Human Matters — Healthy “We” requires two healthy “I’s”; no way around it


First, there was Stan Tatkin’s book “Wired For Love,” which provoked a column. Then Amir Levine’s book “Attached,” and another column. The trifecta of my recent academic spelunking is Sue Johnson’s book “Hold Me Tight.”

These three books mark a huge shift for me.

I was academically reared in a psychoanalytic approach to couples counseling. That is, my industry, at that time, presupposed that marital stress, conflict or crisis was rooted in individual mental health issues. Honestly? I have grave doubts about the true usefulness of marriage counseling in that model. It seems to me that couples got better - or didn’t - as an independent variable to this kind of counseling.

Then came the late ’70s and ’80s, and couples counselors became psychoeducators.

Chiefly, we were charged with the task of “teaching couples to communicate.” Which, with few variations, quickly morphed into “teaching men to communicate.” Then the research caught up and we all blushed. Turned out that men were communicating just fine at work and to the women with whom they were having affairs. I’m saying that, brain-damaged men notwithstanding, guys communicate just fine when they want to communicate: “It’s not that he doesn’t know how to communicate, ma’am, it’s that he doesn’t want to communicate with you.”

Then David Schnarch and his wife, Ruth Morehouse, fundamentally changed the way I do business. “Intimacy is difficult to achieve; and, once achieved, even harder to tolerate” (“Passionate Marriage” by David Schnarch).

Schnarch and Morehouse made it clear that growing and sustaining intimacy demands rigor and intention. Also, it requires a willingness to develop healthy selfhood. When marriages become stressed, conflicted or in open crisis, Schnarch and Morehouse proposed this was a consequence of a “gridlock” of individual development. Said another way, when a marriage “works,” it must inevitably grow a level of intimacy that overwhelms our developmental capacity to handle it. But, since this moment in time is unconscious, all the couple knows is the distancing behavior, the abating sexual desire, and often the increase in irritability, antagonism and fighting.

Schnarch and Morehouse insist these aren’t evidences of the need to divorce. Rather, they are evidences of the need for the next steps of differentiation (the growth of selfhood.)

Now comes Tatkin, Levine and Johnson. I’ve written recently of the first two. But I just finished Johnson’s “Hold Me Tight.”

Sue Johnson proposes human biology and evolution “wire us” for the “need to have someone to depend on, a loved one who can offer reliable emotional connection and comfort.” But, when she first tried to publish her views, the industry was critical. Her colleagues didn’t agree at all. They maintained the party line.

First they said that emotion was something that adults should control. That too much emotion was the basic problem in most marriages. It should be overcome. But most important, they argued, healthy adults are self-sufficient. Only dysfunctional people need or depend on others.

Johnson says that’s crap. Human beings are made for relationship. Without fundamental, trustworthy attachments, we flounder. I’ll be saying more about “Hold Me Tight” in upcoming columns. For now, let me recommend the book highly to all committed couples, and especially to couples who are in devastating, toxic patterns of fighting.

For me, the last several years of study keep affirming the paradox: On the one hand, to be able to participate in the rigors of great love and the sheer weight of deep intimacy, we must have access to a healthy, well-differentiated self. On the other hand, the only - I say again, only - way to make lasting progress in the work of healthy selfhood is to throw ourselves headlong (and screaming if necessary) into the rigors of great love and the willingness to tolerate the regular discomforts of intimacy.

Thriving “We” requires two healthy “I’s.” And the only way to grow a healthy “I,” ultimately, is to jump into The Radical We.

It’s both. Always. And don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at skalas@ reviewjournal.com.