!) I couldn’t understand why you would feel that way. Gradually, my reaction changed, and now I am at a point where I accept, as a starting point, your experiential reality: “Okay, that’s how you feel and experience! Got it!”
I could go on, as I used to do, guessing what the psychodynamic ‘origin’ of your repeated experience might be, but that’s not what is important to me (anymore), and certainly not to you. However, what’s important is my knowing that’s how you feel and experience, and my being there to show my genuine empathy and care for you. I may not be able to alleviate, let alone eliminate, your feeling disconnects and alone, but again, that’s not the point or what’s important. What I am saying now is my relatively new learning, and I am trying to deepen it.
My new learning does have me go back to reflecting on how I am put together. My reflection readily takes me back to my being an immigrant. I came into a foreign country, Canada, alone as a 17-year-old girl back in the early 70’s, who did not speak English. My experience of self and life was dominated by differences. Being different, experiencing everything very differently from others, was simply who I was. I suppose I could have felt disconnected and alone, but to feel that way would have presupposed that I was expecting things to be otherwise. I felt confirmed in my difference and being alone. That was my identity, and I learned to accept that and live with that—with a good measure of wellbeing and perhaps with a sense of pride. (I can talk more about my own growing-up years in Korea, which also had something to do with my being able to readily accept my aloneness as self-identity, but not now.) In short, I didn’t feel alone or disconnected in my aloneness, even if others would see me that way.
AVRAHAM: I appreciate your description of your experience coming to Canada as a 17-year-old immigrant and I believe I understand this. And I also have an incredible appreciation for what you have accomplished in this Canadian world, in which I of course grew up, and I perhaps surprisingly despite being born here mostly felt myself as an outsider as well.
And I do wonder if your acceptance also includes some denial of an inner reality that involves some painful experience and feelings. For sure we are “put together differently.” I agree, and I would like to meet any couples who do not fit into this framework. I believe the very important question is how to not only deal with individual differences but how to learn and grow as an individual and a couple, given these most certain ‘bound to be’ differences. In our initial days of being a couple, I felt that the ideas of connection and intimacy in our relationship seemed most possible, even actual, to me, but the dream became eroded, became a sore point, and certainly did not seem to be moving towards the fruition I dreamed about, and I found myself often wondering, “What am I doing here?”
You say that you wonder how I came to this place of longing for connection and at times feeling so alone. I will describe… I was brought up in a family that due to all kinds of cultural, familial, and socio-emotional circumstances did not really operate within a context of closeness and connection. This led to years of angst and despair as I looked for something that I could barely name, and that usually came out with my protest: “Nobody understands me.” I spent many years feeling myself as an outsider and being most unhappy to be such. I also wondered, “What is wrong with me?” Eventually I began to question this question, as I became increasingly and broadly aware of the suffering all around me in others, and the world. This eventually brought me to a point of truly recognizing my differentness and the tortured and, to various degrees, mangled state of most everyone.
I came to see over time that what I was experiencing in myself was the microcosm of the human experience; that in fact it is a rare human being who does not have, in some measure, the angst and pain emerging from the lack of this felt sense of connection, and who longs for connection. At the same time, I came to recognize that mostly people are afraid of connection. Many hardly recognize what it is to feel securely connected, and they live lost and lonely lives. I have continually seen this in people I know as friends and acquaintances, and certainly it is a major part of what I identify in those with whom I work in my psychotherapy practice. I have worked through a lot in myself about this, including coming to terms with my ‘difference’ and how to live in the world as I am, and with others as they are. I hasten to add that accompanying the sense of separateness is very often associated with some felt sense of lack of meaning in life, and feeling connection that seems to facilitate a feeling of meaning and purpose in people.
I dream that you and I will continue to grow into more of who we really are, which I believe will take us beyond the personal, cultural, psychological, and social barriers in our relationship. I also see these barriers as ‘allies’ in our process of growth together. I think we have come a long way, and I am hopeful that having this public dialogue will help us to learn more, and perhaps even inspire our readers to continue the process in their own lives.
There is ample literature that speaks to the need for human connection. I believe that in their heart of hearts most long for this, but many are so far removed and wounded that self-protection becomes the option chosen, over and over and over. It is hard, and at other times all too easy, to attack on purpose and often inadvertently that person whose vulnerability and heart you know very well. The desire to, and feeling of deeply felt connection with another and to be experienced that way by the other is indeed a precious experience.
I would say that many—perhaps most—people have been so hurt by relationship that the idea of opening up in that way is not a reasonable or even conscious option. And, just looking at the state of the world provides further evidence of this ongoing disconnect between people. I would suggest that the current wars in the world are extremely large manifestations of the same.
I had, and continue to have, a high dream that you and I will be increasingly connected in our relationship. There is a language and a felt sense of connection that is important to me, and that I know is also important to you. I appreciate that even after all these years we continue to work with this.
Heesoon: In co-creating this piece with you, and in further reflecting on my relational experiences over the decades with you and with my two daughters, as well, I think I am coming closer to sharing your high dream and having a sense of where my relational learning is headed: greater attunement and resonance. A lot more to say here in concrete details, but perhaps we can save that for another conversation?
Avraham: I greatly appreciate what you have just said I look forward to our ongoing opportunities.
Thank you, Heesoon!
Avraham’s Closing Remarks
I will leave you all with something to ponder; What is it that brings up so much hurt and anguish when there is a rupture experience against perceived background of a general sense of openness overall and intimate connection?
And a special thanks to Heesoon for her full and engaged participation in this Field Note!