Author Colin Wright has an interesting perspective of the efforts we make to try to change other people in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. For Wright, trying to change the person in our relationships is a very selfish act, limiting the growth of the other person and of ourselves, and preventing both of us from expanding who we are. He writes, “Finding someone you intend to change means you’ve decided that who they are, what they want, and how they live is inferior to who you are, what you want, and how you live.” By trying to change another person you are forcing them into a mold that you have preselected. You are not working with them to soften your own rough edges, and you are not allowing each other to grow according to independent desires, interests, and shared commitments and connections .
This selfish type of relationship is never going to be based on reality as you force another person to be an incomplete version of what you think a successful partner looks like. The other person won’t be able to fully express themselves, and you will only know a false version of them. There are parts of ourselves that we know well, parts of ourselves we don’t know well, parts of others we know well, and parts of others that we don’t know well. Assuming that you can change another person into what you want assumes that you fully understand yourself and the other person, something undoubtedly impossible.
Wright continues, “approaching relationships this way means you’re partnering with someone who you consider to be a block of raw material that you can chisel into whatever shape you prefer. You want to whittle away who they are so that they become the person you want them to be, or whom you feel you should want them to be. This typically results in negative complexes and disappointment on both ends.”
When you set out to change the other person in a relationship you are setting out to force them to be an incomplete version of themselves. Because we can never fully understand even ourselves, we can never predict and prescribe who another person should be. Development as an individual, both within and outside relationships, is filled with value judgements about relationships, about other people, about ourselves, and who we think we want to be and be with. Allowing both ourselves and the other person in our relationship to be complete human beings allows for growth, both personal and as a pair, and working together to understand this growth is the only way you can help develop another person.
How much independence one has in a relationship is something that is rarely discussed openly and honestly within a relationship, but it is an important consideration for a healthy and successful partnership. The challenge in finding the right level of independence is that it is unlikely two people will have the same need for space and the same need for intimacy. Throughout his books, author Colin Wright provides us insight into his life, and he often refers to his need for time on his own. His reflections on his time alone give him a unique insight into the importance of space in relationships.
In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, Wright creates a policy for approaching independence and writes, “Having space in a relationship means that you’re able to get time alone. It means being able to tuck away somewhere and read without being distracted by someone who is, lets be honest, quite distracting for many wonderful reasons.” There is a pressure, especially in romantic relationships, to always be near your partner, and finding time together in a world that moves fast and demands much of our time for work is quite important, but Wright thinks we should also discuss the time we need to ourselves. Failing to be honest about how much independence and time we need on our own is in some way hiding ourselves from the person we care about.
For Wright, it is important to find the right balance of time to ones self to be able to recharge and be content with who we are. It is hard to be a fully committed and connected individual in a relationship if one does not feel confidence and fulfillment in their own self. Allowing ourselves or our partner to have the space and time that they need will allow for that confidence and individual fulfillment that each person needs to bring to a relationship.
“In the series of things those which follow are always aptly fitted to those which have gone before; for this series is not like a mere enumeration of disjointed things, which has only a necessary sequence, but it is a rational connection: and as all existing things are arranged together harmoniously, so the things which come into existence exhibit no mere succession, but a certain wonderful relationship.”
Marcus Aurelius wrote this in his common place book which was published after his death as the work Meditations. In the passage above he is looking at the connections between the world, the people of the world, and the way that everything seems to be connected throughout time. His quote has elements of evolution, of generational succession, and interconnected decisions. I think this quote is fantastic in our lives today because we become so busy and disconnected that we often fail to recognize how connected we are with everyone in the world, and how interconnected our destinies truly are. It can be easy for us to live in our own individual silos where we see the same people daily, we see the benefits of our hard work, and we enjoy (or become frustrated with) the same daily routines. Looking beyond our every day and taking a deeper look at the decisions we make compared with others can bring us back to our interconnectedness, and keeping Aurelius’ quote in mind reminds us that we are not as far or isolated from others as we may think and sometimes feel.
For me, the quote reminds me of the book I am currently reading, United by Cory Booker, and how the author is able to look at his life and decisions, and find ways in which decisions made long before his birth have impacted the life he currently lives. Booker writes,
“I’ve said many times of my generation that we drink deeply from wells of freedom and opportunity that we did not dig, that we eat from tables prepared for us by our ancestors, that we sit comfortable in the shade of trees that we did not cultivate. We stand on the shoulders of giants.”
What Booker references is how much his generation relies on the previous generations and how important the lives of those he never met have been for him and his generation. He is perfectly aligned with the ideas expressed by Marcus Aurelius who noted how closely tied generations are, even if they seem to be different and split in decisions and ideas. Everything that precedes us shapes who we become by determining what opportunities we will have and by making decisions that shape what is possible for us. When we forget how much we owe to those who sacrificed so that we could be here, we develop a false sense of entitlement and begin to think that we are far more awesome than we actually are. It is important to consider those who came before us and how we have benefitted from their actions and decisions so that we, just like Booker, can develop a sense of humility and respect for those who paved the ground that our lives stand upon.
In his book 59 Seconds Richard Wiseman explains a very simple psychology experiment performed by Phillip Kunz and Michael Woolcott in 1970. In an attempt to study reciprocity, the two psychologists sent christmas letters to randomly selected names and addresses from a local phone book. Wiseman did not provide numbers, but he did say that a majority of the people who had been sent Christmas Cards responded to the letter they received from Kunz and Woolcott. The study highlights that people have a desire to reciprocate the positive and considerate actions of other people. I read a little more from this study adding my own note to the section I just described. To me, the entire experiment showed how eager people are to connect with others.
Sending someone a letter engages with them on their own terms. We are sending them something that will meet them in their own comfortable home in a nonthreatening manner, and this makes it easy for people to respond and build a social bridge. When we are willing to meet people on their own terms and engage with people in areas that are comfortable for them, we will get positive responses that build the social structure around us.
I think this would be an interesting experiment to perform in the United States today. It was not clear from Wiseman’s writing whether Kunz and Woolcott performed their experiment in the United States or Wiseman’s home country of England, and I believe that the continental differences could have a large impact on the results. I think the most interesting factor in a similar experiment today would be the social media, advertising, and identity theft impact on our social behaviors. Receiving messages from strangers on Facebook can be a scary thing and having someone watch us through social media channels can be creepy to the point where you wonder if someone is following you to gain information that could be used to either harm you or market goods and services to you.
I am sure that in our very connected world, sending electronic correspondence, depending on the social media channel, would show very different reciprocity results than sending a holiday letter in the 1970’s. Randomly messaging/mentioning a person on twitter is far more accepted and will get greater rates of response then messaging a stranger on Facebook. Outside of the electronic world, sending a letter through the mail would still be an interesting experiment. Our lives may be more complicated and busy than the lives of British citizens in the 1970’s, and we are less accustomed to receiving letters from people whether we know them or not. Having Americans take the time to sit down and read a letter from a stranger and then actually reply could be a rare occurrence in 2015 even though we are wired to reciprocate or at least by social.
James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, is a collection of letters written to him by other writers, artists, and creative people whom Harmon Admired. William T. Vollmann is one of the writers who submitted a letter for Harmon’s book, and in his letter he lists 21 pieces of advice. Number three on his list reads, “Try to love as many people as you can (i.e., be proud of who they are—don’t transgress their boundaries.” Advice like this is helpful for me to hear every day because it reminds me to be open minded to those around me, and to think of others first.
When we are meeting someone for the first time it is easy to connect with them and be friendly and inviting. However, as we get to know the other person we start to see things we do or do not like about them, and the judgemental thoughts begin. It may start out small, but over time our judgments and opinions shift, and in our mind we develop shortcuts for thinking about the other person. This can be positive or negative, but either way our shortcuts do not encourage us to truly understand and think about the other. Rather than caring about them and taking the time to have meaningful interactions we skip past them assuming they have not changed since we got to know them and assuming that we understand them.
This can often times be harmless for us and others, but it can also be hurtful for both of us. Once we have fixated on how our relationship with another can benefit us or if we only focus on what we dislike about the other, then we are not willing to truly assist them and listen to what they have to say. In this sense we miss a chance to bring the other person up, and we also miss out on times when the other person could help us. Nuggets of advice that encourage meaningful relationships and friendships can help us avoid these pitfalls. I am drawn to Vollmann’s advice because he encourages us to seek true connections with others, and to see the world through their eyes. In order to adopt the perspective of others we must understand their background and their relationship with us. This takes a lot of self reflection and self awareness for us to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and truly reflect on how our relationship impacts both of us.
The ultimate goal of this type of exercise and self reflection is not to find a secret way to benefit ourselves by being nice to others. Vollmann would argue that the importance is in building relationships that will strengthen both parties. By connecting with and understanding others we will help them feel more valued and build a stronger sense of community. Looking only for our own gains in relationships will ultimately leave us lonely, and will damage the overall sense of community and family within our lives. The ideas of Vollmann in this section return to Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s quote from a previous post of mine
, “The meaning of life is inherent in the connections we make to others through honor and obligation.”
Continuing from my last post, philosopher W.V. Quine in his letter to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, ends his letter with a note about friendship. Quine writes, “Above all, cultivate easy and sincere friendships with kindred spirits and enter into them with generous sympathy. Sharing is the sovereign lubricant against the harshness of life.” I love this quote because it is all about putting others first so that one can build real relationships to not just serve themselves, but to serve everyone and help everyone enjoy their life to a greater extent.
Quine’s quote addresses the challenges and difficulties that result from the dull and tedious nature of hard work, and how friendships can ease those difficulties. What he is saying is that good friendships, where neither person is trying to gain something from the other but both people are openly sharing, are what help people through the rough, mundane, and tedious parts of life. What Quine is talking about is not the type of friendship where one seeks the help, advice, or aid of another simply for their own benefit. The friendships which he discusses, the friendships which build meaningful relationships and help people overcome challenges, are built not on an expectation of returns, but on a true interest in knowing another person.