Willingness

My therapist has been saying some things about willingness.  In my context, it’s the willingness to go on, to get out of bed in the morning and to live.  In another context, I was thinking about what is really happening in relationships, why with some people and at some times it feels easy to forgive, easy to let go of small things, easy to accept that we’re loved, and with other people or the same people at other times it is so impossibly difficult.  And why in those difficult times no amount of talking, no amount of “good communication skills” seems to help.  All the conversations go around and around and nothing is resolved.  In the worst case, the communication skills are deployed to belittle the other.  We articulately criticize each others’ technique, and say “no wonder this isn’t working, you haven’t used the 3-step process (or whatever) even once this week”.

This gels with what I read (and believe) about how skills-based approaches to relationship therapy don’t really work.  The skills might need improving.  But that is never the real problem.  A couple with good will can improve their skills easily and without stress, if they need to and once they decide to.  A couple in strife will be in strife no matter how good their skills are.
What really makes a relationship work, and what makes a relationship fail?  If it’s not about skills, and it’s not about finding that one true soulmate, what is it?  Compatibility is a real thing, but it’s a narrowing of the pool of potential partners, not a drastic reduction down to that one person who we can only hope to come across through the kindness of fate.
Maybe it just comes down to willingness.  How much do we want it?  Yes, there’s a whole lot of button pushing and reacting that can and should be weeded out as far as possible.  But we know if both partners are willing, that can be done.  It seems simplistic, but in every breakup there is a moment where one or both people say – “you know what?  I just don’t want this anymore”.  Even if only to themselves.  Maybe not even fully to themselves.
Plumbing the depths of why we want what we want is always a journey into justification and rationalisation.  We can come up with a million narratives that explain why we want what we want, all of them plausible and self-consistent, and no way to know if any one is any truer than any other.  All we can know is – are we saying “yes”, or are we saying “no”?  It’s a devastatingly important question, and it’s terrible to think that something so central to our happiness is so little amenable to rational thought.  But maybe that’s the way it is.  That’s the one thing we can be clear about.  Even discerning “yes” from “no” can be hard enough, and often enough we are only clear about it in hindsight through an examination of our own behaviour.
Maybe we should be aiming, not for understanding, but for clarity.
After the end of a relationship we emerge from a confusing, messy process of accusations and recriminations, heartfelt pleas, reconciliations that don’t last, guilt, anger, and all the rest.  And somewhere down the track, when we can think a little more clearly, we can look back and think – that moment; that is when I stopped wanting it; everything else after that was just fallout and denial and a rocky journey to acceptance of the truth of that moment.  Or, maybe, if things work out, later we can recognize – that was the time when we both looked at each other and thought: “You know what?  All these issues we are so heated about?  I just don’t care about them.  Not that much.  All I care about is that I want you.  Let’s start again from that place.”.
If a relationship fails – if we fail at that relationship –  it’s because one of us stopped wanting it.  And if it worked, it’s not because all the differences were worked out, all the issues were resolved, and the conflict stopped.  It’s just because we decided we wanted it, enough to live with the compromises.
In that context, relationship therapy is to some extent a waiting game.  Over time, if the time is taken, the distractions of right and wrong can fade in importance and can be replaced by compassion and desire, for or against.  The arguments can give way to a simple but difficult – and individual – question: do I want this?  While waiting for that moment of clarity,  the skills building exercises can at best be an opportunity to demonstrate willingness, although at worst they can also be obfuscating noise.  Either way, progress through some therapeutic process doesn’t and can’t predict what the answer will be.  All it can to is remove some of the confusion around when a decision point has been reached, and what that decision is.
What to do with the rest of the whirl of post-processing that happens after a breakup?  The reasons, the motivations, the failures in communication, the justifications .  Yes, let’s strive to understand, let’s think and reflect and contemplate.  But let’s be realistic about how solid that ground can be.  It’s analysis without synthesis, informative in its own right, but without a conclusion.  Beyond all of that is something as irreducible as yes or no.
Understanding that willingness is at the heart of relationships doesn’t provide a toolbox or a technique to make things work.   But maybe it puts some important boundaries on what we can and can’t achieve.  We can’t draw a line between our rationalisations and our decisions.  Once we accept that, the rationalisations can become a little less fevered.  We can stop flinging them at each other like arrows, as if somehow shooting each other down is going to bring back love.  We can hope to accept our fundamental powerlessness in face of an unwilling partner.  Finally, we can accept the sadness of that “no” or the joy of that “yes” in its awful and beautiful simplicity.
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