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How We Know Ourselves: d. Intimately

There is a real paradox in intimate relationships. No one wants to be alone, but for someone to be really with you, especially to be a life partner, means you have to get to know each other extremely well, both in your strengths and your weaknesses, your virtues and your vices. The paradox is that in order to attract and develop a relationship with someone, you have to start out putting your best foot forward. You put on the clothes that are the most complimentary, you flirt and engage in conversations on topics you think another will find interesting, and make you seem interesting. You tell the stories in which you did well, accomplished something, or were admired by others. You need to make yourself stand out. You don’t lie, exactly, and it is probably a better strategy in the long run to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, but it is rarely the whole truth. We feel emotion only when things do not happen exactly as we expect them to happen, else we don’t really feel much at all. And in the early stages what most blows us away is to meet someone who exceeds our expectations (and in turn, when we exceed theirs). But that can’t really be sustained. While we are sometimes surprised to find out new amazing things about someone we didn’t know before (“you were an epiphany”), there are fewer and fewer of those, and getting to know someone better and better is going to increasingly involve finding out more and more about the things about which they are decidedly less proud. These confessions and revelations are certainly also important to getting to know each other better, even though what you are learning about them is less and less positive. When it goes well, and you reveal something about yourself that you maybe don’t like so well, or others did not like in you, you find that it is accepted by this person with whom you are becoming closer and closer. What does “closer and closer” mean if not that you are getting to know someone better and better, and they you? But I think there is always that risk, especially in a developing relationship, where one of you might actually even feel betrayed because the other turns out to “not be who you thought they were.” Happily, there is a brain chemistry which means that in the early “falling in love” stage, your critical capacities are actually suspended, or at least inhibited. We give each other the benefit of the doubt. This is probably important for the development of relationships, but it is difficult to sustain in circumstances where there is no doubt about what someone did. This is probably why the half-life of that wonderful feeling of being “in love” is about two years. Zick Rubin did some research a generation ago and discovered of couples who described themselves as being in love, two years later about half no longer are. The advice I regularly give younger people (also borne of my own sad experience), is not to even think about making a more serious commitment until you have been with someone for at least two years.

So what is happening as you get to know someone better and better? There is less and less that actually exceeds your expectations, though there may be more and more that produces emotional responses because it fails them. Part of the problem is, as Woody Allen once put it (back when we didn’t think he was such a creep), that relationships are like sharks, who have to keep moving or they will drown. The better you know someone, the more they do what you expect them to do. But when someone just does what you expect them to do, you tend to feel less of anything at all: you habituate. Too many relationships that end, end because one or the other partner says “I just don’t feel the same about you.” Well, duh. Emotions are about breakdowns or slippages in expectation, and the more you know about someone the less likely that is. There are really two kinds of breakups produced by this decrement of feeling (never mind the ones produced by serious unhappy violations of expectation). The kind where the partners feel less about each other because they are living more and more independent and separate lives, where what the other does has less and less of an effect. Breaking up doesn’t change much. But there are also the kind where couples have become so interdependent that they are no longer aware how much they are. Then they break up and suddenly feel horrible as all the needs that were being met by the other no longer are. These are the couples actually served by breakups, which draw all this to their attention, and often get back together. It’s also behind much in the way of grief, when a relationship is truly ended. I remember, about a week after my father’s death, when my mother burst into tears one morning because there was no coffee made. She was the real caffeine addict, but it was my father who, perhaps originally out of self-protection, always made the morning coffee.

Now, there is certainly a positive side to all this habituating to regularly met expectations: the pressure to change and, hopefully, improve. When I was courting my first wife, I once brought her a dozen roses. She was elated. It was unexpected: indeed, it exceeded all expectations as no one had ever done this for her before. A good date night. So, when I bought her a dozen roses for our anniversary, she was happily reminded of our courtship. Another good date night. So, for our second anniversary, I made sure to stop by the flower shop on the way home. The roses made her happy, and we enjoyed a nice restaurant meal. By our third anniversary, I was a bit harried, and forgot to order the roses ahead of time, but found some after several stops. Her response “Well, at least you remembered.” We even had a date that night. But the next year, walking in the door with a smile on my face, and a dozen roses, she burst into tears “You just got me the damn roses again.” No date that night. Obviously, I hadn’t given it, or her, enough thought to do something new.

When people change, and grow, they will develop new skills and abilities, even new goals, and reset expectations, ideally supporting each other in taking on new challenges, or defeating new threats. But just as in the early stages of a relationship, where each new revelation runs the risk of derailing an accumulation of positive experiences, it is hard to sustain a continuous sequence of changes that are always appreciated by one’s partner, and one no longer has the suspension of critical capacities as in the romantic early days. There is a tendency in lasting, successful relationships (and I am not one of those that believe that a relationship is successful merely because it has lasted) for couples to not only sustain the expectation that “we will get through this, too” as they accumulate a corpus of challenges met and crises averted, or at least survived, but even develop the habit of trying to give their partner credit for their virtues, and their efforts, even when they fail. We can and do make each other better people, even if those improvements are constructed by each partner seeing things in the other that the other did not see, or perhaps, weren’t previously there. The rule of thumb is that the first seven years of any relationship are largely projective, where each partner is projecting their own idealized image of the other, hopefully also seeing them for who they want to become rather than who the other wants them to become.

I think, however, that in addition to providing help and support, and the comfort of being known well by at least one person, that intimate relationships are also the best, if not the only place, where we can learn so much about ourselves. It is a truism that one really can best, if not only hear about the things one might rather not know about oneself from someone with whom one has a relationship of support and trust. If my enemy, or even a stranger, tells me something bad I said or did, something I might rather not hear, I am as likely as not to become defensive, deny it, blame someone else, or even project my own faults onto another. But that is harder to do with someone who you believe has your best interest at heart. Your best friends aren’t just the ones who tell you what you want to hear, they are the ones who also tell you what you need to hear, even if you would rather not hear it. That’s also why interventions from beloved family and friends are what is necessary to overcome symptoms of mental health difficulties that may be the hardest to overcome, and the symptom which is preliminary to getting serious professional help, denial that one has a problem at all.

I remember what it took for me to finally get the serious help I needed for a depression I’d probably been fighting most of my life, when two colleagues and friends ambushed me over a lunch in one of their homes: “You are at the top of your game. You are professionally successful, doing some of the best work you have ever done, your students admire you and aspire to be like you, and you have amazing children that love you. But you feel like shit. We’re here to tell you that if you don’t immediately get some professional help, we will see that you do, voluntary or not.” Since I had recently woken up and put a pistol in my mouth “just to see what it tasted like,” wept in front of my children at the mall on the anniversary of Nagasaki, and found myself crying at the sad implications of a Yield sign, I knew they were right. “I felt a sadness so deep I went to Auschwitz to justify it.” Even the black humor of being asked, at the kiosk outside, whether I wanted my bottle of water with “gas, or no gas,” this was obviously not going to work. Obvious to everyone else but me. My two friends saved my life.

It is one’s denials, one’s self-deceptions, that it may be impossible to learn about or face without the closeness of intimate others. It may also be that some of one’s own “golden shadow,” the things about oneself that one projects onto another when falling in love, that one can only come to see in the context of a relationship, or at the end of it, is why one should not necessarily mourn the loss of what was really part of you all along. Or even better, learning about those virtues that are hard to accept because they require taking more responsibility, or accepting challenges one otherwise would have been chary to accept. Had a colleague not once told me, to my surprise, and initial denial, that I was a “natural leader,” I might never have become president of what was, for many years, my primary identity Institute, on Religion in an Age of Science. I am however, still baffled that someone once told me “everyone says what a gracious man you are,” that I was just so deeply into the depths of a loss that I didn’t think it worthwhile, as co-organizer of a conference, to “judge anyone, even when everyone else knows they are wrong.” We all have plenty to learn, particularly about our self-deception, but I will save that topic for a final blog on knowing ourselves by telling stories to ourselves. By the way, I do think that another part of the reason relationships may end after seven years is not just the itch of novelty, but in flight from the truths that your partner saw in you before you did, and perhaps had difficulty disabusing you of their denial. On some level, this can be terrifying, and yes, it does mean your loving partner has rather more power over you than you might remotely desire, and can make you more vulnerable than you have ever been.

There are certainly vulnerabilities every step of the way, both in forming and sustaining any close relationship. But then, vulnerability and spontaneity are the two sides of the same coin, and you really can’t have one without the other, as “Danger and delight grow on the same stalk.” I used to draw a circle on the board in which I would write “your comfort zone,” and then in a completely separate circle “the best moments of your life.” Protecting yourself from vulnerability by restricting communication to well edited texts will surely make you less vulnerable. But it will also make you a lot more lonely, as it almost automatically means you are making it harder for people to get closer to you, to get to know you, to see your face and feel what you feel, or to actually, bodily do anything with you, from talking a quiet walk or holding hands, to dancing, or more vigorous and exciting things. Like whitewater rafting.

Our very selfhood is constituted by and within our accumulated history of your interactions with other people, so what you know about yourself is embedded in that history. Our very characteristics as persons are formed within that history. “It is through others that we become ourselves,” as Vygotsky so wonderfully put it. We are, as the philosopher Charles Taylor, in one of the most influential books of the latter 20th century Sources of the Self, put it, set within a “web of interlocution,” including but not limited to language-based face-to-face conversations. While time alone and quiet may be essential to do the processing and the ruminating to decide what is genuinely ours and what we are channeling from others, without dialogue it is hard to adequately understand ourselves. Our existence as selves is fundamentally relational, and can only be formed, be “tried out” in the dialogue without which our sense of ourselves can only be fantasy. Early childhood attachment is critical. Early experiences involving our attachment with parents and other caregivers produces within each of us a basic model for what to expect from all human relations. If they are secure, we become selves around a model of other persons who can be trusted to interact in consistent and caring ways; if inconsistent, threatening, or chaotic, a child develops an insecure attachment style, presuming a self that is inadequate to a healthy attachment with others, and there is evidence that this extends into the romantic relationships of young adulthood. I would like to think that a cute little boy like my son is being formed as a person who pleases people by his very presence, and whose smile can ease almost any interchange. Knowing this makes him fearless in his approaches to others, and one day, we dearly hope, he will be the kind of adult whose “cup runneth over,” and who has so much of himself left over that he can heal the insecurities of others, and reassure them of who they are. Being secure in the loving attention of his parents and wider family now, he will be better able to make others feel secure in themselves later.

While our relational lives may constitute and sustain us, they are, in perhaps even more important ways, actually part of us. If our minds can extend beyond the boundaries of our skin to our tools and artifacts, especially those which are informationally laden, why not into and through the most important of external entities, those other people who are near and dear to us. The extension of the mind is at its most potent when what is engaged outside the boundaries of our skin is another person, both what is within their skin, and with what they, too, have extended themselves (Clark 2008). Say two friends, or even a teacher and a student are having a discussion, where the associations produced by each become the cues for the associations of the other, reciprocally, so each becomes a cognitive extension of the other. Is there any real demarcation between the mental processes of one and the other. So the mental processes involved aren’t just located inside the skin of one or the other. The mind doing the work is a joint mind, and we might even say we were “of the same mind.” I used to tell my students that an idea that emerged in a discussion between us did not have to be cited to one or the other, unless it was clear who contributed it, and it often was not. I had some pretty bright students. Long term partnerships, in marriage or otherwise, may involve the partners’ deeper mapping of each other into their self-understanding, and each becomes an extension of the other. Sometimes the cognitive extensions are explicit, like “he always remembers who they saw on their trips,” or “she does the finances,” but most of it will be implicit, and we aren’t even aware of our cognitive reliance on the other, say when “babe, would you remind me to x” is as much a reminder to oneself, but may be aided by “what was it you said yesterday in the car you wanted to remember?” This even extends further than dyads.

Cognitive activity In the Wild, to use the title of Edwin Hutchins’ book by that title, may be distributed across agent-environment systems, including social ones. Hutchins’ research on group-level effects in navigational tasks quite clearly documents the expansion of cognitive systems beyond individual biologies. But anyone who has ever been a member of a trivia group at a local pub has seen this: “What was the name of the female prisoner in Hateful Eight?” One person makes the association to “that female star in the movie where Rhett says ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.’,” and the next says, “Oh, that’s from Gone with the Wind, what Rhett says to Scarlet O’Hara at the end, when he has finally had it with her.” Then a third says; “Yeah, Vivien Leigh.” The first person now recovers the name: “Jennifer Jason Leigh.” There are lots of examples of why group trivia games are not just the efforts of single individuals, where the memory task is distributed. There may be a sports specialist, a pop culture specialist, and a science specialist, but there may be times that remote associations are clearly a group product. This is especially clear in the cognitive and social extension provided by families for young children, and can become a problem for teenagers whose differentiation may suffer, say when parentally-dependent study skills are suddenly dropped in the collegiate environment, or even riskier behavior is attempted. So the self-to-be-known includes others, as our minds include and incorporate interaction-dependent cognition, with different others, at different times and places.

Personal identity itself may be made possible by the evolution of a human neuropsychology which requires many years of social interdependence for its development. Our nervous systems are sufficiently plastic that they actually require such shaping, scaffolding our emotional regulation, our attachments, and our cognitive repertoires. Hence, it is likely that, given the hypertrophy of the frontal cortex over the course of evolution, it colonizes brain function in ways which will include socially constructed virtual realities (what is a “college,” what is “money”?), novel forms of experience (“texting,” “selfies”), and the transforming effects of mythic, ideological and religious systems.

A now 25-year old book by Donald Nathanson on Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self, one of the best books on emotion I have ever read, pointed out that a “hardwired” neural affect system gets shaped into emotional patterns by the social scripts laid down during our lengthy developmental dependency. These include second-order emotions, the development of independence, autonomy, and relations of intimacy and power. Pride, guilt, and shame are emotions about other emotions, and involve expansions and contractions of self-boundaries (like hiding in shame, or swelling with pride). Even if the affect systems are strictly biological, it is the production of regular patterns of emotion, and their later recall, that are the bases of our personal dramas. These dramas are not only heavily dependent upon the domestic dynamics of a particular moment in history and culture, but are likely to shape our extremely plastic and immature nervous systems in ways that may often be irrevocable. If nothing else, our extended childhoods are rooted in biologically embodied relationships with other human beings, with whom we may not only offload memory, but distribute cognitive and emotional tasks across them. Some of these we may ultimately interiorize as our own, but many remain distributed. In any case, they may neither begin nor currently function entirely within individual nervous systems. Again, individual nervous systems are necessary parts, but often proper parts of wider cognitive and emotional functioning, which must be part of self-understanding.

Research on empathy and the neurophysiology of social interconnectedness suggests that intersubjectivity is primary, and from which autonomy must be differentiated. Self and other may have no intrinsic identity, and our subjectivity may be preceded by an intersubjectivity produced by empathies running deeply beneath our embodied and interdependent biological lives (see Evan Thompson’s 2007 Mind in Life). Empathy exists in our involuntary and sensorimotor coupling, mediated both by “mirror neurons,” and by the affective resonance made possible by our capacity to read and mimic facial expressions automatically, and by which we feel what someone else is feeling. The measurable nonverbal duet in empathy includes matched patterns of arousal and even complimentary breathing (see Daniel Goleman’s 2006 Social Intelligence). We may come to experience our own bodies as objects in the world by the reiterated experience of seeing each other as experienced empathically by the other. My very sense of self-identity in the world, at the basic level of embodied agency, is built on grasping my recognition by another empathically, rendering human subjectivity as intersubjectivity from the outset, configured by the web of our symbolic culture.

Finally, we establish our autonomy, our freedom, and our identity only in the fragile and vulnerable ground of our intimate interdependencies. There are surely dangers when our self-boundaries are overwhelmed, but intimacy requires us to open them, both to another, and to ourselves, as the only way we can ever grow and develop into larger persons is by going beyond them. We long for the kenosis of pouring ourselves into things greater than ourselves. We too easily forget those closest to us, who know us best. They are the others that matter the most, and with whom we may find the “other” within ourselves. Stepping outside ourselves to genuinely love can only be done in the anxiety and vulnerability of this exposure. Like the Buddhists, we may find that an egocentric attachment to a mentally imputed self is the real source of all suffering. Opening oneself to an intersubjectivity prior to imputations of “self” and “other” may be a route to the empathic imagination necessary for a genuine ethic. It may be that what we are about is outside ourselves, is other. What we are, even as individuals, are not internal spaces tenuously connected to each other, but literally, and externally, composed of each other. We know each other bodily. Our quest for loving relationships is at odds with post-modern isolation of the individual, and the fragmentation of self and meaning, in which ideas of disembodied souls, of minds separated from the body and the world, have contributed.