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"And" Not "But": The Secret to Healthy Relationships

Celebrating contradiction as a path to intimacy.

Nature abhors a vacuum, or so they say. Similarly, it seems that human beings abhor contradiction, particularly in the context of relationships. We like to package our feelings as positive or negative, believing that contradictory feelings cannot and should not co-exist. In approaching relationships, we use the word but to connect contradictory feelings, as if the positive should eliminate the negative and vice versa. In fact, for a relationship to succeed, "and," NOT "but," must be the approach we take when linking the inconsistent feelings that are at the heart of all relationships.

All relationships resolve in contradiction. Why then is it so difficult for us to accept contradictory feelings inside ourselves? Unfortunately, we are trained to believe that consistency is the basic nature of all things, that there is an answer to all questions. One answer. “Is it good or bad?” “Is it true or false?” “Is it right or wrong?” We like simple, clean, straightforward answers. If it’s both, simultaneously, then we are in for a more complicated consideration, a more unsettling resolution.

We seek to obliterate internal contradiction because it causes discomfort and ambiguity. We are always trying to grasp certainty and avoid the unknown. It doesn’t make sense that we can feel both love and hate, appreciation and disappointment, relief and frustration, all at once. In relationship, when we open to our full experience we must face the truth that all of these contradictory feelings exist in our experience of our partner. Such an openness of vision means accepting that we are receiving certain joys and being deprived of others. This can be quite un-grounding.

People use two primary strategies to eradicate internal inconsistency in relationship. Either we make the other all good or we make him/her all bad. Both paths are attempts to right the inconsistency, to manipulate the experience in order to feel just one way.

To make our experience consistently positive, we disconnect from and deny our negative feelings, the parts of the relationship where we are not getting what we want. Having successfully removed the negative, we can remain in the relationship “pain-free.” Ironically, internal criticism can serve as a way of denying negative feelings. Telling ourselves that we are “ungrateful,” “overly demanding,” “impossible to please,” and thus somehow to blame for the deprivation that we are experiencing, is a strategy to reject our pain and thus eradicate the anxiety that contradiction arouses.

Making the experience consistently negative, on the other hand, requires rejecting the parts of the relationship that bring us joy. The “He’s a louse and I don’t know what I’m doing with him” brand of thinking. In this approach we focus only on the problems, not allowing ourselves to acknowledge or appreciate the reasons we are actually in the relationship.

The problem with denying a part of our internal experience is that it prevents us from being able to fully experience our lives, to authentically enjoy what is working in our relationship or to change what is not. We cannot cut off a part of our experience without damaging the other parts. We cannot put a blanket over the negative without blunting the positive. So too, when we bury our experience we create an underlying resentment. It is this buried resentment that will destroy the relationship, not the acknowledgment of our contradictory feelings.

By suppressing the painful parts of a relationship, we are destroying our chance to improve the relationship. We become paralyzed because there is nothing to fix and yet we are unhappy. The difficulty has to be felt first before it can be corrected. While it may seem counter-intuitive to welcome the negative, it is the denial of pain that prevents us from actually becoming happy.

On the other hand, the denial of the positive aspects of a relationship creates a different kind of stuckness. When we are committed to making our partner all bad, it is actually more difficult to leave him or her. As long as we are unable to acknowledge the positive feelings, we end up staying in the relationship as a way of bringing life to the positive.

As long as we are not honoring what we do love in our partner, what we are receiving, we are not free to choose a path, whether to leave or stay. The positive is all tangled up in the staying together and this creates a paralysis of its own.

Contradiction is truth; both positive and negative exist simultaneously—always. When we operate from a place of and, not but—yes and yes—we relieve the need to make everything one particular way, tidy, easily understood. With permission to include all the ands, the whole of the relationship, we can then determine if what we are receiving is indeed what we need, enough, and conversely if what we are giving up is acceptable to give up. We generate compassion and appreciation for ourselves when we are able to accept the whole picture that is relationship. It is a compassion born of awareness, recognizing the profundity of the choices we are making, whatever they may be.

Copyright Nancy Colier 2012