The Focus of our Relationships

A couple of years ago, I wrote about Dynamic Focus. This is a furthering development of that concept ( http://musings.jomida.com/2011/01/27/dynamic-focus/ ).

I’m a social worker, dealing in and around social issues. I frequently need to open up to clients enough to create a relationship that they feel comfortable with sharing significant and specific details to me such that I have data to formulate a planned and structured intervention for the client. Yet I don’t want to tell the client anywhere near as much information about myself as I want them to tell me. This creates a non-equal relationship.

Relationships are shared. A bit of me, a bit of you and we have a relationship – it’s just the amounts that vary, which then varies the qualities of the relationship. I picture this as a gradient of colour between myself and yourself along a line between the two of us. Right next to me is pretty much all of my colour, and next to you is yours. Somewhere between is the mix that gives the best results. This location I refer to as a point of focus. Different types of relationships will have this point of focus at different key points.

For the sake of this article, I am just focusing on the one axis, simplifying sharing as how much personal information is shared. I am defining sharing as both giving and receiving information. For example, I could tell you everything and you may not hear it – that isn’t communicating, which sabotages this dynamic of sharing. A sharing relationship has to be reciprocal.

A doctor will have the focus very close to the client and quite away from themselves. We expect that because we are not having a personal relationship with the doctor. I have the focus near the client – about half way between the client and the mid point between us. This is because my relationship is more personal than that of the doctor, but we aren’t friends. The mid point is where a good friend should be. If I am a selfish friend, the focus will be closer to me. If I am self absorbed, the focus will be very close to me. Some forms of intellectual disability or alternate thinking such as autism tend to have focuses around there. Note though that not all people with alternate thinking are the same, especially amongst those with a diagnosis of some kind.

People who have healthy dynamic equal relationships with others will notice very quickly when the other person isn’t reciprocating equally. If there is a good reason for this non-uniform reciprocation, it can be categorised and dismissed, much like the relationship with the doctor. When the relationship is supposed to be equal, it can be covered up to some extent with language and cultural differences. Yet when a direct question that should be simply answered is ignored or obfuscated, it should lead very rapidly to a recognition of a scam or reveal that the relationship is not as equal as it should be. Either way, further investigation should go into what actually is rather than what one hopes is.

When unequal relationships are the norm, people may not notice the inequality in what is being portrayed as an equal relationship. After all, when a client asks me questions about my family, I will answer with a simplified, non-in-depth answer, generalising what I say and mostly evading the question, unless some aspect of the story will help them. Then I will tell them very specific details that keep the anonymity of my family intact – that is, a version of my families story that highlights the learning point without invading my families privacy. I don’t know many social workers who do this well, so it’s not a recommended methodology. Yet the clients seem really happy with this and don’t notice the stories gaps and flaws because they are use to being self absorbed, or are not use to equal relationships. Friends, on the other hand, will notice the lack of parity and will query it.

Many people who primarily experience non-equal relationships are generally desperate for an equal relationship. As such they are quite willing to blind themselves to the truth, believing the scam is real – just in case it is. The more they emotionally invest in the perceived relationship, the less they are willing or able to think analytically about the interaction. This forms a cognitive dissonance between what they perceive and what they feel, allowing them to ignore their experiences in search of that feeling. Many of the people who are not use to equality in their relationships mistake a healthy sharing dynamic for the feeling of being wanted because they are lonely. They become vulnerable because of this desire to be wanted and equal.

This saddens me.

It is important that professional keep the purpose of their relationships open and honest to minimise mistakes. Yet when a client is only familiar with professional relationships they are vulnerable to misuse and abuse. Professionals who interact with a client need to be aware of this and help guide their clients towards healthy relationships and give them the skills to perceive a ‘use’ relationship instead of ‘share’ relationship.