Could it be possible that relationships are nothing more than a balancing act between reasons to stay and reasons to leave? Recently, I made several visits to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia. My interest in a museum dedicated to broken relationships may seem unusual and even raise a few red flags, so please allow me to explain. I certainly don’t feed off other people’s misfortune and despair, it’s just that I understand things in greater detail when I am faced with it’s opposite. I know what something is when I realise what it is not. Duality is an important aspect of how I learn. I discovered that visiting a museum devoted to broken relationships provides valuable insight into the complexity of LOVE and our expression of self whilst exposed and vulnerable aboard the ‘relation-ship’. No doubt the ship has many layers and it’s not always smooth sailing as we attempt to somehow hold on to ourselves whilst understanding and empathising with another. But in order to hold on to who I am in relation to another, I must first know myself.
Ancient philosophy from many corners of the world has brought attention to the need to know ourselves before we can understand another or anything else for that matter. Oscar Wild took the notion of knowing thyself further by expressing the need to not only know thyself, but to be thyself. It makes me wonder, if we ‘be what we know’ and then ‘know what to be’ we may actually have a better chance to create a life of purpose while maintaining positive relation to self, others and all that is. Put simply, we should know first and be later. But there’s a catch. Often, we know without being it and as much as ancient philosophy can teach us about life, it’s what we ‘be‘ and who we become that matters the most.
Children come into the world knowing who they are and therefore can truly ‘be’ from a place of knowing thyself. It’s only later, that their version of self becomes distorted through direct impact from the environment in which they live and their whole experience of life and self in relation to others and all that is. Therefore, environment is essential to our wellbeing and to our ability to develop a positive relationship to self, others and all that is. This is a huge topic that I will cover in another post but in order to illustrate the impact that environment has on our ability to form who we are in relation to others, I would like to mention an important social experiment by psychologist Zimbardo (1973) Zimbardo was interested in finding out whether the brutality among guards in American prisons was caused by the sadistic personalities of the guards or if it had more to do with the actual prison environment. Was the brutality dispositional or situational? In the experiment, volunteers were given diagnostic interviews and personality tests to eliminate people with psychological problems, medical disabilities, or a history of crime or drug abuse. 24 male college students were selected from 75 volunteers and were paid $15 per day to take part in the experiment. The study was supposed to run for two weeks but was terminated after only 6 days when the emotional impact on the participants quickly intensified. The study concluded that “people will conform to the social roles they are expected to play, especially if the roles are as strongly stereotyped as those of the prison guards. The “prison” environment was an important factor in creating the guards’ brutal behavior (none of the participants who acted as guards showed sadistic tendencies before the study). Therefore, the findings support the situational explanation of behavior rather than the dispositional one”. (Source:simplypsychology.org)
Just like a small plant growing in a garden, the right elements must be present in order for the plant to grow. No matter how much desire and intention the plant has to grow, it still relies on it’s environment. Therefore, I would argue that understanding the environment in which we are attempting to make our relationships work could be just as important as knowing ourselves.
At the museum of broken relationships, there were several common themes, such as love at first sight, long distance relationships, one person not committing as much as the other, broken promises, infidelity, shared interests at the beginning that changed over time, disapproval from extended family, lack of communication and also people just leaving without an explanation. Reading through all of the reasons why, I couldn’t help to wonder if the reasons would have been the same, had they been told by the other person in the relationship. Each of us tell our own story, our own version, the personal impact to self and often overlook the important aspect of recognising who or what we became in relation to the other. Even though the nature of each relationship and the reasons why it ended all differed, there was one thing that every one of them had in common. At some point, every relationship ended with a single decision, one that was not always joint or amicable. It made me think that outside the museum of broken relationships, there were decisions like that being made every day. Hearts and minds flowing between reasons to stay and reasons to leave.
Without a doubt, relationships are a big part of our lives and it is no wonder that in our current context of separation from self, others and all that is, we struggle to keep relationships alive. The future of relationships is an area of great discussion. In this fast paced world and through the ever-expanding platform of social media, it is impossible even for experts to predict the form in which relationships will take. Most of the predications are not positive, suggesting that today’s children will lack the ‘soft skills’ to positively interact with each other in a human way, hence the need for really powerful and authentic social and emotional wellbeing programs in schools. However, we need to acknowledge that it’s not the existence of something that makes an impact. Impact is made through action and so instead of asking schools “do you have a program for social and emotional skills?”, we should be asking “what does your social and emotional health and wellbeing program look like in action and how are students given opportunities to know thyself in relation to others?” Just to put it more clearly, if somebody came along to my house and asked me if I had a pasta making machine my answer would be yes, a really good one, Italian import, top of the range. However, if they asked what it looks like in action I would have to admit that I took it out of the box (once) read the instructions, decided it was too complicated and put it back in the box where it still lives.
After thinking about my pasta machine I decided that the three main factors blocking me from using it were; lack of skills, time to develop my skills and an absence of will. However, being a philosopher at heart, my thinking didn’t stop there, I wondered if perhaps the real reason for the lack of use was neither time nor skill, but will. These days, time is blamed for everything, yet it may just be the biggest excuse for something greater than time can ever be and that is, personal will, determination, desire, drive, passion, reason etc. Time, is nothing more than a concept, a physical calculation of our human experience. Time is a fixed concept, something we cannot change. Will on the other hand is another story, albeit, a story that can only be written by ‘self’ and that is the part that is most confronting. It brings the responsibility back to the individual. ‘Making excuses mindset’ is something that we are rather skilled at. How much of our lives and our relationships is dictated by our apparent lack of time? Maybe the future of relationships has nothing at all to do with the increasing amount of technology. The future of relationships and the future of anything could in fact come down to just one simple factor. Will. We may only need to consider whether or not we have the will, to allow the time needed to not only develop the skills required for nurturing our relationships, but to simply be present in them.
As much as I am a very passionate advocate for student wellbeing in schools, I must admit that having great programs in schools in just not enough. Building a culture of wellbeing and positive relationships can only happen when we embrace it as a way of being. As adults we must be willing to accept that when we show our children that we have time for everything else except relationships, we cannot blame technology for lack of ‘people skills’. Teaching children about relationships cannot be condensed into a lesson plan. It should be a culture embedded into everything we do ‘together’ and made visible in our environment through action. More importantly, the desire to build positive relationships with others should be at the centre of what we do and not a chore or just another job to add to the list.
Now that we do have social and emotional wellbeing programs in schools, I worry that it could make us somewhat complacent over time, a bit like having a pool fence. Our obsession with ‘safe-guarding’ instead of being present and ‘available’ in the moment, has the potential to strip us from our natural human intuition and ability to feel, to just know what is going on emotionally with ourselves and the people around us.
The other potential problem is having an expectation that the relation ‘ship’ will always sail smoothly because we have given our children and young adults opportunities to develop social and emotional skills. But life doesn’t work that way. We can build the ship but we cannot predict the uncertainty of the water. Canadian-American folk-rock singer- songwriter, Martha Wainwright in her song ‘Don’t Forget’ expresses the discomfort of an aching heart by comparing it to the seasons. Adjusting to change, to the cold, by wearing warmer clothes. However, as Wainwright suggests; “But there are no hats, gloves, scarves for the heart, just a cold wind which leaves its frosted mark”. (From the self-titled album 2005) These are the life experiences of love and loss and heartache that are timeless, forever present, in every culture, era and corner of the world. Again, I will argue that emotional awareness is vital but an environment that continues to judge all our emotional experiences as either failure or success, instead of allowing time to heal, robs the individual of an opportunity to grow and learn.
One particular story at the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb really stood out for me as a parent and an educator, highlighting the responsibility we have to give children ‘tools to take action’ in order to process the emotional side of life. The museum displays items that people have donated as a significant symbol of a relationship that has ended, followed by a brief explanation. At first, I was a little surprised to see a large axe displayed in a glass cabinet and wasn’t ready to process a story involving any violence. The explanation beside the axe was one of the more detailed ones and I’m glad that I read through right to the end. In summary, someone was left heart broken after going away for work for a few weeks and upon returning home was informed by their partner that the partner had fallen involve with someone else. To add to the already emotionally intense situation, the partner would be going away on a 14 day holiday with her new found love, leaving her furniture in the home she once shared with her now ex. The person in the home was in such a state looking at the ex’s furniture, knowing that the ex was on holidays and in love with another, did not know what to do with her pain and so she went out and bought an axe. “In the 14 days of her holiday, every day I axed one piece of her furniture. I kept the remains there, as an expression of my inner condition. The more her room filled with chopped furniture acquiring the look of my soul, the better I felt”. (An ex-axe 1995 Berlin, Germany. Displayed at the Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb) I stared at the axe for quite some time after reading the description over and over again, it occurred to me that having a physical outlet for emotional pain is an essential human need. Yet, in our modern and civilised version of our human experience, we have an unspoken social obligation and expectation to show that we are holding it all together. However, we only need to look back to our indigenous communities around the world, to understand that healing through movement, dance, shouting aloud, pounding the chest etc, although primitive to look at, plays an important role in our our ability to process our human, emotional experiences.
Relationships, regardless of their nature or of time, age, culture, technology, power, seduction, networking, contacts, followers, haters, likers, etc. will always boil down to how we express ourselves in relation to another, to others and to all that is. Our expression of ourself matters more than our interpretation of the other because it is our self that is made visible through our own actions. Likewise, the other is made visible too, but not as who we imagine or interpret them to be but as they are, in that moment. A momentary expression of self in relation to another. And that’s okay, when we learn to say thank you for showing me who you are, who you really are. We don’t have to like, hate, agree, disagree, judge or condemn. Rather, we learn who we are and that’s the really confronting, yet totally transforming and empowering part about relationships.
In the mainstream world though, it is reasonable to suggest that our focus is mostly and often only, on the other. Yet, what if the focus on relationships actually shifted back towards self, towards understanding who I become in the company of others rather than constantly evaluating another. No doubt, much time and energy would be saved. It would also help us to understand that relationships, like everything else in the physical realm are not fixed and many relationships are not intended to last forever. But then again, what is the true definition of forever?
Who did I become in each relationship and situation that I have experienced in this life?
That really is the only thing we can control.
Dear Adult JTLYK about Relationships,
I didn’t come here to be alone, trapped within my own insecurities, searching for my own self worth in a world that demands me to be something that I never planned to be.
I came here to be me, not who you imagined me to be.
To be me, I need to allow the different versions of me to surface, good or bad so that I can always get better at being me. The parts of me that are expressed in response to others, to my environment, to the culture and timing of my being, they are the parts that show me who I am. I need to accept who I am so that I know who I want to become.
I can only be the best version of me when I learn how to be myself, not on my own and not by being silenced or controlled. To be a responsible, respectful and authentic version of who I am wherever I am and with whoever I am. To stay true to my inner self because that is the only way I can really be me.
If I learn to be me and if I understand that all others are being themselves then there is no need for competition and no need to control others.
If I learn to value and respect myself, then I can value and respect all others.
If I learn that it’s okay to make mistakes then I can learn, grow and become better at managing myself in relation to another, others and all that is.
If I learn that all people matter and that all people have feelings just like me then I can think about how my actions affect another.
Nothing lasts forever so make each moment count. Even if you try to go back to yesterday, you will only discover that what you’re searching for doesn’t exist there anyway.
Everything, everywhere and everyone is a collaborative expression of NOW.
We don’t control how or why everything happens. We simply choose what we become in that moment and essentially, in every moment.