When couples know their enneagram personality types they get deep insights into their relationship dynamics. First and foremost, I see the enneagram as a system for understanding, appreciating, and managing differences between people in relationship. Obviously this has profound implications for relationship work, and it’s become a cornerstone for my work with many couples.
If you’ve worked with me personally in the past few years, then we’ve probably talked about the enneagram together. If you have not worked with me, but have been following my writing, then it’s time for an introduction to this powerful system for self-awareness and personal growth.
I’m going to provide a brief introduction to the enneagram, and then give you links to some of my favourite enneagram resources, including the Enneagram Global Summit online event that is happening right now (it’s free, and really worthwhile).
1 THE REFORMER The Rational, Idealistic Type: Principled, Purposeful, Self-Controlled, and Perfectionistic
2 THE HELPER The Caring, Interpersonal Type: Demonstrative, Generous, People-Pleasing, and Possessive
3 THE ACHIEVER The Success-Oriented, Pragmatic Type: Adaptive, Excelling, Driven, and Image-Conscious
4 THE INDIVIDUALIST The Sensitive, Withdrawn Type: Expressive, Dramatic, Self-Absorbed, and Temperamental
5 THE INVESTIGATOR The Intense, Cerebral Type: Perceptive, Innovative, Secretive, and Isolated
6 THE LOYALIST The Committed, Security-Oriented Type: Engaging, Responsible, Anxious, and Suspicious
7 THE ENTHUSIAST The Busy, Fun-Loving Type: Spontaneous, Versatile, Distractible, and Scattered
8 THE CHALLENGER The Powerful, Dominating Type: Self-Confident, Decisive, Willful, and Confrontational
9 THE PEACEMAKER The Easygoing, Self-Effacing Type: Receptive, Reassuring, Agreeable, and Complacent
On the surface, the enneagram is a personality typing system that offers us nine primary “types”, and then many sub-types depending on how deeply you want to go into it. One of the things I love about it is that it is very accessible for beginners, and it also has enough depth and complexity to keep you engaged for a lifetime.
One of my enneagram teachers (and a leading scholar), Russ Hudson, notes that people are attracted to the enneagram initially because they see themselves mirrored in it. We find ourselves reflected in the type descriptions, and there’s an immediate and satisfying sense of being validated or being “seen”. And when a type description matches our partner, we feel amazed to see them so accurately described!
But beyond this initial intrigue, there’s a deeper challenge waiting. Once we discover our type, we (hopefully) become compelled to WORK with our type. Each of the different enneagram types is a kind of map for how we keep ourselves stuck in a particular pattern. Our personality type is simultaneously a beautiful gift, and a prison of sorts. Working with the enneagram helps us understand the gifts of our type, and can help us liberate ourselves from the limits that our type places upon us.
Interest in the enneagram has exploded in the past five years, and this popularization has had predictably mixed results, including a fair bit of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. To save you time and get you on the right track, I’ve curated a collection of my favourite enneagram teachers and resources for you here. Although there are some differing opinions and approaches within the enneagram community, the list below only includes the most well-respected people and organizations working with the enneagram.
Enneagram Global Summit (The Shift Network) – This is happening right now. It’s free, and it features an incredible selection of the world’s leading enneagram teachers and collaborators; the best of the best. I especially liked the conversation with Dan Siegel on the intersection between the enneagram and interpersonal neurobiology. (Recordings will probably be available.)
RussHudson.com – Russ Hudson is one of the world’s leading enneagram scholars, teachers, and authors. I recommend his seminal book “The Wisdom of the Enneagram”. Watch the short video of him describing each type; it is very sweet and gives you an immediate sense of his style.
Many of the clients I work with report experiencing some sort of anxiety in their lives, which makes sense, as anxiety is considered to be a fairly normal part of living in this world. Normal or not, most people want less of it. Clinicians use specific markers to determine a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder (there are several types). An anxiety disorder basically means that you have more of it than is considered normal.
Anxiety is physiological, emotional, and cognitive (body, heart, mind)
Anxiety is conventionally viewed as a cognitive or “thought” disorder, but I have suggested elsewhere that anxiety is simultaneously rooted in the body, and that it can be approached through the body via nervous system self-regulation (and co-regulation) techniques. It’s also worth adding that anxiety is emotional as well as cognitive and physiological, and I believe that emotion needs to be met on its own terms (more on that another time; much to say, including why do we continue to mislabel emotional health as “mental health”? Why don’t we address emotional health for what it is, directly? So strange, and yet entirely consistent with a head-centric culture that minimizes feeling and heart-intelligence.)
Anxiety… Grief in disguise?
Here I want to make a proposition – not a definitive or universal claim about anxiety – but rather a part of the picture or piece of the puzzle: Anxiety can be a result of unexpressed grief. Unexpressed grief can become anxiety. Unexpressed grief can be carried in the body, in the heart (the metaphorical or “feeling” heart), and in the mind (mentally, as thoughts), and over time this unexpressed grief comes to take the shape of what we call “anxiety”. In other words, anxiety might be grief in disguise.
We might not instinctively think of grief and anxiety side by side. Many of us don’t tend to think of grief much at all. Instead, depression gets most of the attention, probably because it fits more snugly into categorical and diagnostic parameters. Grief, not so much. For a while the experts worked with a model that tried to fit grief into tidy stages, but that project was largely discarded. Grief is too unwieldy. Too wild. Untameable. Also, grief is distinctly feeling. Depression, on the other hand, can be squeezed into the “mental health” box. Here’s an interesting insight about another difference between grief and depression: Depression disconnects us from life. Grief connects us to life.
Grief connects us to life
Grief doesn’t connect us to the parts of life we favour or prefer, but it very much connects us to an essential and unescapable (and, come to think about it, anxiety-provoking) part of life: Loss.
Grief is loss. Pretty simple equation. We grieve what we lose. We don’t grieve everything we lose, but when we grieve it is because we have lost something; something we cared about, something we loved. So here we can see that grief is distinctly connected to love. No love, no grief. No grief, no love. We grieve the loss of people we love, relationships we love, even an identity or idea or fantasy or way of life that we have loved and lost.
Grief demands expression
Grief is expressed through the body, somatically, through an action, most notably through weeping (for some reason I prefer “weeping” over “crying” in this case; there’s a different kind of connotation or significance, and language matters), but also through shaking or trembling, writhing, wailing, screaming, fists pounding, contortions of the body, even vomiting.
When we treat grief with the reverence and attention it deserves, it can also be expressed through language, through writing or journaling, through poetry, through talking or conversation. In more traditional cultures, grief is expressed through songs, through prayer, and through ritual or ceremony. When we lack these kinds of expression grief can turn into violence, self harm, hatred, substance abuse and harmful excesses. Denied or repressed, grief can also become depression, or, as I am proposing here, anxiety.
Some writers, leaders, and activists – Francis Weller and Stephen Jenkinson come to mind – suggest that grief must be expressed within the container of community, in the company of others, in order to be properly metabolized. Other thinkers on the subject, like Thomas Moore, take a more private introspective approach (Moore was a monk after all).
Grief is an ongoing initiation
In my professional life I have witnessed how grief, expressed or unexpressed, plays a role in how relationships unfold. In my personal life – I am now in my fiftieth year – I have discovered firsthand the inescapable hand of grief. The longer we live, the more we lose; the more we lose, the more we are put in touch with the grief energy. Grief is an ongoing initiation; we are initiated into the realm of grief through time and through aging. Grief comes with age, and it ages us. It comes with maturity, and it matures us.
As a slight aside, I want to offer another idea about grief while we’re on the subject, just to make things even more interesting: Grief is not the opposite of joy. In fact, grief and joy are neighbours. They’re not really even antagonistic neighbours. They might have a somewhat uneasy relationship, but ultimately they affirm each other.
Back to my original proposition… Unexpressed grief becomes anxiety. I share this idea because many people are perplexed by their anxiety. They struggle to know the cause or the source, to understand it. I invite you to give this idea some consideration. Entertain it. Investigate it. I offer it here humbly, that it might support you on your journey.
All My Best, Justice Schanfarber
(Read the comments on this post on facebook – click here. I especially like the idea offered by one reader that grief must be “tended”.)
The inner child – That part of you that requires care
The core wounds and perennial hurts of the inner child eventually surface in virtually every long term relationship. When examined honestly, these pains often reveal a doubt about oneself – about our basic goodness, worthiness, value, or desirability.
The inner child might be experienced as a visual image, as a memory, as a dream, or even as a feeling in your body. However they are experienced, the significance of the inner child is that they are that part of you which requires care. When the child shows up, it is because the opportunity is ripe to be gentle and caring with yourself.
When the image or experience of the inner child appears we are presented with a choice… Do we reject them, or do we embrace them? Do we turn away, or do we turn toward?
Interestingly, both options hurt. There is no pain-free choice. But I think you’ll find that the quality of pain is different in each case. Rejecting the inner child tends to produce a hardening or numbing or buzzing kind of pain. Embracing the inner child produces a more tender kind of pain, one that might break us open.
This is a reconciling or reckoning, and a healing opportunity for the great many of us who have not been particularly gentle or kind with ourselves in the past. For this reason, the appearance of the inner child can be upsetting, reminding us of our abandonment of our own tender heart. To face the truth of our own self-abandonment is painful but important, it is the bittersweet first step to turning toward our own heart, and healing the rifts within.
These inner rifts, by the way, are commonly projected onto our partner in relationship; befriending the inner child goes a long way in creating more loving and harmonious partnerships.
The idea of an “inner child” gives us a personified, concrete image of our vulnerable self, our innocent self, our tender self, and it places this self outside of, or separate from, the “adult” self that we identify with in our day to day lives. In concept and in practice this allows one part of self to engage with and care for another; you might have actual conversations with the inner child, or write to them. As one client astutely observed, “You become both giver and receiver”.
This experience of one part of self caring for another part of self, of becoming both giver and receiver, marks an important psycho-emotional emergence in a person. It’s an experience worth embracing, and an ability worth intentionally developing.
The hurt or frightened or misunderstood or needy child hopefully elicits feelings of care within us, and helps us turn our heart toward our self, but the opposite can also be true.
Encountering the inner child can activate feelings of shame, rejection, judgement, denial, even rage. I’m speaking from personal experience here; I am someone who rejected my own tender self for decades. I can’t sufficiently describe the pain this causes, but if you have done the same, then you know, and I am so sorry for your suffering. I did eventually begin to befriend and soften to my inner child, and that relationship continues.
In the early stages of formal couples work, grievances are routinely leveled against each other. As the process continues, our grievances toward ourselves usually enter the picture; the emphasis shifts from partner confrontation to self-confrontation.
We so badly want from our partner the tenderness, care, devotion, and unconditional love that we have denied ourselves, but few of us can acknowledge this truth without doing some inner work first. Hence my oft repeated claim “couples work is personal work we do in front of each other”.
When the inner child shows up we get the opportunity to really feel how we deny ourselves. Having your partner present to witness you in this can spontaneously create the kind of understanding and empathy that is so often hoped for and strived for.
Part of the gift of the inner child showing up in couples work (for either or both partners) is that there is now a new persona in the room. Directing attention toward the child provides a healthy triangulation. The inner child is a more neutral presence, and some of the tension and defensiveness between partners is relaxed. In this more relaxed and neutral space, more gentleness, care, and understanding might be possible. Watch for the opportunity, and if it arises, please take it.
None of these are bad assessment tools, and each holds value for a facet of the relationship, but there’s one fundamental way of seeing ourselves in relationship, one particular relationship goal that gives us crucial information and always sets us on the right path. It’s this –
Your sense of personal integrity.
Relationship goals: Personal integrity is the key to growth in relationships
My clients often report being confused or frustrated at trying to correctly meet their partner’s needs, trying to implement new communication tools, and generally trying to “get it right” amidst a sea of moving parts. It’s true that relationships ask much of us, and that we are called upon to develop greater relational skillfulness, but we can always return to one simple guiding principle for clarity and vision.
Ask yourself, “Am I being the person I want to be in this relationship?”
This is your North star, your single best compass. Come back to this when you get lost along the way.
This sort of integrity means being accountable to yourself. It doesn’t matter so much what your partner thinks of you if you are not connected strongly to your own thoughts and feelings about yourself and about how you behave in the relationship.
Even when you are trying to decide whether to stay in a relationship or end it (perhaps especially in this case), your sense of personal integrity is a crucial guide.
Relationship goals: Be honest, be wise, be kind
One of my mentors lived by the credo “Be honest, be wise, be kind”. This was his guiding principle, and it illustrates the potential complexity of personal integrity. These three directives – being honest, being wise, being kind – are sometimes in conflict with each other, and we must wrestle with the tension that arises between them.
There is no simple formula for defining or attaining personal integrity; we must continually find our way through our inner conflicts and confusions. If we do not focus on this, our inner conflicts will certainly be projected onto our partner and our relationship, becoming outer conflicts, and the situation becomes even more dire and confusing. Break through the confusion by bringing your attention back to your thoughts and feelings about yourself, and how you behave in the relationship.
If there is work to do, do it there first. It will never lead you wrong.
I recently had a lovely chat with my friend, neighbour, and yoga teacher Nicole Berns. She invited me as part of a course she’s offering, and I thought I would share the video here with you as well. (Click here to view the video now).
We got riffing on some resonant topics over the course of an hour, while the sunlight wanes… By the end we’re sitting in near darkness, but hopefully the conversation continues to provide some illumination!
The three main operating systems for human beings (rational, emotional, survival).
The evolution of marriages and relationships.
Good and bad types of conflict.
We also touch on yoga, personal growth edges, chakras, Nicole’s own relationship, and more!
[Nicole Berns is the founder of Wild Well-Being, an online wellness platform, and the Empowered Lover Program, a 5-week online adult sex-ed course. She is a yoga instructor, alpine guide, and retreat leader building programs that allow you to enjoy your body. You can read up on her work by visiting wildwell-being.com.]
Please feel free to add your comments and questions, and to share this video with your friends who might need it.
Here’s a simple relationship rule: Never, ever re-enforce your partner’s negative self-talk.
In other words…
Let your partner face their own inner critic, rather than your criticism
Before you offer criticisms of any kind, ask yourself if they already have that voice telling them the same thing in their head. If they’re feeling down on themselves because they made a poor decision, let them confront their own inner critic before you jump in.
Whatever their struggle, do they really need you echoing their own hurtful inner dialogue?
In many cases you might not need to say a word. If they ask you, try gently putting it back to them. Ask how THEY feel about it. If you agree with their assessment, you can say so. I’m not saying you should lie about what you think or how you feel, but let their confrontation be with themselves rather than with you whenever you have the choice.
It’s through self-confrontation, and by creating a relationship environment where that is possible and encouraged, that growth happens. Like so many keys to growth and change, this depends on “catching yourself in the act” and changing habitual, reflexive behaviour.
Are you robbing your partner of their personal growth?
You might not have noticed this, but every time you take on the role of critic, you potentially distract your partner from an important task.
Leila works full time at a very stressful job and feels guilty about not spending enough time with their infant son. Their current childcare is not sustainable. Leila is thinking about preschool, but has mixed feelings. She struggles with her familiar internal dilemma. Franz sees her struggle and steps in with his own opinion, which is always the rational point of view.
“Think about it Leila, preschool is the only logical solution.”
Leila reflexively snaps at Franz and accuses him of being cold. The internal struggle that Leila was facing has now been externalized, and Leila no longer has to feel her dilemma. She can now project the criticism that she had for herself out onto Franz.
Don’t turn an inner conflict into a relationship conflict
If your partner is having an inner conflict, let them. When you butt in and take over one of the voices in their head, their inner conflict gets externalized and becomes a conflict between the two of you. Then, not only do you create unnecessary (and unproductive) conflict between the two of you, you also rob your partner of a golden opportunity to resolve something within themselves.
This doesn’t mean you can’t weigh in or be a sounding board or be supportive, just practice good emotional boundaries and recognize what is theirs and what is yours.
[Note – This is the transcript of the facebook live video shown above].
Three stages of relationship
Relationships move through three predictable stages. If you, like most people, are not aware of this, you are bound to end up confused and disheartened. Honestly, you will probably be confused and disheartened at some point regardless, but if you understand that relationships naturally move through these three stages, and if you understand the nature of each stage, and what it asks of you, you will be far better equipped to deal with what is coming.
Each stage of the relationship journey presents you with certain developmental tasks, and you can’t effectively move to the next stage until you’ve accomplished the tasks at the previous. People get “stuck” at a certain stage of relationship because they don’t recognize what the relationship is asking of them, and they resist moving forward into the unknown and intimidating territory ahead, pining instead for the easy love and good times that came previously. The bad news is that there’s no going back to easier and sweeter times. The good news is that if you successfully navigate the next stage, you will be poised to make a kind of “homecoming” or a return to what you enjoyed previously, but with more maturity, more depth, and more richness. You’re likely to have some emotional scars and war-wounds, but they will take on a special significance and will be worn proudly.
Backward or forward?
In the introduction to my book, The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples, I state – “The search for re-connection might have us gazing wistfully backward whence we came, looking for something familiar, something we believe we lost when we took a wrong turn somewhere. But true re-connection is not sentimental, nor is it necessarily repair or reclaiming (although it might include elements of both). We re-connect at a new point on the path, at a place we’ve not been before. Real re-connection is less about getting something back, and more about finding our way forward. Perhaps most accurately it has flavors of both; we arrive at a place that feels familiar and is yet unknown.”
As we look at the three stages of relationship this statement will become even more clear and meaningful.
The first stage: Falling in Love
The first stage of relationship is Falling in Love, also called the honeymoon stage, or the age of innocence. At the Falling in Love stage, differences between partners are ignored, invisible, glorified, or minimized. Compatibility is emphasized. Connection and bonding is the theme at this stage.
The voice of the Falling in Love stage says things like –
“I need you.”
“We’re perfect together.”
“We are one.”
“We’re meant for each other.”
“You complete me.”
“You’re my soul mate.”
“Our differences make us better.”
“We get along so well.”
“We have so much in common.”
“We’re so lucky.”
Each stage presents us with tasks. These tasks are crucial for our continued development and growth, and they’re a prerequisite for effectively moving to the next stage.
Developmental tasks at the first stage
Developmental tasks at the Falling in Love stage include –
Opening your heart to another
…and generally yielding to love and attraction.
Many potent hormones and neuro-chemicals help us accomplish these tasks at this stage. It’s called “Falling in Love” for a reason: If we are able to let ourselves go, gravity takes care of the rest. This letting go, opening up, connecting, and loving comes easily for many, but not for everyone. Some people have to make an effort to “fall”!
Most adults, not all but most, have some experience with the Falling in Love stage because it happens more or less automatically. As attachment theory advocates rightly say, “We’re wired for connection”.
Some couples therapy and marriage counselling attempts to keep you at this first stage and tries to shepherd you back to blissful communion. But from my point of view, the Falling in Love stage never lasts forever, nor is it designed to. Difficulty must follow. Everyone who’s read a fairy tale knows this.
The second stage: Disillusionment and Trouble
I call the second stage of relationship Disillusionment and Trouble. This is where many relationships end, sometimes for good reasons, but very often simply because we are unable to successfully complete the tasks that are required, and we waste our energy trying to return to better days. This stage is when most couples call me for counselling.
The Disillusionment and Trouble stage is when the differences between us show up and become a problem. You’re a night owl and your partner is a morning person. You discover that you have different sexual styles or appetites. In-laws become unbearable. There’s an affair or infidelity. Differences in parenting philosophies, in money management, work ethic, communication styles, attachment styles, preferences, desires, and needs all become glaringly apparent.
Maybe you discover deceit or manipulation at this point. Maybe your partner pretended to be someone they aren’t (maybe you did).
Confronting your illusions in love
Disillusionment is a double edged sword. On the one hand, the illusions of the Falling in Love stage are very beautiful, and the bonds that are formed there are real and will be an important resource for you both as you navigate this next difficult chapter. On the other hand, illusions mask the truth, and when they crumble, the truth, not always pretty, floods in. I encourage you to treat your own illusions with tenderness. They have been necessary; not an error, not a mistake. But now, it’s time to reconcile your disillusionment and attend to the tasks at hand.
One of the primary tasks that the Disillusionment and Trouble stage requires of us is discernment. Will we carry on with this relationship or will we end it? This is when we confront our non-negotiables, and discover the real meaning of the popular word “boundaries”. Ending a relationship that was previously a delight is painful, but it is sometimes the only way we can keep our self-respect and our integrity. Sometimes ending the relationship is the right option at this stage. Some people gain clarity about this quickly; others struggle for a long time.
The voice of the Disillusionment and Trouble stage says things like – “I don’t know if I can do this.” “I feel so much doubt and hopelessness.” “We used to be so good together.” “My heart aches.” “I’m angry. I’m hurt. I’m disappointed.” “I’m broken.” “The trust is gone.” “I don’t know who my partner is anymore.” “Is it me or is it them?” “Is this a healthy relationship?“ “Are we good together?” “I’ve lost myself in this relationship.“
Emotional differentiation (There’s a chapter on emotional differentiation in The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples. You can download a free sample on my website.)
This stage is necessarily marked by confrontation. To do what this stage asks, you will find yourself confronting your partner. This is difficult for many people; not so difficult for others. You’ll also need to confront yourself: your own blind spots, manipulations, and deceptions. Your own decision making, and responsibility, your own integrity.
Developing independence in relationship
The earlier Falling in Love stage is about strength in togetherness, in merging. It’s about dependence. The Disillusionment and Trouble stage reminds you that you are indeed two distinct individuals. It’s about claiming independence. This is a tricky stage, because claiming independence within a relationship usually threatens the relationship, at least in its former version where dependence was implicitly or explicitly celebrated.
If we decide to stay in the relationship, we must keep sight of the emotional commitment and the radical acceptance we practiced in the earlier Falling in Love days, but we must also now acknowledge the space between us, the unbridgeable gap, and the need to be a sovereign and integrous individual in the relationship, not just a “partner” or one half of a whole. This is where co-dependent tendencies really come to the forefront and will need to be addressed.
To make things even more difficult, partners don’t always enter this stage together. In fact it is very common for one partner to begin advocating for independence and autonomy while the other is still in the highly enmeshed, dependent stage. Moving from dependence to independence in a relationship feels disorienting and even painful for some people. For others, it can be a relief.
The key to getting through the Disillusionment and Trouble stage is to recognize it as a stage and to keep going. If you can accomplish the tasks associated with this – differentiating from your partner, navigating conflict, standing up for yourself, pursuing personal interests – while maintaining emotional commitment, you might then proceed to the “Homecoming” stage that follows. But if you continually resist the Disillusionment and Trouble stage, if you fail to recognize that it is a necessary stage of development for people and for relationships, and you dig your heals in and insist on the blind love of the Falling in Love stage, you might remain stuck here for a very long time. It’s not uncommon for people to be stuck here for years. If your relationship ends at this stage, and you never successfully recognize it and navigate through it, you will likely repeat it with new partners.
Recognizing and respecting differences in relationship
Moving through the Disillusionment and Trouble stage means either resolving or managing, and ideally coming to honour and respect differences between you and your partner. It means coming through disappointment and doubt, and sometimes mistakes or wrongdoing, with a much fuller understanding of who your partner really is, and maybe of who you really are. It may also mean a period of grieving what has been lost.
Once you’ve been through it successfully you look back on the process and you feel the pain of it, but you recognize that it was worth it, and maybe even that it was unavoidable and necessary. Many clients have described this experience to me after a few months or maybe a year of couples therapy.
Here’s an example of a couple entering the Disillusionment and Trouble stage –
Two ways of crossing the street
I was working with a new client couple by telephone. We’ll call them Joshua and Samantha. I had asked them for a specific example of a recurring conflict in their relationship. They rather sheepishly told me that they argue about how to cross the street. I assured them that even petty sounding conflicts hold the seed to greater understanding and even reconciliation, which is true; there is some wisdom in the saying “How we do something is how we do everything”.
Joshua wants to cross the street at the intersection, in accordance with the pedestrian signal. Samantha prefers to look both ways, then jaywalk mid-block rather than go to the intersection and wait for a light. Joshua felt that Samantha was putting his safety at risk by jaywalking, and this made him indignant and superior feeling. Samantha felt controlled by Joshua, and this made her angry and defiant. I could tell we’d hit a goldmine of personal and interpersonal issues and I wanted to help them find the value in it. I asked both of them to brainstorm as many possible solutions to this problem as they could, to really press their imagination. They came up with a few, but there was one, very obvious to me, that did not occur to either of them.
“How about Joshua goes to the crosswalk as per his preference, Samantha jaywalks as per her preference, and you meet up on the other side of the street in a minute or so?”
Neither Joshua nor Samantha, out of all the possible solutions, had imagined this possibility. Why not? Joshua was in the stage one relationship mode of believing that all decisions needed to be made together. Any autonomous move by either partner was seen as a threat to the partnership. Samantha too had not imagined that they could exercise their autonomy without terrible consequence. Even though she felt controlled by Joshua, she resorted to anger and defiance rather than imagining the two of them crossing the street (or presumably doing many other things) as individuals according to their own needs and preferences. This is the epitome of being stuck at the first stage of relationship, and it’s a great example of the sort of everyday circumstances that push us toward entering stage two.
As we continued to work together over a few months of weekly calls it was fascinating to see how this one example revealed so many core beliefs, so many unexamined dynamics, and, appropriately, so much disillusionment and trouble. I felt a lot of satisfaction helping this particular couple move from stage one into stage two. That’s what was happening here: a grinding progress from the falling in love stage where everything is about “togetherness”, into the Disillusionment and Trouble stage where things inevitably break down. Remember, Joshua and Samantha, when asked to brainstorm, couldn’t even imagine crossing the street on their own, in their own ways, and meeting on the other side. That illustrates just how all-encompassing that first stage of relationship can be, and how difficult, and in a way how counter-intuitive the move forward into stage two is.
What worked in stage one no longer works in stage two. That’s why my clients often describe a feeling of “banging their head against the wall”. You need the bond that you formed in stage one to help get you through stage two, but stage one skills won’t reconcile the troubles at stage two. This move nearly always includes serious self-confrontation and soul-searching, as well as new ideas, new understandings, new behaviours, and ultimately new breakthroughs.
And then you come home.
Stage three: Homecoming
The Homecoming stage is equal parts coming home to yourself and coming home to your partner. A love and respect for your partner co-exists with a love and respect for yourself. You’ve been through an initiation together, and now you are more mature. You bear wounds and scars from the journey, but they have mostly healed and you are simultaneously more strong and more tender than ever.
The Homecoming stage happens more or less spontaneously when you have sufficiently attended to the tasks of the Disillusionment and Trouble stage. Some people are pleasantly blind-sided by the Homecoming stage, even bewildered. It’s a hard thing to imagine when you’re up to your neck in disillusionment and trouble, but it is there somewhere around the corner.
The Homecoming stage marks a kind of “coming full circle”. Former versions of dependence and independence now reconcile to become interdependence. There’s a lot of talk in popular culture about interdependence in relationship and why it is a good thing, but you don’t just decide one day to become interdependent. You enter the stage of interdependence in relationship only after you have successfully fulfilled the tasks of both dependence and independence.
The Homecoming stage is loving, like the Falling in Love stage, but it is a more mature kind of love, based upon a fuller recognition and reconciliation of the reality of your relationship, including its limits. Illusions have been exposed and resolved, so this stage is more resilient and more sustainable than either of the former.
Homecoming is marked especially by a deep respect; for yourself, for your partner, and for the difficult process you have successfully navigated. From the Homecomimg perspective, the early stage of Falling in Love couldn’t embody much real respect because you hadn’t yet seen the worst of yourself and your partner show up in the relationship. If there was respect before, it was based more on surfaces or fantasies than on real lived experience.
Moving into the Homecoming stage is the reward for all your hard work and perseverance at recognizing, reconciling, tolerating, or managing differences. But not all differences are reconcilable, tolerable, or manageable… and that’s OK; it has to be. If you choose not to accept certain differences (and that’s absolutely the right choice sometimes) or if you are unable to do so, this stage will not be attainable in this particular relationship, and that’s a difficult but necessary fact to come to terms with. Not all relationships get a homecoming.
The story of Eros and Psyche
Here I want to briefly touch upon the classic Greek myth of Psyche and Eros. Psyche is a woman whom the Gods demand be sacrificed. She’s taken to a cliff where she falls. It turns out to be a fall into love. The wind carries her to Eros, the god of sexual/erotic love. Psyche becomes Eros’s lover, and she lives blissfully for a time. But the love affair has a catch: She mustn’t ever actually SEE Eros. He comes to her at night, in the dark. She can never know him fully. Eventually she becomes dissatisfied with this arrangement. She wants to know her lover. So she tricks him and lights a lamp. Here is where the Disillusionment and Trouble stage begins.
Psyche is banished from her lover, and she must accomplish a series of seemingly impossible tasks. Each time, just as all hope is lost, help comes from some unimaginable source. Eventually she beats all odds, accomplishes her tasks, and is whisked to Mount Olympus where she is rejoined with her lover Eros, but now in the form of a god herself. She has been transformed.
The symbolic relevance in this story to the three stages of relationship is uncanny. In fact, the relationship journey, in the stages I’ve laid out, bears clear resemblance to the Hero’s Journey as told in many forms: An innocent and naive protagonist leaves their familiar home, finds trouble, miraculously accomplishes seemingly impossible tasks, and then returns home initiated, transformed, matured, often scarred or wounded, and ultimately, now a gift to others in their community.
I’ve sketched out this three-stage model of relationships to give you a map for identifying where you are on this journey, where you are going, and some insights on what you might need to do to get there. But the map is not the terrain. If you want help navigating the real challenges of this terrain in your relationship, request a client information package and see if my services might be a good fit for you.
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In a dark corner of the house that is your relationship there is a box. It’s always been there. You don’t talk about it. You know this box contains truths and revelations. You might not know the contents of the box specifically, but you suspect that whatever is in there will either destroy or transform your relationship, and that once you let it out it will not be put back in. You leave the box in the corner.
Over the years you do your best to manage your life and your relationship in the ways that are familiar to you, in the ways you know. Every now and then the box calls to you, sometimes in dreams, maybe if you’ve had a couple drinks, and while you might fantasize about the box briefly, you always do your best to put it out of your mind again.
But a time comes in most relationships when the pain of more-of-the-same begins to tip the scale against the fear of what is in the box, or as Anais Nin poetically states – “the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”. This is the crucible – your initiation – and there’s no going back.
Let’s face it, couples therapy is scary. It’s intimidating. It’s unknown. It is the box that you can not put a lid on once it is opened. The contents, once revealed, will demand something of you, a change, and this will not be reversed, not without consequences of its own. I have seen people try to slam the box closed with denial, dissociation, substances, and so on. But it doesn’t work, not fully, not without costs. When you stuff the contents of the box back in, it seems to bring a part of you with it, but you must contort yourself terribly to fit. Or if you close the box and escape it, it seeps out and haunts you.
So yes, couples therapy is scary. No one chooses it until they accumulate a certain combination of desperation and courage, which is what it takes to open this box that will not be closed. Fortunately, we tend not to open this box, or even to acknowledge its existence, until we have sufficient capacity to comprehend its contents. There’s a kind of grace, a perfect balance in this.
It irks me to see people – therapists, relationship experts – speak lightly of this box in the corner, as though they know its contents, as though it is a simple matter to say “Oh, that box. I know what’s in there. I have a theory that explains that box perfectly.” There is no unified theory of boxes, no guaranteed path or outcome, no box in which to put the box.
Your relationship asks tremendous things of you, and it delivers in turn, but first the contents of this box must be revealed. You will know when it is time.
Each of us enters a marriage or relationship wearing masks. These masks have a necessary function: they hide the less agreeable aspects of ourselves, making us more acceptable and attractive.
The masks we wear hide our lust, our depression, our insecurity, our pathologies. Sometimes they hide our strongest abilities (if these abilities have for some reason been deemed unacceptable). They cover up our true intentions and motivations, our ambitions, our addictions and compulsions. Our masks hide our pain, our doubt, sometimes our hopes and desires. They might hide either our strength or our weakness. They hide our co-dependency, our abuse (or abusiveness), our desperation, our faith in whatever it is that we truly believe in.
Perhaps most importantly, our masks hide our fantastical imaginings, the depths of our inner world, the images that indelibly mark our heart and our psyche, that which we carry but have not actively chosen.
Deceiving our partner – Deceiving ourselves
The masks we wear allow (and require) us to deceive our partner and oftentimes ourselves. Arguably this is, for better and worse, a necessary part of courtship and of life, at least for a time. Masking is ubiquitous, and it is possible – likely in fact – that you are only dimly aware of some of the masks you wear.
While masking oneself may be a requirement of beginning a relationship, unmasking ourselves is certainly necessary for maturing it. In fact, the second stage of relationship (see my video on the three stages of relationship), sometimes called the “disillusionment stage“, could accurately be called the unmasking stage, but only if we’re willing to see it through that far.
It is perhaps our greatest accomplishment and potential in any relationship to unmask ourselves and reveal ourselves fully to our partner. In no small part this is because when we do, we are simultaneously revealed to ourselves. This homecoming is the shocking joy (and terror) of intimacy that some of us crave: knowing ourselves through our revelation to another, and vice versa.
The hunger for intimacy is the hunger for authenticity, for that which is most real and least unencumbered by the various deceptions, pretensions, obfuscations, and lies of the masked personae we encounter at every turn in life.
To be free of our masks and to discover that connection remains possible – that we can love and be loved for who we actually are in our entirety – is one of the greatest satisfactions of life and one of the greatest gifts that we can give ourselves and others, and yet it remains out of reach for most people. If we are unable or unwilling to witness, to confront, to “see”, and to reveal ourselves, with no guarantees, we can not experience unmasked intimacy.
Many people who do achieve this do so somewhat accidentally. They are cornered by life or their partner and the mask crumbles. Sometimes it makes a big mess. But we can also be pro-active in this regard; we can choose to confront our masked self rather than making our partner do it for us. You see, at some point your partner will feel your incongruence (and you theirs); they will become suspicious of you, sensing that what you present of yourself does not match their deeper intuitive experience of you. This creates rumblings and fractures. It can not be avoided forever, and it will kill or anaesthetize a relationship.
This unavoidable process begins once the “shine is off the apple”, it marks the end of the honeymoon stage, the end of innocence, and the beginning of your next initiation.
Conflict can be necessary and valuable in relationships when it helps a couple identify differences, develop appropriate boundaries, and facilitate constructive negotiation and agreements. But there’s a particular type of conflict that only leaves couples feeling frustrated and stuck. It’s agonizing because it repeats and repeats but it never leads anywhere, accomplishes anything, or satisfies the underlying hopes or needs of the individuals involved: To feel safe, to feel understood, to feel the possibility of moving forward.
Ten years of helping couples worldwide has taught me that if you experience this kind of “conflict loop” in your relationship you are in very good company! People don’t always talk about it, but most of us have experienced this at some point.
Because this type of conflict is a result of survival mechanisms getting activated in the nervous system, I call it “fight or flight” conflict.
Fight or flight conflict almost never delivers any positive results. Over time it erodes goodwill and turns potential allies into enemies. After we look at how to identify it, I’m going to walk you through a simple practice (I call it “soothing the beast”) for de-escalating the fight or flight responses that characterize this kind of conflict.
Identifying fight or flight conflict
Fight or flight conflict can be identified by a set of observable characteristics. Once you able to identify that this is what is happening, you can apply the practice I explain below.
Fights repeat in eerily familiar patterns, but the issue is never resolved because you can’t address it without getting triggered and reactive.
It feels like the worst in each of you comes out.
Your partner feels like an enemy, not an ally.
You have a visceral (body) response, during or after the conflict, ie – shaking, sobbing, numbing or freezing, feeling sick to your stomach, headaches etc.
Human beings have three distinct “operating systems”
To put this kind of conflict into context, we can think of human beings as having three distinct “operating systems.” Each of these three operating systems has their own strengths and weaknesses, and their own particular scope of concern. They are all three working in the background at any time, but usually one or another is operating in the foreground and defining your current experience.
Three human operating systems –
The rational OS is associated with the forebrain and is responsible for ideas and concepts, language, a sense of time, and everything we think of as “rational”.
The emotional OS is associated with the mid-brain (mammalian brain) and is responsible for forming and managing emotional bonds with others.
The survival OS is associated with the brain stem (reptilian brain) and is responsible for basic life functions and also for automatic survival reactions (fight, flight etc).
(I describe the differences in more detail with a classroom analogy in the video.)
When we can engage in conflict while still being able to retain some access to our rational and emotional operating systems we might successfully reconcile the differences or issues that are making trouble in the relationship. This is never easy to do, but the hard work can pay off. This is “good” conflict.
When the survival OS gets activated we lose access to the other two systems, and so we can not effectively consider other perspectives. We become highly reactive; a sideways glance or tone of voice can push us over the edge. We become hyper-vigilant and aggressive (or withdrawn), and our reactions are disproportionate for the situation (in hindsight). We don’t make progress in our relationship when we descend into survival mode, so we can probably agree that this is “bad” conflict.
Here’s my “soothing the beast” practice for calming the nervous system arousal that comes with the survival OS, and bringing your rational and emotional self back “online”.
Soothing the beast – A four-step practice for de-escalating fight or flight conflict
One person calls “Code red” (or whatever other cue you two choose). When code red is called you both stop talking.
Facing each other, take ten breaths together. This calms the nervous system and begins to build a bridge of coherence between you and your partner.
Whoever called code red reports on one sensation in their body, ie: “My stomach feels tight”.
The other person listens and acknowledges – “I hear your stomach feels tight” – then reports on a sensation in their own body, ie: “My face feels hot.” Repeat back and forth until your two nervous systems calm down and you can access your rational and emotional self.
Here are three of the insightful real-life examples readers generously shared, with a few comments of my own:
“I let go of the notion that my partner must agree with me.”
“I have let go of the notion that my partner must agree with me on most issues. That has freed up a lot of energy that would otherwise have been wasted fighting over what are essentially meaningless points. I have found that my respect for her has grown, and I hope the reverse is also true.”
Finding ways to manage differences and “agree to disagree” in relationships really does free up a lot of energy, and the part about increased respect matches my observations: when couples are able to respect differences, the overall respect for each other grows.
“The sacred pause…”
“The biggest change I implemented in my behaviour is the ‘sacred pause’. This allowed me space to then look at his words/reactions with curiosity instead of reactivity.”
“It is still a new behaviour in a middle aged woman who spent her life in reactivity so I am not 100% with it yet, but when I am successful it means that I can either hear the actual words my husband says and/or notice that whatever energy or words that may have traditionally felt like an attack on my worthiness are either not about me at all or I can now respond thoughtfully to the interaction. My pattern was definitely to take any perceived slight or any negative energy and attack, even if the interaction had nothing to do with me. If there was negativity of any kind attached to my husband I did not feel safe and I attacked him verbally. It was very humbling for me the first few times I was successful at being able to separate myself from his energy.”
“I found some awareness about myself in your article about self-regulation and co-regulation. I recognized that I used co-regulation as a tool to get out of my own discomfort and create enmeshment. I learned to shift into more self-regulation. I directly noticed a decline in the drama of our relationship.”
That got me wondering if they had experienced any loss in feelings of intimacy or closeness as a result of decreased drama (drama is often part of “the glue” in relationships, for better and for worse), so I asked.
“Some yes. When I became more solid in myself, the space between us became greater. The drama fed the tension, which fed the excitement. With less drama, the lack of a more solid connection showed. I did, and do, feel more intimate with my own self, a big win for me.”
Changing behaviours in a relationship is always a matter of “catching yourself in the act” of unconscious, reflexive, habitual responses to stimuli and choosing something different in the moment. With practice and repetition new habits are formed.
How have you changed your behaviour to improve your relationship? Share your real-life examples in the comments or on my facebook page.