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You're Breaking Up


We use the phrase “you’re breaking up” too often these days to simply mean (or occasionally just pretend) that an electronic signal between us is no longer sufficient to sustain communication. It is often used to refer to the ending of a relationship, as if the only way a relationship ends is if it is broken. Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, once said “all three of my marriages were successful” With a Daughter's Eye. Sometimes the ending of a relationship can be the healthiest thing in the world. But it can also leave people pretty “broken up,” which means something a bit deeper than simply that their relationship ended. Sometimes it means that you yourself may feel broken or fragmented, and I want to talk about some of the ways in which that might be true. I remember being deeply in love when it became clear to me that, for quite good reasons, the relationship was ending. To say that I was not happy, was upset, or in shock, hardly captures the depth of feeling. I remember being so agitated that I needed to go for a long walk. I felt so fragmented, so vaporized, that even sitting down was not sufficient to anchor me well enough to dispel the feeling that I would simply cease to exist, or merely float away. The only relief I finally found was to pick up a hand-axe sized stone, and hold it close to my torso, as I walked. I still have that stone, now a fine paperweight, also weighty with memory.

There is another play within a play that is the synchronic slice of our momentary experience within the diachronic course of our biographies. Individual experiences come fraught with a lifetime of experiences that have shaped them and, given memory, continue to deeply inform them. Donald Nathanson points out in his 1992 Shame and Pride the nidus of love is in the affect between a needy infant and a solacing parent, so love implies not just a positive affect, but a sequence of negative and positive affects linked together into a scene. Our experience of the drama of love (again, not a state), is the lifelong accumulation of these sequences of need and solace. Love is a script in which the accumulated sequences of need and nurturance have been assembled and magnified. For each of us, love will uniquely depend on the specific scenes which we have accumulated and generalized, magnified by the excitement and joy we anticipate will reward our anguishing loneliness and need.

“The infant’s experience of the mother who responds with alacrity, who most easily enables the baby to achieve self-regulation when needy--this feeling forms the core of what it means to be loved. The infant’s experience of the mother who does not come, the mother who is unresponsive to the infant’s urgency, the mother who responds angrily to its need, forms the nidus of what it means not to be loved. When, with evident relief, lovers say ‘At last I’ve found you,’ they describe the astonishing degrees to which can be magnified these paired experiences of loneliness and redemption” (Nathanson 1992 p247). This echoes back to Adam’s ecstatic cry: “This at last is bone of my bones,and flesh of my flesh” in Genesis (2:23).

If there is a secular counterpart to “original sin,” o felix culpa, it is in the differentiation of our autonomy from the primary intersubjectivity whose existence research on empathy and the neurophysiology of social connection suggests. Despite the continued existence of complex biological synchronies between people, layers of ego-defenses protect us from the awareness of a mimetic engulfment which we otherwise continue to inhabit (read Bruce Wilshire’s 1990 The Moral Collapse of the University for some of the consequences). If you don’t believe me just spend some time watching gaggles of kids waiting for rides home after school. One kid makes some gesture and you can then watch a few more do the same thing. Even rapport in adult groups is reflected in motion synchronies, and if you watch video recordings of facial expressions, you’ll find mimicry of the first few fractions of a second of facial expressions before our well-learned adult masks get drawn over them. Indeed,you can even show people fear expressions to which their own galvanic skin responses (a measure of arousal) will go up, even if they cannot identify the face after you cover it with another. Of course these are exactly the expressions of empathy and shared expression that are completely abstracted out of our discourse in text-based communication, and capacities for empathy have dropped precipitously across a generation, while anxiety has soared The Narcissism Epidemic, iGEn. Such findings, census data across the same period showing a doubling of single person households, and other data showing increases above the 40% households of one person shown for urban areas since then.

There is plenty in the contemporary cognitive sciences to suggest that self and other have no intrinsic identity, our very subjectivity nested within the intersubjective empathies supported by our embodied and biologically interdependent lives. One of the lessons of our extended childhoods must certainly be how much our subjectivity is rooted in biologically embodied relationships with other human beings. Evan Thompson, in his 2007 Mind in Life argues that thinking about consciousness and subjectivity as interior is a distortion, as they depend so heavily on “the dynamic coupling of self and other in empathy.” This empathy is both tied to the “mirror neurons” that respond both to the action of another and plan for our own, as well as the affective resonance from reading and mimicking facial expressions automatically, how we feel what someone else feels. Higher levels of empathy include the ability to imagine oneself in another’s shoes,but also a mutual understanding of self and other produced by a reiterated experiencing of each other empathically, I feel how you feel about me. This is how we come to experience our own bodies as objects in an intersubjective world, inseparable from recognition by another and empathizing with that recognition. Seeing each other as persons worthy of concern and respect comes not from imposed rules, but from empathizing with the other as a mental agent whose point of view we can take. Full persons only exist in intersubjective relations with others.

It is not in ourselves but only in relation to others that we live and move and have our being. Stanley Grenz, in his encyclopedic 2001 The Social God and the Relational Self even suggests a link between the imago dei and human sexuality, our embodied existence including a yearning for completeness, for wholeness and connection beyond our separations and divisions. The last act of creation in Genesis is of gendered sexuality. It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). It is only in the presence of his counterpart, ‘ishshah, that Adam refers to himself as ‘ish, as male, and recognizes the debilitating solitude of sexual being, and the liberation bestowed by this relationship of mutual support, also central to community.

We are all “breaking up,” affected by the increasingly isolated, internally fragmented, and even empty self (Cushman's Constructing the Self, Constructing America). Our contemporary culture of indirect. Instant, distant, electronic communication, so readily available, attenuates our mimetic, face-to-face, embodied empathies. We protect our own vulnerability only at great cost to our capacities for real, loving intimacies with others, even as it allows our idealizations and projections to run unchecked by genuine relationship. Even religion has become commodified, as the title of Miller’s 2003 Consuming Rellgion suggests, and we are left only with our romantic longings, too often blind to the redemptive qualities of actual relationships. Our culture commodifies everything, abstracting things from their context, so we remain unaware (or defend ourselves from the awareness) of the working conditions in China producing that new iPad, and treat it as if it had intrinsic value independent of the system of exchange and interaction that presented it to us, or the uses to which it can be put. Our social fragmentation represents the same pattern of isolation and fragmentation, as separate domiciles no longer house extended families, but separated individuals, whose time is increasingly occupied with choices between commodities rather than interaction with other human beings. I remember a fierce tete-a-tete between my philosophy professor, James Hart, at Indiana University in the 70’s, when some hapless student, frustrated that Dr. Hart didn’t grasp his argument, fresh from The Fountainhead, for an understanding of friendship by its instrumental value. The kid finally threw up his hands and said “I think we’re having a communication breakdown.” Dr. Hart said “No, my dear young man, we’re not having a “communication breakdown,” we’re having an argument in which I am desperately trying to convince you that if you only have friends for their instrumental value, you really don’t have any friends.”

In one of the better papers, from a conference I co-organized in 2009 on “The Mythic Reality of the Autonomous Individual," was Steven Winter’s on “Reimagining Democratic Theory for Social Individuals”, published in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, in 2011 (also see his book A Clearing in the Forest). Winter points out that we all too often treat the self in the same bounded and commodified way. We treat the self, and its commitments and aims, in abstraction from its contingent, socially situated nature. This includes its own higher cognitive processes, which are not merely given, but must be nurtured to development. Winter focuses particular attention on the development of sexual autonomy. He reminds us that the sexual autonomy which has been the center of constitutional law for 50 years, while couched in the language of individual rights is not, in anything but its most narcissistic forms, something that one pursues alone. Sexual autonomy is not about individual privacy. Winter finds this somewhat surreal: “after all, when one is alone, one does not need a condom.” It also doesn’t apply equally to all individuals. If a man’s lover is pregnant, there is no way he can legally require her to have the baby. Alternatively, if he does not want children, there is not only no way he can stop her from having the child, but he is responsible for providing financial support. If sexual autonomy is a fundamental aspect of human flourishing it is because, as Plato points out in the Symposium, eros is a sexual desire that attaches to a person. It is something tha enables us to treat another being as the person they are, sex being an agency by which we respond to each other through our bodies: even at our most carnal, we are interested in a relationship between persons.

“It is an important area of emotional and psychological life wust learn how to take initiative with respect to my well-being, and do so in concert with others. Under modern social conditions in the West, it is the social domain in which teenagers and very young adults get their first real taste of freedom as they explore their sexuality outside the supervision of parents and most social institutions. INdeed, in the earliest stages of adulthood, sexuality is the domain in which we learn to be responsive and responsible to the other. The successful negotiation of sexuality, and ultimately, intimacy requires one to develop skills and values such as empathy, negotiation, compromise, cooperation, recognition of and respect for the other” (Winter 2011 p 242).

Intimate relationships are one of the primary ways that we seek recognition and establish identity, hence the havoc wreaked upon our sense of ourselves by the pathologies of intimacy, in narcissism, manipulation, and exploitation, or why childhood sexual abuse can destroy the very capacity for agency. An important part of what we expect from intimacy is someone who “sees me as I really am,” and one of the advantages it gives us is the comfort and confidence to be just that, ourselves. We establish our autonomy, our freedom, and our identity, finally, only on the fragile and vulnerable ground of our intimate interdependencies. While there are dangers when our self-boundaries are overwhelmed, intimacy requires us not only to guard them less zealously, but to open them, both to the other and to ourselves, asa the only way we can ever transcend ourselves, become more than we were, is in going beyond them, in the kenosis of pouring ourselves into things larger than ourselves. We too easily become inattentive to the ones closest to us, the ones who know us best, the only ones with whom we might find the other within, the deepest well of our being, in all our anxiety and vulnerability taking the risks without which we can never step outside ourselves to genuinely love.

Unfortunately, we habituate to another. We know them well enough that they mainly meet our expectations, or more often fail than exceed them. The early firework bursts of the neurochemistry of eros subside. Our critical faculties re-emerge from the initial benefit of the doubts. The reality of the two year half-life of romance begins to erode our bliss. This is all inevitable, physiologically, emotionally, and psychologically. The divorce rate hovers around 50%, and this doesn’t mean that many of those not ended are not broken. It is also predictable, and while mending breaks is possible, relationships can also reach the point that they may not be salvageable, and maybe shouldn’t be. Maybe you were misled. Maybe you were infatuated. Maybe things accepted should not have been. Maybe, in a complex and changing world with lots of access to a wider comparison pool, you changed, and in different ways. Maybe the the work you needed to do is done.

John Gottman has been working on what may mark relationship success and failure for a generation Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, and even if his predictions are not as accurate as he claims, he has certainly uncovered some of the most important signs. A lot of what Gottman and his colleagues have done is to present couples with topics on which they know they disagree and actually measure what happens. People are different, and everyone has disagreements, but how they manage those is what matters. The simple ratio is 5:1. When a relationship dips below the level of five positive or affirming remarks for each negative one, it is in trouble. Most happy relationships have ratios that are much higher. How people manage disagreements also matters, not so much because any one style is necessarily better than the others, but couples with styles that do not match are far less likely to succeed. There are the communicative ones, the ones that fit the nice therapeutic model of talking about difficulties and differences, and trying to calmly come up with solutions that are not only fair but integrative compromises, where both partners win. But couples who are both conflict avoidant can also succeed, though they may share less and less in the long run, and live joint lives that are unconflicted but separate. There are also the volatile couples, who may have intense disagreements, but equally intense reunions, though they run the danger of going too far during their excesses, and crossing lines beyond which there is no return. For anyone however, the “four horsemen of the marital apocalypse” are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. When these begin to appear with any regularity, it may be too late.

Many of the difficulties couples can run into are simply a matter of physiological arousal. There is an arousal X performance curve for every task, where low levels of arousal don’t provide enough energy to fuel the necessary actions, but very high levels of arousal also tend to reduce performance. Normally, for creative and novel tasks, the peak performance is at lower levels of arousal. You are not going to do your most creative work when you are under stress, or it is due tomorrow. You need to relax, take a breath, go for a walk, or play with the ideas a little. For overlearned or over-practiced tasks the peak performance is at a higher level. Coaches know to give a “pep” talk to players before they go out onto the field as their well-practiced tasks will be performed better. There are limits of course. Witness the mistakes that get made in the medal rounds of Olympic figure skating, when a later demonstration round will be flawless.

So when a couple can sit down and talk something through calmly, they are likely to come up more satisfactory solutions. Hence, sometimes a “cool down” period is important, or agreeing to discuss something when you are both in better moods. I had a marital therapist once who told me to wear a pulse watch, and any time my pulse was more than 10 BPM above normal, to table the discussion. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, that is hard to do. The problem is that the more aroused you are the more your attentional focus is narrowed (part of the fight-flight adaptation is keeping your attention on the threat, and ignoring everything else). In the context of an argument, that means that not only will you be less likely to come up with a creative solution, but you are likely to have the same unresolved arguments over and over, raising the specter of the four horsemen. When this pattern is common enough in the course of your interchanges, one or the other may reach the point where the very presence of the other person raises one’s level of tension, making it all the more harder for resolving difficulty and, ultimately, producing long-term stress effects like higher blood pressure, muscular tension, and the production of stress hormones which make you better prepared for fight or flight, but less able to do the rest and repair necessary for your very health. Once one of the partners reaches this level it is probably too late. I remember in the months before I finally moved out, that being home with two little kids on my own was less stressful than when my then-wife was there, and I would feel my body relax when I got in the car to go to work.

And, oh yeah, despite needing to remember the overlapping curves of male and female differences, who tends to arouse sooner and quicker? Yep, the male, which also means it may be he that reaches the uncomfortable level where he needs to “stonewall,” shut down, or slam the door and walk out, which is exactly the worst and most stressful, and most damaging to her sense of herself. Remember the discussion of gender differences in identity in “Shame on You”? Moreover, despite his arousing quicker, he also returns to baseline quicker. Not so much an advantage during sexual interaction, but here, her tendency to stay aroused longer also means she bears the greater long-term damage. I think the arousal performance differences are important to understand in any number of contexts. One of the reason I tell other parents that, in the case of a child, getting angry means you have already lost. So, yeah, calm down, just count to ten at least, before you hurt someone, or say something hurtful, or show contempt.

So what is the fate of romance over time? In his 2002 Can Love Last? The analyst Stephen Mitchell comes to the conclusion that virtually everything we do to make our love “safe” is a nail in its coffin. Current ideals put vitality, creativity, and authenticity higher than safety and stability. The problem may lie in the unacknowledged role of aggression and even sadism in sexual desire, as a redress of the humiliations we all suffered as children. Maybe “spankable” makes sense as a description of a love object for a man whose mother administered the “board of education.” Does the very caring that develops in long-term relationships, in reducing aggression make it less likely for them to be erotic? Mitchell thinks not: “The momentary aggressive fantasies I generate in relation to strangers are nothing compared with the intensity of the homicidal fantasies I harbor toward those I live with and love most deeply. And the effectiveness and danger of aggression are directly proportionate to how much one knows about its target” (p 141). There is a vulnerability, even helplessness that comes with desire may means that romantic love is always on a razor’s edge with humiliation. Romance may be fragile because of these counterparts, and sustaining it may require a delicate balance between them. Excitements, or even their memory, may always signal the danger, and feeding hurts and resentments may be a necessary reminder of these dangers. Risk management can easily become sexual dysfunction, since diminished excitement can serve both self-protection and revenge. But a collusion of lowered expectations, fed by familiarity and predictability, can also empty out passion. Love is necessarily dangerous, as it generates the very hopes, longings, and dependencies that risk humiliation. Without risk, there is no gain, and when someone knows you as well as you know yourself, and sometimes better, the risks are even greater. One rule of thumb I once heard was that the first seven years (the average length of American relationships) are mainly projection, the next seven are getting to know the other (and the other in oneself), with the risks and vulnerabilities, but also potential excitements of that knowledge.

The person I understand myself to be is in my stories. The actual past is too complicated, too contradictory, too full of details. Having a self means having a protagonist who acts and is acted upon. Without such stories, without this narrative center, there is no self. Again, Mitchell: “For most of us, our romantic fate, the account of our romantic life, is a central, recurrent narrative within the stories we tell others about ourselves and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves to maintain a sense of who we are. And no romantic narrative, if it is to avoid degenerating into a fairy tale (and they lived happily ever after), is without pain, hurt and loss” p147). Organized along an axis of self-pity and guilt, they take the form of victimization, of being betrayed or abandoned, of “She done me wrong,” or of a betrayal by oneself, “I was a fool.” As B.B King said: “That is why I sing the Blues.”