Embracing Diversity in Relationships

In this post, we will talk about the first two phases of relationship: phase one, which is all about unity, similarity, and harmony; and phase two, which is all about fostering and embracing diversity. We’ll do this by commenting on some song lyrics, a poem, and a parable. Each speaks to some aspect of either the first phase, the end of the first phase, or the entrance into the second phase of relationship. Even though the examples come from traditional love stories of romantic partnerships, the experiences they describe refer to all kinds of relationships: friendships, child and parent relationships, student and teacher relationships, business partnership, marriage, and so forth. What most relationships have in common (especially when they occur over longer periods of time), is that in the beginning there is a more idealized view of the other person that mesmerizes us (and often blinds us), and later a more realistic and authentic view of the other person that sobers us and wakes us up from a slumber. Let’s begin with a quintessential phase-one story from the famous Broadway musical West Side Story.

The Innocence and Perfection of Phase One

MARIA
Only you, you’re the only thing I’ll see forever
In my eyes, in my words and in everything I do
Nothing else but you
Ever

TONY
And there’s nothing for me but Maria
Every sight that I see is Maria


TONY & MARIA
All the world is only you and me

—Excerpt from the song “Tonight” from West Side Story

Ah, the beauty, passion, and infatuation we experience at the birth of relationships—there’s nothing like it! These song lyrics are the perfect example of what it feels like to be in the first phase of relationship. These two people, Maria and Tony, see only each other. They are absolutely spellbound and mesmerized. The rest of the world goes away. It is Eden…before Eve takes a bite of the apple.

There’s naïveté in this phase, but there’s a beauty in it, too. When we’re in this phase of a relationship, we’re blind to each other’s shadow because neither of us presents it consciously; or, perhaps we specifically hold it back from view. Or we don’t see it in each other, partly because we don’t want to see it. The shadow is the unconscious material, the parts of ourselves that are marginalized from our main identity—who we believe we are. The shadow contains aspects of our personalities that we feel are unacceptable, some of our individual or cultural style, many of our deepest needs and desires—anything that could threaten the harmony of relationship, cause discomfort, conflict, or hurt.

What’s beautiful about this is that this blindness is exactly what helps form the relationship. We do this unconsciously; however, by being blind to the other person’s shadow, we allow the relationship to form. This blindness provides a safe haven for the relationship. We feel protected enough to open up to the other person, and there’s a chance for our heart to jump in and bond with them. We feel that the person is not like our mother or father, or someone who once hurt us, and we certainly feel like they are not like other people we’ve met—they are one of the good ones.

This is the typical Romeo and Juliet story, where the relationship is based on seeking out unity over diversity. This first phase of all relationships is about getting along. It’s about how we are the same, how we are on similar paths, how we support each other, how we complement each other or supplement each other, and how we agree. Everything seems perfect…if only it were sustainable.

When Eden Ends: The Collapse of Phase One

In his poem “What Is Truth?”, the poet Charles Baudelaire begins:

I once knew a certain Benedicta whose presence filled the air with the ideal and whose eyes spread abroad the desire of grandeur, of beauty, of glory, and of all that makes man believe in immortality.

He tells us, however, “this miraculous maiden was too beautiful for long life.” Like all idealizations, she died.

Then, an amazing thing happens. The man, the idolizer, sees the true woman in her wholeness, “And, as my eyes rested upon the spot where my treasure lay hidden, I became suddenly aware of a little being who singularly resembled the dead…. ‘It is I, the true Benedicta! It is I, the notorious drab! As the punishment of your folly and blindness you shall love me as I truly am.’”

But like many of us, the idolizer refuses, he says, “No!” and asserts his “No” by stamping his foot so powerfully on the loosened earth around the grave, that, “like a wolf in a trap, was caught perhaps for ever in the Grave of the Ideal.”

In this poem, the relationship between these lovers takes a hard fall from grace. Eden is now poisoned and the idealized lens with which the man viewed his perfect lover is no more. Benedicta insists that the man sees her for her real self, in all her faults, but he refuses. What was once all “grandeur, beauty, and glory” has now entrapped the man forever, tormented by his own unwillingness to accept the real woman she is, not the idealized version of his fantasy.

This poem perfectly portrays the seeming perfection of phase one in relationship, followed by the rising up of the shadow side of the other person, threatening the harmony in the relationship, and causing what once was held dear and true to collapse. This epitomizes our insistence on seeing the other person in perfection versus who they really are.

Diversity and Conflict in Phase Two

When the lights go out and it’s just the three of us, yeah
You, me and all that stuff we’re so scared of
Gotta ride down baby into this tunnel of love

—Excerpt from the song “Tunnel of Love” by Bruce Springsteen

The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, playfully and creatively introduces us to the second phase of relationship in his song “Tunnel of Love.” He employs the metaphor of a couple on a wild amusement park ride in a dark tunnel, faced with the fear of all the shadow aspects of the two people coming forward. Phase two in relationship no longer focuses on harmony and unity, but rather on how we’re different, how we don’t fit, how we don’t get along, and ways in which we are not inherently supportive of each other because of our deeper nature. Welcome to the land of diversity.

Diversity reveals our differences, and that means conflict. We can’t get to the second phase of relationship without conflict. It’s impossible. We can’t simply appreciate the parts of the other person’s shadow, or our own, without having conflict. If we’re trying to get around conflict, we’re bypassing the diversity that is real in our relationships.

Conflict is natural. It pulls us further apart. While the harmony and unity in phase one makes us feel like we’re the same, the diversity arising out of the shadow in phase two highlights our differences and forces us to take notice. In order to survive phase two, we have to be honest about who we are, and be open to living that more. We have to be more authentically ourselves.

In the second phase of relationship, the goal is not to compromise or find the common ground, but rather to be two different people. Questions arise such as: What happens when we are two different people who like different foods, different vacations, go to bed at different times, have different styles of interacting, listening, and talking, and have different needs?

The creativity of relationship happens in the dance between two different people who know more about who they genuinely are, and are willing and courageous enough to live that together. The question then becomes: How do we each be ourselves and yet do this dance together?

Blame and Hurt in Phase Two

If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty.
He would not be shouting, and not angry.

—Excerpt from the parable The Empty Boat by Chinese mystic Chuang Tzu

Source: Andrew Haddon/123rf

There are several interpretations on the famous Zen parable, but for this post, we’re going to interpret it through the lens of diversity and conflict in relationship. The parable is saying that if there are two boats on a river and I’m in one and you’re in the other, and my boat bumps into yours, you’re likely to say, “Watch where you’re going!” You think it’s my fault that I bumped into your boat. I might then say to you, “Well, you were going too slow!” In this scenario, there is a cause and effect, there is blame, there is a perpetrator and a victim. This is how conflict often feels in relationship. We think: You caused me harm; You hurt me. It’s your fault, and I’m the victim.

Now let’s say there are two empty boats on that river and they happen to bump into each other. In this scenario, there is no clear cause and effect, there is no blame, there is no perpetrator and victim. That’s like saying there is one person with their personality, needs, vulnerabilities, and gifts, and there’s another person with their own personality, needs, vulnerabilities, and gifts, and the river is taking them and they happen to bump into each other sometimes. No blame.

So, why is it that we typically insist on blaming the other person when conflict occurs in relationship? The simple answer is: because we get hurt. One of the reasons people don’t act in certain ways in relationship is they fear that they will hurt the other person. The trouble is that whenever diversity enters a relationship, conflict arises, and that means that one or both people will likely get hurt.

You may be asking now, “Why on earth would I want to have conflict in relationship when I could get hurt? What’s good about that?” Two things. First, it creates more intimacy. Going through conflict together in the second phase is not about trying to reach an outer resolution, necessarily. It’s not about deciding we’ll be this way or that way, or promising that we won’t do such-and-such again. Getting to know ourselves and the other person more authentically creates a feeling of intimacy, and that’s a new kind of bond that isn’t about “making nice.” This bond is made from a different kind of glue, a glue that is much more sustainable.

Second, going through conflict allows us to get to know ourselves more. It’s an awareness and individuation path. If you’re not interested in becoming who you really are, if that’s not important to you, then you might not be interested in this path. However, if you are interested in getting to know another person who’s not like you, a person who is not part of your projections and systems of coping, then this may very well be the right road to take. As individuals in this kind of relationship, we get to practice being our own self and not being accommodating. We get to speak our own mind, and we get to forge our own path. In order to survive this journey, however, we will need the wisdom that comes from the parable: no blame. We need a part of ourselves (or an outside facilitator) with enough spiritual, psychological, and emotional maturity to appreciate and respect two individuals who are different from each other and who are learning to love each other in a brand-new way.

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