I want you to consider for a moment the idea that you have no control over the things that happen outside your own brain and body. Part of the training given to children to develop a sense of agency and self-control is to teach them the impact of their actions on the world around them. And to some extent this is a hepful concept because it teaches children to consider others’ feelings, to recognize their contribution to problems, and to enhance their ability to empathize with others.
At the same time, if we are over-identified with ourselves as agents controlling our world, we can begin to believe
that we have more control over our environment, circumstances, and reality than we actually do. This can lead to extremely frustrating experiences when we act in ways that we believe will produce the results we want, yet the world stubbornly refuses to cooperate with us. At some level, it’s important for us to come to terms with the limit of control we have over the world around us. Just because we work hard in school, it doesn’t mean we will automatically be rewarded with a high-paying job or a dream career. Just because we follow the rules, it doesn’t mean that we will be rewarded with the best opportunities in life.
And this is even more true when it comes to interpersonal relationships, because each person in the relationship has the capacity to choose their own actions. I can be the nicest person to someone else, and they can still treat me unkindly. I can try my best to be friendly to someone, and they can still turn a cold shoulder to my friendly overtures. I can buy thoughtful gifts and do thoughtful things for them, and they can completely ignore me, never thinking about the things I like or value. This is what makes relationships so painful, and what creates most of the challenges in intimate relationships.
But here’s the real kicker: when it comes to relationships, we often don’t even have that much of a choice about the actions we take. We convince ourselves of the illusion of self-control and conscious action in relationships, but more often than not, our relational behavior functions on a pre-conscious set of neuro-physiological reactions that fire extremely fast, while our slower conscious brain tries to catch up and make sense of it all as it happens. This pre-conscious process is typically rooted in our childhood experiences with parental figures and the implicit memories our brains encoded from those experiences. Our conscious brain tries to come in behind and make sense of our reactions. Frequently, our explanations involve blaming the other person for our behavior — pinning on them responsibility for our actions that were more than likely informed by things from very early in our lives.
So what are we supposed to do with this?
I want to suggest that most successful relationships are successful because the partners understand (whether explicitly or intuitively) that they cannot control the outcomes of their relationship. All they can do is take responsibility for ensuring their own actions are ones that are most likely to create conditions where the relationship can flourish and grow. At any given moment, two people in relationship are either cultivating pro-growth conditions, or they are cultivating relationally deadening conditions. If you think your direct actions can “make” something happen in your relationship, then you’re living under a powerful illusion — the illusion that you directly control your relational outcomes. That’s both a terrifying level of responsiblity to take on and an impossible task to achieve.
Instead of trying to own that kind of impossible power, you’re better served by recognizing just how limited your control really is. Then you are free to think about what are the most important things that you can do to cultivate pro-growth conditions without being attached to a direct responsibility for the actual growth itself.