Encounter vs. Experience: The Dance of Relationship

by Nate Nicholls · 4 comments

Photo by Un Milonguero Mejicano

2011 is the year to get shit done. As I’ve said before, this is the year for me to quit talking and just start doing. I’m learning, though, that sometimes doing can be a distraction. I’m not really talking about personal goals right now; I’m talking about relationships.

Among my goals for the year is developing better relationships. Better relationships with Gabrielle, with my dogs, and with a few close friends.

But marking things off a checklist and building relationships are different tasks. Sure, “Build Relationships” might be something I’ve written down on my list of things to attend to this year, but it’s not as easy as putting a desk together.

Building a desk, making a bed, building a business, getting in shape – anything else I can put on a To Do list – are all solitary (or at least not intrinsically communal) endeavors. But relationships, obviously, take two (at least). Two people. Two entities. Two free wills. Two minds. (Potentially) two worldviews. Two.

Suddenly things become more difficult. With a desk, I slap some boards together, place bolts in the appropriate holes (I sneak a quick peak at the instructions…but will deny to my dying day that I ever did!), and – VOILA! – a desk is made! (In my case, though, it’s more like “Awww…crap! I already chipped the veneer!”  But, you get the picture.) With relationships, though, it’s not that simple.

“Just do shit” doesn’t really work that well with relationships. Building a relationship takes doing things with someone, but it also takes getting to know them, opening your heart to them, sharing your soul (for lack of a better term).

The other day, Gabrielle and I were talking about our relationship and we admitted that things have gotten a little stale lately. I mean, we’re doing alright, we love each other, things are still good…it’s just that we both felt like it had been a while since we’d really connected in a meaningful way. We sit next to each other on the couch every night. We ski together every weekend. We try to spend every minute together that we can. When we are home with each other, we put our computers down, put our books away – completely shut everything down so that we could hang out together…but, we admitted, we still feel that we aren’t connecting like we want to.

We decided to do something that might seem counter-intuitive to some: We decided to give ourselves a break. We decided to just relax and let things happen (or not). If we felt like reading, we agreed, we’d just pick up our book and start reading. If we wanted to check email, we’d check email. If we wanted to hang, we’d hang.

Hell, we started off as friends and ended up in love completely by accident, so we figured we might as well go back to what we know works. …and what works is just sharing life – no plans, no expectations, just two people enjoying each other’s company.

We decided to do that – to simply enjoy each other’s company – as much as possible. Certainly, we understand that committing to living life together is going to mean some level of commitment and certain obligations, and we’re not going to ignore that; but, we aren’t going to try to wring some sort of deep emotional feeling out of every second we spend together. Why? Because human emotions don’t respond to algorithms. Our affections get stirred for a number of reasons, but I would argue that none of those reasons have anything to do with a schedule. None of those reasons have anything to do with a goal.

I am finding that, in trying to cultivate relationships, it is far too easy to treat them as goals and, therefore objectify them. In trying to make relationships stronger (by trying to force them to work according to a schedule), a person can actually hurt them and, in effect, overlook the relationship completely.

I’m learning that, when it comes to relationships, I have to take a new approach; one that forgets about schedule and plans, and focuses instead on sharing. Sharing of time, sharing of myself, sharing of life.

I read an awesome book a few years back by Martin Buber. He broke the realm of human interaction down into two different parts: experience and encounter. He said that to experience things was to objectify them. (He wasn’t criticizing, only making an observation.) To experience was a one-sided affair. You experience the taste of a hot dog, the thrill of a concert, the rapture of sex. These are experiences. There is nothing wrong with that. But, Buber points out, we are more than just objects – we have awareness; spirits, if you will. And, because of this, in order to really connect in a way that transcends objectivity (in a way that actually links us up to each other’s true selves), we must learn to “encounter” each other.

Encounter, in Buber’s use of the term, speaks to a certain openness where both people approach each other without any preconceived notions or expectations. They approach each other with, you might say, an open curiosity. Whereas experience is a one-sided affair of taking (the person experiencing is receiving sensations from the thing/person she experiences), to encounter someone is a reciprocal affair.

Think of it as two musicians jamming together for the first time. Each one’s listens to the other, alternately taking the lead and following, alternately teaching and learning. An encounter.

You could also think of it as two dancers, dancing their first dance together. Touching each other, they each respectively feel the rhythm and sway of their partner and move accordingly. One steps back, the other forward, gracefully becoming one moving unit. An encounter.

Experience, then is one-sided. Encounter takes two.

Experience leads to objectivity. Encounter cannot happen unless both parties acknowledge and respect the other.

Gabrielle and I stayed home this past weekend. No skiing. No plans. We just laid low. And, you know what? We had a wonderful weekend together! I really don’t think it had much to do with the fact that we stayed home, to tell you the truth; but, I think it had everything to do with the fact that we made a point of acknowledging each other and being open to encounter. We didn’t try to squeeze something awesome out of every moment, we just let the moments pass and enjoyed the encounters with each other as they came. The rest of the time we read books, played with the dogs, and slept in.

Often we scramble to get out of the house, to get to the ski slopes, to hurry up and do the thing that we planned; but, we are so focused on the event (the plan) ahead of us that we forget about the interim and waste what could be sweet moments of companionship.  Life is in the details, they say.  I think that means that the true stuff of life (together) is not in the big experiences, but in the intervening moments of encounter.  When we focus on the plans we’ve made, too often our attention is on the event and not on each other.  Because of that, we miss out.  We forget to encounter each other.

There’s a sweet communion that takes place when two people focus on the details, on encounters with each other.  This past weekend, Gabrielle and I communed.  The lack of plans helped us to remember and enjoy each other.  Like I said, there are times for commitments and plans, there are times when we will still plan an event; but, we are learning to enjoy the details along the way.  Packing the car, making breakfast, shopping for groceries – these are all details, wonderful opportunities for encounter.

We still have plenty to learn about how to share life together – I’m sure we’ll be experimenting with various ideas for years to come – but, this weekend was a thrilling success.  Instead of forcing “the perfect moment”, we relaxed and simply remained open to each other and to the possibilities.  The results were stunning!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Man February 18, 2011 at 12:23 pm

I would really like to say thank you a lot for the job you have made in writing this article. I am hoping the same most effective work from you down the road also.


Nate February 18, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Keep checking back. I update this blog one a week.


Pa April 17, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Variety is the spice of life.


Nate April 17, 2011 at 1:46 pm

It’s at least one of the spices, Pa! 😉


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: