The Litmus Test


The Chedva Beat: What role does self-advocacy play when seeking a mate?

Tanchum: It is is critical for a person to be aware of and honor his or her own needs when in the process of finding a mate, for the simple reason that these needs shape one’s view of a potential relationship: will this person anticipate and relate to my needs in a way that is supportive and satisfying? By having a litmus test such as this on hand, it is possible to add an element of realism to this mysterious and magical search for the right person. It is also just as important, in my view, for a person to take the time to really meet him or herself by subjecting these needs to contemplation and scrutiny.

At the same time, self-knowledge for the sake of self-advocacy is only part of what it means to get ready for a relationship.  There is a certain point where self-focus brings diminishing returns on investment, because it keeps a person in a self-contained, closed state.  Frankl defined love as the experience of truly grasping another person’s uniqueness.  Note the difference in focus!  In order to achieve something like this, a person has to self-transcend towards his or her spouse.  This means moving beyond and above one’s individual needs for the sake of knowing the other.

The Chedva Beat: What essential message did you come away with from the Gottman Training? How do couples’ relationships benefit from shared meaning?

Tanchum: John and Julie shared a fascinating statistic with us, one that I have been marveling about since last April when I attended their seminar.  They said that sixty-nine percent of the conflict that exists within a given marital relationship is irreconcilable. Imagine that!  When you hear something like that, it is understandable if your initial reaction is total disillusionment.  How futile! But the novel concept that arises from this statistic is that a primary aim of therapeutic work with couples is to enable them to manage their conflicts rather than to make them disappear.  To paraphrase Nietzsche, he who has a strong enough “why” can withstand any “how.”  This is shared meaning –, the values, ideals and mutual vision that — keeps the members of a couple striving to always strengthen their union.  In the Gottmans’ “Sound Relationship House” model of the component processes in a sound marriage, the creation of shared meaning is at the top of the pyramid.  In their words, “every relationship is a cross-cultural experience.”  The differences that exist between members of a couple exist because each one is a different person, but this only serves to strengthen the need to create a new culture that has not yet existed.  Differences on the ground are transcended by the bird’s eye view that comes with a meaning-orientation; the ideal of the union enables individuals to rise above conflict.  And yet, the importance of the individuals who comprise the union is in no way minimized.

The Chedva Beat: Does Victor Frankl’s Logotherapy influence you in your own relationship work?

Tanchum: Most definitely.  So much of the difficulties between people that play themselves out in the office stem from these concepts, namely, a surplus of self-focus and a lack of a sense of shared meaning.  I find that people have an almost primal fear of giving themselves unconditionally to their spouses, of surrendering themselves to the meaning that beckons to and unites both of them.  Yet, as Frankl said, it is precisely in the process of “losing” ourselves–by tuning outward towards people, towards life–that we find ourselves.  Meaning makes demands upon us; it calls to us and asks us to respond to the needs of the moment, to fill the space allotted to us responsibly.  And in order to do this, we must develop the capacity to look beyond ourselves, something that is essential to a successful relationship.  Meaning is the primary concern of human beings, and it is experienced in what we give to the world as well as what we receive from the world–and both positions imply an outer-directed relationship with the world and the people within it.

The Chedva Beat: How would you define conscience according to Frankl? What does perceived meaning, responsibility and sense of mission have to do with a successful marriage?

Tanchum: Conscience is, according to Frankl, a “meaning organ.”  It is the human endowment that enables a person to detect meaning.  Meaning, as I have implied, is an objective phenomenon, a transcendent item that comes from beyond a person.  Yet, our experience of meaning is subjective.  By analogy, a person uses a telescope, with all of its capacities and limitations, in order to gaze at a planet.  Though the image seen by the observer is a facsimile created via the use of magnets and mirrors, the object being observed is nevertheless something that exists in an objective sense.  No matter how subjective and personal our respective experiences of meaning are, we are nonetheless tuned in to something that truly does exist in objective reality.  Part of the nature of dialogue includes the phenomenon that when a person is asked a question, he or she is expected to give an answer.  That is his or her responsibility within this situation.  Similarly, life questions us, and we are expected to give an answer.  In Logotherapy, when a client asks us what the meaning of his or her life is, we remind him or her that it is actually he or she who is being asked this question, and it is he or she who must provide the answer.  Responsibility arises from the fact that meaning has a demand quality, and calls us out via the conscience to give the right answer in a given circumstance.  Our response to this “call” is the expression of our responsibility.

Relationships are built upon shared meaning which gives rise to the sense of mission that unites the couple.  This sense of mission enables marriages to succeed precisely because both parties are mutually commissioned; they are made responsible towards something that is greater than the both of them.  From a Logotherapeutic perspective, the concept of shared meaning would not be created by the couple as much as it would be detected by them.  Success in therapy, then, would involve the elicitation of this sense of meaning and the activation of the couple’s orientation towards it.

About Tanchum Burton

Rabbi Tanchum Burton is a psychotherapist who works with a wide range of clients, from individuals to couples to families. In addition to his private practice, he has served as the therapeutic director of a program for at-risk youth and their families, as well as a group therapy facilitator with an organization that focuses on sexual abuse in communities. He is currently finishing his training at the Victor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy. Rabbi Burton finds much inspiration in Logotherapy, which emphasizes meaning, consciousness and responsibility as the primary concerns of all human beings. Read more about Rabbi Burton's thoughts and activities at:
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