You are currently viewing Three pillars of a nourishing relationship (part 3): individual healing

Three pillars of a nourishing relationship (part 3): individual healing

This post is the text of a video essay I’ve hosted on YouTube here:

Breakup wake ups

Breakups can be especially sad when we’ve put a lot of work into a relationship, and it still doesn’t work.  We know the person who we dated was a good person, and we know that we both tried to make that weedy relationship garden grow enough fruit, but the yield just wasn’t enough to warrant the sewing and the toil, and so we have to part ways, both of us grieving the lost investment of work that we put in, and the lost hope of it meeting our needs.

This can lead to powerful and sorrowful self-reflection, during which we ask what it was inside of us that prevented our work from being fruitful, or prevented us from choosing partners with whom we could grow nourishing relationship fruits with.

We might realize that, although we thought of ourselves as compromising and open-minded and loving, we were simply too scared to leave our comfort zones enough to give the person who we loved dearly what they needed.

Maybe our ex needed more physical intimacy, but getting too close felt like frightening engulfment, and so we held back, leaving them forlorn and lonely too many times.  Conversely, they might have needed more time and space to explore and to be autonomous, and we couldn’t tolerate our fears of abandonment and aloneness, so we smothered them and left them feeling painfully restricted and trapped.  Their need for variety and exploration might have felt dangerous and forbidden, or their desire for intimacy and stability may have felt suffocating.

It’s important to know our limits, have strong personal boundaries and standards, and stay true to ourselves.  But maintaining our integrity is not the same as splitting off valuable parts of ourselves, although they can feel similar, because both involve saying no to things.  Setting healthy boundaries to remain authentic is the act of saying no to what isn’t good for us in the long term.  But denying a partner’s needs that are in conflict with our defenses is saying no to something that would be good for us to give in the long run.

Perspective from a distance

It sometimes takes a while after ending a relationship, or being broken up with, to make these kinds of realizations.  This is because we need to get distance from it for a while in order to see what we could not see while we were in it.  We have the raw experience, now we just need the time to process it.

In a relationship, it’s easy to attribute the pain of our individual wounds to a partner.  They say something hurtful, and we hurt.  They leave, and we feel lonely.  They smother us, and we feel trapped.  It’s just an obvious case of cause and effect, right?  What more to it could there be?

That’s what we think, at least, until we break up and, months later, are still feeling similar hurt, loneliness, suffocation, or whatever else we were feeling when they were around.  Only this time they aren’t around to attribute it to.  That can motivate us to look inward and question how fair we were to them, and where all those feelings actually come from.

Why do we seek such answers only after the relationship?  Wouldn’t it have been better before or during the relationship?  I can think of two reasons.

One is that the honeymoon stage of relationship, when it’s new, gives us a false impression that the baseline with this particular person is supposed to be relatively blissful and problem-free.  We mistake the chemical cocktail of romance for an absence of issues.  When that momentum slows down, we might believe that any hurt we feel is now from something added or withdrawn by our partner, rather than from something uncovered within us that had been there all along and was masked by an extended rush of oxytocin and dopamine.

The other reason is that some of our pain was in fact triggered by our partner’s behavior.  But I believe that in most cases, the majority of the pain we feel in a relationship is revealed by a partner’s mistakes more than it’s caused by them.  This explains why a relationship can make us more aware of pre-existing attachment injuries that had been dormant and skillfully protected before the relationship.  The imperfect person we dated acted as a homing beacon that pointed us toward our vulnerabilities.  But simply being pointed there is so uncomfortable that it’s easy to draw the conclusion that pointing out an injury is itself the injury.

Or, to use another metaphor, we get our broken foot stepped on and that reveals to us that we had a broken foot.  The foot stomp itself might have done some minor damage, but the combination of the stomp and our pre-existing broken toe creates a world of hurt.  So much hurt that we incorrectly assume it’s all coming from the stomp.

These sorts of realizations can get us to ask ourselves if we had more love available than we were able to access while together, and if that also might have been true for our partner, had our mutual defenses not prevented us from connecting.

Once we’re alone again and can more objectively reflect on what seemed like a lack of love from the other person at the time, we often see that we were experiencing their defenses, not their hearts.  And we can better see the times that our defenses were up, and how we also withheld some form of love that flowed underneath the unyielding surface, because a scared part of us didn’t want to be hurt.  We might see how there were opportunities to stretch and take a leap of faith to come through for our partner who was in pain, and we just weren’t able to, despite all the hope we both had to build a happy future together.

Defenses and wounds

If I had to choose only one concept that most encapsulates psychotherapy and the process of psychological healing, I would say it is the concept of a defense that protects a psychological wound.

To use a physical metaphor: if I have a broken toe, a defense might be to limp or wear steel-toed boots or shield the toe in some way, or just not walk –  some behavior that prevents the broken toe from hurting, without actually healing it.  The defense is not the injury, it only masks it or numbs it.  But it comes at a cost, like limping or not walking in this example.

Some therapists say that there is really only one fundamental psychological injury, which they might call something like “the core wound of the heart”, or a sense that we’re unlovable.

Others have simplified core injuries into two basic “attachment injuries”: being abandoned and neglected is one, and being overly controlled and restricted is the other.  These injuries happen when our essential needs of connection or autonomy are not met.  I find this model to be very helpful in its explanatory power and simplicity.

Another simple model I like breaks down emotional wounds into these three core schemas, or mental-emotional patterns: “I am unlovable”, “I am unsafe”, and “I am powerless”.  It’s fairly easy to consider how these three basic insecurities are interrelated.

Still others have further broken down injuries into a half-dozen or a dozen subcategories, that might include traumas like not being seen or respected, existing in a chaotic environment, being deceived or manipulated, receiving cryptic and dysfunctional communication, not having adequate structure or boundaries, being shamed for expressing emotion or instigating necessary conflict, being celebrated only for performance or achievement, being dominated and oppressed, receiving poor modeling from caregivers and role models, and so on.

There are myriad ways to divide and classify potential ways we could be injured psychologically.

Defenses then, are the various ways that we implement and construct patterns of behavior, thinking, and feeling (or lack thereof), that help us cope with those psychological wounds, without directly addressing or healing them.  We do this when we don’t have the ability stop the injuries from occurring, or to heal the wounds.  In this sense, defenses are a necessary psychological, and evolutionary, adaptation.  Defenses are largely formed and built up during our childhoods and teenage years, although they are often reinforced as adults.  And they tend to be constructed in unconscious, subconscious, and automatic ways outside of our conscious awareness.  That’s why they can be so hidden and take considerable work to deconstruct, even with deliberate conscious attention.

The impact of defenses

Defenses cause problems in our relationships, even with compatible-enough partners who we commit to, for two fundamental reasons:

  1. They prevent us from showing up for our partner the way our partner needs us to, and,
  2. They prevent us from accepting certain healthy ways that our partner shows up with us.

The study of psychological defenses, and how they are formed, and how they can be dissolved, is extremely broad, and has been the main topic or partial focus of probably tens of thousands of books.  I think it is also a phenomenon that’s intuitive and that nearly everyone becomes increasingly aware of and interested in as they go through their lives.  I imagine that millions of conversations are had around the world every day, between friends and family, that center around or touch on ways that we protect and limit ourselves, consciously or not, in order to not feel the pain of some old wound that we still carry with us.

A defense has pros and cons to it.  It keeps the wound from hurting in most situations, so that we can carry on with the business and survival tasks of life in some capacity.  This is why we unconsciously create and engineer it.

But they carry some steep costs as well.  One is that, if the defense is effective enough, we are liable to forget we even have the injury, and so not address it.  Instead, we work on honing and perfecting the defense itself, burying the injury deeper and deeper as we become more and more expert at masking it’s pain.  The problem with this is that the injury is actually crippling some compromised ability that we ideally would have access to, if we did the work of healing.  The defense of a limp is a compromised walk.  Similarly, being emotionally unavailable or overly demanding are both forms of compromised relating.

Additionally, the defense itself adds something burdensome.  Defenses have been compared to a heavy wood raft that we carry on our backs, long after we used it to cross a river in the distance far behind us.  Any addiction is a defense, and addictions consume valuable time and energy to maintain.  Getting angry and aggressive might serve to prevent being dominated or get someone to back off, but it leaves in its wake a painful regret, as well as damage to our emotional bonds with others.  Becoming overly cold or withdrawing can cause similar consequences.  The defense of placating and being self-effacing might serve to avoid conflict in the short term, but it creates resentment, hurt, and even erosion of harmony in the long run by stacking up unresolved issues.

Every defense replaces something natural and essential with something hard and artificial.  It replaces supple tissue with scar tissue.  Wounded trust and self-esteem from rejection by others can replace healthy confidence and a drive to connect, with defenses like people pleasing, shallowness, aggression, withdrawal, or guardedness.

Defenses have been called many other names in the psychotherapy and psychology literature.  Coping strategies, survival skills, emotional armor, loyal soldiers, relational patterns, or more recently, “managers and firefighters” in the internal family systems model.  I like the term defense because I find it clear and simple.  It’s something we automatically do, think, and feel in order to “defend” against the pain we’d feel if some core wound we have were to be touched or abraded by another’s behavior.

The reason romantic and intimate relationships are often so difficult and intense for people, and often end, is because no one is going to be closer to us, and thus more likely to abrade our core wounds, than a partner.  And it hurts a lot when that happens – so much that it can commonly lead us to consider leaving the relationship, and sometimes follow through on that.  Or, to put so much pressure on a partner that they decide to leave.

Imagine then how much more stable a relationship would be if we were able to largely heal those core wounds and shed the intimacy-blocking defenses we carry, so we could be open-hearted and close to a partner without much risk of feeling stung or destabilized when a partner does something inconsiderate or inept.

Reclaiming lost parts of our selves

Healthy psychological parts of ourselves can become exiled long ago in our pasts, and so we can, ironically, become afraid of the traits of a partner that remind us of those long-ago disavowed abilities, which would benefit us and make us more whole if we were able to open up to them.

For example, a carefree and spontaneous person and a structured and disciplined person might initially find each other very attractive, each sensing a complementary virtue in the other.  But it’s possible that the carefree person’s discipline and the disciplined person’s spontaneity were buried and disavowed in the past for good reason — such as how their parents responded to those qualities — and so they grow up to have mixed emotions about them.  From far away or at first, the repressed parts that they find in their partner are alluring.  But as they grow closer, the forbidden nature of the others’ qualities becomes anxiety-provoking.  They remind each other of some painful experience in the past, such as rejection, oppression, or disapproval in their childhoods.  They might then polarize, the disciplined one becoming even more rigid, and the spontaneous one becoming ever-more resistant to making plans.

It’s not uncommon for two people to break up and then both take on hobbies or pastimes of their exes.  This happened to me once when I took up dancing and my ex started weight lifting after we broke up.  While together, we can feel threatened by the other person’s different strength, but once gone, we miss it because it is actually a missing part of our self.

Say we play a sport and get injured.  We might then stay away from that sport that we love to prevent being hurt again.  We can develop that same kind of protective avoidance when it comes to getting emotionally close to others, giving others space to be more autonomous, or all kinds of other, limiting personality patterns.  I think it’s safe to say that almost everyone develops at least a few defenses against essential parts of themselves that, when expressed, led to some pain early in their life.

What if, instead, we could practice noticing how some forbidden quality that a partner embodies creates discomfort inside of us, and then follow that discomfort down to it’s source, and then reclaim that part of us that became suppressed that our partner expresses so naturally?  That’s a challenging practice, but a potentially liberating one for us as individuals and partners bonding in relationships.  If both sides can do that, they can both be more whole, flexible, and competent at playing a broader variety of roles.

Healing and commitment

Each of us can only walk one path in life at a given time.  Being single is a path.  A relationship is a different path.

Each person who enters our life influences our path to some degree, and we influence theirs.  The person we choose to bond with romantically will influence our path in a big way.  If we choose to have children with that person, they’ll influence our path an order of magnitude more.

To embark on a romantic relationship with someone is to alter our life trajectory with them.  It’s possibly an even bigger choice than a career path, or where to locate.  The existential burden of freedom intertwines with every life choice, in proportion to the magnitude of that choice.  Alternatives exclude.  Every time we depart from a fork in the road on one adventure, the potential of other adventures dies.  There may be infinite universes, but we’re only aware of the one that we live in.

The ambivalence trap

Being in a relationship and not fully committing to it can be an attempt to prevent alternatives from excluding… to futilely attempt to live in multiple universes at once… to maintain the unwalked paths as open options.

But not committing to a path by staying at the fork in the road is also a life path.  It’s a path of ambivalence.  Ambivalence is appropriate for a time – to plan, to imagine, to decide.  It is prudent to spend some time at the commitment fork in the road when we meet someone.  But if we stay there too long, we miss out on our adventure by not starting one.

The adventure I’m talking about is an intertwining of hearts more than it is an intertwining of circumstances and situations.  Just because two people call themselves a couple, or live together, or buy property together, or even have kids together, doesn’t necessarily mean they have fully committed to each other in their hearts.

It’s like perpetually staring at a restaurant menu for hours rather than enjoying a meal due to a fear of not trying all the different meals, or of choosing the “wrong” meal.  Commitment is the act of ordering off the menu, so we can truly savor and enjoy the dish we’re served.  But in order to do that, we have to also decide that we’re not going to order all the other great sounding menu items.

Compared to choosing a partner, a restaurant selection happens on a much shorter time frame and is much lower stakes.  If I’m staring at a menu for more than 15 or 20 minutes, that feels like it’s getting too long for me and I’m losing out on the culinary experience.  For deciding on whether or not we’re compatible and want to build a life with someone, the relevant unit of time is months or years.  I’d say that a few weeks is not enough time, because it takes longer than that to know someone well enough to fully commit to a pair bond with them.  On the other side, I’d personally say that two years is too much time to spend in an ambivalent place of uncertainty with a partner, or with a partner who is ambivalent about us.  A human life span is just too short for that, in my opinion.  Most people are at their best with a secure attachment with someone who cherishes them, not someone who feels ambivalent about them after being together for years.

Committment continuum

To add some nuance, commitment lies on a continuum.  On one end we keep a large emotional distance from a partner, never opening our heart or allowing ourselves to become emotionally invested.  This is the side of low risk and low reward.  If the relationship ends, we lose little, having given up little of our individuality.  And, we also benefit little from staying together.  Being on that side of the commitment continuum is appropriate to the extent that the relationship is new and we don’t know the other person well.

On the other end of the spectrum, we take a leap of faith and intertwine our life and heart with that of another person.  We accept the renunciation of the path we could have walked alone, and the infinite paths we might have walked with other people.  We “decide” —  a word whose Latin roots mean “to cut off”.  We cut away other options so we can dedicate ourselves to walking as far down this one path as possible.  This is the side of high risk and high reward.

In the middle between these two ends, are infinite degrees of commitment — of risk and reward — that we can have to someone.

Commitment defenses

There are two basic commitment errors: committing too easily and not committing easily enough.  Both of these tendencies are, I think, defenses that protect us as a result of incurring attachment wounds.

If the wound that we’re afraid of being touched is something like isolation, separation, or neglect, we’ll tend to commit too readily to someone, and rush to the high risk/high reward path of going “all in” before we know how compatible we are with them, and how much the other person will invest in us.  This tends to result in a burst of connection and closeness, which can wind up working out, but also has a higher likelihood of being followed by disappointment and heartbreak, if reality sets in that the compatibility or the commitment from the other person is not sufficient.

On the other hand, if the wound we’re protecting is more like engulfment, smothering, or loss of our individuality, we tend to withhold commitment too much for too long, even with potentially great partners.  This can sometimes result in relationships starting out strong, and losing steam as our anxiety increases along with the level of intimacy.  Walls go up and we push the other person away to assuage our fears of “losing ourselves”.  If the relationship keeps going, it can be unsatisfying and more emotionally distant.

These two commitment defenses are related to what are known as anxious attachment and avoidant attachment.  Often, people with these two opposing styles of commitment defenses are drawn to one another, as someone hungry for and open to intimacy finds the other person’s self-reliance and independence very attractive and novel, and vice versa.  But what is attractive from a distance can become threatening closer up.  In other words, the abilities to commit and the wisdom to be discerning about commitment can both be disavowed lost parts of ourselves, toward which we can feel ambivalent – simultaneously attracted to and repelled by.

Earnest reflection

Sometimes after a relationship, it’s clear that any path we could have walked with an ex was not a path that would have served us.  The differences were too great.  It would have required us to betray our essential nature and suppress vital parts of ourselves in order to stay with that person.  It would have resulted in spiritual illness.  It would have forced us to give up on a non-negotiable dream, such as having children.  When we find this kind of truth, we don’t heavily question the decision to split up.  We tend to feel peace and empowerment, albeit infused with grief.  We take comfort in having grown to know ourselves, and our needs, more fully.  We’ll likely take less time to start a new relationship, having acquired most of our new clarity before the previous relationship ended.

But after other relationship endings, we have an intuition that we were already suppressing vital parts of ourselves before the relationship, and it was that suppression that prevented us from responding to a call to action to expand, to rise to the occasion, and to be more of who we really are at our core.  The fear of the unknown territory of greater authenticity or untested levels of intimacy kept us from showing up and making a commitment.  We sense that we panicked and reacted in some form of relationship self-sabotage, for emotional self-protection.

When this happens, I think it happens on both sides.  It has to, because commitment is a joint act.  We can sense when the other person is verbally or even behaviorally saying, “I’m in”, but their heart isn’t fully there.  And that makes us close off.  We know that the decision to go forward in life together is going to take a leap of faith together.  We know it takes two to work, and if we commit to someone uncommitted, we’re not safe.  It may be true that one person is more committed than the other in some cases, but fear of investing in a relationship by one person is mutually reciprocal, and affects the other.

Clarity from cleaning our side of the street

While working with one partner of a distressed relationship in individual therapy, my client will often, understandably, have resistance to showing up in a loving way for their partner.  Given their track record, there’s no guarantee, and in fact a high likelihood, that their partner isn’t going to reciprocate at first.  After all, the reason both people are stuck in a stalemate, or a pattern of mutual withholding, is that there is a substantial history of not having their needs met.  The rational and self-preserving conclusion becomes: “tis better to not give than to give and not receive.”

But, as tends to be the case with self-protecting defenses, nothing changes this way, and in fact the couple’s bond will most likely continue to degrade.  I point out the logic that someone always needs to “go first” in changing a relational pattern and interrupting a downward spiral of emotional stinginess.

But there’s even a more motivating reason, in my opinion, to give unrequited care to a partner.  I call it cleaning up our side of the street, or cleaning our part of the collective mess.  If we’re not doing what we can to love our partner, it’s difficult to know how much our partner is capable of loving us, since our holding back will result in their holding back.

But if we do everything we can to give freely (within reason), and we do this consistently and without sending messages that they owe us a debt, then eventually, we get clarity.

Either our partner feels the love (if it is truly genuine and given with generosity and without strings attached) and responds in kind, or eventually it becomes clear that the other person, although they may be wonderful in many ways, is incapable of meeting our needs to the degree that we need.

It might also turn out to be the case that we realize that the happiness we were looking for in receiving something we thought we needed from our partner, was found successfully in giving and finding our own generativity.  We might realize that we actually need less than we thought, and can tolerate more “mess” in the relationship from our imperfect partner than we realized, once we become better mess cleaners of our own messes.

In any of these outcomes, life flows on and there’s movement.  We cease to be mired in agonizing stagnation, having either restored a win-win relationship, or found the conviction we need to leave.

As one therapist said strategically to a couple, “I don’t know about a future relationship between you two, but this one needs to end.”

When there’s a collective mess, it can be hard to know how much of it is ours.  When we thoroughly clean up our part, we can see clearly how much of it is really the other person’s.

Healing and emotional regulation in relationships

The ability to handle emotional discomfort is directly related to how well we can care for a relationship and a partner.

It’s human nature to feel pleasant emotions when we get what we want, and feel painful emotions when we don’t.  Our emotions evolved to motivate us to seek out circumstances that enhance our survival and reproduction.  But a healthy relationship requires us to go without our needs being met for periods of time, sometimes fairly long periods of time, so that our partner can have their need met.

Some committed couples will take turns earning income and getting educated, with one partner going to university for a degree while the other works their less-than-ideal job to pay the bills.  Huge sacrifices like this are chosen with trust that the relationship is more important than the one person’s individual goals in the short run.  Smaller and more frequent examples of sacrifice are ubiquitous for any intimate relationship.  Most of them will create unpleasant emotions to some degree for the partner who’s making the sacrifice.

To the extent that we can tolerate and manage these unpleasant emotions, we can show up with love, and to the extent that we reactively avoid our emotions, we can’t.  We can’t give a partner space when we want connection, if we’re not willing to tolerate the discomfort that the space might create for us.  The same could be said for tolerating discomfort when a partner needs intimacy and we would prefer space.

Moments of emotional weakness don’t kill a strong relationship when they are relatively infrequent and moderate.  But the more they happen, the greater the likelihood that needs go unfulfilled, and the relationship will cease to be sensible.

We learn emotional regulation beginning from our first hours and days with our caregivers, and extending through our lives.  Much of the foundation of our emotional resilience is ideally formed in childhood, but I believe that we can, with enough hard work and consistent practices that build willpower and discipline, catch up in our emotion regulation abilities as adults.

If, after a relationship ends, we have a hard time understanding why we leaned too hard on the other person, or why we became so unnerved when they tried to connect, we might awaken to the need to do some individual healing before we get into another relationship, or alongside our next attempt at a relationship.

Inspiration to heal

If a relationship ends and we are left with a sense that fears and defenses within us blocked our generosity and receptivity to love, we may start down a difficult but fruitful path of self-discovery, to learn what held us (and our partner) back from confidently striding down a path of intimacy and trust together.

There are countless different paths to individual healing.  We might go to therapy, or join interpersonal groups, or form deeper friendships as practice for the next opportunity for a romantic relationship.  We might go deeply into solitude, to work through the wounds that prevented us from fully opening to “good enough” partners in the past.  We can examine our childhood conditioning.  We can get to know our automatic reactions and our mental, emotional, and behavioral patterns that unfold unconsciously under stress and the trigger behaviors of others that abrade our old wounds.  We might look at the ways we take our daily and hourly pain and project it onto situations and other people, including our past loves.

In short, we work on ourselves.

Eventually, we feel gentler and more loving toward ourselves and ready to give that overflow of love to another person, and we hope that our exes are doing this same work and healing the wounds that prevented them from fully loving us.

Unfinished business

“Unfinished business” is a term from Imago Therapy for couples, that refers to the the psychological wounds and defenses that we bring into relationships, and are unconsciously hoping to resolve in the relationship.

No one gets out of childhood unscathed, and so everyone has at least some old wounding that results from not having certain needs met optimally when they were children.

Imago theory posits that what explains the often mysterious attraction between two people is that they unconsciously gravitate to partners who resemble a collective “imago” (the Latin word meaning “image”) of the positive and negative characteristics of their parents or early significant caregivers.  In other words, we tend to be attracted to people who psychologically and emotionally resemble our parents or whoever raised us.

Moreover, this theory assumes that we’re unconsciously hoping for a better, “corrective” outcome with that person who our psyches tell us is essentially family.  We don’t want just anyone to repair our old psychological ruptures, we want THIS person, who deep and nonverbal parts of our brain unconsciously associate with those ruptures.

The difficulty and irony here is that, because the person we are infatuated by, and wind up in a long term relationship or marriage with, has many similar characteristics to our early caregivers, they are also similarly likely to disappoint us by having a difficult time meeting whatever unmet need our inner child is seeking to have met.  The person who we want to finish the business of proving our lovability to ourselves, is also the person who is likely to recreate or exacerbate the old wound that we are subconsciously trying to heal in the relationship.  And this goes in both directions.  If they are our imago match, we are probably their imago match, which means our partner’s unconscious mind is also hoping that we’ll be able to heal an old wound in them by meeting a need that is going to be challenging for us to meet.

So in this model, there’s a catch-22: both partners need the other to heal something in themselves before they will be capable of giving the other what they need to heal.  Susan needs lots of connection and holding before she can feel healed enough to give John lots of space and not feel abandoned, and John needs space and freedom before he can feel loved enough to not feel suffocated with so much connection with Susan.

Which happens first?  Does Susan heal John first by giving him ample space despite feeling abandoned, or does John heal Susan first by giving her ample connection despite feeling smothered?  Or, does John heal John and Susan heal Susan? 

For me, the answer is all of the above.  And it involves alternating among all four approaches.  Sometimes one partner will be uncomfortable by taking care of their partner at their own temporary expense, and other times they will switch places.  In order to be in the uncomfortable giving role, they need to do their own individual healing work, to learn to weather the periods of being in a caregiving role for the benefit of their partner’s inner child.

That’s the aim for a healthy and healing relationship.  In an unhealthy state, they will get caught in a pervasive power struggle over which person receives the healing need and which one provides the need.  I think that just about every serious couple goes through some version of a power struggle, and the stage beyond that struggle is sometimes called “mature love,” in which both partners see each other holistically and each understands their responsibility to the other to give the other corrective experiences that will be emotionally healing.  They must also see their responsibility to themselves to heal enough on their own to do this.  And that work is wonderful preparation that can be done while single, before partners even meet each other.

I take most psychotherapy theories, including this one, as useful but imperfect models.  Imago theory emphasizes partners healing each other over healing themselves.  And I think both are important, but healing oneself is something that can always be done, irrespective of being partnered or having a partner who is capable of meeting our needs or not. 

I think there is something to the idea that we’re attracted to what’s psychologically familiar to us, but I think attraction is complex and nuanced and emotional familiarity is just one factor in it.  But Imago theory has been very influential on my work as a therapist and coach, and my view and experience in intimate relationships.  If you’d like to learn more about it, I’d suggest the book called “Getting The Love You Want” by Harville Hendrix.

How to dissolve defenses

So now that we’ve considered what psychological wounds and their defenses are, how do we dissolve them?  The word dissolve has Latin origins that translate to something like, “loosen apart completely”.  I think of defenses as analogous to a solid that dissolves into a liquid solvent.  The solvent for defenses is what we might call our consciousness, awareness, presence, attention, or love.  You can choose whichever of those words resonates the most with you, or a different word.  The important idea is that all we have to do is stop acting out the defense automatically and unconsciously, and instead stop and place attention on it when it arises.  Our conscious awareness will, over time, dissolve, or “loosen apart” our defenses, like a solvent will dissolve a solid.  This process is typically uncomfortable, and can even be downright painful, but it’s also liberating and ultimately rewarding.

I remember a line that Michael Singer has said that stood out to me.  Paraphrasing, he said that trauma hurt a lot when it happened to us and became trapped inside of us, and so it’s going to hurt when it is released and comes out.

When we act out a defense or build it up further, we are continuing to keep trauma trapped inside of us.  This is another way of saying that we neglect the wound behind the defense that wants to be healed.

Dissolving defenses: step by step

My process for turning challenging interactions, either with a partner or while single, into opportunities to heal, goes something like this:

  1. Getting triggered.  We don’t need to seek out something that triggers us, because life will throw things at us that do over and over again.  Sometimes though, it is helpful to actively seek out small triggers as a sort of “training”, or practice, to find and strengthen wounded or weak areas.  This is sometimes called “systematic desensitization” or just “stepping out of our comfort zone”.  Examples would include someone with social anxiety going to a party, or someone who feels unattractive asking for date, or someone who struggles with body image going to the beach in a bathing suit.  Whether the trigger is sought after or comes on its own, or is big or small, we have two options.  We can impulsively handle it unconsciously, or we can slow down and handle it consciously.
  2. Stop.  This is important in order to respond to the emotional turbulence consciously.  I sometimes think of the phrase “remain like a log” that I think comes from Buddhism.  Not to repress anything, but just to refrain from prematurely ejecting from the opportunity at hand by using the defense to escape the discomfort.  Everyone has had the experience of speaking reactively and saying things in ways that we regretted later.  A long time ago it was a revelation to me that these kinds of rash responses were actually defenses.  Someone says something that upsets us, and rather than going straight to that emotion, we feel an urge to retort something back that gives us immediate relief, but just escalates strain in the interaction or the relationship.  Stopping and turning toward the emotion not only prevents that escalation, but also leads to our own insight and strength.
  3. Simply notice the emotion or pain that is caused by the trigger.  It’s typically some version or combination of anger, fear, shame, guilt, sadness, hurt, or grief.  It’s sometimes helpful to just label it initially, which can give a general idea of what the emotion might be trying to tell us.
  4. Notice the behavioral urge or impulse to gain relief and stop feeling the difficult emotion.  This is the defense that’s blocking access to the underlying wound.  Examples of defensive urges often fall under the broad categories of fight, flight, freeze, fawn, or faint.  More specific flavors of these could include lashing out when angry, placating or appeasing or seeking reassurance when worried about rejection or abandonment, walking away or self-isolating when hurt, dissociating or shutting down, becoming passive-aggressive or inauthentic, or turning toward addictive or compulsive behaviors.  Each of these behavior patterns will typically accompany an inner cognitive narrative that is also part of the defense structure.  These stories are typically negative thoughts about ourselves and about the other person or situation that we’re facing.
  5. Turn toward the emotional discomfort, which surrounds the wound beyond the defense.  By not engaging in the defense, we are bypassing it and getting to the vulnerable side of us beyond it.  This work can take the form of examining and even writing down the thoughts we’re having, but I think that most of the time it’s more helpful to first direct awareness toward the sensations in the body.  For probably most people, this feels unnatural and nonsensical, since most of us are not taught when young how or why we should do this.  And maybe that’s why the world is full of unhealed wounds and defenses.  Stay with the sensations, and notice that they probably range somewhere between slightly unpleasant to seemingly intolerable.  But they ARE tolerable, at least for some time and to some extent.
  6. Have faith and stay with it.  Faith is often thought of as having a conviction about something in the absence of evidence.  The more we practice working with defenses like this, the more evidence and first-hand experience we gain that it works.  But the less used to it we are, the more we have to just try it as an experiment to see if it yields results.  Usually we have to get pretty sick of our defenses before we find the motivation to do something as unpleasant as surrendering to and sitting with difficult body sensations without trying to make them go away.
  7. Observe thoughts without getting lost in them.  Most people suffer largely because we are too consumed and controlled by our thoughts, which ideally are tools we can use.  Attempting to think our way out of pain is a meta-defense – a common thread underlying almost all other defenses.  Why this is could be a whole essay in itself, but I believe that it’s both cultural and evolutionary.  Biology made humans into the big-brained species that survives largely through intellect, so thinking and survival go hand in hand, which is one explanation for why survival often feels so burdensome.  To add to the biological pressure to think, western culture and modern culture places a premium on doing and problem solving to master our natural environment and create convenience, abundance, and comfort.  And that’s great, but it’s a different aim from, and is in many ways at odds with, healing and being at peace in our own bodies on a planet that isn’t designed to be easeful and safe at all times.  All that to say, most people feel a strong pull back into thinking away from the body, and I suggest that any observations of thoughts, which can be useful, be made from a solid grounding in body sensation.  In other words, keep at least half of your attention in the somatic and emotional realm, so thoughts don’t abduct you away from the healing task at hand.  I sometimes think of an image of holding two magnets close to each other but not touching, so they are close enough to feel the dynamic force between them, but they are not so close that they are fused with each other.  I think that is the relationship we want to have with both our thoughts and feelings as we’re doing this defense dissolving work.
  8. Notice the shifts and transformations of the body sensations.  Ideally, if we can stay with the emotional pain and discomfort, it will crest like a wave and then subside.  Sometimes, with smaller triggers and situations, it only takes a few seconds for this to happen.  With more significant triggers, we might feel ripples for hours or longer.  Core wounds like these don’t heal in just one dose of presence.  They form over years of childhood, adolescent, and adult experience, and can take years to heal, and the scars may never fully go away.  But every session of this kind of practice is an application of a healing balm that will make a difference over time.  Any moment longer than our usual spent attending to our emotional pain is a dose of medicine and a repetition that will consolidate into skill with continued practice.  Some defense dissolution has occurred, if you, even for a brief time, refrained from ejecting back into comfort and numbness.  An analogy is how we will get a little bit stronger physically if we stay with a physical challenge even just a little longer than usual.
  9. Optionally, write down or consider any insights that arise.  Thinking can be an external defense, but deeper insights can be sprouts of new and recovered life that grow out of the ashes of trauma when fertilized by our conscious attention this way.  As we heal, we find the truth, that the defenses are not necessary, and that they hinder us.  We can only see this when it becomes true experientially.  That’s why insights usually arrive after we go through painful emotions, and not before.  It’s only after we feel them that we are transformed, and that transformation has a cognitive side to it, which is also important.  So spending a little time journaling about the trigger and what it brought up during the defense dissolution can accelerate healing and prepare us for the next trigger turbulence that we’ll hit later.
  10. Move on and maintain the boundary you have just strengthened between you and the defense.  Congratulations, you now have more proof that you don’t need the defense, and that your wound isn’t too serious that you have to limit yourself to an automatic reaction to it being abraded.  You’re now more free to respond consciously rather than react, because you are willing to place options and freedom above comfort and relief.  It may still be painful for a while to choose that higher path, that serves you best, but it’s now open to you.  Over time with practice, it’ll get easier and more natural to access your healthiest behaviors, like a limp that goes away over time as you challenge yourself to bear weight on the injured leg and strengthen it.
  11. Develop gratitude for triggers as opportunities for healing.  The more times we turn being triggered into opportunities to heal old wounds like this, the easier it gets to feel grateful for the adversity, which we come to see as a homing beacon that takes us to old psychological injuries so we can keep healing them with our love and awareness.  This approach is very good for relationships, because our partner will trust that their mistakes will not be the beginning of a battle, but of our personal growth.  When two partners both have this orientation toward their emotional pain, the odds are good that they’ll have a healthy relationship, since most uncomfortable interactions and insensitive blunders will be used for self-awareness and healing, rather than justifications for pressuring the other person to change.  They’ll both be looking first within themselves for their own vulnerabilities that they brought into the relationship, rather than at the other as a source of the pain.

Examples of dissolving defenses

I’ll give a couple of examples for the preceding process of dissolving defenses, that involve the two fundamental attachment needs of connection and separation.

Susan expected a check-in phone call from her partner John, who got distracted and forgot.  That was the trigger for her.  She notices strong feelings of hurt, rejection, anger, and fear.  She notices automatic negative stories about him and his insensitivity and lack of caring about her feelings and her vulnerabilities.  She notices urges to call and text him and criticize him and make it clear how insensitive he can be and how hurt she is and how much he needs to do better in the future.  But, she has the wisdom from past conflicts with him that such pursuing and blaming only backfires and makes him feel shame and anger and anxiety, and causes him to withdraw and be distant, which amplifies a negative cycle between them.  She also knows from her own individual healing work, that her feelings are amplified by her experience as a little girl being ignored and neglected too often by both of her parents, who were often lost in their own personal issues and unhealed wounds.  So when John doesn’t call when he says he will, that old broken toe gets stepped on and it hurts immensely. 

So, she does the courageous thing and doesn’t pick up her phone and gets in her comfortable chair under her favorite blanket and turns her awareness toward the difficult and painful emotions and body sensations she’s having without trying to escape them.  She notices tension in her head, tightness in her chest, and a restless numbness in her limbs.  On a scale of 1 to 10, it feels like an 8 – very unpleasant.  She notices images of her when she’s a little girl, maybe 6 years old, in her room, alone, feeling sad and anxious, her parents out somewhere with friends.  She notices fears that John will leave her one day and she won’t be okay, but she keeps most of her attention on the emotion and the somatic experience that she’s having.  She notices urges to go watch TV and eat, but she decides to stay with the difficult experience, trusting that it has a healing benefit, that she’s giving herself the love and connection that she wishes she was getting from someone else right now.  Minute by minute, she courageously faces the feelings.  After some time, she notices they’ve diminished from an 8 to a 4, and she gets up and takes a walk and does some productive work. 

Not too long after that, John calls and apologizes, explaining that he got tied up in something legitimate and got distracted.  “I know you hate it when I do that” he says, worried about a potential criticism coming his way.  But Susan replies, “it’s okay honey, I understand, I’m okay.”  John thanks her for being understanding and tells her he’s looking forward to seeing her soon when he gets home.  Susan is feeling strong and proud of herself and looking forward to connecting with her partner.

On a different occasion, Susan says to John, with an edge of accusation in her voice, while feeling rejected and in a down mood, “you don’t touch me enough.”  This triggers John, who feels suddenly tense, irritated, and hurt.  He notices an urge to mutter an excuse or even walk away, something he has tended to do to avoid conflict since he was a teenager.  He has thoughts about Susan being too needy and demanding, and about himself never measuring up or satisfying her no matter how hard he tries to give her the affection she wants.  But he knows, having been with Susan for years, that distancing himself from her at a time like this just triggers her and makes her become even more anxious.  He also knows from his own healing work that he grew up watching his parents in a volatile and explosive marriage, and in therapy he had the insight that he developed the defense of back turning as a way of not getting involved, and not taking on the combative defenses of his parents.  He resists the urge to seek relief by going off to his office, and instead asks Susan to give him a minute.  He stays in the room and sits down in his chair and closes his eyes, and takes some deep breaths.  He notices the feelings of shame and fear take shape in the form of a sinking feeling in his gut, tension in his jaw, and a general sense of being emotionally clenched.  He places his attention on those sensations and, over the next couple of minutes, his body relaxes.  Susan is watching from a distance, appreciative that he’s not arguing or defending himself, and she can recognize him doing his own healing work on the spot.  As his body moves out of the flight response, John watches his thoughts change from, “why can’t she appreciate me more?” to “she needs a hug, she’s just asking in her own way for connection.  I can give her that.  I want to give her that.”  He recognizes that his broken toe was stepped on and that, while she didn’t ask him in the most tactful way, she was expressing a legitimate need from him as her partner.  He gets up and gives her a hug, and they both enjoy a sweet moment of connection.

While these examples of healing work took place in the context of a relationship, I consider this type of work to fit more into the category of individual healing rather than the category of hard work together, because in both examples, neither Susan nor John were looking to the other person to do anything differently for them.  They both took full responsibility for their own “broken toes” or “unfinished business” from their childhoods and bypassed the defense and went straight to the wound and spent time attending to it with their healing awareness.  So that healing came from their own self-love.  And that resulted in the other responding with love later.  But they swam to shore themselves, rather than being rescued by their partner.  Sometimes a partner can rescue us, which is beautiful when it happens, but I don’t recommend depending on it, because when they can’t, we tend to pull them under the water with us.  A couple is strongest and safest in the ocean of relationship when both partners continuously work on learning to be the best emotional swimmers they can be.

Dissolving defenses while single

There was a time when I was worried that I needed to be in a relationship in order to become a good partner, but I needed to become a good partner before I could be in a good relationship.  This felt like a catch-22 to me, similar to the dilemma of needing work experience to get a job, and needing a job to get work experience.

Now, I think that, while it’s easier in some ways to heal while in a relationship, in other ways it can be more challenging.

When partnered, there’s always the temptation to prematurely go to our partner to eject from the process of looking inward, which isn’t an option when single.  We can of course still distract ourselves with other people or activities, but the obvious one of trying to “work things out” with our partner, before we’ve really felt through our own stuff, isn’t available.  I think this is why singlehood is often held up as a time to really cultivate self love and a healthy relationship with our selves and our aloneness.  So in that way, it’s an advantage for doing our individual work, because we’re walking the world on a more individual basis and standing on our own two feet can create strong legs. 

Singlehood can be like a “retreat” from the world of romantic and sexual intimacy, similar to how a silent meditation retreat might be held in an austere and plain setting, to purposefully tune out all the external distractions from everyday life and encourage contemplative silence.

Another reason that becoming good at relating and being in relationship is not necessarily a catch-22 is that we can practice most aspects of relationships through friendship.  In fact, in some ways it’s actually easier to practice being a good partner with friends, without the sexual and romantic complications, which can draw us toward someone for more of a chemical pleasure rather than a deeper affinity.

Good romantic partners and enduring lovers are sometimes called “passionate friends”, because a true respect and affinity for the other’s character and personality underlies the sexual and romantic layer.  Friendship helps us better understand which is which, so when we meet the next sexy person that we want to date, we can better know if the friendship foundation is possible, discerning it more clearly from the romantic and sexual chemistry.

When we feel close to a friend, it’s often easier to practice the other types of love, like what the Greeks called “philia”, “agape”, “pragma”, and “ludus”.  Agape is unconditional, selfless love.  Philia is a bond based on respect, loyalty, and shared values.  Pragma is pragmatic and long-term commitment for mutual need fulfillment.  And Ludus is lighthearted playful love.  Practicing these, without the erotic love, “eros”, can help us become better at friendship –  the bedrock of a nourishing relationship – by specifically practicing friendship.

Solid friendship can also be a confidence boost because, if someone is engaged in a friendship with us, we know it’s not due to the sometimes more superficial attractors that create erotic love.  For women, it can be confidence building to know that her friends aren’t investing their time and energy into her due to her body or looks, and a man might feel similarly reassured that his friends aren’t hanging around with him just for his money or status.  We can feel loved knowing that our deeper and more central qualities are being appreciated in friendship, which can be great for our inner-confidence that we can bring into a relationship that has the “eros” component down the line.

The alchemy of loneliness

The process for dissolving defenses while single is basically the same as it is while partnered.  The difference is that, while partnered, the triggers that abrade our wounds and activate our defenses often come from our partner’s behavior, whereas while single we get triggered by other things – often notably by the fact that we’re NOT partnered.

We might see a friend or a stranger holding hands or in an intimate embrace, or tell us they’re going to chill at home and watch a movie with their “boo” on Friday night, and find ourselves thinking, “Why not me?  Where is MY person?”  Loneliness ensues.

I remember fairly long periods of singlehood in my younger adulthood, in which I felt simultaneously unready to get back in the saddle and date again, but also longing to hold someone and be held, and sometimes feeling a sense of drowning in that agonizing longing, especially in later evenings and on weekends when work wasn’t a distraction from those feelings.

I wish that I knew then as much as I do know about how to skillfully work with those feelings.  Rather than pick up any number of activities to try to feel better – which was a defense – I would have practiced facing the feelings without resistance, letting them wash over me and trusting that “the way out is through”, and that I needed to experience the discomfort of the wounds with my attention in order to heal them and dissolve the defenses.  I would have spent longer periods of time just attending to my somatic sensations, building confidence that they were merely unpleasant energies that needed to pass through me with the help of my focused presence on them.  And I’m sure I would have been more welcoming to social and other challenges, knowing that I had the safety net of emotional surrender to transform any triggering disappointments or wound abrasions into opportunities for healing.

It was during my first serious foray into therapy, that I began to get exposed to this approach.  I think it’s great that more people are tending to get therapy at younger ages so they can start healing from trauma earlier.

It was around that time that I started journaling, which I see as a valuable component of dissolving defenses.  I see journaling as a way to slow down, contain, and get distance from the defensive and distorted stories that arise when we get swept up in emotional pain.  I think my most therapeutic journal entries have come at a time when I was feeling strong emotion, integrating thoughts with those feelings and somatic sensations.

I’m not saying that all loneliness comes from psychological or attachment wounds.  I think much of it is natural and biological – an evolutionary adaptation that drove us into relationship and reproduction.  But I do think that a large component of loneliness for many people is a pervasive uneasiness and fear of not being enough, not being lovable.  The seriously painful type of loneliness isn’t just about being alone in the moment, but about a subconscious narrative that the aloneness won’t end, and it won’t end because we’re not desirable or worthy.  That kind of loneliness is very hard, and I think it is a sort of psychological attachment wound, and it’s very common in the world today.  And for complex reasons, that “core wound of the heart” as it’s been called, gets passed on intergenerationally.  Parents can generally only make a child feel intrinsically lovable to about the extent that they felt intrinsically lovable.  The good news is that by doing our individual healing work, we can pick up where our parents left off in disrupting the intergenerational pattern of trauma.

What inner work looks like from the outside

Dissolving defenses and attending to wounds is an internal process.  Often, it’s helpful to do that kind of work while not also doing other activities, because external activities can take attention away from the internal processes of resisting defensive urges and focusing on difficult emotions and body sensations.  The typical image of putting full attention on this inward process is something like sitting cross-legged or lying down with eyes closed, with minimal sensory input or distractions.

In my experience, it’s not exactly an inverse relationship  between being still physically and being present emotionally.  I think that, for many people, it’s difficult to remain present while being still for very long, especially if the defense thoughts are strong.  Our thinking mind doesn’t have an off switch, so it’s liable to turn on no matter how many external switches we turn off and no matter what physical posture we assume.  Some mindfulness teachers might say that it just takes more practice, and to start with smaller meditative sessions and increase the duration gradually.  And that might be the best approach for many people much of the time.  On my own path, it’s been helpful to experiment with different combinations of inner work and outer activity.  Sometimes I feel more productive doing inner work while also doing some mindful activity physically, than I do while sitting or lying still.

It’s easy to think of examples of being engaged in intense physical activity and being completely in the moment.  High intensity sports like rock climbing or white water kayacking or downhill skiing, or high endurance sports like distance running or triathalons, and countless other examples, can get us “in the flow” and completely out of our minds (in a good way).  In my experience, that kind of presence or flow, while beneficial and often blissful, doesn’t allow much space for emotions, at least not the ones that surround our wounding that gets in the way of relationships.

Physically intense or demanding experiences can get us extremely grounded in our bodies and in our immediate surroundings, which can be powerful training for concentration and attentional discipline.  They can hone our ability to maintain focus on a particular experience, strengthening our concentration mental “muscles”, and later that focus can be applied to non-reactivity and holding emotional pain.  But I personally have found it hard to simultaneously sit with painful emotions to the extent that the activity I’m doing is either physically or cognitively demanding.  I enjoy long distance running, and I’ve noticed that during stressful events in my life, I would automatically stop to walk more often.  When I would check -in with myself about why this was, the answer I found was that my emotional heart needed the energy that would normally go into the run.

To integrate inner emotional work with the running, I started taking conscious breaks to find a spot to just sit, close my eyes, and be with my breath and body sensations and feelings.  When I felt more relaxed and light, I’d get back to the run.  I wouldn’t get as far those days distance-wise, but I’d make more progress in my emotional healing and soul work. I think that the beginning of a run, with the deep and rhythmic breathing, and the movement and activation of energy, helps lay the groundwork for a concentrated set of working through feeling during the breaks.

Running just happens to be one of my own personal favorite mindfulness activities, but just about any vigorous physical activity could be alternated with quiet stillness aimed toward allowing emotions.  It’s common for people to get on their phones or otherwise distract their attention while they recover between sets of resistance training.  Another way to spend that time could be to alternate the exertion with mini-meditations, during which we turn attention solely to the body and invite any emotions to arise.

I think that lower-intensity activities can be quite complementary to healing emotional wounds.  Slow walking, yoga, mindful eating, and mindful cleaning, were all incorporated into a silent meditation retreat I attended.  Sitting and slow walking meditations were alternated, almost given the same amount of time.  I’ve found that repetitive tasks that require my hands, but not my planning and thinking mind, can pair well with emotional processing.  If I am working with wood for example, the designing and measuring and cutting stages are going to take most of my concentration to not make mistakes.  But the relatively mindless stages of sanding and painting leave plenty of awareness for emotional processing, and have a grounding effect that keeps me in the here and now, sometimes more than sitting or lying down with eyes closed.  For a while I was sewing my own backpacking gear, and some simple projects, like making my 20th stuff sack, provided just enough activity to keep me very concentrated in the moment, including on my body and emotions.  Learning a new song on a musical instrument will take most of our concentration, but strumming a familiar and automatic chord progression, that’s programmed into our muscle memory, could be a good container for processing feeling.  Anything that we’ve mastered automatically, like washing dishes, driving down a familiar highway, or crocheting another few hundred stitches, could help ground us just enough to enhance the practice of opening up to emotions while not getting hijacked by a train of thought.

The interdependence of the three pillars

So which of these three pillars of relationship success – hard work together, compatibility, or individual healing work – is the most important one?  In short, I would say it depends on the couple, and it’s whichever one needs the most attention for the specific relationship.  The weakest leg of the three-legged stool.  We pay attention to that which needs fixing or healing, because attention, which some call the purest form of love, tends to fix and heal.

If two people are compatible and spending a lot of energy in communication and negotiation, and still having trouble, it might be that they’d benefit from each going to some individual therapy, or dedicating more of themselves to other pursuits, friendships and healing practices, to help them face their individual wounds and protective defenses.  If someone has done a lot of such individual work, and is also putting work into the relationship, and it’s still not working, then there might be a compatibility problem.  And, if there’s high compatibility and both partners have done a lot of individual healing work, they may need to delve into healthy conflict, compromise, and authentic communication together to better understand each other and meet each other’s needs.

All relationships have all three legs of the stool to some extent.  All three of these legs can lie on a spectrum between very weak and very strong.  The stool as a whole will be as strong as the synergistic support of the three legs working together.  The weakest legs will be the most likely failure points, and stronger legs can compensate to some extent for the weakness of the others.

And, all three of these facets are intertwined.  How thoroughly we heal individually will influence how well we can hear our partner’s difficult feelings and needs, which will enhance how well we can work together to resolve conflicts and make sure both sides’ needs are met.  Healing as individuals will also make our functional compatibility increase, as differences are more likely to be complementary when both partners are healthy versions of themselves, as opposed to in a state of hurt and wounding.  And greater compatibility means less wide chasms to cross and daunting differences to overcome, which makes working together more attainable.

First love is blind

When I dated my first girlfriend as a teenager, I didn’t know what was most important in making a relationship work.  I didn’t know what kind of compatibility mattered.  And I had zero awareness of the idea that I might have defenses from wounds that would block my ability to give and receive love.  I was simply twitterpated like Thumper and Bambi, and I wanted it to last forever.  That was not a great strategy of course, although it’s the norm for most adolescents.

When that ended, I assumed I’d simply chosen poorly — in other words I chalked it up to 100% incompatibility, not fully appreciating that I’d consensually and unconsciously chosen someone who could not have met my needs, that I had plenty of my own relational blockages, and that we certainly weren’t intentionally focused on working through problems together.  That’s how people learn, become wiser, and increase their odds for success in love.  We start off in life usually with the default assumption that it should just work and that there’s nothing seriously impaired about us, and that if it doesn’t work, well, it was just their fault.

But after repeating the same relationship or similar relationships with different people, we’re forced to look more at our role, how at peace we are inside ourselves, how we show up in love with another fallible human being, and to what extent our criteria for mate selection is actually working for us.

Trying too hard

There was long period when my predominant view was that relationship success was mainly about putting in the work, together and individually.

This had a lot to do with going through marriage and family therapist training.  Marriage and family therapy is first and foremost about repairing ruptured relationships and healing the wounds of the individuals in them.  People don’t become therapists because they love the idea of telling couples, “you two aren’t compatible, I’m not sure if this can work”, and that’s not what clients generally want to hear.  They want to hear, “You can fix this.  It’s going to take work and commitment, but you can change and become happy together, if you heal your wounds and learn to love each other more skillfully.”

And for most couples who enter therapy, that is probably true.  My current view is that the field of psychotherapy has some bias toward “making it work” by putting in the work, and downplays the importance of compatibility as the foundation for a healthy relationship.

I think that I also learned through observation as a kid that leaving was not the answer, and that sticking it out no matter how hard it got was the right way.

And I think that my innate disposition and values have steered me toward loyalty and really giving it my all when it came to relationships.  I’ve always wanted a secure, monogamous, nourishing partnership with the love of my life, and letting go of that hope with a particular woman was always hard for me.

In one relationship, I had tried to communicate and compromise and stretch myself to accommodate the other person.  I went to individual therapy, and we even went to some sessions together, but it still ended after about 5 years.  I think the biggest factor was differences in our goals around having a family, and perhaps some other incompatibilities.  In retrospect, I think it’s safe to say that we both tried too hard for about the second half of that relationship, and would have been wiser to throw in the towel at that point.

Time to heal

After that relationship ended, I solo backpacked on the Pacific Crest Trail for 100 days and 1600 miles over two summers.  I watched mile after mile of sacred nature pass by my field of vision on meandering paths, as I let my whole body and nervous system process and integrate my life experiences, from childhood and family emotional attachments, to my adult relationships.

Sometimes I would listen to audiobooks on dating and relationships and sexuality, and feel big positive and negative emotions arise in response to various notions that challenged some of my core beliefs.  Sometimes I would dictate long and irrational journal entries out loud into a voice recorder app, often addressed to significant mentors.  But most of the time I just walked in silence and took in the natural landscape, which varied from serenely mundane to awesomely breathtaking, while I felt my nervous system and body gradually improve it’s ability to stay in a calm and relaxed state for longer and longer periods of time.  Through the safety of a wilderness path, surrounded by trees and birds and squirrels and flowers, with only one job – to put one foot in front of the other – for most of the day, I was teaching my body to trust in life.  To expect safety and peace as the default.  To know that I was okay, that I was content within myself, that I didn’t need a relationship to make life a joyful experience overall.  I was working toward absolving my future partner of the perceived burden of rescuing me from myself, so that she could focus on keeping her own self in equilibrium.

I didn’t finish this processing in two mere summers, and like everyone, I’m still on my journey.  But that time walking alone in the wilderness did help me become became far more solid in myself and comfortable in my own body, for times when standing alone and being strong in a relationship is needed.  And it was just one singlehood pause I’ve taken to integrate what I learned from a particular relationship and to work through yet another layer of self-protection that kept my heart from being fully open.

Heartbreak catalysts

When our emotional hearts are re-injured as adults, it tends to accompany some subsequent, deeper healing.  A breakup can be the impact that makes us realize there was a wound before we met the person.  Perhaps it was the wound that made us look for love with this particular person who we subconsciously knew would confirm our illusory fears about ourselves by being unable to meet our needs, or the wound that kept us with that person, despite it not being mutually beneficial…the wound that made an absence of love seem normal and unavoidable.

After the dust settles and we get clarity, it can be like having a heavy foot lifted off of our broken toe.  It’s a relief, and also a wake up call.  “Oh!  I have a broken toe!”  All these years we had a broken toe and didn’t know it.  It’s only when it’s stepped on that we become aware of it, and it’s only then that we can seriously begin the work of healing it.  And we may realize that our ex also had a broken toe, and that we were also unconsciously stepping on theirs.

If we don’t take much time between relationships to do this work, the odds are higher that we’ll make the same mistakes with the next person.  At the same time, there’s such a thing as taking too much time off and avoiding another relationship out of fear of being hurt, or perpetually “not ready”, or not healed enough.

Time single is not synonymous with healing or self-development, and being in a relationship is not incompatible with healing and self-development.  Singlehood and being partnered do tend to facilitate different parts of our development, and so they’re both valuable.  And people often gravitate towards one or the other as a comfort zone.

Being in a relationship can provide great material to work with and use to confront our individual wounds.  The risk is that we over-attribute our pain to our partner and put pressure on them to relieve distress that we incorrectly feel they are the source of, rather than turning inward and using the distress to work on our issues (if those are the primary reason we’re hurting).  When the problem isn’t compatibility, or a lack of hard work as a couple, what determines progress is how much we look within for the root causes of our emotional pain, rather than at our partner.

Feeling into what works

For me, it took meeting someone very compatible to realize how incompatible I was with some previous partners.  My girlfriend and I do occasionally disappoint each other, but the basic alignment of temperments and shared goals has always felt pretty easeful.  And that resonsance incentivizes us both to work to have a great journey together, and to continue to work on ourselves, knowing that we’re stable foundations for each other.

We started out getting to know each other relatively slowly.  The more time we spent together, the more we liked each other.  I could tell she was genuinely grateful to have found me, and I saw great qualities in her that made me respect her.  And the chemistry we have gradually grew out of feeling at ease with each other, without anxiety or distrust to block our attraction to each other.  And the love is still growing.

It’s tempting to simplify the success of our relationship to the single pillar of compatibility.  But I don’t fully understand why it works, because why it works is always complex and, to some extent, mysterious.  We both love to walk in nature.  We both love to meditate and drink tea together.  We love asking each other how we’re feeling and what we’re thinking, and listening with interest to the answers that we give each other.  We love cooking together, and working on projects together, and sometimes we find new things we like doing together.  We marvel sometimes at how beautiful our connection is.

We’ve both developed empathy over our lives from going through significant challenges.  We’re both introspective and self-reflective people who have spent a lot of time alone, getting to know ourselves and finding peace within ourselves.  We both  have separate spiritual, mental, and physical practices that we devote time to independently.  We both put in work every day to try to give each other what the other needs emotionally.  We both realize that we need more interpersonal connection than just each other, and that we both need space to have friendships.

We’re also both unfinished and ever-evolving people, and we both see the relationship as, among many things, an opportunity to grow our self-awareness and work on ourselves through the inevitable bumps of imperfection in the road.

All three of the relationship pillars are present, and each of them enforces the other two.  Had we met earlier in life before we’d done as much individual healing, it might not have worked.  If we weren’t as energetically and interpersonally compatible, it might not work despite all the healing we’ve done.  And if we didn’t put effort into tending to our relationship garden every day, it wouldn’t work either.

We’ve both had to learn in our own ways, sometimes through pain, about what leads to a nourishing relationship.  I hope that some of that learning has been passed on to anyone who needs it through these words.  Thanks for listening.

Leave a Reply