An intimate relationship - partnership or marriage - is one of the most potent catalysts for wholeness and authenticity there is. Yet relationships can also be the most deathly and least life-enhancing environment for the human spirit.
Love relationships have the power to re-stimulate the unresolved issues of our early childhoods, because we are at our most open and vulnerable when we are in love. Since most of us didn’t get all we needed or wanted in our early lives, these same needs and desires arise in our relationships and are often expressed inappropriately.
We may idealize our partner, who can then only fall from grace and disappoint us. We will never find a partner who meets all our historical desires, because these desires belong to the past: they are part of our frozen history.
But relationships insist that we grow, open our hearts and become authentic. When a relationship is considered primarily as a vehicle for growth, we open ourselves up to profound psychological and spiritual challenges. The journey of human love may be the most profound activity for a human life. Depending as it does on our ability to know not only ourselves, but also to know our partner, a growthful relationship must be firmly founded on awareness, clarity, acceptance - and trust.
When we meet someone who we are to develop a relationship with, a highly complex exchange happens. Unconsciously we offer denied aspects of ourselves to each other and the dynamics of the relationship are created, which gives the relationship its fundamental form and dictates its unfolding. Through the psychic exchange, each partner now ‘possesses’ a part of the other. Over time the two partners become polarized and resentful, because the other has a part of them that prevents them being their whole self.
Strong boundaries enable relationship. But how do loving relationships turn sour? How is it that the future partner we see across a crowded room and are immediately attracted to turns out, after ‘the honeymoon period’ is over, to be just like the previous partner who we learned to despise?
In the laws of physics, opposites attract, but in interpersonal relationships, the reverse is true: similars attract. The way in which this works is unconscious and mysterious. We meet someone and experience a strong attraction. During that first meeting we establish a contract - a binding agreement in which inner aspects of ourselves are exchanged through the process of projection.
We may ‘give’, through projection, our beauty, our confidence or our ability to the other. Our future partner unconsciously invites and accepts these inner qualities to compensate for an imbalance or lack that she or he feels inside. This exchange of qualities goes on quite invisibly and unbelievably rapidly, when we meet a prospective partner. The success of this invisible process is so crucial to the emerging relationship that its failure is more common than we imagine. We are usually only aware of this mating ritual as a charged social interaction.
When couples break up because one of them is having counseling and the other is against it, the resistant ones often finds themselves in counseling after a few months doing what they had been so opposed to when they were in the relationship. The end of the relationship has meant that they can retrieve the projected part of them that wants to find out who they are and, without the partner carrying that part, they are now able to do it for themselves and face their own resistance, balanced with their enthusiasm for self-exploration.
Relationships, marriage and intimacy operate like a two-way mirror, reflecting each partner back to themselves. Alongside psychotherapy or counseling, relationships are the most potent way to self-knowledge.
Our hiddenness, our concealment, our denial and our pretense are all grist for the mill in relationship. And the reason? Deep down we want to be loved - for ourselves.
It is the radical healing task of psychotherapy and counseling to deal with this unspoken question, because the solution lies less in being loved by someone else than in loving oneself.