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March 12, 2017

Working on Your own Relationship… inviting a friend

Relationship inviting friends

Working on Your Own Relationship

This is part of a series of posts inspired by my students who are studying “working on your own relationship”.  For the past years I have been intensively teaching this topic to various groups either in person or on Skype. This challenging aspect of relationship work in Processwork asks the facilitator to facilitate a relationship in which they are involved and most often those where there is a conflict. They have to facilitate the relationship without acting like a therapist. It takes a lot of self-knowledge and willingness to work on yourself. The learning that we take from these classes is so precious that I decided to record some of it here. The examples are fabricated and come from my more than 30 years of experience. This is an open letter to my students. 


Asking someone to work with you on your relationship is a delicate matter. Most of the time when you are in classes on the topic you are mainly doing it to practice skills and attitudes that you intend to learn. It can start out seeming a bit artificial and edgy. We’ll come back to the edgy part in a minute and in the mean time, acknowledge that most of the time most of us don’t really work on our own relationships in the way that we learn in this practice. Nor do we always want or need to. However, I hope that through this class and studying this work you gain if not a love for it, an appreciation for how useful it is. In any event, to earn a diploma one needs to develop these skills in the event you find yourself in a conflict with a client, a client’s partner, parent or child or some other professional capacity in which you find yourself.

Benefits of Working on your own Relationship

At some point along the way my students are often surprised and delighted by the deep personal growth it brings them. As they develop the skills to go into disturbances in relationship they find that they can achieve a new understanding of friends with whom they have had long-term problems. They find that they can even at times, develop an intimacy deeper than expected. But most satisfying is learning who you are. Relationships are one of the biggest sources of growth — our families and friends often don’t let us get away with things that we can when we are alone.

Intended and Unintended Communication

Working on your own relationship allows you to go beyond your everyday identity and find and live your deepest self. Doing that while in relationship where conventions of society welcome communication from intended sources, sooner than unintended sources is at first counterintuitive.

For instance, there was a couple working on their relationship. The encounter started with verbal content: “I’m happy to see you.” This is an intended source of communication. On the surface the person was essentially saying, this is who I am. This is what I feel right now. But, unintended sources of communication like body postures, movement, and tone of voice, can disturb this communication and send another message all together. To follow on with our example, the other person said, “I’m happy to see you too.” while looking down, turning aside, speaking softly and fidgeting with her fingers. This disturbs the intended communication. Here there is another communication at the same time as the verbal one and it disturbed the person receiving the intended one, or more likely, both people.

Signals and Double Signals

We call these communications “signals” and when there is more than one at a time we call it a “double signal”. We, people, double signal all the time. We are signal factories, putting out hundreds even thousands an hour. We are complex beings with many experiences and communications happening at the same time. Here comes the edgy part from the first paragraph. It is challenging and scary to let go of what we know about ourselves and embrace that which is unintended, unconscious, and can be downright embarrassing. It can feel exposing especially at first. But it can be and is exciting as well to go outside of the bounds of intended communication and can be exhilarating as well.

Dropping below Social Conventions — going deeper

When we ask our friends to work together on our relationship or ask if we can bring a problem or an attraction up, we are asking permission to break the social conventions. We signal to ourselves that we intend to use a set of skills that will help the double signals and unintended communication come forward and that its experience and meaning within the relationship will enrich and deepen the relationship.

When the couple from our example unfolded the intended and unintended signals of their interaction, they amplified what they were doing. The one fidgeting with her fingers continued to turn away and fidget and the other continued to come toward her. The one fidgeting peeked up and smiled at the other who suddenly became shy and self conscious. It was as if they were meeting for the first time. In their everyday routines they had forgotten about their fascination with each other.

You as a Learner while working on your Relationship

When you invite someone into the middle of a group or into private supervision with you, you are also in a complicated situation. You are both in relationship with the supervisor as a student engaged with learning and doing a good job and the “host” of a session. It is not simple that you are both working on potentially emotionally charged material with a friend or colleague and are a learner. Maintaining awareness during this challenging situation is hard. It is a training in itself since conflict often robs you of your awareness if you are like most people. Over and over you have shown me that you can do this, are doing this and are even thrilled and enlivened by it. This gives me hope.

The next time you ask a person to join you in working on your relationship ask yourself, are you asking them primarily as a way to practice and learn skills? But also ask: How interested are you in the relationship, is it important to you? Are you curious? Do you have an axe to grind; you finally get a chance to get something off your chest? Are you joining as worthy opponents, like sparring partners who respect each other and grow through your sensitivity or power? How much of yourself are you willing to use? Are you willing to let go of the intended communication and embrace the unintended messages? Does this feel like its a mythic encounter — a person with whom you grow by following the Tao of the conflict or love. Is this where you are open to learn things about yourself that no one else will say to you and you to them?

The more you know about your goals the more clear you will be and the more easily you can ask a person to risk opening up to the unintended communication and unknown path and magic of the relationship.

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