The Importance of Mutuality in Relationships

by MLHeller on March 28, 2008

in 2008,Childhood development,Food and love,General Archives,Human development,Infant development,Mothers and babies,Parenting,Relationships

A relationship, by design, is a two-person field.  Actually more if you consider all the people inhabiting your mind.  With mom, dad and your third grade teacher with the quivering upper arms, it’s a pretty crowded place.  You are the unique product of all your relationships.  This internal constellation of characters forming your identity is an entire world.

Relationships are defined by sharing and reciprocity

When two distinctive worlds overlap, a third context for growth forms, a creative sphere of active possibilities.  Reminiscent of a womb, the first place we made human contact floating under our mother’s heart, it holds two (or more) intersecting worlds.  Human growth occurs within a relational context when people actively impact one another.  When two worlds intersect, something interesting always happens.

As reader and writer, you and I share an online relationship, impacting each other in interesting ways as our varied worlds overlap.  As a therapist-writer, I’m equally accustomed to criticism and praise and observe both carefully.  Flattery doesn’t necessarily mean my writing or ideas were good any more than criticism means they weren’t.

The blue circus

The blue circus

Of greater import is our shared desire to interact even when we disagree.  Our differences make us grow.  Paradoxically, writing and reading are both solitary pursuits.  The junction where reader and writer connect introduces this interactive third element of co-created space wherein distinct points of view are exchanged.

If you’ve read some of the passionate responses submitted to my column blog, it’s clear this “third” space is electrified and alive, peppered with both critical and positive remarks.  It’s not about who is more correct but about how we impact one another in this third space created when you and I, reader and writer, intersect.

The importance of self-awareness

Consider any recent conversation and ask yourself what was co-created in that interactive field.  Was it collaborative, or did you simply argue from rigid, opposing positions?  Did you each feel understood, or were you left feeling remotely disappointed?  Were feelings of intimacy or loneliness generated?

I ponder the same questions when I slip into that third space with my patients.  In that intimate arena, however, I have the benefit of personal immediacy and an ongoing relationship to guide my responses.   Not so with my column.  I write from my academic, clinical and personal perspective, while you respond from your own experiential position.  It’s very compelling to survey what happens.

Self-awareness increases as we observe ourselves thoughtfully. We learn a lot about mental processes by observing how people react to ideas that introduce something novel into their emotional or intellectual diet.  Do they compliantly swallow?  Reach for more?  Taste a bit before deciding?  Maybe they turn away and spit it out like a baby rejecting a spoonful of peas.  Are they frightened or intrigued?  Perhaps they become enraged and attack.

Hungry for love and connection

It’s equally fascinating to consider how commonly food or digestive metaphors are used to describe pleasurable or unpleasant experiences.  A special moment is described as delectable.  A bad movie is likened to excrement.  A comforting moment is nourishing.

The newborn

The newborn

All these emotional links to food and the digestive body are derived from infancy and childhood when we linked maternal love with food.  The gratification of our first feedings, of being tended by devoted parents, lends us these metaphors.  We took in and “metabolized” love and affection with the food we consumed.  For those nursed as infants, you quite literally took mother inside.

Entertaining a college friend and her family for Sunday brunch many years ago, I prepared a variety of dishes, hoping at least one might appeal to her then eight year old son whom I adored.  Just in case, I had back-up kid food in the refrigerator.  Now a dashing newlywed with an exciting finance job in New York, he’d be mortified if I reminded him that he took one look at the fare and proclaimed unequivocally, “Disgusting!”  I gave him buttered toast.  More importantly, by specifically and meaningfully communicating my regard for his dietary needs, I was “feeding” his emotional hunger for recognition.

Whether or not my puffed apple pancake was “good” was less significant than whether my young friend could take it in.  Clearly he couldn’t.  Very early in life we learn to link feelings with feedings.  When I fed him what he needed, he felt understood and valued.  Our food must be age appropriate.

Food to grow on

You wouldn’t offer a toothless infant an apple, any more than a book by Dickens, because he would not be able to “chew” them.  While they might nourish someone older, the baby would be unable to assimilate them and would starve.  If this happened repeatedly, the baby would feel misunderstood and unloved.

Food for a baby must be slightly predigested; an apple must be cooked and pressed first before the baby can eat it.  The manner in which we received food-love from our parents outlines the emotional and psychological template that prefigures how we give and receive all things throughout our lives.  What we hunger for most doesn’t necessarily come on a plate.

Food for thought

While food always retains its calming link to comfort and affection, emotional ground zero, maturation and the acquisition of a verbal repertoire permit a child to receive and give love with words and language.  A complimentary “well done!” constitutes emotional food.

Words become place holders, symbols for the actual food once equated with maternal love.  Language feeds the growing body-mind, and daily rituals reinforce emergent connections.  Perhaps Dad winked and said he loved you as he tucked you in at night, a “delicious” bedtime ceremony.

Words acquire the capacity to satisfy emotional needs.  Linked to early experiences with actual food, they provide emotional sustenance just as rich ideas “feed” the intellectual mind.

“Tripe” is a food word used vigorously to describe ideas deemed distasteful.  It suggests an inedible concept, one that is repellent and cannot be absorbed.  Perhaps it is too unfamiliar, like my apple tart was for my eight year old friend.  Maybe it simply needs to marinate for a while.  Perhaps it conflicts with a deeply held belief.

If you believe apples must be eaten raw, my puffed apple tart wouldn’t appeal to you either.  Perhaps the intellectual challenge feels dangerous, representing a hard intellectual apple when something softer is required.  Maybe you’ll force me to eat your preferred food.

As you read what I’ve written, examine the interesting possibilities that emerge as our idea-worlds collide. Without frequent interpersonal mergers, we’d each be left stagnating, starving alone in our own inner worlds.  Food begins the growth process that ideas and language continue.  One person’s tripe is another’s chocolate mousse (or apple tart).

Our shared online environment

In my analytic work, I invite and value the entire spectrum of emotional responses, encouraging patients to freely utilize my clinical capacities.  I extend the same latitude to you as readers.

My ideas are useful or helpful because they reach you, because you read and consume them.  Despite constraints imposed by an electronic medium, our creative space defined by oscillating pixels functions just like a material space defined by four walls.  We each contribute and receive, creating something new.  I’ll certainly continue to make my tart hoping you might eventually enjoy it with me, but I’ll always have something else in the pantry.

As you read this column, observe your intellectual and emotional reactions and track how you habitually manage them.  If angry, do you discharge first and think later?  Do you write impulsive, explosive letters, the equivalent of projectile vomiting, flinging undigested ideas back at me?  Perhaps you’ll write a flattering letter, your offering of tasty food.

Do you want to attack me personally or devalue my credentials and ideas, destroying the value of food altogether?  Maybe you hesitate to express any opinion, politely swallowing even if it tastes bad.  You just might feel I’ve understood something important about you, enabling you to reflect upon yourself with greater awareness.  You feel I’ve given you just the right amount of nourishing food.

Creative dialogues

Though you and I meet online, we are each subtly transformed as our thought-worlds cross-pollinate.  I have ideas about who you might be just as you may wonder about me.  While my thoughts may not always match yours, I write with you in mind just as I speak to communicate ideas, not simply hear my own voice.

The spirit of creative discourse is defined by exploration and a crisp exchange of ideas.  Consider the elements you wish to contribute to our third space and let me know what you’d like for breakfast.

This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

{ 1 comment }

John July 25, 2012 at 6:59 am

Great “food” for thought. However, I believe the balance is tilted in your favor and very well, it should be. You are the one who studies this. But I certainly did take your words in a much different consideration.
What you wrote here much more affected my world than what I am writing, affects yours. Although you will be thrilled to know that.
Most importantly, I will now consider the third world even in my day to day conversations. Thank you.

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