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Human Relationships

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 31 - August 1998

Gestalt therapy carries an existential message about human relationships. Perls' epigrammatic statement of his ethic of interaction is contained in this little verse:

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.

Over the years, there have been many mis-readings of this paradigm. He's not saying that we should become more nasty, brutal and selfish, but rather it must be read in the context of the many hanging-on, "confluent" mis-relationships that people get entangled in (and which move them to consult the therapist in the first place!). The psychotherapist, after all, has his special perspective, and Perls' poem is substantially an expression from the therapist's chair.

Thus, this model can be aptly applied to patient-therapist relationships, as well as to love contacts, old friends, families, etc. It can also be a useful paradigm for exploring interactions within groups.

Far from being an anti-social model, as some critics have erroneously misread it, Perls' view here implies a deep respect for the integrity of the other person, and a realistic appreciation for the inner rhythm of life as contact/withdrawal/contact...etc. (you might even consider this analogous to Wilhelm Reich's notion of the healthy flowing rhythm of biological pulsation). Now this is a sharp contrast to the usual over-idealised version of a dependency relationship, or even worse – a sticky, confluential one.

We can understand Peris' viewpoint more clearly, perhaps, by contrasting the styles of healthy vs. unhealthy relationships via the following diagrams.

Perls employs here the notion of personal boundaries. A healthy person senses his boundary; it is neither too vague or vapid, nor is it dense and isolating, but allows him both to contact others, and at times, to be alone and feel content with his individuality.

Here are some illustrative paradigms of this boundary principle applied to human relations.

See Figure 1: Dependency relationship. (Not shown here)

This shows person A is dependent on person B. He says, "I can't live without you." (But remember, if they can't live without you, they really can't live with you either! A's boundary and his sense of self are too weak, he needs you too much.) Naturally since person A lacks a firm, meaningful boundary of his own, i.e., one that is essential for any real contact, he "needs" you. Too many people mistakenly see this strong need as love. Whereas more realistically, it is better understood as pathological over-dependency. In this typical clinging situation, person B usually feels oppressed.

Jean-Paul Sartre has described the phenomenology of such human interactions well; A tries to imprison B in his "love". Of course, B cannot bear it, it is de trop – too much. In the Sartrean analysis, it limits his freedom since A wants to make an object of B, to transcend him. In other words, B becomes a mere object of A's "love". And so as a result of this oppression, after a while B loses interest in A, if he ever had any, and seeks another person C, who although more elusive, is interesting and exciting (allowing B to sense his "subjectivity", to use Sartre's terminology). And so we have the eternal triangle: A loves B, but B doesn't respond to A; B wants C.

Have you ever been in this type of relationship? Think of how it was; exciting and romantic for a short time, perhaps. How did it feel later? Another question: which side were you? If both, at different times, do you prefer the A position or as B? (The B person suffers the most; he senses the cloying de trop quality as Sartre mentions, and tries to run away.)

A may complain a lot, and suffer the joys and pangs of unrequited love, but in a sense he has the stronger position: A can feel romantic, constant love, and when inevitably abandoned – for who can stand it for long as B? – has the moral self-justification and self-pity of martyrdom. He also gets pity from others, as he harangues his friends – "see, they've done it again. I'm just an innocent victim; here am I full of love, I give myself 100% to them and they reject me. The others are bad, evil, etc., etc."

If only A could see what he does to B!

See Figure 2: Confluence (Symbiosis) (Not shown here)

Here is another example, two persons, D and E, both suffering from insubstantial boundaries, as person A in the previous case. Thus, they "need" each other for mutual support. This predicament of two vague, interlocking boundary problems deteriorates into a double-dependency model, or in Erich Fromm's term, symbiosis. Each supports the other, must do it, they can't live without the other always being there: "it's just us two against the world," is the typical sentiment. Each is expected to share all of the opinions, ideas, tastes, etc. of the other; no differences are tolerated. Thus, if D likes to play chess, E must also play, even if he has no inclination, and would much prefer to lift weights or jog or whatever. They may argue about this time and time again in family therapy, viz., "He doesn't love me, he won't share his interests with me," etc., ad nauseum. In this kind of inevitably hopeless relationship, people lose their sense of identity; they become more and more locked into helplessness and needing the other.

One problem is that many aim for this set-up, under the delusion, perhaps fed by over-idealized cinema portrayals, that it is "true love".

"Let's always be together, darling, every minute of every day, and never separate, not even for one moment." In reality, though, one cannot healthfully maintain this position for long; it becomes too sticky, gooey, nauseating and sickening. It's a bit like putting you hand in a jar of honey. Or, trying to enjoy the taste of wine by always having a mouthful.

Part II continues in the next issue.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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