Ed Wilson, Harvard professor, Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of On Human Nature, was fascinated with ant colonies from a young age. It was enough of an interest for him as a boy that he continued it over the course of his long, successful career as an entomologist.
He was most intrigued by the similarities between ant societies and human societies. One of the things Dr. Wilson believes, after his many long years of thought and study, is that our two species share the same biological drive to be connected, to be a part of, to belong. He believes both ant (16 species of them) and human evolution took a major turn when each developed the DNA that made us utterly and irrevocably, emotionally dependent on each other—to our families, our tribes (and yes, ants have families and tribes and are “emotionally” or instinctively dependent on each other). When this occurred, when we became more emotionally tied to one another across generations, both humans and ants began to thrive and to multiply exponentially.
So, what does this have to do with you and your marriage? That emotional or instinctual connectedness that developed thousands of years ago is part of not only what made us produce offspring by the billions, but also what made us a little too focused on each other…with too much, and at the same time, too little expectation of each other.
We come into marriage with highly romantic expectations of our spouses (you-complete-me/I-complete-you), which of course doesn’t pan out. So, we try really hard to make it pan out. Which, of course, usually leads to trying to get our spouses to change…to listen better, to understand, to be more loving, to see us as equals, and on and on. When that doesn’t work, our high expectations turn to low expectations. We expect them to fail us. Let the blame game begin.
While this process is terribly painful and feels “unhealthy” and like something is wrong, perhaps it would be helpful to remember that the heart of the issue has more to do with our instinctual focus on other rather than on self. We are more tied to our evolutionary history than we really know.
But how to we turn this focus on other into something else that might lead to a greater sense of belonging?
The “I” Position: A Bastardized Concept
I’m sure most of my readers have heard of the communication technique known as the “I” statement. It’s a tool by which the speaker uses the word “I” rather than “you” to work out a conflict. Here’s a great (and funny) example of how this technique falls apart: This is 40
The original concept known as the “I” position, has unfortunately been bastardized into the “I” statement. I say bastardized because most people don’t know where the idea originally came from…they don’t know the father of the idea…and it’s hard to really understand the concept if you don’t know where it came from. If you’d like to learn more about the man who observed that developing your “I” position (a.k.a. maturing emotionally) is a powerful and more effective way to solve problems, you can go here.
The “I” position is the idea that despite what difficulties your spouse (or son or daughter, mother or father) is causing you, you can learn to better manage your reaction to it. You can work on ways to react less emotionally, and more empowered. This doesn’t mean talking yourself out of what you think your spouse is doing. It just means doing something different with your self in response. When family relationships are troubled, developing your self (your “I” position) is your best bet for developing a greater sense of belonging.
So, instead of coming from here: You are making me miserable…or…If you would just listen…or…I just need you to understand me better… or Can’t you give me some space?! Consider coming from here: I am miserable, and I think my reactions to you might be a part of my misery…or…I wonder if I stopped taking so much responsibility for your feelings, I might start acting a little better…or…Ya know, I know you’re a good person, and I know you have a point of view that’s is legitimate, and I’m not sure I really understand it. Will you tell me again what you think about X, so I can try to understand. I’m going to try to listen and not react so much.
As Michael J. Fox once said (and I’m paraphrasing here)…the key to a good marriage is to keep your fights clean and your sex dirty.
Belonging is not romantic.
I think it’s helpful to think of belonging as biological rather than romantic. I mean, I get it. Feeling like you belong to someone is pretty darn amazing. I want someone to think my spindly legs are all that and that my bulging thorax is just beyond! But being unrealistic about our expectations of what belonging is supposed to be and how it is supposed to happen leads to low expectations and resentment and bitterness. Try approaching it more objectively, like it’s a project you want to use to learn more about yourself and your spouse (or any other family member), the easy-to-learn as well as the difficult. Try developing your “I” position. It won’t happen in a vacuum.
The hope is that we can come alongside each other and hold hands as we face our relationship difficulties separately from our loved (or not-so-loved) ones. Together and separate…at the same time.
Where do you belong? With whom do you belong? If you’re struggling with the answer or if you know exactly where you belong I’d love to hear from you. How did you cultivate that sense of belonging? What do you think goes wrong when you are attempting to connect?