How My 91 Year Old Relative Showed Me The Secret To A Powerful Relationship
What the difference is between loneliness and aloneness, and how dependency can destroy a relationship. Although she remembers family life long ago, she has lost her emotional strength.
I recently visited a relative of mine who is 91 years old. She doesn’t get out of the house much these days, she suffers from dementia and is locked in her loneliness. Although people go in to see her every day and others come and take her out on trips she doesn’t remember much, if anything, about this. So when she sits on her own in front of the TV in the evening she feels lonely and is lonely, because she remembers nothing of the events of the day, all she can remember is the distant past of family life and activity, so she feels lonely.
Her dementia locks her in her prison, but do those of us with our full faculties need to be locked in our prison. What is the prison I am talking about? Is it loneliness or dependency? Both, I think, can be prisons that distort our view of the world.
After I left and divorced my wife of thirty years, I lived in a one bedroom flat on my own. It was the first time I had ever lived on my own. On the one hand I felt liberated and excited, on the other I felt lonely. When I met a girl I wanted to have a relationship with I pursued her and determined to create an amazing relationship with her. She resisted this because I wanted it too much.
I stepped back and looked at what was happening and realised that I was trying to fill a void, I was trying to get rid of my loneliness. I discovered that I was not going to create a great relationship until I could let go of the need to have one. I found that difficult for a while and set about understanding my situation.
Osho, an Indian mystic, guru and spiritual teacher, helped me to understand what was happening with his distinction between loneliness and aloneness.
Loneliness is what I was describing at the beginning. Osho explained it as follows:
Man ordinarily lives in loneliness. To avoid loneliness, he creates all kinds of relationships, friendships, organizations, political parties, religions and what not. But the basic thing is that he is very much afraid of being lonely. Loneliness is a black hole, a darkness, a frightening negative state almost like death, as if you are being swallowed by death itself. To avoid it, you run out and fall into anybody, just to hold somebody's hand, to feel that you are not lonely. Nothing hurts more than loneliness.
I see many relationships created out of this fear. My first marriage, I realise now, came out of this. Frequently these relationships don't work and end in disaster. People find that the other person does not fill the void, the gap that exists. More often they exacerbate it and create even greater fear.
Osho goes on to say,
The day you decide that all these efforts are failures, that your loneliness has remained untouched by all your efforts, that is a great moment of understanding. Then only one thing remains: to see whether loneliness is such a thing that you should be afraid of, or if it is just your nature. Then rather than running out and away, you close your eyes and go in. Suddenly the night is over, and a new dawn. The loneliness transforms into aloneness.
Aloneness is your nature. You were born alone, you will die alone. And you are living alone without understanding it, without being fully aware of it. You misunderstand aloneness as loneliness; it is simply a misunderstanding. You are sufficient unto yourself.
I discovered aloneness as a powerful, positive state to be in. I came to understand myself and enjoy my own company, I ceased to need others to fill my void, I was able to do it myself. I let go of the need to be in a relationship, but not the desire. The desire was about the woman not about myself. What I hadn't expected was that as soon as I fully embodied this state the woman I was interested in became interested in me. I no longer needed her and so became attractive to her.
We married and love our life together. We spend most of our time together but don't depend on each other. We are capable of aloneness, of being on our own, but love being together.
Jed Diamond in a recent post on the Good Men Project, 5 Little-Known Secrets Couples Need To Know About The Science of Love, talked about his confusion over dependency between couples,
Like most of the people in Western society, I believed that "dependency" was something I needed to avoid like the plague. I believed that a "real man" was strong, independent, and self-sufficient. He didn't complain and he never showed his weaknesses. To a lesser degree women are also raised to value independence and see dependence as a weakness to be overcome.
"Again, this is backwards," says Johnson. Far from being a sign of frailty, strong emotional connection is a sign of mental health. It is emotional isolation that is the killer. We know that men live sicker and die sooner than women and the suicide rate is 2 to 18 times higher for men than for women. The main reason, I believe, is that men have fewer social supports than women do. We associate manliness with independence and dependence with 'wispiness'.
The confusion is that he equates dependency with the strong emotional connection we need in our lives. For me dependency is the attempt to fill the void of loneliness, it's using the other person to complete ourselves, to make ourselves feel whole.
This is an unhealthy emotional connection, the one that destroys relationships. Aloneness, on the other hand, is where we find our own strength and let go of the need to have others fill our void. Through aloneness we can build genuine, strong emotional connections that support both people in the relationship.
The emotional isolation that Jed refers to is more to do with a refusal to be ourselves and be happy with ourselves. Like my 91 year old relative we ignore all that happens in our lives and just focus on the lack, the loneliness. Yes, men need social support but not to enable dependency but to support self-sufficiency. This is not manliness but a sign of emotional strength.
The danger in the idea that Jed talked about is the idea that men cannot be emotionally strong on their own, the idea that they need a woman to support them. Both partners should only approach a relationship from their own emotional strength, then they can find the spark that creates the electricity in the relationship, the excitement that makes them want to be together.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs puts love or belonging above the physiological and safety needs of people. We need to have our basic needs met before we even think of connecting with other people. We focus the our security needs and our need to stay alive, be fed and watered. Then follows our need to belong to groups, to society, to other people. This may seem to be a need for dependency, I see it as a need for connection, for understanding.
Remember that at the top of Maslow's hierarchy is the need for self-actualisation. This is where the sense of aloneness comes from. This level of need refers to what a person's full potential is and the realization of that potential. That potential comes from within themselves and is not dependent on others.
How does this work out in real life, what are the consequences of all this?
It simply means that emotional strength comes from believing in yourself before you use someone else's belief in you. What you think means more than what others think, no matter how seductive that can be.
My aged relative spent most of her life living in her own strength. She did not rely on others and believed implicitly in her own abilities in this world. The sadness of the dementia is that this this has gone leaving her without her own self-confidence, and so very alone. Although she remembers family life long ago, she doesn't remember how much of it came from her, she has lost the emotional strength that was once at the core of her life.
Love Is Not Arousal
Perhaps the only thing that is more suspicious than a father being affectionate with his daughter, is a father being affectionate with his son! It's a generational issue. If we show our emotions we allow others to be open and authentic.
Hugging and Kissing
I am a man and I have two sons who are now in their thirties. They are perfectly normal, well-adjusted men and we hug and kiss in public. This is not some overt display of family emotion: it's just something we do. Am I supposed to worry about this, about what people might feel? Am I supposed to feel guilty and see the finger of suspicion pointing at me?
Last year I was working in a small church in Ireland, re-designing the lighting. I was in a design meeting with the architect and the priest (it was a Catholic church) and I found myself intrigued by some of the work that was proposed.
There was the re-design of the confessional that put a glass door in the front. There was the building of a mezzanine floor in the sacristy so the choirboys could change separately from the men and priests. I enquired about these, to be told by the priest that these were now a requirement because of the revelations about the terrible misdeeds of many Catholic priests.
The priest was quite unconcerned about the needs for these changes; he felt no personal guilt for the terrible happenings but recognized that the Church needed to feel a sense of public recognition, even guilt, for the situation. If strategic architectural changes meant the life of the Church could continue, then that was okay.
The problem with this is that all it does is feed people's paranoia. It does nothing to change what individuals may or may not do.
I feel the same about how I behave with my boys, and with others in my life. If I stopped showing my affectionate feelings I wouldn't actually change anything: it would just feed people's paranoia. If I really were a sexual predator I hardly think that I would call people's attention to it by such public displays.
I think that we help people to come to terms with their emotions by showing them that can display them openly. Here, I am talking specifically to men.
So many men are brought up to believe that showing emotion is a feminine trait. So many men fear how public displays of emotion might be interpreted by others. Instead of hugging, men slap each other's backs in a show of 'masculine' bravado. Men shake hands with their boys, fearing sexual tension if they bring their bodies together.
I openly kiss women and hug men—no back-slapping—and I put all my emotion into it. I rarely offend people. I kiss my gay male friends without any connotations or confusion.
Where, I wonder, does the guilt come in to such innocent displays of love? It's clear that if men have taken things too far and crossed boundaries,then they should feel guilty. If men have taken advantage of their sons or daughters, then they deserve our despising of them. But love between family and friends: should that create guilt?
Perhaps men are confused by the feelings stirred by close physical contact. Perhaps they find their daughter attractive or find they have a response to the physical power and strength in their son. That's understandable to me. I feel the power and energy in many people I have contact with, even my sons. I recognise them as men and enjoy the physical intimacy.
But I know the difference between close, warm physical intimacy and sexuality. I know when I am sexually aroused and when I feel intensely close to someone. I know the power of sexual polarity and I respond to it.
I feel strong sexual polarity with my wife, not with my family and friends. I know the difference.
Maybe that's where the guilt comes in. That's what causes the confusion: when men have not learned the difference between sexual polarity and strong emotion they get confused about what's going on and feel guilty. Where people in general get confused about this they see things that are not there and start accusing people.
I love sex and I feel sexual emotions powerfully. I am in a relationship where I can express these emotions and thoroughly enjoy my sexual urges. How would I be if I didn't have this?
Are men, as they are often presumed to be, just sexual predators who will prey on anyone they meet, including sons and daughters? Do men need to fill their sexual urges somehow? Are men incapable of controlling themselves?
For me the answer is 'no' to all of these questions. Sex is a powerful drive in men, but it can be controlled. There is no reason why men need to fear what they are going to do. Self-control does, however, require strength and maturity. It requires men to feel strong in themselves and proud of themselves as men.
I think this is achieved through emotional strength and authenticity. So I openly hug and kiss my sons so they can express their emotions and feel strong in the process. If I succumbed to feeling guilty and drew back, I would create in my sons the very guilt that makes people draw back.
In the end it's a generational issue. If, as men, we show our emotions we clear the air and allow future generations to be open and authentic. They will no longer need to feel guilt.