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  • Writer's pictureAlan Sieler

Relationship Breakdowns

by Alan Sieler

One of the indispensable features of our lives is relating with others. Be it at home, social life, shopping or the workplace, we are continually relating with people. Of course, some relationships are more important to us than others. But why? It might be worthwhile to pause and consider this.

The fact that some relationships are more important to us than others says something fundamental about the nature of our existence. Our sense of who we are, and what we can become, is critically bound up with our relationships - past, present and future. Meaning and possibilities in life come not so much from an individual and isolated self, but rather from our network of relationships. It is our dealings with others which provide us with meaning in life and have a huge bearing on the quality of our existence.

Certainly, we value our times alone, to have our own peace and solitude and withdraw from the world for a while, but before too long we yearn for the company of other human beings. We yearn for the conversations that will nourish and stimulate us, and provide us with enjoyment, satisfaction, fulfillment and accomplishment.

As social beings, we co-exist with others: we need and rely on them. Relationships and conversations enable us to coordinate actions with each other, for it is through the coordination of actions we are able to get many things done which we otherwise would have found very difficult, or impossible, to accomplish on our own. This ranges from a family getting off to school and work in a morning with a minimum of fuss and stress (!), to people in the workplace providing each other with the specialist knowledge that is indispensable for a company project.

Relating with others means that we participate together with them in some area of life - be it the purchase of an item from the local shop, a sports team training together, teacher and students in the classroom, mother and father and children in a home, or a team in the workplace.

Now one of the great challenges and mysteries of life is developing and maintaining positive relationships. We could say that positive relationships provide the context in which we can learn, grow and feel good about ourselves and what we can accomplish in life.

When relationships break down they can be very costly for us - emotionally, physically and financially. Yet we often find ourselves at our wits end, even impoverished, to find ways to deal with relationship breakdowns. What happens when we experience a breakdown in our relationship with someone and what can be done to improve things?

Firstly, it is important to recognise that we are all different observers of the world. By this we mean that the way someone else views a situation is not going to be the same as ours. Your response might be "Well, that's obvious", but let's explore a little further. To be an observer is always to live in a particular interpretation of a situation. However, we tend to pay lip service to the notion that we are different observers because we all too readily fall into the trap of "right and wrong" and "good and bad" when we disagree with someone. We actually seduce ourself into believing that we have the "right interpretation" and that our interpretation is the truth. When we go down this path, we are locked into wanting to be right, and prove our point, and this is the game of winning and "I'm better than you". When this occurs, we have dismissed the other person as a "legitimate other", and perhaps not only in the circumstance we find ourself with them, but also as a generalisation about them as a person.

This is the issue of "otherness" that continually faces us as we live in a more diversified world. The major challenge we face is how to emotionally embrace the notion that we are all different observers of the world, living in different interpretations, with each interpretation having some untapped potential, and feel it in our body, not just have it as an "intellectual nicety".

One way of seeking to avoid this trap is to become aware of our listening. The action of listening is fundamentally linguistic, for it involves us in our own silent conversations and these conversations reveal the interpretations we are making. Listening is about making meaning. We are meaning-making machines, but we rarely observe how we do this.

Effective listening is indispensable for dealing with breakdowns, and this consists of two interrelated features. Firstly, being aware of our own listening. We fundamentally listen from what is important for us - these are our concerns, the standards by which we live. These standards are the assumptions from which we live, and they shape how we respond to situations. Whenever we disagree with someone the issue is not just about the other person, it is fundamentally about our interpretation of their actions. Whenever we have an issue with another person, our standards, or criteria, for satisfactory behaviour have been violated. A breakdown in a relationship occurs when we, or the other person, assess that key concerns are not being taken care of. They tell us what is missing in the relationship.

The second feature of listening is seeking to tune into the concerns of the other person. In their speaking, although it may not be expressed directly, what are they saying about key concerns for them? Do they perceive that our behaviour has not met some of their key standards? In our speaking, we can check out and validate our listening about what is missing for them.

In adopting this orientation we can be well placed to have a conversation in which (a) we avoid the trap of assuming deliberate ill-intent on the part of the other person and (b) the emphasis in our speaking is not on the behaviour of the other person, but on the concerns that we both want to be taken care of. This enables us to speak not only from our mind, but also from our heart and our gut - what is near and dear to us. Whilst we disagree with the other person and may have strong negative emotions towards them, we are able to avoid the pointing the finger at them. Fundamentally the issue is not with their behaviour, but with our interpretation of their behaviour, and when we embody this we speak from pointing the finger towards ourselves.

Let's not forget the importance of moods and emotions in all of this. This is summed up by the expression, "The right conversation in the wrong mood is the wrong conversation". Managing our mood is a key part of using the appropriate words and expressing them in a way that enables receptive listening, i.e. having constructive conversations.

Finally, an invitation for you to engage in some investigation. Think of a current relationship that is an important part of your life in which you are experiencing a breakdown.

  • Which of your standards (“criteria for proper living”) have not been met by the other person's behaviour?

  • What do you think the other person wanted to take care through their behaviour?

  • How do you want to go about constructively conveying your perspective in a conversation while at the same time be open to listening for the major concerns of the other person?

  • What mood is it essential for you to be in and how will your organize yourself to be in that mood?

  • What is the appropriate timing for the conversation so the other person is in an appropriate mood?

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