Here in Chicago, our live theatre scene is one of the best. Specifically, our improvisational theatre is one of the most highly recognized forms of theatre in the country, and even the world. Every weekend night, an improv troupe can be found somewhere in Chicago, in places like iO Theater or Second City, creating an imaginary situation out of just a few specific prompts, on the spot, as a cohesive and well-attuned team.
A particular principle, which is considered ‘the first rule of improv,’ is the concept of “Yes, and.” Imagine two people are onstage. They are co-constructing their improv scene, one they develop together throughout. Within that scene, the two performers must be completely in tune with each other and respond with allowance to what their partner introduces into the story. If one partner introduces a rainstorm, then the other partner pretends to have an umbrella, or pretends to get soaking wet, or pretends to build an arc. In response to that, maybe the first performer then starts searching for pairs of animals. And so, the story gets built. What neither partner does when one of them contributes is say, “No.”
The absence of “No” here is not an absence of boundaries. It is in fact a heightening of attunement and awareness, a co-created space in a shared relationship. By conceding that their partner has as much say in what happens as they do, and indeed that they have as much say as their partner does, the two performers create a relationship of mutual contribution, understanding, and generativity.
Dr. Jessica Benjamin, who currently works as a psychoanalyst and is considered one of the most important contemporary contributors to the field of psychology, describes her idea of ‘Thirdness’ as a similar kind of co-creation in regular relationships—the kinds we all have, that happen off-stage. ‘Thirdness’ in a two-person relationship, Benjamin might say, looks like the collaborative, two-way street manner of being with each other that the two improv performers manage to achieve.
Often, according to Benjamin, people experience relationships as one-way, without even realizing it. Both people in the relationship might feel “done to”—that is, as only reacting—and feels the other person is always the “doer”, or the one acting upon them.
Before we get too much further, let’s look at another example. Let’s say Wye and Zee are newlyweds. Wye bought a condo prior to marrying Zee, and Zee has now moved into that home with Wye. Wye has done and continues to do things for the condo to make it comfortable and happy for them; however, because Wye has had this home prior to marrying Zee, Zee now feels like they don’t really have a say in how the home looks or feels.
The couple begins to have arguments about the home: Zee feels they are reacting to Wye’s perceived controlling; Wye feels they are reacting to Zee’s perceived rejection of their nurturing. Both feel that the other is “doing”, and that they are the ones being “done-to.” Both are having trouble wondering, “What might I be doing that my partner is reacting to?”
Benjamin says that often in relationships, people think there must be only one ‘right’ point of view. Anxiety creeps in when Wye thinks, “Either I’m right and Zee is wrong, or Zee is right and I’m crazy.” In other words, it becomes a split: there is only one person who is correct in their perception of the problem, and the other one is wildly misperceiving reality—a definite “bad guy, good guy” dynamic. By these terms, to concede your partner’s perception of reality is to counteract or even condemn your own. To say, “You’re right,” risks also saying, “I’m the one acting unfairly; I must be bad.”
The way out of this one-way, “doer/done-to” manner of relating is, according to Benjamin, by staying in the mindset of the Third. If Wye can be courageous and wonder how their actions are making Zee react, and if Zee could do the same for Wye, then they would re-engage their empathy for one another, and enter into a more neutral, middle territory where neither is good or bad. They’d be able to allow for the other’s subjectivity, rather than staying stuck in the binary. Both Wye and Zee’s feelings are valid and could be addressed; Thirdness is the ability to re-evaluate the dynamic, to say, “It’s not this (they’re all bad), and it’s not that (I’m all bad). It’s a third thing.”
Much like the “Yes, and” principle in improv, Thirdness is a state of relating in which two partners are constantly saying, “This is what I see in our shared reality; I also see what you’re seeing, and I can make it fit with mine.” It dissolves the binary of “bad guy/good guy” (or, “doer/done-to”) and creates a space in which the two partners are building on and sharing in a mutual relationship.
Of course, the tricky part is that this is not easy: it’s practically automatic and certainly understandable to enter into conflict feeling, “I’m right and they’re wrong” (or, “They’re being terrible, and I am the victim”). One way to open up awareness in a relationship is to visit with a couples’ therapist. A therapist can help introduce understanding of both partners’ subjectivities, so that the two do not have to do it all on their own. A supportive, collaborative, and mutual way to be together does exist, and not exclusively on stage through art. Sometimes we just need a little help getting into the right mindset.
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