Updated: Nov 5
Many years ago, my wife and I, and some other family members were driving to New Mexico - a favorite vacation spot frequented by many landlocked Oklahomans where we can visit the mountains. With a 12 hour drive ahead of us, we began to play a game.
The essence was this: name in one sentence your philosophy of life. One passenger's philosophy of life was, “Life’s a vacation, enjoy the ride.” Another philosophy was, “Life’s a journey, so make sure you are prepared for the trip.” This was my wife’s, and if you knew her you would know how well this fits her personality. As you can see these philosophies say as much if not more about each individual as it does about some objective approach to life.
As we came to my philosophy it wasn’t hard for me to define. It’s something I have felt for a long time. It guided me into my vocation and pretty much all aspects of my life. My reply was, “It’s all about relationships.” Now while this brief statement is nothing profound on the surface, I believe it has deep implications for how I live, and how I hope my clients - individuals and couples - live their lives as well.
After thousands of hours spent with clients who are hurting, lonely, and bereft of the love they desire, I was able to put it into an equation that I think supports the relationship statement above.
Connection = Vulnerability - Self-protection
Let’s start by drilling down on the word relationships, because without a clearer understanding it becomes rather vague and ambiguous. There are two kinds of relationships: transactional and transformational. Transactional relationships are where both parties are in it for themselves. They may do something for someone else, but they expect something in return.
Transactional relationships can be a necessary part of everyday life. When I go to the check-out line at the grocery store, I’m expecting the person to be somewhat courteous and do a good job checking out my groceries. In return, part of the sale of the groceries goes to their wage which is why they are working. This transactional relationship works in this context because we both get what we need.
Transformational versus Transactional Relationships
By nature, transformational relationships involve a deeper connection, deeper knowledge of the person, and a basic care of the other. Transformational relationships are not defined by a particular outcome, but may produce a certain outcome because of the inherent “otherness” of the relationship.
The friendship between Paul McCartney and John Lennon produced some of the greatest music of all time. They were both equally good in their own right and continued to have much success in their solo careers, but it is the music of the Beatles that we are still singing today. Their relationship transformed one another and in doing so transformed what is possible in music for all time.
So when I say “it’s all about relationships” I am speaking about transformational relationships - those relationships that impact us at a deep level. These relationships touch our soul, change us in some way, and leave us better than we were before. These relationships can be found anywhere - they can be found in our work relationship, with our family, friends, and most importantly, with our significant partner.
The Cost of Transactional Relationships - Disconnection/Loneliness
A life without transformational relationships is, physically, emotionally, and financially costly. According to statistics from thecostoflonliness.org, the following are caused by a sense of loneliness:
Loneliness increases the chance of premature death by 26%
Loneliness has the same effect on the body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day
Major depressive disorder, suicide, and addiction cost the US 960 billion annually
1 in 8 adult Americans is an alcoholic (88,000 people die a year due to alcohol related causes more than twice the annual death of opioids overdoses).
The suicide rate among young adults (15-24) has tripled since 1950
Loneliness is associated with a 32% greater risk of having a stroke
Clearly, a lack of strong attachments and transformational relationships can increase our disconnection from others. This can affect young and old alike. Elderly adults in nursing homes, and kids who move frequently or spend long periods of time at home alone, are subject to emotional health risks.
Loneliness builds up walls and a sense of shame that one is not right or defective. Shame makes us pull away from others - withdraw into the shadows to hide our brokenness. The only antidote to shame and loneliness is connection! We can only heal the broken places in our lives through healing and transformative relationships.
Now let’s revisit the relationships equation and break down each component.
TO FEEL CONNECTED IS TO FEEL ACCEPTED
We speak a lot about connection these days. We want to feel connected to our work, connected to our partner, and connected to our friends. When we feel connected there are basic elements that are in place to make the relationships work - that make them transformative. To feel connected we must have a sense of acceptance and emotional safety. Without each of these elements it is hard to feel connected to anything.
When we feel accepted, we feel deeply understood. Others in our life understand who we are, what makes us “tick,” and more importantly they accept us for our uniqueness. They don’t hold us to impossible standards, but rather they accept our little quirks and picadillos along with all the great things about us. When we feel accepted it’s because our partner “gets us,” and knows our history and some of the most important experiences that shape who we are. When we feel accepted by those who are closest to us, especially our most intimate partners, then we feel like we can be ourselves and let our true self shine through without judgement or fear of rejection. We feel emotionally safe to express who we are, and to reveal those aspects of ourselves that we would never show to someone whom we don’t know as well. Acceptance with our partner is the ability to reveal our vulnerabilities and know the other person will respond with empathy and compassion.
VULNERABILITY IS THE ABILITY TO TOLERATE STRONG EMOTION AND RECOGNIZE UNMET NEEDS
Tolerance is the ability to allow ourselves to stay with our vulnerability long enough to get what we need. When weighing the risks of a vulnerable moment, we are simultaneously weighing our ability to tolerate our exposure. Our fear-based brain in those moments is scanning the environment to determine how quickly we will be provided comfort, reassurance, and safety. If it takes too long, we may determine the risk is not worth it and move into a place of self-protection.
The relational needs we long for from our partner lie behind vulnerability. To stay connected to our partner we must be able to tolerate our vulnerability long enough to recognize our unmet needs. I might feel invalidated, but I must tolerate this vulnerable feeling long enough to recognize this and express it to my partner. I might feel rejected or abandoned, but I must be able to tolerate this emotion long enough to speak from the hurt, not from a place of protection. We can only understand the unmet needs when we hold onto the vulnerable feelings long enough to ask for what we need.
SELF-PROTECTION IS ABOUT SAFETY AT ALL COSTS
We use self-protection to guard, hide, or protect those parts of ourselves that we don’t want to expose to harm. When we feel attacked, blamed, or triggered by someone else, we immediately move into a place of self-protection. In one way this is good. Self-protection is there for a reason. If we didn’t have it we would run around all the time getting hurt by everything.
Self-protection is the adaptive way we have learned to protect past hurts. We first learned these defenses in our original family. When our primary caretakers were not able to provide for us in ways we needed, we learned to protect against those failed expectations and disappointments and to take those needs that went unmet and hide them behind walls. This protection was adaptive at the time. The only problem is that when we grow up, those same protections no longer apply to our adult relationships, yet we continue to use them because we have come to rely on them in automatic ways.
Self-protection is about keeping us safe in the face of harm. But there is a cost to self-protection - it disconnects us from those we love. It prevents us from getting our needs met in our closest relationships, and it keeps us feeling alone.
Back to the Car Ride
When I mentioned that it's “all about relationships,” on that car ride, I think I was close to explaining what is described in this article. But what I should have said is that while relationships are a central element of all life, having close, connected relationships where we feel safe and accepted with little or minimal need for self-protection, is how we best thrive in life.
Since every aspect of our life is imbued with relationships, the question is whether they are more transformative or more transactional. Do we allow ourselves to embrace enough vulnerability to let others see who we really are and truly connect with others?
- Tom Philp, LPC & CEO Stonebridge Couples Therapy