Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of non-violent communication, describes the need to contribute as one of our strongest needs. I think the need to connect, both with others and with ourselves, is also one of our strongest needs. Contributing to others is the easiest way to self-connect.
When I talk about self-connection I mean the connection to the divine. It is a feeling of peace, ease and security. I feel this when I’m fully immersed in helping someone else. Anytime we have our needs met, we self-connect. There are people in my life that seem to help me self-connect. I love those people. I want to spend time with those people. Ultimately what I get from connecting with them is self-connection.
I have a friend who has separated from her husband and is probably headed for a divorce. Many of us have either experienced this or know someone who has. It’s usually a devastating process. Marriage is a social contract in which we agree to love and honor the other person for the rest of our lives. That’s quite a promise.
When we enter into this contract we are usually getting many of our needs met through the other person or somehow think we will eventually. We are probably not even conscious of those needs, or how we are using or trying to use the other person as a strategy to meet those needs.
At some point though, we start to become unhappy either because the needs are no longer being met, or never have been. Not only that, but after developing the communication habits we tend to do in a relationship we have often developed internal stories about the other person. Without being conscious of these, it can be very hard to have the kind of communication that can lead to resolution of conflict.
If I have come to see you as demanding things of me, it’s hard for me to hear you when you make an actual request, I’ll just hear a demand. More than likely I’m also not really conscious of what is making me unhappy, what needs aren’t being met, and therefore have a hard time conveying this to my spouse. It’s also possible that I have figured out how to get needs met without my spouse, and just don’t have the deep connection I used to have with them anymore.
At any rate, the issues are all mine. It’s my needs that aren’t being met. It’s my inability to figure out how I can get those needs met in a way that is respectful of my spouse and it’s my longing to try to find other ways to have connection that may not include my spouse.
My friend says her husband has changed, and she doesn’t understand. I think that is true. We all change over life, and many of us choose to find new ways to get our needs met. I want to tell my friend that this change is all about her husband, not her. It takes two to make a marriage, but we are solely responsible for identifying our needs and the choices we make in meeting those needs.
I remember when I was separated from my husband. I was so afraid of not having the safety of that relationship that I would have done anything to keep it. That would not have been the best choice for me. As uncomfortable and frightening as it might be to see that relationship dissolve I need to be authentic in any relationship I’m in.
So how does this all connect to grief? I believe grief is the emotion we feel when we self-disconnect. We also feel confusion, anger and other emotions that signify being lost. How am I ever going to find myself again? We are not only feeling the loss of connection to that person, but more so we are feeling the loss of self-connection.
That person was a wonderful strategy to getting self-connected and it’s gone now. We may certainly feel some sadness about missing that strategy, but the real angst we feel is from loss of self-connection. That is a need. The relationship with that person was a strategy to help us meet that need.
When we can realize this, when we can identify that need, we can self-connect again, even in the midst of the sorrow and anger. For example, say you are speaking to someone who is grieving about their husband who no longer wants to be with them. This pain of grief hurts so much they aren’t sure they can bear it.
So you first open your heart to what they are feeling. “I’m imagining that you are feeling just this overwhelming sadness and loss”, you say. And they agree and go on to describe the depth of the grief. You sit silently with them and hold a space for them to explain just how awful this feels. You don’t try to fix it; you just stay present with them.
Then you guess the need, “I’m wondering if you are missing that feeling of peace and ease and joy you had when you were with them?” “Yes!” they exclaim. What they are missing is the self-connection the other person helped facilitate within them. That is a need.
Dr. Rosenberg describes needs as not being person specific. You can have that need met by many other people and situations, including yourself. This is life changing. If you confuse the strategy of meeting the need of self-connection by being in relationship with the other person, with the need itself, then the loss of that person is devastating. How can you ever have self-connection again? But when you can realize that the person was a strategy to meet a need, and that need can be met again, there is hope.
You certainly will mourn the loss of that strategy, the relationship with that other person, but you also know that you can have self-connection in so many other ways. There is no right or wrong, there is no good or bad, there are just two people doing the best they can to get their needs met, and they may no longer be able to figure out how to do that with each other.
Heather Schlessman, PhD is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner who has spent her career either working with or teaching about families. She is also a mother who, like so many other parents, spent years muddling her way raising 3 wonderfully different children, one who happens to be experiencing a disability. Fortunately she has a life partner who muddled along with her. Spending most of her time trying to be perfect, as that would be the safest way to live, she became aware of a desire to be able to see people in a more compassionate way. Little did she know that the person she needed the most compassion for was herself. There is a saying that when you are ready to learn a teacher will appear, and so it was for Dr. Schlessman. She was introduced to the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, the developer of Nonviolent Communication, and her world completely changed. She learned a way to have an intimate connection with herself and others, a way to truly contribute. Her passion now is to help others find their way to a more compassionate life. You can find more of Dr. Schlessman’s empathic expressions along with her husband’s, Rev. Mark Schlessman on their website.