As a psychologist working with couples in conflict and those trying to improve their relationships, my primary focus is on understanding the specific type of work that needs to be done to promote the best interests of both individuals in that relationship.
This work is always directed at encouraging the ongoing growth and development of these individuals and helping them to see how do this for themselves, in their own relationship.
In this article I want to look at the idea of nurturing one’s emotional and psychological growth within their relationship in an effort to explain what this means in terms of how I see it.
In a previous article “Love: It’s More Than A Feeling”, I suggested that we can identify love in terms of the feelings one has for another, or as an action one takes within the relationship. I explained why I felt that love as a feeling was a limited and often one-sided experience of love, and why it might not be conducive to a healthy or even mutually satisfying relationship.
Scott Peck, in his book “The Road Less Traveled“*, defined love as “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s or another’s spiritual growth” (pg. 81).
This is an example of one definition of love in which it is defined in terms of an action rather than a feeling, and it is further qualified as an action we choose for our self and for another for a very particular purpose. I want to use it to anchor this and subsequent discussions because there are many aspects of this definition I like, and think it offers some very clear directions that can be followed if one chooses to do so.
I do not interpret the term spiritual within the standard religious context. Neither do I interpret it in terms of something “out-there”, “psychic experiences, most “new age beliefs”, or any of the many magical/superstitious ideas that often surround the word spiritual.
Rather, I use the term to identify a normal process of psychological and emotional maturation that begins at birth and progresses into adulthood, and which can, under the right circumstances, be continually developed throughout out life.
Physical growth occurs in a predictable pattern throughout our life span. These phases of growth follow a consistent and familiar developmental sequence such that first we are a baby, then a toddler, and on up through the teenager and adult stages.
As any parent knows, we also follow a developmental sequence in terms of emotional and psychological changes. As children get older their ability to think becomes increasingly complex, their emotions become better regulated, they see more clearly how things are connected and related to each other, they become more aware of others, and so on.
Just as there are “average” height and weights for different age groups, so too are there age appropriate “average” levels of emotional and psychological development.
Interestingly, as with height and weight, by the time people reach early adulthood, the rate at which they are growing emotionally and psychologically seems to slow down dramatically. Generally, we do not seem to mature much beyond the level we achieve as young adults even as we get older. Or if we do it is a very slow process.
But there are levels of emotional/psychological growth beyond this average adult level of development which have been well researched and documented by many others (see, for example, www.kenwilber.com). Most people never reach these more developed levels, often referred to as the “spiritual” stages of growth, and so it is not surprising that they are either poorly understood, or perceived in a distorted and often inflated manner.
While there are many remarkable aspects to these higher stages of development, most adults in our population have flat-lined at a mid-level range of emotional/psychological development, and many are functioning below that.
But most importantly, they are staying at those levels. They are not developing further and in a very real sense are stagnating there. This is where the majority of my work takes place because that is where most people are operating.
It is my belief that our greatest source of suffering stems from the failure to develop and nurture our emotional and psychological development, and that the most important task we could undertake is to nurture and promote that growth and development.
What most people don’t seem to understand is that the majority (not all) of the adult population has developed to the point where they actually can nurture their own psychological development given the right direction and guidance. They just don’t know how to do it.
Furthermore, not only can they learn how to do this with some guidance, one of the most powerful vehicles for effecting this change can occur by including their relationships as the vehicle for that change.
As I will explain in further articles, the failure to identify and promote this development has many unrecognized consequences for us in our life and our relationships. If we cannot identify the source of those difficulties we cannot address the underlying problem.
Worse than that, when we misidentify the fundamental nature of our problem, we spend an inordinate amount of time developing and implementing solutions that not only won’t work, but can often be quite harmful and sometimes destructive.
So what exactly are the ways to nurture our spiritual development???
The answer to this question is very easy to express (many people do it all the time) but very, very difficult to implement.
We grow through awareness, by becoming more conscious of our self, through self-discovery, self-realizations, self-actualization, or, using Peck’s definition, we extend our self.
In the next article, Part II, I look more closely at this notion of extending our self.