Understanding Human Relationships

One of the most important relationship lessons I learned was this: The relationships we have with other people are projections of the relationships we have within ourselves. Our external relationships and our internal relationships are in fact the same relationships. They only seem different because we look at them through different lenses.

Let’s consider why this is true. Where do all your relationships exist? They exist in your thoughts. Your relationship with another person is whatever you imagine it to be. Whether you love someone or hate someone, you’re right. Now the other person may have a completely different relationship to you, but understand that your representation of what someone else thinks of you is also part of your thoughts. So your relationship with someone includes what you think of that person and what you believe s/he thinks of you. You can complicate it further by imagining what the other person thinks you think of him/her, but ultimately those internal representations are all you have.

Even if your relationships exist in some objective reality independent of your thoughts, you never have access to the objective viewpoint. You’re always viewing your relationships through the lens of your own consciousness. The closest you can get to being objective is to imagine being objective, but that is in no way the same thing as true objectivity. That’s because the act of observation requires a conscious observer, which is subjective by its very nature.

At first it might seem troublesome that you can never hope to gain a truly accurate, 100% objective understanding of your relationships. You can never escape the subjective lens of your own consciousness. That would be like trying to find the color blue with a red lens permanently taped over your eyes. That doesn’t stop people from trying, but such attempts are in vain. If you fall into the trap of trying to think of your relationships as objective entities that are external to you, you’ll be using an inescapably inaccurate model of reality. Consequently, the likely outcome is that you’ll frustrate yourself to no end when it comes to human relationships. You’ll make relating to other people a lot harder than it needs to be. Intuitively you may know something is off in your approach to relationships, but you’ll remain stuck until you realize that every relationship you have with another person is really a relationship that exists entirely within yourself.

Fortunately, once you embrace the subjective nature of relationships, you’ll have a much easier time relating to people. It’s easier to get where you want to go when you have an accurate map. The subjective view of relationships implies that you can change or improve your relationships with others by working on the internal relationships within yourself. Furthermore, you can improve your internal relationships, such as your self-esteem, by working on your relationships with others. Ultimately it’s all the same thing.

Here’s a basic example of how this works.

When I first met Erin, I quickly noticed she had an aversion towards orderliness. Having a messy room was a habit since childhood, and being organized was a concept forever alien to her. In Erin’s filing cabinet, I once found a file labeled “Stuff I Don’t Need.” Chew on that for a while.

On the other hand, I grew up in a house that was always — and I do mean always — neat and tidy. Even as a child, I took pride in keeping my room clean and well organized. So it probably comes as no surprise that I often push Erin to be neater and more organized.

If we try to look at this situation “objectively,” you might suggest solutions like me working on becoming more tolerant of disorder, Erin working on being neater, or a mixture of both. Or you might conclude we’re incompatible in this area and that we should try to find ways to reduce the level of conflict. Basically the solution will be some kind of compromise that seeks to mitigate the symptoms, but the core issue remains unresolved.

Let’s see what the subjective lens has to say now. This model says that my relationship with Erin is purely within my own consciousness. So my conflict with Erin is just the projection of an internal conflict. Supposedly my desire for Erin to be neater and more organized means that I really want to improve in this area myself. Is that true? Yes, I have to admit that it is. When I criticize Erin for not being neat enough, I’m voicing my own desire to become even more organized.

This is an entirely different definition of the problem, one that suggests a new solution. In this case the solution is for me to work on improving my own standards for neatness and order. That’s a very different solution than what we get with the objective model. To implement this solution, Erin needn’t even be involved.

From the standpoint of the objective model, this subjective solution seems rather foolish. If anything it will only backfire. Wouldn’t my working on becoming neater just increase the conflict between me and Erin?

Now here’s the really fascinating part. When I actually tried the subjective solution by going to work on myself, Erin suddenly began taking a keen interest in becoming more organized herself. She bought new home office furniture and assigned new homes to objects that were previously cluttering her workspace. She hired a cleaning service to clean the house and did more decluttering before they came over. She bought new bedroom furniture for our children. She did a lot of purging and donated many old items to charity. She began looking for a housekeeper and wrote up a list of cleaning tasks to be outsourced. And I really wasn’t pushing her to do this. If anything she started pushing me a bit.

Somehow when I worked on myself (recognizing that this is an internal issue, not an external one), Erin came along for the ride. I’ve tested this pattern in other ways, and it continues to play out. My “external” relationships keep changing to keep pace with my internal relationships. I’ve seen this effect with other people too, but it’s been most obvious with Erin and my kids, since they’re the people I spend the most time with. It’s rather spooky at times how strong and immediate the effect is. However, the subjective model suggests that this is exactly how reality works, so I’m glad to have a paradigm that fits the results.

I encourage you to experiment to see how your external relationships reflect your internal ones. Try this simple exercise: Make a list of all the things that bother you about other people. Now re-read that list as if it applies to you. If you’re honest you’ll have to admit that all of your complaints about others are really complaints about yourself. For example, if you dislike George Bush because you think he’s a poor leader, could this be because your own leadership skills are sub par? Then go to work on your own leadership skills, or work on becoming more accepting of your current skill level, and notice how George Bush suddenly seems to be making dramatic improvements in this area.

It can be hard to admit that your complaints about others are really complaints about yourself, but the upside is that your relationship issues reveal where you still need to grow. Consequently, a fantastic way to accelerate your personal growth is to build relationships with others. The more you interact with others, the more you learn about yourself.

I believe the true value of human relationships is that they serve as pointers to unconditional love. According to the subjective model, when you forgive, accept, and love all parts of yourself, you will forgive, accept, and love all other human beings as they are. The more you improve your internal relationships between your thoughts, beliefs, and intentions, the more loving and harmonious your human relationships will become. Hold unconditional love in your consciousness, and you’ll see it reflected in your reality.