still from Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love (2000)
Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won't adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honor and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet. That would mean that security is out of the question. The words "make" and "stay" become inappropriate. My love for you has no strings attached. I love you for free. —Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker
Surprising no one based on who I am and what I've decided to do with the rest of my life professionally, I've been thinking about relationships. Consider how rare it is to truly experience a level of freedom in relation with another as opposed to having elements of domination and submission between two people; then again, consider how rare it is to experience true freedom when you're alone. Alone brings a default sense of freedom but what are you really feeling free from? We exist in relationships from the time we're born and everything we choose to do and how we move through the world is based on the experience we've had in our earliest relationships. Every single relationship that follows echoes earlier ones unless there's some kind of shift in mindset. There’s a societal structure and a sense of history that shapes most relationships and even with the clearest intentions in the closest and most loving relationships, there’s a way in which it’s almost impossible to fully escape these dynamics. I say almost because most rules have an exception and it feels spectacularly rare and important when the exceptions happen even once.
I love Jessica Benjamin's work on intersubjectivity and thirdness when it comes to psychoanalysis and relationships. Benjamin deliberately defines intersubjectivity in terms of a two-subject interaction where both self-assertion and mutual recognition are dynamically entwined. This two-person conception of freedom enables a both/and understanding of the relationship between self and other, creativity and limit, freedom and control, and autonomy and dependency. The importance of Benjamin’s work is that she offers an excellent start for the reconstruction of our idea of freedom that centers thirdness not as something between two people but alongside and with them, allowing for room for each person to be a subject. I’m especially interested in the idea of thirdness as it relates to surrender and how it’s so distinct from domination. Benjamin describes thirdness as a mental space in which we can truly surrender, where we can give ourselves over to what’s happening between ourselves and another self. We speak a lot about the thirdness in relational psychotherapy as being so specific to the client-therapist relationship, but this relationship is really not so different than any other one if approached correctly. It is less a rule or method then it is just a relationship in its purest ideal form: an ability to hold differences while having relational bonds amplified, not damaged, by each person’s subjective experiences.
Have you ever loved someone for free and without strings? Have you ever had a relationship where you've felt be able to not only heal past harm but to become stronger and more secure individually and together as a result? Initially it's suspicious, the feeling that something is for keeps in a way where there's room for both people to fuck up. Not that either person is just going to absorb harm while losing themselves, but rather that there's space for both people to hold what comes up. Benjamin calls the thirdness in a relationship "a psychic capacity…a quality of mental space, of intersubjective relatedness" and it's truly unquantifiable in a way that feels miraculous. I like to think that this space leads to an ability to make a relationship better and deeper for what you’ve been through together as opposed to being fraught because of past mistakes and hurts. It doesn’t seem as basic as just committing to each other but rather something about the way two people have surrendered fully to each other.
There’s a sense in which most relationships require compromise in a way where you have to lose parts of yourself to sustain a relationship with someone else. As opposed to losing parts of yourself, surrender implies recognition, of being able to connect to another’s mind while accepting their separateness. Surrender implies we are no longer engaged in some process in which our subjectivity is “destroyed,” negated or modified by the other. It also implies the freedom from any intent to control or coerce. The crucial thing is that surrender is not to someone (giving in or over to someone, an idealized person or thing) but rather letting go into being with them. I am most myself in this—with you—and I don’t have to crush or dampen aspects of myself to fit into the relationship. We misunderstand freedom by thinking that it can only be achieved alone; in fact, we can only be free with someone else, in the context of someone seeing and knowing us fully, and still, after knowing everything about us, choosing to love us and be with us anyways.
The idea of being compelled or addicted or drawn to someone rules us psychically but the truest test of love is when we choose someone again and again, when we hold their complexity and sharp edges and allow them to hold ours—it is fragile and somehow the most powerful thing that can exist between two people. There is a freedom in stepping out of a dynamic of doing to/done to, of someone being wrong while the other is right, of pushing me while pulling you. I have a sense now of seeing what can happen when there is less of a struggle of which perspective is right and valid and what happens instead when the thirdness is the space in a relationship—the co-created reality where you are holding both/and, all of it all at once, together. There’s symmetry despite outward imbalances in power and cultural aspects because we are not only each other’s mirror but we are also standing next to and with each other, gently and lovingly looking into the mirror as well. Surrender is the most powerful thing in a relationship, requiring trust and risk, and ultimately, so much care and love for whatever can and will come up between two people. Thirdness allows for growth in any possible direction and space to come back to; something intangible but purposeful in loving and knowing another.