What is our Response-ability in Relationship?

While I'm in Cuba with a GirlFriendCircles.com travel circle, I'm posting this thoughtful guest blog from Susan Strasburger, an integrative counselor who works with individuals (and couples) who struggle with self-criticism, are in the midst of transition, or feel stuck in a decision process.  I requested permission to re-port this article of hers since it speaks so beautifully to what we've been talking about the last few weeks on this blog about dealing with negative friendships.

Thanks Susan for sharing your wisdom with us as we seek to grow more loving, healthy, and responsive!

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Two women were discussing recent experiences with their ex-partners: One had wanted her partner to be able to see that she had “turned a corner” in relationship to him, and felt frustrated that he engaged with her as if she hadn’t changed. The other woman was confused by her partner’s actions, and “wished he’d been more overt about telling me his perspective had changed.” Their combined question became:

Questioner: What is our responsibility in a relationship to get a friend or partner up to date on specifically how our perspective has changed?

Susan: The answers to this are actually embedded in the question. If there are “specific” changes about ourselves that we want our friends to know, it’s our responsibility to tell them (unless you have friends who can read your mind). And/but… if we are noticing something different about our friend, and they haven’t spoken to us directly, it’s also our responsibility to tell them our experience and ask to understand what’s going on for them.

At this point, you may be saying, “Wait, wait! You mean, either way, it’s my responsibility?!” Yup! Hopefully you won’t see this as a burden, though, if you’re willing to re-frame what “responsibility” means. The ability to be responsive, rather than reactive, is a cornerstone to our well-being, in any relationship. We want to make conscious choices about how we speak and act, rather than defaulting to defensive or accusatory behaviors. Having this intention means taking responsibility for the quality of our relationships. Of course, we get to feel disappointed if the other person isn’t taking as much responsibility as you would ideally like them to take. All we can do is keep modeling what it is we want, make requests of the other person, and see what unfolds.

Questioner: I really love the wisdom in your response. I find the connection between “responsibility” and “response” evocative, and sense that hearing a little more about this would be very helpful to me!

Susan: Ok, stick with me for a minute, while I dip into semantics: Dictionaries attribute many meanings to the term “responsibility.” I’m choosing: “the act of being answerable or accountable, as for something within one’s power, control or management” rather than other definitions that include words such as “blame” or “moral obligation.”

With this definition, we no longer default to: “You’re responsible for my heartache!” We may feel that phrase, and even want to say it! Yet that would be what I call “reactive” behavior.

Being “responsive” requires us to stretch beyond blame, shame-turned-inward, or just leaving without communication. We know that the other person stimulated something in us that we call “heartache” – perhaps we didn’t feel seen, respected, or loved in the ways we were hoping for. If we’re being “responsive,” we’ll find within us what is most self-caring to do next. That is, we claim responsibility for what we do with our feelings of heartache. It might still be to leave, yet first tell the other person “I’m feeling too overwhelmed to speak right now, I need a little space, and I’ll come back when I’m ready to talk.” Or it might be to engage with the person, knowing we’re “accountable” for what’s “within [my] power” which includes the words and actions I choose. This route of course takes skill, compassion and a lot of practice!

Are we then responsible for the outcome of that conversation? Ahh, semantics again: we’re responsible to each other, but not “for” each other. Perhaps another blog post?!  :)