The concept of ego as an image of oneself is incomplete and therefore misleading. One cannot form an image of oneself independent of the images of others one has. It is by creating contrast with others that one can form an image of oneself. When A speaks with B, the image of A’s self is created by contrasting himself with B. His ego, therefore, is a result of differentiating A and B. Then it follows that his ego between A and B is different from his ego between A and C.
When the minimum unit of psychoanalysis is an individual person (individual psyche or ego), we tend to assume that each unit is unchanging, consistent, and independent of context. Instead, below, I look at each particular relationship as the minimum unit of analysis.
However, we still face the same problem; only that it manifests differently. The same relationship between two people, for instance, can shift depending on its context (A and B in the context of X vs. A and B in the context of Y).
Natural Relationship (NR): Given any two persons, there is a natural way that both would interact with one another. It could be adversarial, harmonious, synergetic, neutral, and so on. “Natural” does not mean it is positive. Just as a relationship between a mouse and a cat is naturally adversarial, there are naturally adversarial relationships between two people with no faults of their own.
Imaginary Relationship (IR): Imaginary Relationship can potentially override or interfere with the Natural Relationship. It could make a Natural Relationship more harmonious or more adversarial.
Social etiquettes and manners are strategies used in Imaginary Relationships in order to get along with one another.
If the relationship is naturally harmonious, these protocols can largely be ignored; it would still remain relatively harmonious.
Most of us naturally gravitate towards harmonious NRs.
A person can choose or refuse to enter into an Imaginary Relationship.
A skillful salesperson, for instance, is adept at maintaining harmonious IRs with a variety of people, including those who are naturally adversarial to him.
NR and IR are opposite ends of the spectrum. They are not discrete entities. As such, only relative distinctions can be made.
Some consistently relate to others imaginarily. All of their relationships then become imaginary. They may not be able to have rewarding or intimate relationships with others. They may eventually feel alienated from themselves.
Some consistently try to relate to others naturally. This requires that one disregard established social protocols, which can be seen as socially abrasive, provocative, confrontational, offensive, or intrusive.
Picture a scenario where A insists on relating to B naturally. Suppose, both grew up in suburbs and live currently in a city, but B denies his natural self as a suburban person, and insists on being seen as urban. If A insists on relating to B as a suburban person, B would be offended.
We believe, especially in the West, that the essence of a person is consistent. That is, we believe that there is a transcendental signified (an entity that transcends language) to each “I” which is unchanging and independent of context. This belief motivates us to behave consistently; not because we are naturally consistent.
In the East, the consistency of an individual is not assumed. In fact, it is assumed that a person changes depending on context. Easterners are typically described by Westerners as conformists. This is because the Westerners believe in the existence of an unchanging essence of a person. From their perspective, Easterners are forced to change their essences in order to better adapt to any given context. When no such essence is assumed, there is nothing being forced. They are behaving naturally to any given context, and as a result, their behavior changes from one context to the next. The Westerners who believe that there is an unchanging essence to a person, see this as a conscious effort to suppress their own essences in order to better conform. They are only projecting.
We tend to fear Natural Relationships, because it is beyond our conscious control.
Some NRs are adversarial, and can result in unpleasant experiences with no faults on either side.
Although, for the most part, we intend to use IRs for the sake of harmony, not all IRs are harmonious.
Some could deliberately contradict the IR that the other is wishing to establish. When we “take it out on” someone, we are deliberately creating an adversarial IR.
Attachments to specific IRs create most of our human conflicts.
Some instinctively avoid adversarial NRs. They do not even try to establish harmonious IRs. That is, they stay within a group of people with harmonious NRs.
Milton Glaser describes two types of people: “nourishing” and “toxic” types. He explains that someone who is “nourishing” to you, may very well be “toxic” to others. Thus, no one is innately one type or the other.
In my definition, “nourishing” relationships are harmonious NRs whereas “toxic” relationships are adversarial NRs.
Glaser further explains that he avoids “toxic” relationships altogether. That is, he feels there is no point in making adversarial NRs work by creating harmonious IRs. The time and energy is better spent on harmonious NRs.
On the other hand, some people try to establish harmonious IRs with everyone, even if they have adversarial NRs. Some among them would blame themselves for all failures. Some would blame others for all failures.
Some would try to establish adversarial IRs with everyone, often as a defense mechanism. They are afraid of not being liked; so they deliberately sabotage all relationships as preemptive strikes.
We often refer to NR as “reality.” Reality, therefore, changes from one relationship to the next.
We also refer to NR as “truth.” Some are in denial of their NRs, and when they are pointed out, it can be annoying, depressing, or painful to them.
An individual can have a NR and an IR with a group of people (society, culture, team, collective, etc..).
A society can collectively have an IR to an individual that contradicts their NR. For instance, the majority of Americans may consider Madonna to be a talented musician (IR), but that does not mean that it is so naturally; the NR might be her sex appeal.
When there is a significant discrepancy between an individual’s IR and NR to a society, he would be considered delusional or even psychotic. However, since no individual relationships are independent of its context, this discrepancy may disappear if he moves to a different society.
When one masturbates to an imaginary person, he has an IR with that person which has a tangible physical effect, but this is a conscious IR in most cases. That is, he is aware of the fact that it is imaginary. The presence of the actual person however does not necessarily make the relationship more Natural. The conscious IR may differ from the actual IR, but the latter may not necessarily be more Natural. In other words, the presence of actual persons does not necessarily make the IR closer to the NR.
Not all human conflicts can be avoided, like adversarial Natural Relationships, but adversarial Imaginary Relationships can be avoided. Much of our everyday fights, arguments, conflicts, and even wars are results of adversarial Imaginary Relationships. Two people or even two nations that could otherwise get along well (harmonious NR) can find themselves in conflicts or wars with one another because of the adversarial IR.
An Imaginary Relationship is a game whose rules are defined by our culture. We are trained to play it. Its purpose is to manage and control relationships.