The perennial problem

Recently on Facebook (where lately I’m spending way, way too much time) I came across this poster:


The picture of Buddha caught my attention, but what held it was the text, with which I found myself disagreeing.

So I wrote back,


 The poster’s author replied,


And I replied to her reply as follows:


I don’t usually argue with Buddhists on Facebook.  I did this time because I think what I called the perennial problem is worth paying attention to. 

We humans are caught between a rock and a hard place.  The rock is our need for each other, and the hard place is the difficulty of getting along. 

Relationships are inherently difficult because they demand we do two things simultaneously that just don’t go together: attach to each other, and stay free.

How the hell do I manage that?

That’s the question behind the most common problems clients bring to therapy — anxiety, depression, addiction, loneliness, feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. 

Most of them are struggling, in some way and at some level, with getting their needs met in relationships without getting lost.

And many of them misunderstand the problem. 

They think their relationship problems are their fault.

Women are especially prone to taking blame when a relationship fails.   “How did I screw that one up?” they often ask me.   Men, by contrast, are more often to say something like, “Boy, was that bitch crazy.”

(Yes, I’m overgeneralizing.  I know guilty men and blaming women too.  But in my experience the reverse is true more often than not.) 

So the inherent difficulty of relationship is worth noting if only to reduce the number of times we blame others or ourselves.

The fact is, most relationships fail not because we’re lousy at them, but because relationship itself is hard. 

So if you’re struggling with yours, please remember that.

Remember that most of us don’t set out to hurt or frustrate or disappoint each other.

We just do the best we can — often, without terribly healthy models — to solve a problem that’s difficult at best, and sometimes damned near unsolvable.

The End.




6 responses to “The perennial problem

  • Eunice

    Thanks Steve for another great story within a story. I never tire of these lessons. I was just thinking about relationships I have and do not have, etc., etc. I see your points in your reply and they are valid.

  • Alexis Grasso

    I found myself disagreeing with it, too, Steve. Your perspective is compassionate and one possible place to start. I come at it from a different angle, that all people [esp. youngsters] need to answer 2 questions for their lives: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is my calling/vocation/work, in this life?’

    Once one has answered these, then one’s partners are those whose ontology meshes with our own. Relationship is STILL hard, but is a matter of negotiation; we are beginning from a place of groundedness.

  • John

    My problem with fb post started with the use of an image of the Buddha and the word “win”!

    And then of course the rest of the post misses the mark and is basically a trimmed down version of Perls’ uber-individualistic solipsistic narcissistic Gestalt mantra —

    “I do my thing and you do your thing.
    I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
    And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
    You are you, and I am I,
    and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
    If not, it can’t be helped.”

    My thing is starting fires, tripping old ladies, picking up cats by the tail, clubbing baby seals, skimming off the register at work, and voting for Trump. That’s what makes me happy.

    Perls’ mantra, and the fb variant of it, are indeed both oversimplifications (the fb version is also an example of platitudinal thinking, something becoming more and more prevalent in our ADHD fb and meme-loving and 160 character or less twitter-fest society).

    I go back to something Peck wrote in one of his follow-ups to The Road Less Traveled (TRLT started with “Life is difficult” and proceeded to lay out all of the ways we try to avoid and deny this basic fact of life and the unhealthy costs we bring onto self and others we incur because of these attempts), “Life is complex.”

    Or as MLKjr put it: ” It is a rarity to find someone who is willing to engage in hard, serious thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than the idea of having to think.”

    See also, if anyone is interested —

    • Steve Hauptman

      Thanks, John. Personally I don’t hear Perls’ mantra in quite the same way (maybe because I’m [a] a Gestaltist, or [b] narcissistic). I hear it as reassurance that it is not our job to go around making everyone else happy. Since I work daily with people who never learned that and desperately need to, I find it realistic in a way the Facebook platitude is not.

      In that Morehouse student paper you cite, MLK also wrote, “The function of education…is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” I think that’s the function of real therapy too. It’s what I refer to in my book as growing beyond the Plan A we inherit as children and into a Plan B that is broader, more realistic, and ultimately more compassionate. The compassion starts with ourselves, with accepting our limitations. Hard to give that away if you haven’t given it to yourself.

  • Eunice

    Steve, Just thought I would let you know that I have this printed out and hanging in my house (yep, the whole thing). While you seem to be posting about marriages, commitments in a relationship between 2 people; I find the author is referring to general population (friend, parent-child, work) relationships.
    In my work, friend, my mom-me relationships; yes, I have walked away because I was so unhappy or vice-versa. This was due to a butting of heads, and now I am actually more aware of these things through this post and minding my own business and am doing the things I need to do to make myself happy. And I hope those persons (including my mom) whom I have had a relationship with in the past are happy now doing the things they enjoy doing. By the way, this does not mean I wouldn’t ever want a relationship to begin again, or that I don’t like/love them, it just means that I can’t handle my stress, or the stress of a relationship with them at this point in time = TOXICITY, Neediness, etc.
    But in a committed relationship, where one shares a house and a life with the other, one simply can’t walk away and mind their own business. They struggle, they both change as the years go on (for good and bad) then struggle more to create a livable environment and hopefully a happy life together going through Plans A – Z to see which one is right for them.
    I see your points in this post, but I also see another side to this story. Thanks Steve!

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