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Do relationships ever end?

09 April 2019 Anthony Eldridge-Rogers

As we circle around the whole IN, OUT, HOW dilemma of the UK’s relationship with the EU, I am struck by how similar the Brexit scenario is with relationship issues some of my coaching clients have had. So many of the struggles they experienced are related to the quality and experience of their relationships.

When it comes down to it, life is about our relationships. We are in a relationship with everything, our friends and family, work colleagues, work, neighbours and so on. Ending a relationship is in many ways a contradiction for a relationship, once established, can never be erased from our life experience completely. What ending a relationship really means, at least usually means when people say it to me, is that they are ceasing to specifically interact with a person or organisation. But can you really ever do that? Don’t we always have the memory in some way of the relationship? Are we not changed by relationships? Are we not able to learn from them, good or bad?

People have, misguidedly in my view, stated that the UK leaving the EU is the ending of a relationship. That is inaccurate. We are changing a relationship, not ending it for it is unendable. It’s like a divorce. What has ended is the containment of the relationship in a mutually agreed set of emotional and structural agreements called a marriage. If both the parties in the couple are still alive after the ending of the marriage then they will be in a different kind of relationship. And if that relationship involves never seeing each other again then that relationship will live on inside the two of them as the traces of who they have become; because they were married.

We cannot escape ourselves and each other. All we can ever do is work, strive and make decisions to change our experience of each other. The way we think and structure the idea of relationships matters in coaching for the simple, but profoundly important reason, that coaching a person is to be involved in coaching all their relationships. A person′s life is woven with the relationships they have chosen and created and those they have ended. It is a rich fabric of interaction and feelings that will certainly run from those glorious ones of love, joy and union to darker and altogether harder ones involving loss, shame, anger and despair.

When we enter into a coaching relationship we are deliberately joining into a person′s life and becoming yet another of their relationships. Your relationship with your client will, once started, never end. The traces of your time together will live on in both of you. They will become a part of your story as coach and you will become part of their story of sharing their lives deeply with you and of being coached. It is important, profound and not to be approached lightly.

So when a client turns up and they want to end a relationship in their lives, we can invite them to explore what ending means. What are they trying to achieve by creating and passing through, and ending given that the relationship will live on in their memory and that it has made them who they are? Usually, the motivation for the ending is some kind of emotional suffering. How many people did you meet who said they felt overjoyed to be in a relationship but were wanting to end it and never see the person again? It does not happen. So the desire to end one is a desire to stop suffering emotionally in a way that they don’t want to be with.

Now the challenge facing people is simple but tough to accept. It is this. If you seek to end a relationship (however that is defined) when in the grip of negative emotions then unless you radically enter into a deep change process after the ‘ending’ you will most likely end up repeating the same kind of relationship and end up at the same place again at some point in the future.

I have a simple take on this with people I work with who divide fairly simply into two groups. The first group′s emotional experience is defined and created by the behaviour of those they have relationships with and their responses to that behaviour. The second group′s emotional experience is defined and created by the relationship they have with their own self. External focus and internal focus. Think about the people you coach. How many of them fall into one or other of these two groups? And are not most of our coaching efforts ultimately about helping our clients get from one group to the other?

Of course, there are shades of grey here in this and most people are not completely always absolutely in one group or the other and may mix it up a bit. But the source of most suffering on a day to day basis is the externalisation of responsibility for how we feel in response to another person or organisational behaviour.

Outrage greets this from some people who immediately point to certain examples of domination, victimisation, discrimination and so on of some people over others. And particularly the case of children is often put forward who have shockingly controlling or difficult parents. So I agree that these are exceptions to the general principle. It is unthinkable to suggest that a cruelly treated and abused person, for instance, is somehow expected to accept what is happening to them and not feel fear, anger, depression and so on. And I am not.

But what my recovery work with countless people in such situations has shown me is that if they are able to get away from such relationships physically it is only when, through support, coaching, and therapy, they can take control of who they are and how they feel and decide for themselves how they wish to respond and feel that they find a personal salvation. In other words, change the way they process and feel about the experience of the relationship after it has physically ceased. The laws of personal recovery from deep suffering show that we become complete when we can be in dominion over ourselves and decide for ourselves how we wish to think, feel and act.

These ways of thinking about relationships help coaches better understand the world that they are entering into with the clients. If we can help people find the core place in themselves where they can generate a connection to the mystery and miracle of life that they are, that will be a great service to them. If they can find a well of good feeling, self-compassion, self-love, self-appreciation and so connect that to the good in others then they will be able to choose to not end relationships but to change them as they so choose. Without guilt, without shame but with courage and compassion.

That can mean that all their relationships can thrive in an enriching and transforming way.