© 2012 Toby Landesman
This article begins a new series of installments of “Tools of Transformation”. In this series I will explore both the fundamentals for building healthy relationships and the more challenging aspects of intimacy. Even those of us in long term relationships find there are periods of difficulty and distress, which are often hard to understand and very challenging to resolve. I hope not only to map that difficult territory, but also to identify and apply the resources that make those challenges navigable. I also intend to identify and discuss the tools that can inspire intimate love and enhance the quality of friendships, partnerships, and marriages. Along the way, we will stop to consider certain matters that I believe are essential to healthy, loving relationship: emotional intelligence, interpersonal and intrapersonal acumen, and good communication.
My interest in the component parts of healthy intimate relationships dates back to my meeting Hoagie Wyckoff, Joy Marcus, Claude Steiner and Carmen Kerr in 1971, while I was visiting the Radical Psychiatry Collective in Berkeley, California. Carmen had just finished writing a book on relationship entitled, “Sex for Women Who Want to have Fun and Healthy Relationships with Equals.” She spoke enthusiastically to me and other members of our Lincoln Park therapy collective of the Three C’s of healthy relationships: Chemistry, Compatibility, and Cooperation. She believed that in order to have a good chance at building a healthy relationship, two of these three C’s needed to be present from the start. A couple could then work on their weakest link together to strengthen their connection and love for one another. She explained that people who are attracted to each other often begin a relationship based on strong chemistry alone, without really getting to know the person they desired very well; only to find out later that some very important aspects of relationship were missing. All of us listening to her ideas had experienced this problem directly in our own attempts at intimate partnerships.
At that time, Carmen, Hoagie, Joy, and Claude, the core leadership of the Berkeley collective, were particularly focused on the importance of cooperation among the members of their collective. They had come to the realization that good communication was a cooperative event. They were learning from their own experience of working together that cooperating and communicating well with one another were essential ingredients in the creation of equal partnerships between couples, group members, and organizations.
That trip to Berkeley, and the teachings that we learned from the Berkeley Radical Psychiatry Collective sparked years of thought, reflection, and exploration on all of our parts. My own personal struggle with trying to develop a truly intimate partnership catalyzed both my investment in my own healing, and my ongoing exploration of the nature of healthy intimacy. Over time in my work with couples, I decided to add to Carmen Kerr’s three C’s. First, I decided that “Communication” should have more emphasis than it did in the original model, and should be the fourth C rather than a subset of “Cooperation.” As I matured and began to study Zen Buddhism, I also added Compassion to this list of essential elements. I began to understand how important loving kindness and tenderness were to the growth and strength of an ongoing relationship. In this first article I will discuss the original resources that Carmen identified. I will handle “communication” and “compassion” in my next installment. I hope that you will find my discussion of these essential elements useful in your own relationships.
Chemistry, the experience of powerful attraction to one another, is the element that most people seeking relationships desire more than anything else. If you look at the advertisements that people seeking relationships post in their on-line profiles, you will find that the words “chemistry”, “spark”, “passion”, “ attraction”, and “magnetism” appear frequently as very high priorities. This is no surprise, of course, since sexual pleasure is one of the most pleasurable of all human experiences. That pleasure is greatly heightened by the intensity of the energy exchange between two people. If you ask couples about how their relationship began, you will very likely discover that times have not changed all that much from the late 60’s and early 70’s. Many relationships still begin with early intimate sexual encounters that take place before we really know each other well.
One of the difficulties with a passionate beginning to relationship is that the sexual encounter itself fosters a bond between the participants. This emerging bond creates a sense of meaningful connection between people. Unfortunately, this connection, though palpable, may not be grounded in reality. The bond that is developing between us as new lovers compels our going forward with the relationship before we know what the relationship’s actual potential is. Only by spending meaningful time with the person we want to get to know will we begin to understand who this person actually is. Only then will we begin to discover what we are capable of creating together. This time together will also begin to highlight potential difficulties and weaknesses that exist between us that will need to be addressed if we desire to build a life together.
Another very important matter in beginning a sexual relationship was highlighted for me by my first therapist, Mark Skinner, who surprised our therapy group with this bit of wisdom, “You need to teach your new lover how to make love to you. No one can know intuitively how to love another person sexually, no matter how “good” a lover they are. This reality necessitates our entering the vulnerable arena of sexual communication with one another.” I still recall the sense of shock and uncertainty that ran through me on hearing his words. I considered myself a good lover, who instinctively knew how to pleasure a woman. My previous sexual partners would have taken issue with my prized illusion had I given them the chance. The truth of the matter for me was that I was uncomfortable talking personally about either my personal sexual preferences or those of my partners. Over my years of working with couples, I have discovered that this kind of disclosure is a problem for many people.
The exciting aspect of learning to reveal ourselves with our partners is that “Chemistry” in our relationships can be improved and heightened by good communication. Instead of letting our partners know what “isn’t working” after some months of unsatisfying love making, we can head that problem off by communicating what we enjoy sexually. Even though doing so may cause feelings of vulnerability, the experience of each of us sharing this information with one another will often enhance our potential for sexual pleasure and satisfaction. Being honest and open in revealing of our pleasures makes it possible to work on our chemistry together. By doing so, we can effectively challenge the popular notion that the quality of a couple’s sexual experience with one another cannot be changed.
© 2012 Toby Landesman
Carmen Kerr taught that the second essential element in relationship building is “Compatibility.” While this term is often used to describe our sexual relationships, as in “we are sexually compatible,” it actually has a much broader application. Compatibility refers to the common ground that we can create and share with another person. It references what we have in common with the person that we are getting to know. Having someone to share experiences that we love and value is what single people long for, but in this arena we often discover the daunting reality that each of us has a unique point of view and unique opinions. Our individual lives and what we love to do with them may or may not match up. For this reason, the beginning of relationship requires us to disclose our pleasures and our preferences and to be open to the disclosures of the person that we are getting to know. Frequently, we expect that the things that we like will automatically be appreciated by Mr. or Ms. Right, and we can become very disappointed when we experience resistance to something that we adore, from someone we are strongly attracted to. These occasions of disappointment can actually become opportunities for getting to know one another at a deeper level. What is required of us is that we disclose ourselves openly about the things we love and how we came to love them, without judgment, criticism, or evaluation of someone who has different preferences and opinions.
While sexual intimacy is the direct sharing of sexual experience with another, there is another kind of intimacy that is equally important to building a healthy relationship. This is the intimacy of self-disclosure, the open revelation of our life experiences, the communication of what has formed us and of what we feel about ourselves, our lives, and our intentions. This kind of intimacy invites another person into our lives, and presents who we are in the context of our discreet personal experience. Revealing oneself in this way creates the possibility of our potential partner understanding who we are and what we love, and invites them to join us in our pursuits and pleasures. Someone who thinks they hate opera or skateboarding may find that they judged the experience before they knew what it was really like to experience it. So risking the sharing of experiences that we are not familiar with can open us to new horizons while we are creating new closeness with our partners.
Carmen Kerr’s third C, “Cooperation,” is an essential element of relationship that nearly all couples need to work on. Because we have all grown up in a hierarchical, competitive society, most of us are much more accomplished at the skills of self-assertion and competitiveness than we are with the skill of cooperation. Working together with another person requires the ability to listen and communicate, and the ability to follow as well as lead. This is challenging work for everyone. We most often want to be leaders rather than followers. We want to get what we want, rather than give in to someone else’s desires or directions. This reality often leads to power struggles for dominance in relationships. Partly because the Patriarchal “Father knows best” attitude no longer receives blanket acceptance, and of the emerging recognition of the importance of equality between the genders, we need to co-create a new model of shared leadership. There must be room for the knowledge and expertise of both partners, and an appreciation of one another’s gifts and talents for a relationship to run smoothly and happily.
Cooperation includes sharing the work of life with each other. Although each of us may excel in some areas and not so much in others, most of life’s chores can be mastered by everyone. Gender conflicts over who should do what task can often be ameliorated by each person’s willingness to learn the tasks involved in living together. Even if Mom always cooked and did the dishes when we were children, we can break down the gender stereotypes by teaching each other what we know about the work of living life together. In doing so, we must learn to take turns in sharing our knowledge and expertise. Turn taking is not just for kindergarteners. It is a skill that will foster not only cooperation and sharing, but good communication skills as well.
Cooperation in intimate relationships can also be fostered by learning to plan together whatever needs to be accomplished, whether it’s cleaning the house or doing a carpentry project. Good planning requires us to agree to a time to meet together to talk over whatever is important to us, and then to block out, much as a theater director would do, how each of us will participate in reaching the desired destination. Since we are working toward developing equal partnerships, both partners can take turns thinking out loud about how the desired outcome might be reached. Using a brain storming approach where all suggestions are allowed without criticism in the beginning of the planning session, and then are later refined as the actual plan is developed, is an approach that leads to good cooperation. In this brain storming session, both participants can feel heard and appreciated as long as all suggestions are equally valued.
Cooperation depends on our willingness to take each other seriously, and to appreciate what each of us contributes to the relationship. Learning to lead with our abilities to be accepting, understanding, and appreciative of each other will make the road we travel together a much smoother one, and will enhance the enjoyment we share on the journey.
I am aware that these tools and resources may seem so obvious and simple to use, that it is easy to discount their importance. I know also that many of my readers are quite accomplished in many of these basic skills. I decided to include them in my “Relationship 101” article, because I suspect that each of us may need to be reminded of our “inferior functions” as Carl Jung called our “underdeveloped” aspects of personality. I know for myself that although I am skilled in cooperation and communication, I don’t always give voice to what I am feeling and thinking about the current experience of my relationship. As the immortal Sheldon Kopp would say, “Too often I don’t say what I mean. Too often I don’t mean what I say. Too often I don’t know what I feel.” So I am hopeful that explicating some of the ins and outs of Chemistry, Compatibility, and Cooperation will be of some use to all of us. In my next installment, I will take up the two C’s of relationship that I have added to the mix, Communication and Compassion. Please feel free to leave your questions, comments, and critiques in the space provided below. I promise to respond as we continue to work on the evolution of fun, loving and healthy relating. I offer my heartfelt thanks to Toby Landesman for her beautiful photographs and her editorial assistance.
Written by Thomas Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.