Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Hard Lesson of Relationship


"We are wounded in relationship, and we need to heal in relationship."
~Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

When I read that just now, I think I got it for the very first time. I know that this is the premise in many forms of therapy, that the therapist can be a surrogate for the acceptance and support that was lacking during the original trauma. And that through reliving the experience in this new supportive and nurturing environment, healing can occur. That is, in part, the approach that my therapist sought to use with me during the last year.

Even more important, however, is the realization that we choose partners who will poke at those places in us where we are tender and bruised. Relationship, at this level, can be a vehicle for healing some of the places we were wounded as vulnerable young children. In fact, Harville Hendrix created an entire therapeutic system around this premise, called Imago Therapy. Here is a brief description from the Imago Relationship Therapy website:

Imago Relationship Theory teaches that romantic love, which you experience at the beginning of your relationship, is the way our unconscious seeks to restore the feeling of joyful aliveness we felt as a young child. We're attracted to people who emotionally resemble our primary caretakers, because we unknowingly believe they can provide these emotional needs. We call this "finding our Imago match." Imago is the Latin word for image, the subconscious image of our perfect partner.

However when we choose a partner who is our "Imago match" they resemble both the positive AND the negative qualities of our primary caretakers. It's these negative qualities that create confusion and disillusionment when we realize that they are not able to meet our deepest emotional needs.
One thing I'm not quite convinced of is that we choose a partner who resembles our primary caretakers. I would argue that we choose partners based on our idealized caregivers -- the ones we never had -- but that they bring with them the shadow elements of the caregivers we did have. It's a subtle distinction, and it may just be my own case, but I suspect that we are unconsciously seeking a partner who can take care of us in the ways we want to be taken care of.

This sounds pathological given our current emphasis on being autonomous individuals and our rejection of infantile needs as the foundation for any aspect of our lives. But that inner child who craves a competent caretaker is also the source of our vitality and joy. This is why we are so happy in the early stages of a relationship. The inner child feels like s/he has finally found a caring playmate who will respect his/her needs and feelings. It feels wonderful.

But in projecting those needs onto the new partner, the psyche also projects the shadow stuff that is connected to it in our minds. When the "honeymoon period" ends in six to twelve months, as it will, we are left with a person we are deeply bonded with who can drive us crazy at times. This person also has the unique ability to poke at our softest, most tender places -- the places we are wounded.

This is the hard lesson of relationship -- that through this intensely physical, emotional, and spiritual connection we are meant to heal our wounding and become more whole individuals. Our primary romantic relationship is not the source of our suffering when we experience conflict, it is the mirror of our suffering.

Through our relationship with another human being who genuinely cares for us, we have the opportunity to replay some of the conflicts from our formative years that have been the source of pain and suffering for much of our lives. And in replaying these conflicts now, as an adult with more resources available, we have the opportunity to heal those wounds through loving attention both from our partner, who has to be playing along for this to work, and from our adult self.

This is another way that subpersonality theory can be useful. Hal and Sidra Stone, authors of Embracing Each Other, believe that we all have a vulnerable child within us who will never grow up. All the subpersonalities we develop arise to take care of and protect that vulnerable child. Through relationship, we have an opportunity to relax some of those defenses and allow that child to be more joyful and playful. Without that childlike energy in our relationships -- and the vulnerability that it brings -- our relationships are doomed to failure.

This is the hard lesson for me -- I must be vulnerable with Kira for our relationship to thrive and grow. As far as my subpersonalities are concerned, I would rather be waterboarded by the CIA, have my fingernails removed with pliers, and be shot in the head with a BB gun until the cumulative damage kills me than be vulnerable. And even then, I think I might be resistant.

But I will not lose the best partner I have ever known because I am afraid to touch that vulnerable place within me. This is when it is crucial to have some observer self that can say, "Whoa, hold on now. You won't die -- it's only your ego that thinks you will die." The ego (and all the subpersonalities that it works with) thinks that if it allows the vulnerability and pain of that inner child to come to the surface that it will literally be overwhelmed to the point of annihilation. The ego truly believes it will die.

But it won't die. The emotions that come up will be hard, they will feel like they're never going to recede, and the pain will feel like it is happening right now instead of 30+ years ago. But it will fade away as soon as it is released. I know this, and yet I fear the process.

But Kira is a compassionate and empathic partner. She is capable of poking at those soft places (unintentionally, of course) until something in me ruptures. Then she is there when the pain comes up and can offer the witnessing and support that my inner child never received. I know she can do this because she has. Yet I dread the prospect much more than I dread my own death. But not as much as I dread losing her.

And that's the bottom line.

["Inner Child"]

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