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All the People We Love

In a relationship, there are three components: (1) the lover, (2) the beloved, and (3) the relationship. Humans are prone to focus on objects, rather than the space between objects. In the visual art world, the classic figure-ground example is Rubin’s vase, where the viewer can see either two faces looking at each other or a vase. Interpersonally, we often focus on the lover and the beloved (the faces), and pay minimal attention to the relationship (the vase between us).

We can’t transform anyone else—and, we cannot directly alter our thoughts and emotions. But, we have infinite control over what we do in response to our thoughts and emotions. In other words, we can change our behavior—the shape of our side of the vase. This will change the space between our beloved and us (the relationship). It may also impact the beloved’s behavior—but, not necessarily as we hope or expect, and not on our timeline! Working on our own behaviors is a big enough job, but we are prone to slip into expending our energy judging, worrying about, or trying to change the beloved’s behavior. This is often to avoid the pain of self-examination.

We need a variety of relationships to satisfy our physical and psychological needs. Our intimate relationships have greater emotional closeness than our more distal relationships. Establishing and maintaining emotional closeness requires both time and work. So, we don’t have the capacity to have infinite close relationships. Evolutionary researchers have found that the quantity of total relationships and relationships by levels of emotional closeness that any person can maintain at one time are consistent across cultures, and have not been altered by technological advances.

I have grouped our relationships into four levels of emotional closeness: Self, Intimate, Collective, and Universal.

Self: Our relationship with ourselves is the wellspring that waters our awareness of and love for others; therefore, attending to our relationship with ourself and self-love is of primary importance.

Intimate: Our intimate relationships encompass those with the people who matter most to us in this world—we each define which relationships are intimate, but they often include relationships with our families of origin, friends, romantic partners, and dependents. In some families and cultures, it is expected that relationships with all extended family members will be intimate relationships; in others, only a few relationships are considered intimate and relationships with most extended family members are considered collective relationships.

Collective: Our collective relationships are with people we know, but to whom we do not perceive the same level of emotional closeness. Usually with collective relationships, we identify as belonging to some common social group (e.g., we work for the same organization, we workout at the same gym, we attend the same mosque).

Universal: The broadest relationship level is universal; our universal relationships are with people who we do not know personally and may know little to nothing about. This can include people with whom you have a transitory interaction (such as riding public transportation together) or no contact (such as people who live on a continent you have never visited).

At the university where I work, I consider some of my relationships intimate (I consider these people my friends and rely on them for emotional support), some collective (I rely on them frequently for logistical support, but would hesitate to ask for emotional support), and some universal (I’ve never been introduced to them and may not recognize my dependency on them, although their work undoubtedly supports my ability to do my work). Ultimately, the distinctions between these levels can blur, as shown by religious leaders who experience all people, including themselves, as intimately connected and metaphysically undifferentiated.

When we expand our understanding of relationships to include and appreciate all levels, we are made aware of both our interdependence and the richness of our relationship networks. As psychotherapist David Richo says, “When we adjust our perspective in this way, we understand that we are not isolated selves but selves-in-relationship—which is love.” And, as we appreciate that what we can control in relationships is how we behave—our side of the vase—we are empowered to express our unique selves through our love.

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