Tag Archives: relationship

Where love grows

As Robin pointed out in yesterday’s comments, when it comes to need, what most of us hunger for is relationship. We have a deep drive for intimate bonding with other humans, and without that we feel adrift. Perhaps at the heart of our obsession with things is a belief that owning the right things will turn us into attractive potential mates for others. Let’s face it, that’s the subtext in most advertising.

If hooking up was the answer, the world would be a much simpler place. But it isn’t. It may be the greatest need we have is for love, but answering that need is one of the hardest things to do. Even in a relationship it is entirely possible to feel lonely, miserable and unsatisfied, if the other cannot supply us with what we want. It takes more than ‘I love you’ to convince most people they are loved. In the shallows of romantic gestures, we don’t really find soul satisfaction.

I think some people get round this by turning to God. Once you style your deity as unconditional love personified, then so long as you can hold that belief, you have all the love you need for as long as you need it, and no call to fret over those difficult human interactions. God isn’t messy, won’t stain the sheets or abandon you for a friend. But at the same time, God will not lie next to you in the small hours and stroke your hair. There’s nothing physical about divine love. The religions of the book sidestep this by denigrating all things physical elevating the spiritual. Thus love of God is better. I guess if you can hold that belief, it may keep you going. I can’t and don’t. It’s the messy, complicated, sheet stained human reactions I’ve always hankered after. Which is one of the reasons I’m a pagan.

But if there’s one thing to be said for people, it’s that you can’t trust them. They can’t always be there when you need them, they don’t magically know how to fix everything. Sometimes they stop loving you back. Sometimes they die. Loving people is a risky sort of activity, a constant courting of betrayal and disappointment. And still we do it, and still we long for it above all else.

On the whole we’re under a lot of cultural pressure to pair-bond with one other human, and stick with that. A single, obsessive love that lasts us all our lives and fulfils our every need. Up until recently, that would have been specifically a heterosexual love as well. Can any one person be all things to another? Almost certainly not. Should we ask that of anyone? Hell no. It’s too much, a crippling degree of need and responsibility.

It’s in some ways easier to love another human deeply, and fearlessly, if we aren’t trying to make them ‘everything’. Some people get round this by being polyamorous. But for those who crave monogamy, there are still ways. We need to place our love for each other in the context of a wider care. The more openly, broadly and completely we love, the less fearful we need to be. What matters is the love that we feel, not what is returned to us. When you let go of seeking the return it all becomes a lot easier. Having my heart broken by other humans, I learned to love the sky and the land, the wind, sun and shifting seasons. I came to love the rhythm of my own feet upon the earth, and the deep darkness of night. Non-human loves, are a bit like divine love in that they don’t go away. They give back to us as we love them. They are not a substitute for human love, but they put it in a different, more manageable context.

People are flawed, unreliable, fickle, perplexing creatures. We seldom make much sense to each other. Accepting that, with patience and compassion, loving the essence of humanity whilst recognising the failings, we can be more peaceful with each other. That terrible, ravening hunger that demands you be all things to me, is lessened. We find acceptance. Learning to love people as they are, embracing the things I struggled with, and seeking nothing in return, got me through some very hard times. And then if you find someone who can do the same thing for you, whole new possibilities open up. While you’re looking, don’t drown voluntarily in the noise of modernity or bury yourself in gadgets, learn to love the stars, and the sound of your own heartbeat. Trust me, it helps.

Love and Pain

I don’t think I’ve ever been significantly wounded by a stranger, in body or in mind. Statistically, you’re more likely to be raped, assaulted or murdered by someone you know well, than by some random nutter. It’s the people we love and trust who have the most power to injure us, and that’s a lesson most people learn quickly.

It’s a very natural response to want to avoid that kind of pain once you’ve been close to it. Only where there is deep trust can there be the anguish of betrayal. If we do not trust, we cannot be betrayed in that way again. Only the people we love unconditionally, utterly, with all our hearts, hold the power to break us entirely. And sometimes they do. Some of them do it because they do not love us in return. But not all. The hardest ones of all are the folks who shred us, and love us, and still need us to love them in return.

We do not ever get to keep anyone. Loss is inevitable, because if nothing else does it, death will divide us from everything, so far as we know.

For a long time, I saw no difference between love and pain. The measure of how much I loved was also the measure of how much pain I experienced. I opened to love conscious that I was also opening myself to wounding. There was no shortage of wounding. The nature of love, and life, I had felt, is that we tear each other apart, an unmaking process that strips us down to our most essential selves, or breaks us entirely. Where love and pain are the same thing, fear will always be in the mix too. Love becomes the anticipation of pain, the fear of betrayal. Love becomes fear.

I still think all of these things are true, but I’ve travelled a long way in the last six months or so, and I can see there are other stories as well. Betrayal is not inevitable. To love someone does not inevitably mean giving them permission to take you apart. There are other ways to learn that do not make you bleed and weep.

Love is also compassion and patience. It is a shared faith and a dedication to companionship. Love has the power to heal as well as to destroy, to give as well as take. The kind of ‘love’ that forever reduces, diminishes, strips down and undermines, is something to look at hard. Stripping away can be a process of refining and improving, but it can equally be brutal and pointless. If love turns you from rough stone to shining diamond, that may be something to embrace. If it grinds your stone self down into sand and blows you away to nothingness on the first wind, is that really a gift?

It has always been in my nature to love people. I took too much wounding, and I withdrew, pulling tight into myself and being wary about who I loved, and how much I let myself open to that. I became fearful of giving anything of myself, and especially closed to letting myself care for anyone new. Being protective, I isolated myself. I don’t have to do that. I had something of a revelation late last night, about the possibility of feeling love without drowning in pain at the same time.

I have absolutely no idea how anyone else relates to any of this stuff, but it’s been an odd sort of journey, and I thought it might be helpful to share it in case it does turn out to have wider resonance.

Relationship with self

How we relate to ourselves is at the centre of our life experience. It informs what we do, how we do it, what we accept and tolerate. The ideas we hold about ourselves are not created in a vacuum, they are shaped by those around us. To a certain extent, who we think we are depends on who everyone else thinks we are. How we act informs this, and it creates a circle of action and reaction. If we aren’t doing this consciously, if we behave in the ways we are expected to, we can end up very much products of our environments and backgrounds with little actual control over ourselves.

We all of us carry stories about who we are. Some of that may derive from what we do. Much of it can be purely fantasy and daydream, carried within us. Equally, we may be under thrall to the perceptions of others. How do we tell? Is any of this any more real or important than any other aspect?

Who do we want to be and how would we like people to relate to us? Put aside all that is, and contemplate for a moment how you would like it to be. Where are the differences? Could you cover that distance with your own actions? Or is it all about the perceptions of others? Are you hankering after fame and fortune, or would you just like to be heard and taken seriously for a change?

Where we have good relationship, it is easier to flourish. In a good relationship, we are supported and cared for, encouraged to do our best and to aspire to greater things, to take joy in what we achieve and feel good about ourselves. Toxic relationships, poisoned by jealousy and resentment may instead encourage us to be small and insignificant so that others do not feel challenged by us. We may run up against people who resent us because we do not conform to their beliefs, and who will try and reduce us so they do not have to take a knock to their own cherished paradigm. We may meet with people who want to control us – they may well have little control over their own lives, and find security in being able to restrict others.

It is very hard indeed to have a good relationship with self if you are not allowed the space in which you can be yourself. Human relationships can be absolutely crippling in this regard, but if we are always used to being treated in certain ways, even seeing there is a problem is tricky. Consider the child who has grown up being told they are ugly and stupid. The absence of self esteem, and the profound self consciousness engendered may make them socially awkward, clumsy, reluctant to try, thus reinforcing all those beliefs about worthlessness.

Sometimes, to find out who you are, it is really important to get away from people. The sky will not judge you. The earth will not comment on your weight, or your earning capacity. With quiet and space, it’s possible to find different ways of being. I’m coming out of a great deal of darkness and difficulty, years of feeling like a total failure as a human being, a belief that I carried an inherent wrongness that marred everything I did and made it reasonable for people to treat me as less important than everyone else. Living with that from day to day, I couldn’t see it, much less challenge it.

When you change – as we all do, some people will fear and resent it, others will continue to love and support you. It’s easy to end up internalising the fear, jealousy and resentment of others, to become ‘wrong’ so that they can remain comfortably where they are. If you are acting carefully, honourably, then the right and freedom to be who you are should be a given. If it isn’t, if you are being restricted and not permitted to live and flourish on your own terms, you may be dealing with the toxicity of another. Step back. Take yourself, your soul, out into the wilds. See who you are when you stand only in relationship to the sky and the soil. Seek things you can undertake alone, and see what that reveals to you about your own nature. Relationship with self need not be defined by the attitudes of others, and no matter who we’ve been told we are, we can change, grow, become ourselves and be able to view ourselves as people worthy of love and respect.

Druidry and relationship

In an earlier post on relationship I mentioned that relationship is a central concept in Druidry. I was asked in what sense I meant that as being specifically a feature of Druidry, and not religion as a whole. So today’s post is a proper attempt at answering that. (And, if you spot things I’ve skated over and need talking about properly, poke me, I am always appreciative of the pointers and inspiration.)

I think it is fair to say that relationship is a feature of every religion – relationship with the divine, and the world, which are usually viewed as two separate things. The book religions tend to specify very clearly how those relationships should be manifested. There are ways of praying, times to pray, songs to sing. There are people specifically responsible for mediating between divinity and the rest of us. There are prescribed forms of relationship that are ‘good’ – monogamous, permanent heterosexual marriage usually, and there are forms of relationship that are not allowed – gay relationships, plural relationships, sex outside marriage, etc. Where many religions are concerned, part of the shape of the religion is the way it defines our relationships for us and tells us how we ought to go about them.

When it comes to Pagan religions, some do more to define our relationships than others. Druidry very specifically does not pin down how we should relate to our gods or how we should express that. Druid ritual tends to be vague about naming deities a lot of the time, respecting that you might not all follow the same gods. The web of connection, the sense that all things inter-relate and are affected by each other, is very much part of a Druidic understanding of the cosmos. We don’t see ourselves as separate from nature, nor do we see gods as entirely separate from nature. We tend towards an environmental consciousness that recognises interdependence and unity. We have no rules about who you can love or how you should love them, beyond the requirement for honour. Druidry requires us to form our own relationships.

By encouraging our awareness of relationship, Druidry takes us towards conscious, engaged, thoughtful connections. But it doesn’t tell us how to do it. That would create dogma and would take away responsibility. It is crucial that we, as Druids, fully own our own relationships, are conscious of them, enter them mindfully and act based upon our own sense of honour and our own insight. This enables us to create relationships that are unique, intense, deeply felt and part of our spiritual experience. There is no room for complacency or taking for granted. I can talk about what makes good relationship, what it feels like and what it does, but I can’t tell you how to go out there, find someone or something to do this with and make it work.

Crafting Relationship

In my previous post I explored the necessity for equality in relationship. This doesn’t mean treating folk as identical. It’s actually (as Sparrowhawk pointed out – my thanks for that) a very passive state. Recognising equality, that we share humanity and the same basic rights to respect and dignity, doesn’t call for much active engagement.

True relationship is not passive, it is an active engagement. We shape it in word and action, define it through the ways in which we give it expression. It’s very easy to go into relationship carrying all our habits of thought and behaviour, all our assumptions. In previous essays I’ve explored some of the more dysfunctional things we might unwittingly bear with us.

Every relationship is different, so there can be no one right way of doing it. But that’s perhaps the first point to make – the importance of allowing each unique connection to find its own way, rather than trying to shoe-horn it into a predetermined shape.

To my mind, what defines relationship, is what we share. I’ve had connections wholly defined by the sharing of music, or druid ritual – folks I seldom saw in any other context. We have people we share work with, or share living space. I am not convinced that the sharing of blood makes relationship  because that doesn’t call for any active kind of doing. Relationship is more than an accident of birth. We can choose to craft relationship with blood family, or not, but we certainly shouldn’t assume it exists just because we share some genetic material.

The more we invest in the act of sharing, the more scope there is for deep and involved relationship. If we just skim along the surface, happening to share the same living space, the same office, or go to the same leisure club, than that’s a degree of acquaintance, but not much of a relationship. The more we do, the more we give of ourselves, the more relationship we are likely to find. That giving should be born of love, underpinned by care and respect. If we are seeking relationship just for the joy of being with a person, then we have a good foundation. As I’ve said before, if we’re looking for power, control, influence or an ego boost, it’s not relationship, it’s using.

To be able to offer care, love and respect in ways that are meaningful, we have to listen. Really it’s as simple as that, listen, pay attention, actually hear. Don’t impose assumptions about what the other will like, want, or need, just listen, find out. Part of the joy of relationship is in finding out who the other is, and in doing that, learning more about ourselves. If we go in swaddled in assumptions, we don’t get the chance to do that, and we miss out on all the best things that relationship, in all its many shapes, can offer.

Equality in relationships

For Druids, relationship is central to spirituality.

The best kinds of relationships are rooted in equality. Where there is a power imbalance, it should be rooted in issues of responsibility, not in control. For example, a parent has responsibility for their child as that child learns and grows. But that does not give the parent the right to control their child. One person in a relationship might have more money than the other – and money can be easily used to exert control. As soon as you step into situations of control, you cease to have a relationship of equals.

Some people assume that certain things give them power – money, gender, social status, level of education, and age are probably the most frequent ones. Perceiving certain things as valuable, and then believing that makes you more important, carries with it the implicit assumption that people who have less of this are less important. They are lesser than you and therefore should be ruled by you.

As soon as a person believes that certain things make them more important than others, they have thrown away all scope for true relationship. There can be no scope for respect and equality with such a person. There can be no balance or equal sharing, and there is an inherent disrespect for the person who, for whatever reasons is deemed ‘lesser’. And from experience if such a person sets the benchmark for ‘important’ somewhere and you achieve it, you can be sure either they will move it, or have some other reason to disregard you. It is not about the status signifier, it is actually about the belief that they are more important, which they will justify by whatever means necessary, be it ever so illogical.

If a person seeks to establish themselves as the powerful one in a relationship, it is because they want to be in control and they do not want the other person to be their equal partner in all things. The source of power and authority can so easily then be used to put the other person down. They are not as important because they do not have a proper job, a degree, as much life experience, a car, as much money etc. Putting people down takes power from them. Focusing on these kind of details to justify control shows a total lack of respect for the person you are with.

We’re all different. Each one of us has an array of strengths and weaknesses. In terms of relationship, how much money a person has is far less significant than how much compassion they have, how much magic in their soul. Society encourages outward displays of physical wealth, status symbols and trophies. If we internalise those values and bring them into our relationships, we ruin our chances of good and meaningful connections. Where there is inequality and disrespect, love will not flourish.

There needs also to be an equality of giving. That doesn’t mean that we must give exactly the same things to each other. Balance can be found in other ways. You cook the meal, I wash the dishes. You pay the gas bill, I pay the electric. A sharing of work, responsibility and ownership is essential in good relationship, and that’s not about hours spent in paid employment or money earned. Financial contributions are not the only ones that have an impact. If one person gives and the other does not, that creates a power imbalance. Energy in the relationship only flows one way, until that person has nothing more they can give and either stops, or walks away.

If you want to have power over something and make it do your bidding, get a car, or some other mindless piece of technology that will not be hurt or offended by this. If you want an actual relationship with a human being, there is absolutely no room for any notions of power, control and inequality. If you can’t respect the person you are with, it probably means you shouldn’t be with them, for both your sakes.

Responsibility and Relationship

One of the things that I’ve found repeatedly comes up in literature about domestic abuse is that the abuser makes the victim responsible for their feelings. This is complicated, because to be in a relationship with someone is to hold responsibility, to a degree, for each other’s wellbeing. But what degree? How much responsibility should one person take for another and where is the line that crosses over into abuse? I realised I had absolutely no idea, so I sat down to try and figure it out rationally.

We are all responsible for our own behaviour. To act honourably is to take responsibility for what you do, and the consequences of what you do, both intended and unintended. That means if what you do impacts on someone in a negative way, then you hold some responsibility for it. Where emotions are concerned, not intending to hurt is frequently seen as a reason for the injured one to be at fault – you shouldn’t take it that way. (as previously explored) If we were talking about a physical situation, accidentally hurting someone because they have an old injury and we didn’t know, a bruise, a disability – I think most people would feel responsible then even though the physical pain caused was not intentional either. Emotional pain is the same. And equally, if something hurts us, we should be able to acknowledge it, because not being able to express pain is incredibly harmful.

I think the critical thing with the above scenarios, is that we’re talking about things people have control over. We’re asking people to take responsibility for things they can change – their behaviour, their assumptions, their ways of speaking. They can learn that we are hurt by this and adapt. If they care for us, they will not want to hurt us. A person who refuses to acknowledge that they have hurt you is not expressing care for you. Consider how you would expect them to behave if they had accidentally knocked you to the ground or trodden on your toes. This is the same.

However, consider “I am unhappy and you are responsible for this.” If it’s not about things that have, or have not been done, if it’s not offered with an explanation of how that responsibility can be taken, what that does is to cause pain. From my experience, this kind of approach is often subtle, which makes it harder. A person will present things they are unhappy about in a manner that suggests you are the one who must fix this, when in reality there is nothing you can do.

To express unhappiness about things that cannot be fixed is in and of itself fine. The death of a loved one being an obvious example. No one can make that better. But at the same time no one should be made to feel that they have a responsibility to make it better. My child worries about animal extinctions. He didn’t ask me to save the animals, but he shared his sadness, and I sponsored a tiger for him because it was something I could do to help. That’s a reasonable ask on his part, a healthy response on mine.

Stress, anxiety and depression are complicated, often irrational and illogical conditions. If a person is expressing experience of these, then if you are part of their life, it can be very easy to feel, or to be made to feel somehow responsible. I think the question is, can you do anything? If there is something you can actually do that genuinely makes a positive difference, there is scope for taking responsibility and it’s not necessarily abusive to be asked to be being responsible. If you are being made responsible, treated as responsible where you have no actual power to change things, then this is about abuse. It is about creating feelings of guilt and powerlessness in you and/or enabling the other person not to take responsibility for things they do have the power to tackle.

A request for help or an expression of need should focus on what the problem is and where the person you are asking to take responsibility for it can act. Power and responsibility have to go together. Power without responsibility is dishonourable. Responsibility without power is nightmarish and maddening. If one person has the power and the other bears the responsibility, then you’re moving out of relationship and into abuse.