The postconventional relationship

What is the nature of postconventional relationships? The question arose at a workshop in adult development I was giving this summer and I felt that couldn’t offer a sufficient answer.

Research in adult development offers several perspectives on the way the individual thinks, feels, identifies and views reality at different stages of life. The development is described in general as well as in specific domains such as learning, leadership and moral reasoning. Although the social life is of central concern in ego development theory according to Loevinger and Kegan, and for social perspective-taking according to researchers such as Selman, Armon and Kohlberg, the field focuses primarily on the development of the individual. The way relationships themselves manifest at different levels are to a lesser degree investigated. This is not a review, but rather an own reflection on the topic based on a few different theoretical perspectives and own experiences.


The most interesting investigation of the topic comes from a recent book by Hilary Bradbury and Bill Torbert, Eros/Power. Along with Dana Carman, Heidi Gutekunst and Jane Allen, Torbert facilitated a workshop in Stockholm that I participated in a month ago, thank you all for that! The book, as well as the workshop, can be seen as an exploration of relationships at different action logics, primarily from a personal perspective. The authors share their own experiences of relationships very openheartedly and view them from an ego development perspectives along with dialogical reflections on each other’s perspectives. They focus on relationships between women and men and discuss how they are affected by aspects of asymmetrical power such as within an organization and where one party is junior and subordinate, of the obvious asymmetry between the different sexes and also within.

My impression of the book that it’s a fascinating insight into the lives of established researchers that not only research on developmental stages as profession and then go home to ordinary and conventional lives, but also practice and live according to their postconventional action-logics. For instance, I find the descriptions of their polyamory and dealing with new relationships and conflicts that arise from the entailing complexity refreshing. It is recommended reading. However, the focus on the specific stories makes me think it’s more of therapy for the authors rather than exploring more general patterns on how the nature of relationships in general changes as we change and vice versa, and more accurately delineating the characteristics of relationships at the different action-logics. Probably, that remark says more about me than the book.

In the following I will discuss the nature of relationships between individuals at different levels or action-logics. Sources beside Bradbury and Torbert that will be considered are Robert Kegan and his notion of self-other coordination (see e.g. Hagström and Stålne for an introduction), Martin Ucik’s Integral relationships, and Michael Basseches’ dialectical thought forms in general and applied on relationships. I will primarily follow Kegan’s orders of consciousness from 3rd to 5th, or traditional, modern and (reconstructive) postmodern relationships, roughly corresponding to diplomat to transforming (previously strategist or autonomous) action-logics.

First an obvious disclosure of some own biases. I’m embedded in a Swedish culture and my own relational experiences are limited to a few own relationships. However, no major spoilers or intimate details will be given here. In contrast to Bradbury and Torbert, I will adopt a more analytical approach. But don’t expect any elegant matrices or formulas on the nature of relationships. The development of the individual is a complex process and a relationship between two are even messier, so see this as a very tentative analysis.

The traditional relationship

The nature of the traditional relationship, corresponding to diplomat action-logic, is that I identify with my relationship. The marriage’s “two become one” is an accurate description where I am embedded in what Kegan refers to as a “mutual and reciprocal one-to-one relationship”. I am the relationship and I cannot imagine leaving it. This is a rather undifferentiated view on the relationship, and the hallmark of conformism. If you feel unhappy, I am unhappy and I try to take full responsibility for making it right. Or vice versa: “I’m unhappy, fix it!” Ucik mentions dependent relationships as a consequence of milder neurosis but could as well be an accurate denotation of this 3rd order relationship. In an abusive relationship at this order I am susceptible to the argument “It’s your fault, you made me do it”.

The traditional relationship’s “until death do us part” was the norm of the traditional society and divorce was generally considered shameful. Thus, the social pressure on sticking together “in sickness and in health” was strong. Nevertheless, the virtue of the life-long loyalty and devotion it entails should be acknowledged. If something is broken, in this case the relationship, you try to fix it instead of throwing it away and rush to find a new one.

But cultures evolve, and so do we. We typically don’t stay at the same village the whole life and we can always get a fresh start somewhere else if a relationship ends. In an article “The generality of adult development stages and transformations” Tom Hagström and I argue that a necessary step in the development of meaning-making is the cognitive ability to resolve some social dilemmas. In order to develop beyond the 3rd order of consciousness, I need to be able to differentiate between my needs and your needs that were previously undifferentiated and fused. And I need to go from being the relationship to having it, meaning that the relationship goes from being a subject I am and see through, to an object I have and can see and negotiate with.

In my first stable relationship, I had a hard time mediating between my fiancé’s needs and wishes, and those of my parents’, when they differed. Even after moving from home it took me some time to differentiate from both those relationships, and with my own needs. When I and my fiancé moved together, we pretty much became the couple that friends invited to parties and dinners as a package. Socially, I was one of the parts of the couple rather than an individual.

The modern relationship

In cultural terms, the modern view on relationships is illustrated by “the Swedish theory of love”, which is the title of a documentary by Erik Gandini (available in Sweden). The modern relationship takes place between two independent individuals, which was a key ingredient in Sweden’s development into a modern society. This independency should be emotional as well as structural and economical. For instance, the woman should be economically independent from her husband and also be legally free to leave whenever she wishes. In the 1830th, Swedish author Carl Jonas Love Almqvist wrote in the classic and defining Det går an (“It will do”) that true love can only take place between two free and independent individuals of equal status that actively and voluntarily chose each other.

In psychological terms the independency or “I have a relationship” instead of “I am the relationship” corresponds to Kegan’s 4th order consciousness, roughly corresponding to the achiever action-logic. In contrast to previous traditional view, the differentiated individual is seen as the centre of concern. Individual means non-dividable, an atomistic and self-centred view. The advantages from the previous 3rd order are obvious. If I have a relationship instead of being it, I can leave it without it threatening my identity. I don’t go down with the sinking ship, I can abandon it and there are other fish in the sea.

What are the drawbacks of this type of relationship? Besides the illusion that we are independent individuals? Well, it does solve some problems but create new ones. If I am too keen on preserving my boundaries not to be dragged into the 3rd order dependency, I might lose some of the intimacy that comes with losing myself in another person. Losing myself means loosen the boundaries and open up for vulnerability, which defies the 4th order logic. Further, if we define a 4th order relationship as one taking place between two persons at 4th order consciousness, their selves, or self-systems in Kegan’s terms, are static. Thus, this relationship logic may not be adequate in dealing with change and transformation.

Another drawback may come when different aspects of the relationship start to differentiate. Other aspects than the legal one, which traditionally means having marital status, or living together and sharing the everyday routines and burdens, can involve the intimately emotional, the romantic love, sexual attraction etc. In a typical modern relationship, some aspects of it might work well and others not as much. Some may wither and others may grow and replace the previous ones. The standard recipe “learn to communicate better” may not get beyond the surface layers and revive or compensate for what’s not there anymore. Thus, a relationship can be more than ‘a thing’. It can be several, the same way that I am part of the Swedish culture ethnically, geographically by living on Swedish soil, legally by means of my citizenship etc.

Postmodern relationships

Most associate the term ‘postmodern’ with questioning norms, power structures, heteronormativity and conventionality, and all assumptions around relationships that we are culturally conditioned to adhere to, for instance that we should have one in order to be happy. This way of questioning and deconstructing norms per se can be characterized as ‘deconstructive postmodernism’. Needless to say, this opens up to a range of possibilities of pushing the boundaries and experimenting. However, I am more interested in how they manifest from a succeeding ‘reconstructive postmodernist’ perspective, corresponding to Kegan’s 5th order and the transforming action-logic. Here a few themes will be outlined on the nature of these kinds of relationships.

Differentiated and complex 
Breaking out from the 3rd order relationship required some cognitive complexity and accordingly, 5th order relationships are typically complex and messy. One of my relationships entailed long email conversations where we discussed how we should view the conflicts that arose, what we should expect from each other in terms of the different aspects of the relationship. Sometimes poetic descriptions but also rather analytical investigations and argumentations. Examples of relational aspects, or embraces that my friend Stina Deurell would call them, can be the intimate relationship where you meet on the deepest levels and disclose your deepest layers, the sexual aspect which is what it sounds like, or the spiritual where both see the connection and relationship as a manifestation of… something larger. Another aspect of a particularly permanent nature is the biological relationship in which you have children together. That relationship doesn’t end with the divorce. A relationship can also rest more on a partnering, where both parties subordinate to the same mission or calling. Managing to integrate several aspects of a relationship can be a blessing and have an impact on the larger social surrounding. These integrated couples can act like social gravity fields and draw people and event around them. For many others, life tend to be less perfect and a lot messier.

The messiness comes not only from dealing with the different relational aspects, but also from the 5th order personality being more complex than the 4th order, which is the next item or theme.

The multifaceted personality
Kegan describes the 5th order consciousness not as a self-system but rather a trans-system, with several systems or layers and sub-personalities. I am not myself, but rather I have selves and show up differently in different contexts and companies. Not only do I bring my ‘self’ to the relationship, but several selves and all my personal history of relational experiences with ideals, desires and wounds, damaged goods as we all are. And not only my history but also patterns that come from previous generations as well as more generic qualities associated with being a man with all that entails. Thus, a relationship between a man and a woman is a manifestation of the everlasting dance between the two sexes. This is like moving to a town where you don’t know anyone except some of your relatives. After a while you discover that the relatives are involved in a family feud with others. Without having done anything to anyone you are embroiled in a conflict and dynamic largely beyond your control. Similarly, a relationship never starts from scratch. But conversely, what is healed in the relationship can have ripples beyond it.

Further, it’s not only that I bring different parts into the relationship. There are parts of me that are created in it. They couldn’t have been brought into light without you seeing them. Thus, have you been in a relationship with me, not only do I carry something with me from that. I am fundamentally changed from that and I am a different person as a result of our bond. A piece of you is me. What you recognized and what you accepted and embraced in me became an accepted and integrated part of me. And conversely, what you saw and didn’t embrace, I buried even deeper down. The difference can be expressed as holding space for the other party, which is a central aspect of the relationship. This means trusting that I am safe when I lose myself and allowing myself to be vulnerable and reveal my soul and my shadows. When I fail to hold the space for you at a crucial moment, a door may close and with that an aspect of our relationship may freeze or wither.

Being defined by the relationship
Kegan’s description of the 5th order rests largely on dialectical principles, the relationship comes before the parts or the individuals. It is not the individuals that have a relationship, but rather the relationship that is constituting for the parties. This is a view on relating that is in line with Swedish philosopher Alexander Bard’s notion of us being ‘dividuals’ rather than ‘individuals’, which means defining ourselves through our networks and our collaborations instead of seeing ourselves as centre of the universe.

If the 4th order self is a system independent from the relationship, the 5th order selves has both individual aspects as well as relational and can thus be seen as the synthesis of the 3rd and 4th order. This may correspond to Ucik’s dependent-independent-interdependent. From this, the balance or stability of a relationship can be seen in how much I can let myself go and surrender to the relationship. The more I let myself go and lean into the ‘us’, the more unstable and frightening it may be, although this depends on the nature of the relationship. This can be illustrated by different types of kayaks where the beginner’s types have a lower centre of gravity and broader base, and are more stable and hard to overturn. The more advanced kayaks have a higher centre of gravity and requires better balance. In the most advanced marathon kayaks you need to constantly move or keep an oar in the water to stay up. They are fundamentally unstable, like riding a bicycle where you need to move to keep the balance. But if neither of us has a stable foundation to stand on and both grasp onto each other to find balance, it can be a bumpy ride. This brings us to the dynamic nature of these kinds of relationships.

The transforming self and relationship
Kegan referred to the 5th order consciousness as interindividual in 1982 and as self-transforming mind in 2009, both appropriate denotations. Transformation means ‘change through forms’ and for the 3rd order relationship this change is a threat, conformism means that the nail that stands out gets hammered back down. For the 4th order relationship that assumes stable and static identities (as the corresponding relationships), transformation can mean growing apart in the long run. But the 5th order relationship has as a basic premise that both you and I are in continuous transformation, as is the relationship. Neither let ourselves be defined or controlled, a continuous renegotiation of who I am, who you are, and who we are. If the relationship consists of several aspects, then some aspects can be stable whereas others change.

In the postconventional personality and relationship process and change are assumed to be the normal condition and stability the exception, truces in Kegan’s words. Thus, what we have here and now is unique and precious. It will not last or come back, but it will always stay with me as a part of me. My most recent experience has been of a particularly impermanent kind. It was as strongest and most intimate when the impermanence was most apparent, the same way we feel most presence in life when we are closest to death. One that I still haven’t been able to let go of.

This more dynamic description may sound theoretical and complex, but just think of it the same way as a relationship between a parent and a child. A central task of the parent is to hold a space and give support for the child to develop and grow up to be an adult. The relationships between the parent and the toddler, the schoolchild, the teenager and the adolescent, respectively, are fundamentally different in nature. We also know that this relationship will be renegotiated several times between these phases. My children will defy and break out, and we will find each other again if I don’t cling too hard to the relationship. And adult development is just the research field that describe how we continue this process of transformations, process and growth throughout our whole lives. Thus, from this perspective we should expect that relationships change if they last a longer time.

Final remarks

So, here are four themes that come up for me in relation to the question of postconventional relationships. Needless to say, there are blind spots and further aspects to be explored, such as all those beyond the heteronormative and monogamous. Further, I haven’t dived deeper into the gender issues and the sexual aspects. Feel free to keep filling the gaps of the description and let’s all keep on exploring. But please don’t see this as new standards or norms of how we should relate to each other. Postconventional doesn’t mean new and more complex norms.

But does it have to be this complex? Do we need to start every relationship by filling sentence completion tests and different forms? Can’t we just meet, fall in love or let whatever wants to arise arise? Sure! And neither do I start a relationship or meeting by planning, rather I try to follow my intuition (in best case). This is more my way of making meaning and sense of my own experiences in hindsight with help of the theories in a way that we might have an informed conversation around it and possibly getting past some obstacles that prevent us from being even closer, more authentic and intimate with each other.

Even though this 5th order perspective on relationships might sound more interesting and more complex, it might be that one has to live through several relationships in order to get there or to understand what a relationship really is. And to make all mistakes that can be made until one realizes that “this is not working” before taking it to the next level. As usual, higher is not better per se.

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