Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

What is a “Successful Relationship”? How Do You Make a Relationship Succeed?

Successful Relationship

What makes a relationship successful?

Fundamentally, a successful relationship is a relationship that feels mostly good, most of the time. That’s it. Simple right? So how do you make a relationship that feels mostly good, most of the time?

How do you make successful relationship?

1. Figure out how to feel mostly good, most of the time.

2. Bring that to the relationship.

Again, simple, yes? So what trips people up? Here’s where it gets interesting!

“I’m OK if you’re OK”

Many people look to their relationship (to their partner) as their source of feeling good. If this is you, then you have probably attracted a partner who also does the same, though perhaps in a different style from you.

This leaves you in a position of having to negotiate feeling good between you, i.e., “I’m OK if you’re OK”. If you’re accustomed to this style of relationship (many people are, it is modeled and promoted as “normal”) it can be hard to imagine an alternative, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that a wonderful alternative exists.

The key is to realize that your feelings can be generated from within you regardless of your circumstances or outer “reality”, including your partner.

Since I discovered the truth of this, I could no longer continue working with clients the way I had been.

A new kind of couples work

I’ve been a couples therapist and marriage counsellor for fifteen years. I love my work, and I love my clients.

I love my work and my clients so much that when I discover a better way to do relationships, I have to update my methods and professional approach. I won’t rest on my laurels and teach something that people want to hear but that is no longer resonant for me.

And so I have changed how I work. Not entirely; I had emphasized individual responsibility and emotional differentiation (what I now call “self-satisfaction”) rather than partner negotiation and emotional enmeshment for many years, but my discoveries of the past two years have taken this to a new level of clarity.

I no longer see relationships through the lens of meeting emotional needs, resolving issues, healing wounds, trauma, attachment styles or anything else that puts emotional power and responsibility into collective hands.

I increasingly view relationships through the lens of two individuals discovering themselves in front of each other, and exploring the ever-shifting resonance between them. This is so much more easeful, fun, and interesting!

The third factor: Source

Conventional couples therapy often includes a theoretical “third” element: The relationship itself. There are the two individuals, then there’s the relationship, and all three elements get equal consideration. I do not subscribe to this model, but I do include a special third factor –

Each of us, I now recognize, comes from eternal, non-physical, infinite source energy, and each of us maintains this connection to source energy throughout our lives. This connection to our source is, must be, our primary relationship if we are to reach our full emotional potential.

When the physical (“ego”) aspect of you is in harmony with the energy (“spiritual”) aspect of you, you experience this as positive emotion. When these two aspects are at odds, or misaligned, you experience this as negative emotion.

Our relationship with a partner or spouse is determined by our relationship to source energy, and our relationship with source energy feels only good.

Contemporary psychology replaces source energy with “mother” or caregiver, placing this at the centre of the human journey. I won’t offer any resistance to this point of view, but I will offer an alternative that I believe is infinitely more satisfying.

Setting off on a relationship journey that has you trying to heal a “mother wound” or an attachment need from childhood can provide much richness and some fascinating twists and turns, but unless it ultimately connects you to your true source, it’s actually quite limited. I’ve always been a seeker of the deeper truth, and it lies in the relationship between the temporal you and the eternal you. Get that lined up, and everything follows.

How’s that landing? Any resonance?

Now back to the original question…

Let’s circle back to the question I asked at the top of the page: What’s the secret to a successful relationship?

And the answer I offered: Figure out how to feel mostly good, most of the time.

Now let’s tie this all together –

The way you feel mostly good, most of the time, is to get yourself living in alignment with your source, to get the human “you” befriending and loving the infinite “you”, not as a concept but as a living truth; not once and for all, but now, and now, and now. When you connect with your deepest essence, you feel good, unconditionally, and your relationships become an easy reflection of this good-feeling connection.

So how do you do this? Hint: incrementally, through your understanding and skillful use of the three human operating systems: sensation (body), emotion (heart), and cognition (mind).

Yes, my friends, this is where fifty years of living and fifteen years of working with couples professionally has landed me. I know it’s going to be too far out for some of you, but I know it’s also going to be VERY resonant and timely for some of you too.

All My Best,

Justice Schanfarber

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Counselling Articles

Relationship triggers – How to take care of yourself without abandoning your partner when sh*t blows up

Relationship triggers

You’ve been invited to listen in on a marriage counselling session. They’re starting…

Susan: I get anxious and triggered then I want re-assurance about our relationship. All sorts of stories start up in my head about how he doesn’t love me enough, or if he really loved me he’d do this or that. It’s like torture, and I want help, so I ask him to tell me what I want to hear, but then he gets triggered and withdraws. For some reason he can’t say what I need to hear when I need it most. Then all my triggers are activated and I get even more desperate.

Marcus: It’s true. I feel her anxiety growing and I feel myself shutting down. Then she needs me to say the right thing, but it’s literally impossible for me. I don’t know how to explain it. I think it’s because old feelings of being controlled or manipulated come up for me. I withdraw, which is the opposite of what she needs, and it makes it worse for her, but I just can’t do the thing she wants. I can’t jump through the hoops. We crash and burn again and again. How do we fix this?

Take a moment and reflect on this story. How would you fix this problem? Where do you think the burden lies? Do you relate to Susan or to Marcus, or to both?

I have heard a hundred different versions of this same story from clients. It’s a perennial relationship quandary. Usually couples who present this issue come to me wanting a communication tool or technique that will let them finally get through to their partner, finally be understood, finally get their needs met.

But they’re in for a surprise. I have to tell them that I doubt there’s a communication technique that will help. I go on to explain that what they are dealing with is not a communication problem, at least not in the ordinary sense. They each feel misunderstood, but the misunderstanding isn’t about what is being said between them; the misunderstanding is about the very nature of their conflict.

Here’s how I explain it in my book The Re-connection Handbook for Couples (click here to download a free sample chapter)

Underneath all our words and our conscious intentions, our primary relationship follows the twists and turns of two highly attuned nervous systems. Your nervous system and your partner’s nervous system are in constant, silent communication. Beneath the radar of awareness, these two parts of self are setting the mood, raising the stakes, making peace, or waging war. This is happening under the surface of normal consciousness, despite whatever agreements you might be making and whatever “communication tools” you might be employing.

Nervous system arousal is like an invisible hand directing your relationship. The felt experience of nervous system arousal is called anxiety. This anxiety is, perhaps surprisingly, highly contagious.

Anxiety moves back and forth between spouses in predictable ways. We all try, mostly unconsciously, to offload our anxious feelings onto our partner. Think of a hot potato being tossed back and forth. No one wants to hold it, and so we quickly pass it along.

Many of our requests, agreements and interactions – and especially our conflicts – are unconscious attempts to find relief from our nervous system arousal.

As an experiment, let’s look back on Susan and Marcus’s revelations at the top of the page, but we’ll strip away the content, strip away the words, and instead simply imagine two nervous systems interacting.

Susan’s nervous system gets activated for some reason (any reason – for our purposes it doesn’t really matter). It sends a wordless message to Marcus’s nervous system, “Alert! Danger!” Now both nervous systems are activated.

These two nervous systems continue to activate each other, creating significant mental and emotional anguish. Both people want relief, and they want it desperately. They use the tools they know, they try to talk it through. But nervous systems that are on high alert do not respond well to words or reasoning, and so relief doesn’t come. With no relief, anxiety escalates, turning into panic, frustration, rage, or withdrawal (any history of trauma will exacerbate the situation, and should be addressed specifically).

Susan gets anxious, and she turns to Marcus for soothing. (Marcus’s anxiety may have come first, who knows. It’s a chicken and egg situation.) Marcus instinctively withdraws. Perhaps it’s his nervous system saying “Get me out of here! This shit’s contagious!” Susan feels his withdrawal, and she takes it as evidence of her worst fears, He doesn’t really love me.” Her anxiety spikes, and Marcus’s nervous system responds in kind. He retreats even further.

Here we see the classic spiral… the stuck relationship and hopelessness… the repeating conflict loop. We usually assume that these loops are related to something we are saying, and so we search desperately for the right thing to say, some better way to say it, some escape from the tortuous deja-vu we’re stuck in.

We turn to the tool we use for virtually everything… reason, intellect. We try to think our way through, and we share our thoughts verbally. The trouble is, when our nervous system is all fired up, we have limited access to our thought and speech centres. But we don’t know what else to do, and we desperately want relief from the uncomfortable anxiety we’re experiencing, so we keep trying, and, like Susan and Marcus we dig ourselves deeper into the hole.

Relationship triggers and de-escalation.

It feels agonizingly counter-intuitive for most of us, but rather than trying to express ourselves more clearly, or even to understand or empathize with our partner, we need to first turn our attention inward and attend directly to our own poor, suffering, anxious nervous system.

This isn’t an intellectual or communication task, it’s physical and internal. Most of us assume that anxiety is mental, but our nervous system resides more in our body than in our mind, and so it’s our body that holds the key. Not thinking, not talking, but attending to the body, your body, directly.

As much as we are tempted to seek relief outwardly, from our partner, through attempted communication, negotiation, empathy, or understanding, this is usually a case of putting the cart before the horse. It can be much more effective to turn inwards first, moderating our own nervous system. You can read my simple 3-step system for soothing an activated nervous system by clicking here.

Here we’re faced with the paradoxical, delicate and oftentimes confusing dance between self-care and other-care, between being an autonomous individual and being connected through relationship. The fact is, neither of these states are absolute or entirely exclusive; we are simultaneously distinct AND connected.

We live in an age of utility, and my client couples often expect practical tools and solutions that they can apply immediately. The advice I give is this: Practice attending to your own nervous system arousal, turn inward, as you simultaneously remain present and connected with your partner. Easy in theory, but not in practice.

I will sometimes have them practice this in our sessions. In family systems theory this experience of feeling ourselves as distinct and autonomous, while simultaneously connected, is known as differentiation. Think of it this way – Your ability to defuse your own triggers in relationship while also caring for your partner is determined by your level of differentiation. This practice of becoming differentiated begins with a conceptual understanding (hopefully this article helps; for more support have a look at my book), and then becomes a life-long practice of moderating your own nervous system and soothing your own anxiety.

Only by developing this kind of deeply personal relationship with our own inner workings can we manage to stay grounded solidly in ourselves even in the face of our partner’s and our own anxiety and emotional triggers. As we become more skilled at this, we may uncover unresolved issues – resentment, hurt, trauma – that do want attention, and then a focus on communication, conversation, discussion can be fruitful, but without first attaining a sufficient level of self-management and differentiation we end up stuck in the same old mess of hair-trigger nervous system activation. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s required if we want to have mature, satisfying relationships.

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

Counsellor confession… “I hate my partner.”

I hate my wife. I hate my husband.

Relationship articles, facebook memes, and lofty platitudes about what makes a “healthy” relationship float across my virtual desktop daily. They always emphasize high ideals of respect, kindness, trust, empathy, validation, etc. They never include anyone saying –

“I hate my wife.”
“I hate my husband.”

It’s no wonder that my counselling clients feel like failures, and doubt the legitimacy of their marriage or relationship (or even of themselves) if they experience intense resentment, anger, grief, rage, frustration or jealousy.

What are we supposed to do with these unwanted feelings when we’re repeatedly told that they have no place in a “healthy” relationship (or life)?

For many, the answer is simple. Ignore the feelings. Reject them. Stuff them deeply into a sack and drag it along behind, pretending it does not exist, even as it grows into elephantine proportions and begins to crowd everything else out of the room.

I confessed in an interview recently that I was feeling grateful for being able to express my outright rage and seething hatred of my spouse… to my spouse. That’s right, I told my partner that I hated her. And guess what: The world didn’t end. And neither did my relationship.

As a marriage counsellor working with clients worldwide, it felt risky to publicly share that I sometimes hate my partner, and that I have told her so. But I believe that because I am able to express a full range of feelings toward her, and because she can hear them, disaster is averted. This works in both directions in our relationship; I hear about her anger as well. It has at least once been expressed as “I want so badly to punch you in the face.” (She contained the impulse, but the message was received.)

In our relationship, my partner and I allow each other to express these difficult, dark feelings, and so they are, in a way, over time, transformed. Left in the dark corners they fester and grow, and they sneak up on us, often in disguise. Faced head on, they tend to reconcile of their own accord. The result? A clean slate.

That’s worth stating again: To the degree that we are able to identify, express, and reconcile our darker feelings about each other – to each other – we’re able to avoid lingering resentments in our relationship.

As I state in my book, The Re-connection Handbook For Couples – 

If your ideas about love are too narrow to accommodate the relationship you actually have right now, you may want to try expanding your thinking. Love is certainly not just good feelings, kindness and caring. Romantic and erotic love is compatible with resentment, mistrust, selfishness and even cruelty. Perfectionism, lofty platitudes and willful naivete about love are common in our culture, but real love may demand dark expressions from time to time.”

Are negative emotions so bad?

Emotions in our culture have been neatly divided into two columns: negative and positive. But what if emotions were neither negative nor positive? Neither good nor bad? What if emotions were simply acknowledged on their own terms?

There’s a popular idea that we should be able to control our feelings through sheer force of will. I’ve never, ever seen this to be true. But I have seen the damage that this belief causes. It IS true that by practicing mindful awareness, we may be free of some of the more painful and destructive emotions, but they fade largely of their own accord, and usually only after being acknowledged, and even expressed.

So how can we safely express potentially destructive emotions like rage and hatred? Perhaps we can’t. Perhaps they are inherently unsafe. If so, it appears that we must risk something if we are to give our anger, cruelty, resentment any real voice. (Sometimes what we risk is intimacy; the intimacy aspects of engaging with the darker emotions often go unrecognized.)

Popular communication techniques would have us calmly and quietly stating our angry feelings – “It makes me feel angry when you leave your socks on the floor.” But anger, real anger, is rarely calm and quiet. It is fiery and fast. It burns. I’m suspicious of techniques that sugar-coat or rely too much on pretending.

Of course, raw, unchecked rage and hatred freely expressed in a relationship is clearly not going to be acceptable to most self-respecting people. If we want to work with darker emotions, to allow them an appropriate place in our awareness, our relationship and lives, the answer must lie somewhere in between; still potent and alive, but not full force. We can practice allowing an emotion like anger without becoming it entirely. The key is awareness; the ability to have an experience (really HAVE it), and also to notice it at the same time. This requires us to grow our capacity for seemingly contradictory experiences, what I sometimes call “holding opposites,” and it takes practice.

There’s no reliable formula for successfully navigating difficult emotions like anger in a relationship. Talk with your partner. Examine your own taboos. See if there might be room to experiment with allowing some expression, even a basic verbal acknowledgement of the feeling.

Every relationship has its own unique culture, a set of agreements and rituals, implicit or explicit, that guide it. Does your relationship make room for expressions of the full range of human emotions? Or are only “positive” emotions allowed?

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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Why men leave women they love – What every woman needs to know

Why men leave women they love - Justice Schanfarber CounsellingOver a year ago I shared a simple insight gleaned from my work as a marriage counsellor about why women leave men they love. (Click here to read the original article.)

The article struck a chord worldwide, and I quickly received hundreds of emails, comments, questions and requests of all sorts. Many readers, women and men both, wanted to hear a comparable counter-point, something about why men leave the women they love, the assumption being that there must be some innate symmetry to this phenomenon. I’m not sure there is.

I have wrestled with this counter-point, this question of men leaving women they love, in my mind and on paper, for well over a year now.

Why men leave women they love… Or do they?

The truth is, in my clinical experience, I rarely see men doing the leaving. Men compartmentalize. They withdraw into work, hobbies, fantasy, or addiction. They cheat or carry on secret lives and secret affairs. They might create situations that make it impossible for a marriage or relationship to continue. Men also suffer silently, shouldering massive burdens. The men I work with often have a high tolerance for disconnection. They might leave a dissatisfying relationship in spirit (sometimes they never fully arrive), but they are unlikely to leave in body. Certainly the description above does not fit all men, but the general patterns I see in my couples counselling practice recur too often to ignore.

I find it interesting that when women leave a dead or dissatisfying relationship they are celebrated for their courage. (You can see this in some of the comments on the original article.) Men though, seem to be held to a different standard; by society, by each other, by women, and perhaps most importantly, by their own selves.

It might be a sense of duty or sacrifice that keeps men from leaving. Or an ability to cleave off parts of themselves that don’t fit into the box they feel they must occupy. A man’s focus on performance and success might make the feelings of a failed marriage intolerable, and so the shame of leaving is not an option.

Or perhaps men expect less from a relationship, less from love. Perhaps the painful and revelatory truth is that men expect less from life. Beneath whatever bravado we may see from the outside, many men are disconnected from any real, living sense of purpose in their lives. Their chests may be puffed out, but their hearts are empty.

As many women are awakening to long repressed (and suppressed) desires – for freedom, for expression, sensuality, power, intimacy, eroticism, authenticity, aliveness – their male counterparts may be trudging on, heads down.

In his book Iron John – A book about men, poet and author Robert Bly suggests that –

“… the European novel, a lovely phenomenon of the last two centuries, has taught more than one contemporary woman what a rich reservoir of impulses and longings she has in her soul that can be satisfied or remain unsatisfied… A twentieth century woman feels complicated sensibilities in herself that no ordinary or mortal man can meet.”

These complicated sensibilities do not seem to be surfacing in men in the same way, and perhaps rightly so. Women’s paths and men’s paths, while intertwined, seem also to be necessarily different. Nonetheless, men too have their own “complicated sensibilities” and their own “rich reservoirs” to discover and attend to.

In archetypal terms, we could say that many women continue to take on the lover qualities in a relationship, while men embody the warrior.  The warrior is able to put feelings aside and work for a greater good based on principles and ideals. This ability is valuable, but when these principles and ideals are divorced from a man’s true calling, when they are in opposition to his heart, the warrior energy becomes twisted, and the man becomes mechanical, cold, withdrawn. (Of course these roles may also be reversed. Plenty of women are discovering their inner warrior, and men their inner lover. All configurations can be valuable, and all can be troublesome.)

There’s a saying, “Do not give a sword to a man who can not dance.” Warrior energy is powerful and noble in its healthy and lively expressions, but if it becomes too rigid it morphs into a sad and dangerous parody of itself. The man who can not dance is a man who can not feel. He can not feel the rhythms of life, of others, of relationship. Dancing requires an alertness, it requires grace. Dancing requires an erotic intelligence. A man singularly focused, without these qualities, ends up cut off from feeling, inaccessible to himself and others.

Many a man has expressed great bitterness at his wife’s leaving, even as he has sacrificed so much of himself to fulfill the bargain he believed was necessary for a relationship or marriage. He has worked at a job that is dangerous, for his body or his soul. He has turned off much of his feeling so that he can perform adequately to provide economically for his family. When women leave these men, bewilderment sets in. These men believe they did everything they could. If we are not careful, victim and villain archetypes settle into our bones, and men and women find themselves pitted against each other, and ultimately against important aspects of themselves.

In my original article that roused so much attention, I pose a question to male readers –

“Can you feel your passion? If you’ve lost it, why? Where did it go? Find out. Find it. If you never discovered it you are living on borrowed time.”

If men aren’t able to be fully present in their relationship, even for five minutes at a time, it might be that they are disconnected from their heart, from their passion; strangers to their own “complicated sensibilities” and “rich reservoirs.” Paradoxically, men’s connection to these parts of themselves allows them to be fully present in relationship, AND it simultaneously gives them the power to leave.

If we want men to show up more profoundly, we must also be prepared for their long bottled up rage at being used and abused – as cannon fodder, economic fodder, entertainment fodder, family fodder and so on. If we want men connected to their passion for life, we must be prepared to listen to what these passions have to say. Sometimes the words will be no. Or goodbye.

As it is for Bly’s twentieth century woman, an awakening man becomes capable of both strengthening and destroying a marriage. If we want to preserve marriage at all costs, then best to kill all passions, all heart’s desire, all “complicated sensibilities” and “rich reservoirs.” Indeed, this has sometimes been official policy, at the personal and the cultural levels. If, however, we want a relationship with an awake, passionate, present, and empowered partner, we had better be willing to face all the possible outcomes. Frightening perhaps, but I don’t know a better option.

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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Gaslighting, shadow, and abuse – How protecting our unconscious can sabotage our relationships

GaslightingAs we noticed the topic of “gaslighting” coming up more and more in conversations, my partner and I decided to watch the 1944 film with Ingrid Bergman that spawned the term. In the film, and in common usage of the word, a “gaslighter,” for their own selfish gain, consciously manipulates someone into doubting themselves.

The classic gaslighter is a sociopath, calculated and relentless in breaking down their victim’s self-confidence, self-esteem, self-trust, and even their sense of sanity. This sort of gaslighting is extreme and, one hopes, relatively rare. But I see a much more common, subtle and insidious form of gaslighting all the time in my work and life. I’ll call it “shadow gaslighting.”

Unconscious gaslighting

It’s generally understood that we each have an unconscious aspect of self that influences us and drives our behaviour from beneath conscious awareness. This unconscious self is sometimes called the shadow. Our shadow includes the parts of our self that we have disowned or denied because they are frightening, disappointing, socially unacceptable, or because they threaten our positive self-image.

“Shadow gaslighting” is when these disowned parts of ourselves manipulate people in our lives in order to serve their own purpose. An unconscious part of self expresses itself and pursues its own agenda but goes unacknowledged in our awareness.

Other people in our lives, especially our spouse, may sense our shadow at work. Because we deny the presence and influence of shadow unconsciousness in us and in our behaviour, these other people feel an incongruence in us: what we say does not match how they experience us.

They may take us at face value, wanting to believe what we tell them about our intentions, feelings etc, but underneath, at some level, the incongruence undermines their trust in us and perhaps their trust in their own experience. Here’s a story to help illustrate –

“I’m not resentful!”

Louise was shocked to discover that her husband Francois was considering leaving her. She knew things had been bad since the baby was born, but she was blindsided by his revelation that they were actually on the brink of divorce. When they came to see me it was quickly obvious to me that Francois held strong resentments toward Louise; resentments that spanned years and ran deep. And yet, interestingly, he would not admit to having resentments. It became apparent through therapy that he was unwilling to admit to being resentful because it would contradict the image he had of himself. “Resentful” was a human quality that Francois would not allow himself, and so he had driven it underground where it persisted unconsciously as shadow material. While Francois desperately tried to hide his resentment with denial (“I’m not a resentful person! You’re imagining it!”), the resentful part of himself grew more insistent. It was demanding to be seen, to be acknowledged and confronted. His resentment, long buried, was now breaking through to the surface of consciousness.

Francois’s resentment broke through the shadow realm into the surface of consciousness while we worked in session. This is not uncommon. Often an individual or a couple comes to see me when a powerful aspect of their unconscious shadow is working its way up into awareness. Subjectively, this feels like breaking down. Something feels drastically wrong, and so a person might decide they need help… fixing… therapy. If the timing is right I can potentially help this person as they retrieve the disowned parts of their self and attend to their developmental tasks.

The necessity of self-confrontation

In this particular case, I could see Francois struggle to confront the long-held, unacknowledged resentments that were coming to the surface and threatening his self-identity and his marriage.

For Francois, resenting his wife was incompatible with being a good person and a good father. To acknowledge that he was resentful meant that he would not feel like a good person or a good father, and so he hid it from others and from himself.

Confronting his resentment was viscerally agonizing for Francois. He choked and sobbed and wrung his hands. But he saw it through. In no uncertain terms he managed to face his resentment and to own it, right there while his wife watched and listened. (Anyone who has worked with me for any length of time will have heard me say that couples work is individual work that we do in front of each other.)

Francois was resentful, and he finally said so. Of course this was painful for Louise, but also a relief. At least now she could feel congruence in Francois. Because he was now able to confront (and tolerate) his resentment, his shadow would no longer need to gaslight her in order to protect him from the intolerable feelings of “being a resentful person.” Francois grew his capacity for tolerating these uncomfortable feelings and in doing so he become more congruent.

I see some version of gaslighting by the shadow in virtually every single person I work with or have any type of deep relationship with (including myself). I’ve come to believe that we ALL have disowned parts of ourselves that threaten to contradict or reveal the personas we present to others and identify with.

Examples of unconscious “shadow gaslighting”

Here are some ways that we unconsciously or semi-consciously “shadow gaslight” a spouse or partner –

  • We might say “I feel hurt” when our shadow feels angry. (Anger has been disowned.)
  • We might say “I feel angry” when our shadow feels hurt. (Hurt has been disowned.)
  • We might say “I’m not attracted to that person” when we do not trust our attraction or eroticism. (Attraction and eroticism have been disowned.)
  • We might say “This is all your fault” when our shadow feels the burden of responsibility, but is unable to tolerate it. (Responsibility has been disowned.)
  • We might say “No, no, everything is OK” or “This is all my fault” when we are unwilling to risk conflict. (Conflict has been disowned.)

The list goes on and on. In every case, our words protect our shadow and belie the deeper truths of our desires and fears.

It’s important to understand that these are not outright lies or manipulations; we are not, after all, fully conscious of what they are based upon. When we are unable to confront the needs, and hence the influence, of our own shadow, our partner feels our dissonance and this creates anxiety, mistrust, distance, conflict.

Persistent gaslighting by the shadow is a significant but poorly understood cause of confusion, regret, bitterness and blame in a marriage or relationship. If we’re willing to acknowledge the existence of shadow within ourselves and within our relationship, we may be able to retrieve some of the disowned parts of ourselves that are creating unrest. If we understand the needs of these shadow aspects and attend to them, greater integrity and truth-telling becomes possible.

Through mindfulness practice, therapy or other means we may gain the insight, courage, and humility required to retrieve our shadowy parts and bring fuller congruence and awareness to our behaviour in our relationships and in our lives.

Working towards personal integrity

This retrieving of shadow, of the parts of self we’ve disowned, is an act of integrity. When we say someone has “integrity”, what do we mean? Usually we mean that we experience them as congruent; their speech matches their actions. We deem them trustworthy.

One way of understanding personal integrity is this –
Integrity is strength obtained through wholeness.

“Acting with integrity” doesn’t mean acting according to some high moral code as much as it means expressing oneself as a whole person; not necessarily whole in the sense of not having different “parts” or a variety of voices, but as someone one who has done some work with their unconscious shadowy parts and has built a relatively honest relationship with them.

This work is probably never complete, but is a lifelong journey. There are milestones and significant accomplishments along the way but no definite end. It’s unlikely that we ever become fully conscious beings with nothing to hide and no shadow to protect, although that is a worthy ideal, and is perhaps one way of understanding the quest for spiritual enlightenment.

Interestingly, if we deny the existence of shadow, of the disowned fears and desires in our self and others, we will always take literally the failures of integrity we see around and within us. We will judge harshly and assume we are being treated with hurtful intention. If, however, we acknowledge the existence of shadow, and recognize how shadow protects itself by acting out from beneath conscious awareness, we may respond appropriately without undue judgement and bitterness.

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