Recently I was asked by my amused and curious girlfriend just what my strategy is in pursuing other relationships (yes we’re poly, as I’ve noted before so this is a perfectly reasonable and wonderful question to ask within the space of open communication) considering that I don’t seem to do the same thing beyond one person. Coming as this question did upon the heels of conversations I’ve recently had in online groups concerning the nature of social bonding and the feeling of loneliness or lack that can sometimes occur in seeing other people who’s lives seem so much more special than ours, I now find myself returning to a theme of entries I’d left behind a while ago entitled “relationships.” As seems often the case I likely will be presenting something slightly different than the usual understanding but I do have my own projected reputation to uphold of being a dissenter possessed of an increasingly healthy ego.
Polyamorous circles or not, relationships are almost all anyone often talks about, with ridiculous amounts of books being written on the subject and research constantly being conducted as to the how of their working, the why of their existence and how to deal with the numerous difficulties that arise within them. This frankly is not an odd thing considering the central means of relating to the world is from the locus of an internalized ‘I.’ Try for a moment to think of or interact with anything or anyone without keeping in mind one’s interconnection with it. Don’t try too hard though as it is when we cease noticing our surroundings and therefore our connection with other objects that we start harming ourselves, either by stubbing one’s toe by running into something we didn’t see or having hurt feelings because we weren’t keeping aware of how another was relating to us. Noting this raises my point, that relationships, and by that term I mean any and all interactive connections, are the means by which we express our selves or the various ‘I’s’ that provide the focus of all our narratives.
I am aware and have written about this several times in the past, though undoubtedly will continue to do so again and again in the future, that the self as commonly understood is of quite a different nature than what I am discussing here. In a New York magazine article on The Self in Self-Help, it is noted that the common definition of the self in self-help literature is: “Somewhere below or above or beyond the part of you that is struggling with weight loss or procrastination or whatever your particular problem might be, there is another part of you that is immune to that problem and capable of solving it for the rest of you. In other words, this master theory is fundamentally dualist. It posits, at a minimum, two selves: one that needs a kick in the ass and one that is capable of kicking.” With this in mind it is easy to consider relationships, especially when difficulties in them arise, as instantiations of behavior stemming out of the false self in need of correction from the intuitive genius found in our other self. This is most easily seen whenever someone declares “I’m better than that” or “I don’t know what came over me” or “deep down I knew it was wrong.” Other examples abound and I won’t annoy the reader by attempting to note all of them. However, there is no such thing as this other self, this fount of wisdom just waiting like a blind yogi to expel pithy sayings in a breath of holy power. What this thinking seems to carry over from, though with less nuance, is Freud’s notion of the Id, Ego and Superego, with the Id being the self in need of a good kick in the pants and the Superego residing as the pontifical yogi.
While there is some truth to Freud’s notion it is not important to go into here, I merely point it out as a means of reference and noting how even great ideas (though I’m aware not everyone considers Freud’s notions as great) are used in an often simplified form leading to problems in relating to the world. I have written before how the monolithic transcendent self is an illusion and I plan to write more about it in an upcoming entry using Owen Flannagan as a primary source. However, related to that I want here to deal with the false notion of dualism in the sense of the two-self model found in self-help. Rather than two I want us to ponder the idea that there are in fact multitudes of selves, all with their own narratives, all with their own way of interacting with the world and providing a perspective through which experience is generated as a phenomenological feeling. We speak of it colloquially in our American culture as “putting on a different hat” when discussing work or being a parent or hanging out with friends (though curiously the latter is often depicted as being the most authentic, more on that later). What is often meant though is that the central ‘I’ chooses various aspects of itself for dealing with different circumstances and I want us to do away with that entirely, or at least as much as we’re able. Instead of “hats” I want to posit the idea that we put on entirely different “heads” and none of them contradict any of the others though the behavior that may result from these different selves certainly often appears to, hence the previous notation of people declaring they “weren’t themselves” when they acted poorly or not in line with what they now feel to be their true self. Looked at this way, the self becomes less about possessing a centralized clearing house to organize potential behavior and more about relating to an ever-changing world. From this perspective we no longer should look upon ourselves with disassociating shame when having committed a wrong act but with an understanding that like everything our selves are context-bound manifestations of relationships. While this makes us more responsible for our behavior in the sense that we can no longer call it “other,” it also should help us reconcile the flights of angst and condemnation when we do not do what we would like to do. Reality is we always do what we would like to do, it’s just that there are many sources for the creation of those wants.
None of this absolves us of the desire to strive towards consistency, in fact it frees us to pursue it from a better ground. Rather than fighting in a soul-searing tumultuous internal battlefield we can see our relationships as manifesting various selves and through the means of guiding awareness, focus on those relationships that bring about the self which contributes the most towards well-being and joy and the expression of values held dear. In discussing the creation of romantic relationships, an article from the National Institute of Health (NIH) discusses the role of various neurotransmitters in facilitating relationship bonding, noting that “Oxytocin does more than make us feel good. It lowers the levels of stress hormones in the body, reducing blood pressure, improving mood, increasing tolerance for pain and perhaps even speeding how fast wounds heal. It also seems to play an important role in our relationships. It’s been linked, for example, to how much we trust others.” This is more than just a reflection on romantic relationships but the bonding associated with any and all relational attachments with other people, from those able to of holding a space for the most casual of touch to the wildest of passionate intimacies. This is likely, as noted above, why we often think of time with our friends as being the most authentic, because we are busy interacting in a way that involves more touch and personalized bonding. Our bodies and the minds which are instantiated by and through them have an innate predilection and desire to form relationships, not just because we live in an interactive world though we do but as it is the source by which the universe finds intentional expression, meaning and purpose beyond (though still tied to) the merely mechanical. Who we are is not a lonely enterprise, it is a profoundly relational one.
© David Teachout