Relationships: Purpose versus Drama

“What’s the point?” A man recently asked me this rhetorical question. We were discussing that age-old topic – relationships. In this case he was talking about whether or not he should stay with his girlfriend. I knew he didn’t really expect me to answer with a yes or no. In fact I had no answers for him, and he knew I wouldn’t. It’s a dangerous business giving advice and there is little pay off. I try to restrain myself as much as possible, but some very general commentary follows!

His question made me think about the common problems in relationship. We are always looking to the other to fill our needs. It seems to be part of being human, but it is such a treacherous pit to fall into. Expectations are set up in the early starry-eyed days, usually followed by disappointment. Don’t get me wrong; I am not against relationships. In fact, they are very important to me. However the art of being in relationship is one that comes with a certain maturity and probably a few grey hairs. Successful relationship often seems to depend on another art – the art of conversation.

Some years ago I learned about the Conversant model of conversation. It is geared towards structuring conversations in the business world, but it has real applications for any conversation that can become contentious.

The first and most important point is to get clear about purpose. Why are you having the conversation and what do you hope to achieve. What principles and values do you share? If for example you are talking about whether or not to continue to be in relationship, then you would each have to think about that purpose. In other words, what is the point? Sometimes it is helpful to consider what success would look or feel like. Both parties should be rigorously honest with each other about what they want, and what they are hoping for.

The next part of the conversation is about alignment. Do our goals align? Can we support each other in obtaining those goals? Can we get aligned? It is important to stay away from all you language, which mostly devolves into blame and criticism in which the other person invariably feels judged, attacked and lacking. Try to stay with statements or expressions that begin with “I think or I feel” or “When X happens, I feel….”

The other side of this of course is listening. Many of us have never learned to listen and become quite impatient when we are asked to do so. We often listen to others in very surface ways. I am sure most of you have had the experience of telling a story, only to be interrupted by your partner who will tell you some version of, “Oh that’s nothing – wait til you hear what happened to me!” What they are listening for is a break in the conversation so they can turn the focus back to themselves.

In order to truly listen to another, the ego has to be willing to set aside its agenda of aggrandizement. One common listening exercise is to see if you can say back to your partner what he/she has just said without adding your commentary or judgment. In fact, you simply try to repeat back the meaning of your partner’s words. You are actually just verifying to see if you have really ‘gotten it’. Chances are your partner will feel heard in a whole new way, which in turn will possibly lead to a more meaningful and deeper communication.

If the two of you can get aligned on purpose, and feel that you can support each other’s individual purposes, then the next step is agreeing on some action steps. What are some action steps that would help you achieve your goals, both individually and as a couple? Remember that all goals do not have to be shared, but the important ones do. These goals should not fight against each other.

As we let go of the requirement that the other fulfills all our basic needs, we start to take responsibility for ourselves in a new way. There may be some things that are non-negotiable. Can your partner live with that? Yes or no? Try to take as many requirements and expectations off your partner as you can so that you can strip it down to the most important elements of relationship for you.

Learning to love another person is to always keep in mind your partner’s deep-seated needs and to be gentle with that. I am not advocating that you sacrifice your own soul needs to your partner’s agenda. Staying true to your deep Self should always be your highest purpose. If your relationship is fruitful you will support each other’s connection to That, and help each other along the path with as few demands as possible.

We are all ultimately alone with the One. A vision of relationship that is helpful to some is to imagine two parallel paths that dip in towards each other from time to time at agreed upon intervals. Finding a friend or partner who is in sync with you can be a source of joy and true friendship.

For more information on the Conversant model of conversation:


Watch this beautiful video of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Wild Geese:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

from Dream Work by Mary Oliver
published by Atlantic Monthly Press
© Mary Oliver