The website Five Books asks experts to recommend five books on the topics they know about, so that you can "become an instant expert." Recently they asked Mira Kirshenbaum, a therapist who's written ten best-selling books about relationships, to recommend "the five best books on relationships" - and she knocked it out of the park with a short primer on the state-of-the-art in relationship therapy. According to Kirshenbaum, "the average person’s understanding of relationships is about 100 years behind" the therapeutic understanding.
We're used to thinking of relationships in terms of personalities - good people do good things, bad people do bad things, and we all try to be better people. According to Kirshenbaum, though, today's therapists don't think this way. Instead, they think in terms of systems and stories, working in a broadly postmodern tradition that Kirshenbaum calls "deeply challenging" to "the traditional view of the self."
First up: systems thinking. Where we ordinarily use the term "relationship," Kirshenbaum says that therapists think in terms of a "system." "Systems thinking says that once you have two people who sort of fall into each other’s orbit, the relationship becomes a kind of third force," she explains. "It takes on a life of its own. Certain initial properties, perhaps insignificant in themselves, can take on huge significance." According to Kirshenbaum, the idea that a relationship is a kind of emergent system with its own internally generated rules and patterns is a cornerstone of modern relationship therapy.
Next up: communications theory. As modern therapy sees it, much of what we ordinarily call communication is actually a kind of action. (Philosophers like J. L. Austin have long thought this way, though they call it speech act theory.) "You see," Kirshenbaum explains, "people don’t just exchange information. They do things with words. They issue commands even when they think they’re just describing reality. They create realities even when they think they’re ‘just talking.'" The relationship systems in which we find ourselves are determined partly by the ways that we talk.
In fact, Kirshenbaum says, talking, and particularly storytelling, are so important to modern therapy that they challenge "our whole sense of what it is to be a person."
The notion that who I am is this stable entity gets exploded. In fact, who I am and who you are is pretty much a plaything of context and assumptions. Change the context, change the assumptions, and you change the self. Do that with people in a relationship, and you change the relationship.
All of this makes sense, and seems surprisingly adventurous from an intellectual point of view - it's a sort of witch's brew of engineering, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. Your relationship better be worth it, though: an exploding sense of oneself as a stable entity seems like a pretty high price to pay for some peace and quiet at home.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.