Double Take

'When you've seen beyond yourself, then you may find peace of mind is waiting there. And the time will come when you see we're all one, and life flows on within you and without you – George Harrison

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Talking About Dating Apps, Catfish and more, by Rowena J Ronson and Nigel Summerley (Image: Trying to Connect by Rowena J Ronson)

Talking About Dating Apps, Catfish and more, by Rowena J Ronson and Nigel Summerley

RJR: I wonder what impact dating apps, such as Tinder and Happn, are having on the human psyche and the way we are now ‘connecting’ with each other. What are people really looking for when they enlist their most appealing selfie (or someone else’s) as their ambassador in this new overriding virtual reality that has swiftly become our modern-day concept of existence?

NS: With everyone on their smartphone or tablet almost all of their waking day, perhaps the concept of intimacy is now inextricably linked to technology, rather than the unpredictable but sometimes rather interesting twists and turns of real reality. Do we prefer to wear masks, rather than reveal ourselves?

RJR: Imagine the scenario…. you are in a bar in London…. a great opportunity to chat and connect with people. Instead you stare at the top of everyone’s heads as they look down and talk to each other through technology…. if indeed they actually like each other’s freeze frame at the time! It is a really great way to hide and avoid intimacy, but allows us to be fed just enough to have our egos boosted for a few minutes, if we are lucky….

NS: However and wherever we meet people, there is this whole problem of the image that we present of ourselves and the image that we create about others. It seems that the virtual world encourages us to make and perceive yet another layer of images, and in the midst of all these images, what chance is there of a real relationship between two actual people?

RJR: I totally agree with you. And your question brought up for me one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this. I am not sure people are really looking for real relationships right now. I think many are fed enough by the attention they can glean through dating apps and other ways of superficially connecting through social media. Why have a real relationship with someone, and have to be a real person ourselves, when we can live in a dream reality of ourselves and others?

NS: Isn’t a dream or fantasy relationship one-sided? That makes it safe, I suppose. But it can’t be a relationship unless it’s two-sided, can it? Maybe the fantasy is easier but is it ultimately satisfying? I think it’s the case that many people are disillusioned with relationships and may not want to ‘go there’ anymore. And maybe the fact that you can have a virtual life rather than a real one strengthens this aversion to real relationships – and thus real life. Because life without relationships, however appealing that may be sometimes, is not a complete life, is it?

RJR: I have been researching the modern day phenomena of Catfish through watching the reality-based documentary television series of the same name, and this has been a huge eye-opener for me. People connect with each other on the internet and then develop what feels like deep relationships through texting, and sometimes the person they think they are communicating with is someone completely different. There is so much to think about and say with regards to this, but the first issue that springs to mind, as I said earlier, is how we are fed, so to speak. For some, texting is enough.

NS: Wasn’t there a craze for virtual girlfriends (in Japan, I think) a while ago? I’m not sure how that panned out. But we seem to be getting to a place now where people may be very happy with what is, in effect, a one-sided relationship. Is that safe? Or is it dangerous?

RJR: I don’t know about that craze. Can you tell me more? What do you mean by a one-sided relationship? Then I might be able to answer your question….

NS: It started about three years ago. See this link Meet the Japanese Men in Love With Virtual Girlfriends. The Japanese men in question were having relationships with girlfriends who they knew didn’t exist. But they seemed to find this ok. That is what I mean by one-sided. It’s like having a relationship with your teddy bear – or an imaginary friend. And maybe something like that is happening online?

RJR: Sounds great to me! I was actually quite taken by the film Her (2013), and the idea of forming a relationship with an operating system, which develops into a unique loving entity as a result of its interactions with its user. Maybe that will be the way forward?

NS: Maybe it will. But that’s definitely one-human-sided. Or a relationship with yourself? And what happens to the stimulus of unpredictability? Or are we better off without it? And what about sex? That surely is more interesting with two humans rather than one, isn’t it?

RJR: I think that would be the only one-sided relationship I would want. And I don’t think it would lack stimulation or unpredictability – according to the film – a must watch. We are born with a social brain, which is programmed to develop through our interaction with others. It is a human need to be in relationship with others.

NS: I think that last point must be right. But technology does seem to have made the ‘one-sided’ relationship much more possible – and maybe even very appealing to some people. And if people give up on trying to form loving relationships with real people, where does that leave us heading?

RJR: I think we are not just heading somewhere, but we are actually already there. We are in relationship with technology, whether we like it or not. For some, reaching out through Facebook live chats is a very nourishing way to check in with themselves, as well as connect with others. Perhaps we need to turn our own thoughts and feelings around on this one, and see the positive side?

NS: I agree that we are there already. But I don’t agree that Facebook is a satisfactory source of nourishment. It’s another example of a kind of one-sided relationship: people primarily talking about themselves and wanting someone to ‘like’ them or what they are doing or agree with what they are saying. I have actually tried to live without it and have found myself going back. It’s addictive and in some ways useful… but does it really offer anything that creates or sustains satisfying relationships?

RJR: I was not encouraging an addiction to Facebook. But recently, in my time off from relationships, I have been watching a philosophical thinker, Jason Silva. He is the creator of Shots of Awe, which are really worth checking out, and what he says has really inspired me. When he is on Facebook live, often more than a thousand people interact with him. And I know it brings him, and those responding to him, joy. Perhaps it is the shared wavelength and the feeling of being met, or perhaps the fact that we are all connected anyway. In recent weeks since I have discovered him, I have been in much better relationship with myself, and there is a lot to be said for that.

NS: Maybe lonely hearts aren’t so lonely when they all link up, or feel that they are linking up, via technology. Even though we are ‘there’, I still think we’re heading somewhere too. And I fear that that somewhere will be life as, in effect, a computer simulation. A simulacrum of life… rather than real human life. And perhaps we should remember that all of this technology, and many who exploit it, do so to make money… not to unite humanity. I still think nothing can substitute for a loving relationship that has no connection with technology.

RJR: Nothing beats a cuddle 🙂 What do our readers think?


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Talking About Couples Counselling by Nigel Summerley and Rowena J Ronson

Talking About Couples Counselling by Nigel Summerley and Rowena J Ronson


Twin Souls (Image by Rowena J Ronson)

RJR: I am enjoying, more and more, my work with couples and their relationships. I am finding that there is far less stigma about going to see a therapist to maintain healthy communication, on all levels, than there was in the past. So much can be gained by investing the time and energy with a loving and objective counsellor, who can hold the space for a couple to work through their differences and rediscover their strengths.

NS: But doesn’t the success of couples therapy depend on both partners in the relationship wanting equally to work through things? If there is an imbalance, as there so often is, can counselling succeed?

RJR: It is better if both members of a couple are invested in wanting something from the counselling, and it might be that they want to work towards a conscious uncoupling. But therapy can still work if one person is more invested than the other, if the sessions are handled fairly and honestly.

NS: If one is more invested than the other, how do you go about being fair to both parties?

RJR: By just holding the space, being present, and working with what is in the room and most of it is very subtle. I check in with both people at the start of a session and ask what each want to work with that day. They have often discussed what they want to bring before the session, and then we work with it and what develops from it too. They introduce what is going on for them and they know not to interrupt each other, and to truly listen. I often work with Gestalt chair work, so once they have heard each other, I ask them to swap chairs and address each other from the other’s perspective – they role play each other – and the insights come from that.

NS: Does the role play put some couples off? Do some use it in a negative way – to ‘attack’ their partner? And does the therapist wonder in some instances: what on earth are these two people doing together?

RJR: The concept of role play can make people feel uneasy – just thinking about it! But once they try it, they can really see the benefits. I hold the process carefully, in and outside of role play, so attacking is never encouraged, as it doesn’t achieve anything positive. The whole environment in the sessions is about connection, truly listening to each other and gaining different insights and perspectives. It is team work – all three of us. Your last question is an interesting one! I would like to think I do not bring those judgments into the room. There is always a reason why two people get together, and the essence of that is always there, even if it becomes really well concealed! We are all human beings who are capable of love, communication and compassion. There is always something to be gained from couples counselling.

NS: There must, presumably, be some couplings that were a mistake right from the start; and maybe that fact can also become concealed or buried. But if there are real reasons why people get together, how do the people concerned lose sight of those reasons? And how do you help them to see them again? Or do they, or you, have to find new and more relevant reasons for their being together?

RJR: Well I would question the idea of mistakes. My belief is that life is all about learning, and through our relationships we learn a great deal. I married young and was only in relationship with my husband for seven years. We were both very immature and unskilled and couples counseling, at the end of our marriage, gave us both clarity that we were not destined to spend the rest of our lives together. But we did have two fabulous boys to show for our union, and I have never viewed our relationship as a mistake. I do think that if there is compatibility and love, even if one or both members of a couple lose sight of that, it can be recaptured in counselling. I provide a safe space where each person can be heard and the relationship can be natured and hopefully rekindled. We can do that in many ways, including bringing into the light what each appreciates about the other. What do you mean by new and relevant reasons?

NS: Maybe we could agree that we learn from what happens. You’re saying there are no mistakes – only what happens. And I’m more or less persuaded on this now. But presumably it could be a “mistake” for two people who could have a positive and fulfilling relationship to throw it away? By “new and relevant reasons”, I meant that perhaps the factors that brought two people together in the first place may no longer apply, but there may be now different but equally compelling factors that could bind them together.

RJR: I would prefer not to view relationships that come to an end as being ‘thrown away.’ It feels a very negative way to view the ending of a relationship that is causing more harm than good to those involved. I am interested to know what ‘equally compelling factors’ you are referring to and I am interested too in your expression ‘bind them together.’

NS: I think it’s sometimes good to be negative. We give being negative a negative connotation, but in fact that can be a peculiar way of thinking. If someone gives up heroin, we don’t see that as being negative – but of course, it is. To end a destructive relationship, which has taught you nothing but that it was a disaster from the beginning … is not dissimilar. So let’s hear it for being negative and walking away … and not looking back in any way. The compelling factors I was referring to could be that the two people concerned have both changed and/or their world has changed … but they may find they have something new in terms of commonality and love that wasn’t there at the beginning. ‘Being bound together’ is perhaps an unfortunate choice of phrase, but I mean there could be something that makes them feel they want to still be committed to each other.

RJR: I like what you say about giving negative a negative connotation. I had not thought about that way. Bring on the shadow! I think it is good to end destructive relationships – be it romantic or otherwise. But I always think there is something we must have learned. ‘Not looking back in any way’ sounds extreme – and I am not sure how useful. I suspect we have all observed friends moving on swiftly from one relationship to another (and even get married again), only for them to come across the same issue, just dressed slightly differently. If they had taken space in between and reflected on their previous relationship, and what they learned, perhaps they would have made different choices the next time. And I am sure you know my response to your final question. If two people feel like they want to stay together, for whatever reason, the reason does not matter at all.

NS: I guess something that we definitely take from one relationship to the next is ourselves. And if we don’t change, then the relationship problems are likely to be similar. Perhaps pre-coupling singles counselling might be a good idea? Alone or together, it seems that we have to be prepared to observe, understand and change.

RJR: I completely agree with you 🙂 Now what do our readers think? Feedback and contributions welcome!

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Talking About Our Relationships With Animals by Nigel Summerely and Rowena J Ronson, photograph by Rowena J Ronson

Talking About Our Relationship With Animals by Nigel Summerely and Rowena J Ronson

Dreamer by Rowena J Ronson

Dreamer by Rowena J Ronson

NS: In the past year I have lived in a number of different places, each with a resident cat. It has not been hard to leave the places – or the animals. But while I find I don’t miss the place, I do miss the cat. What is it about the human relationship with a familiar animal that is so important to us? It’s odd because – particularly with a cat – it’s all one-sided and illusory, isn’t it?

RJR: I understand what you mean in terms of how we project our own emotions on to an animal we are in relationship with but that does not mean to say that it is one-sided or illusory. I have developed connections with a variety of different animals in my lifetime, including a pelican, and even though I cannot imagine how he felt, I know that something was going on that touched my heart.

NS: Some people would say this sounds nonsensical – establishing some sort of relationship with a bird. But presumably it is possible to have some sort of interaction with any other creature that is more or less on the same scale as a human (ie it would be difficult with an ant). If you could say some more about the pelican, perhaps that would lead us into some understanding of what is happening – even though we can never know fully.

RJR: The pelican fell from the sky over the bay of Atsitsa, on the island of Skyros in Greece when he was about a month old and his flock were migrating from Africa to Russia. He lived with a family that I know for a couple of years and developed not only a very close and special relationship with them but also with me when I visited. I used to take him for walks, relax on the beach with him and go swimming. He would then walk back up the hill at my side until I returned him to his adopted mother, my friend. We would look into each other’s eyes but, of course, I have no idea what he was feeling, but I know how I felt…. very moved!!

NS: Is it possible that neither human nor animal really knows – or can know – what is going on in this kind of relationship? The fact is that there is something that brings human and animal together, and something that both get from walking side by side together. Perhaps there is an intelligence at work here that is not the intelligence of the human and not the intelligence of the animal? Would it be too much to call this love?

RJR: Universal love perhaps, although it is not the first thing that springs to my mind. I do agree that we don’t know what is going on in this relationship, and we don’t often know what is going on in relationships between human beings either! One thing is for sure, relationships with animals are less complicated. Although this is not always true as some animals bring with them a traumatised karma and however much we struggle, we cannot connect with them. I had that with my cat when I was growing up and my first when I bought my own flat. Both cats had issues! And in truth, we really did not form a relationship at all….

NS: I think it’s interesting, this sort of parallel with human relationships… Yes, we often don’t know what is going on in the mind of the other person… In fact, perhaps never… So then we rely on some sort of mutual instinct, some sort of mutual feeling that indicates when things are all right. In the human-animal relationship, things do seem generally less complicated. Does the animal supply something that the human needs? Or is it a substitute for a human relationship? And do animals come into our lives when we need them, and also when they need us? Interestingly, I started this dialogue by mentioning that I was missing cats in my life, and just after that a cat from several streets away started visiting my home every evening. I have no explanation why – as there was no food on offer! But she seemed to get something from her being there – and so did I. Can you say something more about what “issues” an animal may have?

RJR: My first cat was abandoned by his mother and left under my window. He could never trust anyone after that and would be sitting on someone’s lap and then just turn around and scratch you. We were all covered in deep scratches on our hands and up our arms throughout his ten year visit with us. Pablo was my own cat once I left home, as I mentioned. I had him from very young but I do not know if he was traumatised but he certainly behaved like it. He would hide behind a door and rush out and grab my ankles with his teeth and claws. As a cat lover, I wasn’t put off and I went on to have two gorgeous cats who were brother and sister and they couldn’t have been more affectionate and loving. What is interesting to me is how having an animal affects the dynamics in a relationship. A friend said today that her partner would not let her have a cat because he would be jealous of the attention she would give it. I have heard this before from patients of mine. Are you surprised?

NS: I also had a cat – a rescue cat – who seemed to have been traumatised. He spent the first few months hiding beneath things, and then, for a long while after that, craving affection – which he did by scratching your hand, as if to say: “Stroke me.” In the end he just settled down to being a fairly normal cat – although he always seemed troubled. The jealousy thing is not surprising. Since, the animal-human relationship can be consistently strong, it may well appear to be a challenge to a human-human relationship that may be inconsistent in its strength. Could we also be slightly envious of the way in which an animal can easily be part of a relationship and yet completely maintain its individuality at the same time?

RJR: Perhaps their feelings don’t go as deep as ours as their brains are less complex and developed. I guess resentment doesn’t get in the way of reconnection. But in saying that, I am sure I have experienced cats sulking! Maybe they have shorter memories though…. And I wonder if dogs maintain their individuality as much as cats. What do you think?

NS: On the whole, it seems that animals live much more in the present than we do – and this applies to cats and dogs and pelicans. But this seems to be a more intelligent way to live, so does brain size come into this? Perhaps, as you suggest, animals’ ‘feelings’ are less complex than those of humans. Short memories seem to be an important part of living in the present – with long-term memory being used for things that are really important to survival. Perhaps the more complex human brain allows us to hang on to too much in the long term – in fact almost everything almost for ever. The cliche is that dogs are less individual and egotisitic and more subservient and faithful, while cats are the opposite. This does seem to be the case. The cat that visited me every night for a week recently, and gave the impression that my home was her idea of paradise, has stopped visiting just as suddenly as she started – and has no doubt found somewhere else to grace with her presence. I will remember her – but I doubt she will we remember me.

RJR: I find it interesting that domestic cats have evolved to be in relationship with humans. Their purr has healing properties and sends out a vibration that knits our broken bones together. And I suspect the effect is not just on our bones. I would imagine we release oxytocin when we stroke a cat. So this makes me wonder whether we are ever truly in love with someone or something else or are they just triggers for our own chemical reaction, and that is what we love so much. I am also wondering if dogs are more suited to the extroverts among us. It seems like you have to be pretty sociable to want to engage with the whole dog walking experience. For some people I know, their interaction with others as they dog walk is a major factor in their doggy enjoyment and adds a whole different social dimension to their lives. So maybe it is not so much a dependence/independence issue but an extrovert/introvert one. What do you think?

NS: My inclination is not to reduce love to literal chemistry, but maybe everything in the end is energy and thus chemistry. The presence of, and contact with, cats, dogs and other animals have been shown to have healing benefits for humans; that healing may well be coming from within us, but the animal is the catalyst for this reaction. The introverts with cats and the extroverts with dogs? Well, perhaps that does make some sort of sense. But I think there are also some “loners” with dogs, and some pretty outgoing people with cats. Again, the presence of an animal, especially a dog, but also a cat or a pelican, seems to make human-to-human interaction easier. Does the presence of an animal draw out the self-centredness of the human?

RJR: Not sure what you mean about the presence of an animal making human interaction easier, but maybe superficially in the park as a talking point. I have a patient whose giant poodle sleeps in her bed each night between her and her husband. Tell me more about what you mean about human self-centredness?

NS: I think the presence of an animal obviously makes chatting with strangers more likely, eg walking the dog in the park. (Mind you, so does playing the drums or the guitar, or driving an unusual car.) But it can also be a focus of communication between the most intimate of friends or partners, eg two people might be sitting silently together on a sofa, but as soon as a cat sidles in between them, they are likely to start talking. Whether the giant poodle in the bed has the same effect, I’m not so sure. I think human self-centredness is exactly that – concern about and for what is most important to oneself. Love for another human being, eg a child or a partner, stops or dissolves that self-centred approach. Something similar happens with the feelings that can be engendered by the presence of an animal. When one truly loves someone, that love appears to be unaffected by whether the other person reciprocates with the same feeling. The same may be true with the feelings engendered by the presence of an animal; as we are aware, a cat certainly doesn’t seem to return a huge amount of love or loyalty (while a dog may at least appear to). What happens inside us is not affected. Do we draw the conclusion that it is good to have an animal companion? And what of those who have such a companion but abuse it?

RJR: I am still not quite sure how an animal might be drawing out our self-centeredness. I would have thought it is more the opposite. Without an animal to focus on, especially if we are not living with other human beings, we might well become more self-centered. And I wouldn’t say we can conclude it is either a good nor bad to have an animal companion. I guess I am more interested why someone chooses to have a pet and why they chose the met that they do. And what need it is that they are fulfilling. I always find it interesting seeing people out with their dogs and can’t help but wonder why they have chosen the particular one they have. Their choices I think must say something about them as individuals. Tell me more about what you mean by abuse as there are so many levels and forms of abuse. Locking a cat out in the rain at night could be considering abusive. And is it abusive to be too firm in one’s control of dogs and could the same be said if one is too lapse?

NS: I think all of those things could be seen as abuse. Broadly speaking, abuse would be any example of not treating an animal with respect. I think we do agree on the self-centredness aspect – we tend to be less self-centred when we have an animal companion, or even when we feed the birds or take care of an injured animal. That is what I was trying to say. Having an animal companion may be good for some of us, some of the time or all of the time. Why we choose the animal companions we do is a tricky one – but there does seem to be something in the old cliche of dog-owners choosing dogs that look like them. Perhaps it is only natural that we are drawn to relationships with animals – or people – with whom we have a fair amount in common. But then we can also be attracted by difference – and that may well come into play in our relationship with animals, since animals are very much the inscrutable ‘other’. We can never know them fully – and so perhaps we will never fully be able to explain what happens in our relationships with them. But those relationships can be deep, powerful and mutually beneficial.