8th Nov, 2010

The E.R.A. of Relationships

The E.R.A. of Relationships

By: Judith White

Published in CoSozo Magazine: Volume 5, Issue 5

Thirty years ago, in 1979, I walked with my son in a stroller, in a demonstration march for the ERA, the Equal Rights Amendment. It was a beautiful spring day! We were supporting a good cause. The Equal Rights Amendment, first proposed in 1923, was intended to guarantee equal rights under the law for Americans regardless of gender. It is still not part of the U.S. Constitution. It failed to gain ratification by enough states before its deadline, and although it has come up in every Congress since 1982, public attention to it has faded.

A New Age for the ERA: Empathy, Respect, and Affection

Today as I reflect on this article about relationships, I think about ERA as an acronym that represents the three needs I see for the maintenance of a thriving relationship: Empathy, Respect, and Affection. 1) Empathy– deep listening to our partners, for understanding and reflecting back accurate meaning and feelings. 2) Respect– that is, ‘re-spect,’ or looking again, with esteem and honor, at our partners as whole persons. 3) Affection– Recognizing our partner’s needs for love and learning how to express that love in a way that is meaningful to them. Maybe this is a new version of the ‘ERA’. In fact it’s the evolution of a new ‘era’ in history– as so many things change within and around us…. technology, global communications, economic interdependence, new definitions of family, more focus on human rights, new developments in health care and complementary medicine, and the blending of cultures and peoples.

Even though the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution has not yet passed, maybe we are still evolving in the hoped-for direction of equality and kindness.

The Evolution of Communication in Relationships

I like to think that communicating and relating within couples and in families is evolving, in a positive way— that we are, though often painfully, birthing a new society of healthy interdependence. I like to think that we are becoming people who are capable of both self definition and self surrender, of both individuation and interdependence.

Thirty some years ago, ‘no-fault’ divorce laws came into being, and all heck seemed to break loose. The very fabric of our culture has seemed to be unraveling with a greater than fifty percent rate of divorce. We have begun to realize how crucial it is to be able to communicate both lovingly and effectively in our relationships. But, oft times things really do seem to get worse before they get better. (Maybe there is still hope for the economy and the environment too!)

Then, twenty some years ago, people like John Gottman, PhD, and Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD, (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work) and others, began researching what goes wrong and what can go right in couples’ communications. And some healing was begun.

Progress is being made in our understanding of relationship dynamics. We are learning, as the Gottmans have shown, that couples who survive and thrive are the ones who ‘turn toward’ each other when there are needs, or conflicts of needs, in the relationship… rather than turning away from or against each other, or shutting down. Through sophisticated research and measurement of many bio-psycho-social responses to each other in the Gottmans’ ‘Love Labs’, couples are observed as they attempt to talk with each other and the resulting data is analyzed. And lo and behold, what we ‘discover’ are the mechanics of how to love one another. (Remember: “Love is patient; love is kind.”) Rather than just talking at each other and escalating emotion– we are gradually learning how to share what we are feeling and what we need or want, to really listen to each other with empathy, and then to negotiate ‘win-win’ solutions to our differences. (Sounds so simple!)

The Evolution of Relationships: The Bigger Picture

But what is happening in the ‘bigger picture’? Culturally, we seem to be trying to move from older paradigms of hierarchy to more consensus-based relating. (…though the birthing process involves many contractions!) Older models of parenting tended to be more authoritarian. Then, over time, the pendulum began to swing to laissez-faire ‘hands-off’ approaches to parenting as many people did not want to repeat what they had experienced in their own childhoods, but didn’t know what else to do. And yet the wisdom of parenting continues to evolve, into greater understanding of “parenting with love and logic”, a more democratic style of parenting, with more ‘authoritative’ (vs. authoritarian) parents who are learning how to discipline via natural and logical consequences, to be more ‘systematic and effective’ in their parenting styles. (Dinkmeyer et al, Systematic Training for Effective Parenting)

Some will say that we should go back to those earlier, more authoritarian times, believing that “things were better then”. But was it really better? Many resources have been developing in our society to alleviate child abuse, domestic violence, and various forms of discrimination against individuals. We are becoming wiser as East meets West, and we learn to care for the health of the whole person– body & mind/ soul & spirit– and learn to utilize more non-suppressive healing modalities. And, we are becoming more aware of what we have been doing to our environment, our economy, and our global/ international relationships.

The Past Leads to the Future

And can we go back if we really wanted to? In his book, The Return of the Goddess, Edward Whitmont cites the work of A. Van Scheltema, about how the evolution of human consciousness in cultures over time, is analogous to the development of a child over a lifetime. Whitmont says that this evolution “may even parallel changes in the structural adaptation of the brain.”

According to Whitmont, Van Scheltema has “shown that there are close parallels between Paleolithic behavioral patterns and the behavior of the newborn up to three; between Neolithic and bronze period patterns and the child from three to twelve; between the antique iron epoch and its heroic world, and puberty; and between the medieval period and adolescent mentality.” (There is, of course, much variation and uneven development within any single culture.)

But, where does that leave us now in terms of the development of consciousness, i.e. how we experience ourselves and the world? Using Scheltema’s analogy, when will we as a culture be capable of acting as fully functioning, interdependent adults? And where are we on this continuum of the development of consciousness?

Hope for the Future of Relating

Well, while it often seems pretty chaotic in many arenas of life these days, is there not evidence of ‘Good Orderly Direction’ (another acronym), in the evolution of human awareness or consciousness?

What if we continue to learn to live out the ERA in our relationships? What if we are able to develop deep Empathy, Respect, and Affection for ourselves? And what if we apply that same Empathy, Respect, and Affection toward others?

“On Earth as it is in Heaven.” We’re working on it. What a process!


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