Because I am a drop of water to be held and contained by the vastness and depths of your love. In return, know myself out of which springs feelings of gratitude, responsibility, and taking action for my part in this embrace. There is no separate “I” or “you.” Only the reciprocal we.
— From “The Reciprocal We” by Ashley Batistick
I hear some version of this question a lot as a couple therapist: How are they going to be here for me if they can’t even help themselves?
It’s predicated on the popularly-referenced cultural norm that one has to learn to love oneself before they can love another.
In my office, entrenched within a cycle of blame, couples are pretty sure of the answer:
This is her problem to solve.
He’s too much.
Or they just need to get over it.
Yet here here they are, desperate to be loved by one another.
Like bullets, I’ll watch these statements ricochet off of one another, fragmenting into feelings of anxiousness, worry, resentment, and anger.
Even if we haven’t accessed the underlying emotions yet, I know they are there.
Sadness, loneliness, and helplessness say: If only it were okay for me to need you and feel your love, I would I feel more confident and free to love myself.
I don’t want to do this alone.
Who would, especially when we feel emotionally distant from our partners, drowning in disconnection?
As a couple therapist I’m a firm believer it’s within safe and loving relationships we are free to know and love ourselves. We call this interdependence.
But culturally we don’t buy into dependence of any kind. We take the do-it-yourself, self-help approach, judging ourselves and carrying shame when we don’t.
Amazingly, we are conditioned out of needing one another. As attachment expert Sue Johnson points out, it’s how we survive as babies and children: So why wouldn’t we thrive within the same conditions as adults?
When we are held with respect, awe, and love, we feel safe enough to be curious about who we are, what we are experiencing, and how we show up in the world. And as Sheryl Paul, author of "Wisdom of Anxiety: How Worry and Intrusive Thoughts are Gifts to Help You Heal," voices, from this bedrock we can cultivate a practice of knowing and trusting ourselves, which simultaneously invites us to take responsibility for and show up confidently in all realms of one's life. This enables us to act in reciprocal ways for others, creating an interwoven chain that sparks potential for good throughout the communities of which we are a part.
Interdependence is not codependency. It’s also not self-abandonment where one seeks the endless reassurance of another. It also is not ego-driven, in that it prioritizes oneself over the other.
Interdependence is different: The cycle is generative. It builds upon a solid foundation of attachment and dependence, which creates safety. From there, two selves can both emerge and coexist. Out of oneness, there is separateness. And within our shared separateness, where we confidently know and love ourselves, we can seek wholeness.
This is what our Earth, our world yearns for, from us. Post 2020, if not now, then when?
We know the catastrophic, cascading effects when we don’t relate in this way. The pandemic forced us to reckon with these truths.
Systemically, we privilege our separateness from one another and distinguish white, heterosexual, and non-disabled beings as superior, marginalizing BIPOC, LGBTQIA, and people with disabilities who are at most risk. We also broker in exhausting and depleting natural resources to the brink of disaster, continuing to treat the land, water, air, and their species with injustice. According to social justice activists, researchers, and advocates, there is a correlation between climate change and discrimination, including but not limited to racism, sexism, and ableism (Yale Environment 360, PBS, UX Collective).
Without our total attention, as eco-philosopher and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy argues, these inequitable systems will continue to commodify in keeping us separate. And this is when we are all left broke in suffering.
But what if we invested in the belief we actually belong to one another?
Might I also take responsibility for my part, my impact on you and us. And might you feel safe enough to move toward me, and our relationship could unfold in ways that we not only begin to repair past traumas but also come to know and love ourselves for who for we truly are: flourishing whole beings capable of doing so much good in the world. Of course, as someone is who white and comes from multiple places of privilege, I won’t pretend interdependence washes away centuries of oppression and suffering. There is still a long way to go.
But maybe we can reframe the question, “How are they going to be here for me if they can’t even help themselves?” through the lens of interdependence.
It’s not just an invitation for myself and my clients, but fans into the collective, beyond our personal realities into the lives and communities of others, and ultimately, the place we all belong: Our world we call Earth.
In choosing both self and other, the "I" and the "You," we find the "We." And together, just imagine how much we could all flourish.
This post was first inspired by the podcast conversation On Being’s Krista Tippett had with Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows on the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and later, from the book passages of Joanna Macy’s “World As Lover, World A Self”; Deborah Eden Tull’s “Relational Mindfulness: A Handbook for Deepening Our Connection with Ourselves, Each Other, and the Planet”; Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants”; as well as Sue Johnson’s “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversation for a Lifetime Of Love” and Sheryl Paul’s “Wisdom of Anxiety: How Worry and Intrusive Thoughts Are Gifts to Help You Heal.”
Image Description: Two females lying in the grass together at twilight. One rests her head on top the other's chest.