g a t h e r i n g s

At the Corner of Constellations and Co-dependence

One of the things I have been thinking about is how and why we get into co-dependent relationships. They can be found at home or at work or in our spiritual communities. Anywhere, really. The other question, of course, is how to get out.

Among the many threads holding the co-dependent intimate relationship together are familiarity, fear, insularity, wishing and hoping. As we enter the door of this dynamic (I don’t think of it as a relationship so much as a structure), we bring one of two assumptions with us: we cannot do it alone, or … we cannot do it alone. In the first instance, the assumption seduces us into connection with someone who benefits from our deep feeling of need. In the second, the assumption guides us to fall in love with someone else’s need.

This structure is both powerful and delicate. Because it holds two people in a small space where the world is perceived as inherently threatening, the instinct to stay inside the space is compelling. No matter what is going on inside here, what is out there is worse — a visceral sense of unpredictable. In this small space, the giver maintains her or his connection by giving ever more; the taker is insatiable. But there is giving in the taking and taking in the giving. The couple maintains a kind of balance, the kind that tells us to stay put or risk everything.

Movement forward by one or the other is felt as movement away. Thus, we also see the delicacy of interaction, especially between intimate partners who are highly attuned to the nuances of what is okay and what is not. We know exactly what will be felt as threat — growth. So, we turn our backs on opportunities for growth, on our own evolving futures. And we may also find ourselves pulling our partner back from the brink of change fearing that we will be rejected in the larger world or that we cannot keep up even if invited.

The future comes no matter, of course, as time passes and the future is always right here, but every day we make the decision to stay within the structure, other choices appear dimmer, more distant. We sacrifice ourselves to the partner’s fear, and erase the partner in favor of our own.

When Hellinger speaks of the balance of give and take, he is considering the possibility of relationship that exists outside of the structure designed only to house replication. He is talking about a gentle upward sweep of positive reciprocity. When someone gives you a gift, bother to pay attention, take time to receive it, return the kindness in slightly greater measure. He is, obviously, not speaking of, “You give me a dollar, I’ll give you two.” The gentle upward sweep is made up of countless pauses to receive and to give, an ongoing alertness to the flow of love.

Love is both a noun and a verb. Sometimes we swaddle ourselves in the noun and forfeit the verb. It is usually a mistake, even with our gods. Love can take care of us only if we take care of it.

In co-dependent connection, we bring forward the parent-child relationship so that we end up feeling trapped, not seeing a way out, often seemingly entirely without volition. But out there, not so very far away, beyond the walls surrounding our childhoods, there is a path. First we envision it, imagine it. Then we lift our gaze to meet the horizon, lift a foot and let it settle a little ahead, and feel the other foot catching us. That is a step, a brave act affirmed. Then again and again and again … your partner has a choice now too.

I am not moving away, you call out, I am simply moving. Your partner can do it as well, catch up even. In the bigger field, out from under the rigid parameters of the original structure, people choose each other in a different way — from among the all. They develop a special language of give and take. When the balance tips, partners feel it. When they are navigating from an old timezone — well, it’s already past, nothing to do. When they are both in the great spaciousness of the current timezone, they can reset the compass toward more.

Judgment Forward

Still Thanking Bert Hellinger ... The Brown Hotel, Louisville, KY, an audience of about 350 people. A woman raises her hand to ask Bert Hellinger a question. She describes someone who has gone to great lengths to have a child; perhaps it was a sperm donor, or surrogacy, or one of the many ways of in vitro fertilization, I don’t recall. She wants to know what he thinks. Implicit in the question, if this work is about “natural” order and symptoms of disorder, and people pay various prices for different types of indiscretions, what are the consequences when people make these types of “unnatural” choices?

Bert sat back in his chair for a long moment. He smiled at me. I wondered what he would say. He whispered to me that he didn’t quite understand the particulars of the woman’s question, but I knew he wasn’t asking for an explanation or clarification. After a time, Bert looked up and out at the audience, he put the microphone close to his lips, and he said simply, “Welcome child.” That was it. I think about this moment often. There was a sense of peace immediately. Bert didn’t become entangled in the reasons behind the question. He neither defended nor agreed.

As facilitators of Family Constellations, or of any helping paradigm, we find ourselves working with ever-greater opportunities for diverse ways in the world, for ways of living and being. At the same time, if we are honest with ourselves, we may find ourselves running head-on into our own biases. We may not even realize we have them until we hit the wall.

The secret to “Welcome child” is in its emphasis. Rather than a judgment-forward response, it asks us to look at the question from a wider perspective of love. When we look at the world from a judgment-forward place, we necessarily turn away from the people who come to us. There is nothing to learn if judgment leads — and then nothing to offer.

“I don’t like this way …” “I don’t accept that way …” Who and what is the subject? Certainly, not the client. The subject is “I”. I am pretending to look at the other and only seeing my own face. Do I think artificial insemination is okay? Do I think people should adopt? By some estimates 40,000 gay male couples are raising children. What do I think?

Judgment-first thinking points to one’s own dogma rather than getting to know anything more about the other (client, friend, relative, partner). It warps and narrows intellect, creativity, freedom, and humanity. “Welcome child” is the antidote, the beginning of possibility. When I look at a question in this way — welcome child, welcome life, welcome love — I can see more clearly through the residue of my own preconceived ideas, with a softer gaze that can take in a greater expanse. Judgment-forward keeps me isolated, insulated, separated. What is beyond the limitations of fear-driven judgment? Welcome …

Far From Home

Many folks I meet tell me they are lonely. It’s a condition not easily remedied. It can persist independent of the circumstances of one’s environment. Sometimes it is diagnosed as depression or anxiety, but I have come to see loneliness as its own experience. Loneliness finds itself wherever it goes, and it often looks away from opportunities for companionship. It seems that loneliness has plans that others don’t understand, sometimes not even the lonely themselves. Sometimes loneliness yearns for others while simultaneously blocking their approach. Sometimes lonely people feel that they are actually alone.

I look back on my own life, and I can see the periods of depression, distinct from periods of grief, which I also clearly see. But I can pinpoint moments of loneliness too, different in quality from either depression or grief. I concur with those in the mental health field who are beginning to consider loneliness a condition rather than a symptom, except I do not see it just among the elderly. I suspect that many of the people who are lonely now have been lonely at many junctures during their lives, maybe always.

When I press my memory to retrieve that feeling of loneliness, versus the thought, a sensory charge travels into my chest, fluttery and hollow. It feels like a tiny animal skittering up and down the walls of my chest — and simultaneously I am that tiny animal shivering in a corner of the too-huge world. In those periods, loneliness was swaddled in isolation, a thick-walled cell that kept me safe even as it choked my optimism.

This feeling that I can recall so easily is old, from childhood, even before. When I close my eyes, I can see my mother, and I can feel her, skittering. And when I close my eyes, I can see my father, yes, can feel him, shivering. I don’t pretend to know all the all of who they were — I don’t know why — but there it is, loneliness. Something shared. How do I love thee? In every possible way. “I love thee with the passion put to use. In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.”*

What has changed? It’s true I can easily tap into that shared space, even these years later, but I must deliberately invite it in; it doesn’t swallow me up unexpected. How odd to be more alone in some ways than ever in my life and yet not be lonely. It’s difficult to delineate the steps that led me here; I do not know how many there were. But it seems it was one foot in front of the other, nothing fancy — some stubbornness and curiosity, some insistence, sleepless nights, gratitude for the dawn. I taught when I didn’t feel like it. I wrote when I didn’t want to. I painted though I couldn’t. I walked though I was tired. I showed up when all was lost. And somewhere along the way, I was found.

I close my eyes and see my mother and my father again, and I think they are pleased to see me fading into the future.

* Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806 - 1861