I was feeling melancholy. Sad. I’d had a disappointment or two, and I was also disappointed in myself. I was exhausted. It showed. And there was something unnameable, a kind of causeless grief. I was just letting it wash over me.
My partner asked me what was wrong. I wasn’t sure how to answer. It didn’t feel like something was wrong exactly. She asked me how she could help. I replied simply that I didn’t need helping.
Then she paused for a moment and asked me something that caught me completely off-guard…
“How would you like me to be with you right now?”
I couldn’t help but smile, and she caught it, returned it.
“Just like this. Thank you.”
One question changed everything
In an instant she flipped the script – from judging me as somehow broken and needing fixing – to expressing a genuine desire to enter my world. It was like plunging into a cool, calm, refreshing pool. Her simple curiosity, her conscious choice to withdraw her judgement, her willingness and ability to just be with me… it meant a lot to me, and I told her so.
“You’ve taught me” she responded without missing a beat. It’s true. I’m reminded how if we can discern and articulate what we actually want (no small task), and if we have willing and capable people in our life, we can indeed teach them how to care for us.
The question “How would you like me to be with you right now?” has become part of our relationship vocabulary, and part of our relational awareness. It reminds us that our presence can be given (and received) as a gift, and that there are various ways we can be with each other, various ways to be there for each other.
The question also prompts a question we must then ask ourselves: “How do I want my partner to be with me right now?” Exploring the answer to that question opens up new doors of self-inquiry, and gently puts the responsibility for getting our needs met squarely where it belongs.
People come to marriage counselling and couples therapy largely because they seek to understand (or to be understood). They want to understand their relationship, their partner, their selves, their situation. They want to understand why things have happened the way they have, why they feel the way they feel. They want to understand how to repair a rift, how to heal pain, how to make change, how to re-connect, how to move forward.
To understand is to comprehend, to gain insight. The word itself gives us a strong clue as to how we might orient ourselves in order to best gain the insight or comprehension we desire: Understanding requires that we stand under, that we view from below.
Standing under a thing gives us access to soft bellies, to hidden and vulnerable parts. From above we see the armoured shell, the prepared mask, the sunlit tip, the socially acceptable, the obvious. To under-stand we must get below. And yet this is so rarely the perspective we take. We prefer a bird’s eye view. The light of day. Brightly lit surfaces. We prefer the view from above.
The view from below
Viewing from below requires that we descend, that we drop down. Viewing from below – a thing, a person, an idea, a relationship – requires a certain quality in the viewer; it requires a deepening. To truly under-stand another, we must find our own depth, and we must perceive the depth of that which we seek to under-stand. Mere surfaces will not suffice.
Under-standing is essentially different from viewing from above. Standing below, gaining insight from a place of depth, requires us to develop senses in and of the dark. From the darker depths, the qualities of things are not revealed through the normal daylight processes of reflected light entering the retina and creating images in the brain. The images created and qualities revealed from standing below come in an entirely different manner. To gain insight from the dark, we hone our nighttime senses… Imagination, feeling, intuition, paradox, poetry. Rejected, exiled, and invisible parts may be revealed.
If I want to comprehend my partner and my self, to gain insight into my marriage or relationship, I might be tempted to use the senses I know best; daylight senses, senses of sight. I might climb the mountain of rationality in order to obtain a brightly lit view from above. This I do regularly, in my personal life and in my professional practice. This broad, well lit view gives valuable perspective and helps create the maps we use to navigate the terrain of relationships and life; the view from above gives us family systems theory, attachment theory, cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness practice, general discernment, a sense of morality, and so much more. But the map is not the terrain, and some of the most important parts of the terrain are actually sub-terrains. To penetrate these sub-terrains means going below, where it’s dark.
Synchronistically, this poem was shared with me by a Farsi-speaking friend as I was working on this article. Hafiz would have needed to venture below in order to understand that which he gleaned about loneliness; something hidden, elusive –
Don’t surrender your loneliness
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My need of God
From above, from normal daylight perspectives loneliness is something to be avoided. Hafiz’s insight comes not from viewing the sunlit surface of loneliness, but from descending below it, standing under, and feeling its soft underbelly.
In my own poem below I too needed to descend beneath the obvious daylight judgements and beliefs on the topic of failure in order to find hidden insight –
Oh failure –
take me in
work me like
my shape, my
Breathe life into
me, real life,
the life that
raw, to the
brothers, to the
loneliness at the
end of my
street, to the
Oh failure –
cradle me and
then kick me
out, drop me
off, let me go
With your wounds
and your blessings
I can find
To truly under-stand a thing like loneliness or failure or love or relationships we may need to delve deeply into the underside, where time runs errant, rivers run backwards, and daylight fails to penetrate. An underneath perspective that includes unknowing, dreaming, and nightmares may be required. This underneath perspective must be in some way temporarily (few want to take up permanent residence) entered; not merely viewed from a safe distance.
Disintegration and initiation
To enter the below places, initiation is in order. For the client couples in my counselling practice this initiation into the non-rational, imaginative, disorienting, contrary, and sometimes nightmarish underside of people and things takes the form of a disintegrating marriage or relationship. This initiation is painful and frightening, and like all initiations we go it alone, but we also join others who have come before. It’s lonely, but it softens too. It feels like failure, but it opens us up.
A disintegrating marriage or relationship can provide the disorientation necessary to give up daylight living for a time and descend to the deeper subterranean realms. From here we might stand under the marriage or relationship, under self or other, and in this standing under, in the dark, in the depth, we might discover a different sort of insight.
The insights we get from descending, from going below, from standing under do not necessarily tell us the “why” of a thing, but rather they reveal other hidden qualities: texture, flavour, depth, and meaning.
From below, we might not learn the cause and effect equation that explains why our spouse makes such a great friend, but a lousy lover. Perhaps their clingy neediness (or our own) still resists a rational explanation. But… we might glimpse the depth of their desire. Or their pain. Or their dilemma. Or our own. This might not solve a problem directly, but it deepens our experience, which can have an unexpected impact, and can change everything.
Years ago I went to a couples counselling session with my partner. It was through my partner’s health benefits plan; half hour sessions, brisk, with a problem-solving focus. At the time I was quite withdrawn in the relationship. Like many of my clients today, I felt hopeless. Frustrated. Resentful.
We found the office building; large, concrete and glass; we paid for parking, entered the building, took the elevator up in silence. The receptionist had us wait for a few minutes, then we entered the tiny office and met a smartly dressed woman who wanted to know the problem. My partner spoke in her soft prepared voice and I recall saying very little.
I never went back to meet with that counsellor, although my partner did. In their next session the counsellor encouraged my partner to leave me. She mistook my quietness to be disinterest, and she quickly drew the conclusion that if I was unwilling to speak up in our first counselling session and unwilling to return for a second then I must be finished with the relationship. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth.
It is true that I kept my deeper feelings hidden during that first counselling session. It’s also true that the counsellor was not interested in understanding my experience from the point of view of “standing under.”
She made no attempts and showed no interest in delving deeper into the experience that was hidden below my surface. She was apparently a counsellor of surfaces, of daylight comprehension only, of clinical reports and checkmarks. Getting under surfaces was not part of her practice. I don’t hold any of this against her. She works in a high volume, get-it-done-in-four-to-six-sessions, insurance provider paid, utilitarian, fix it paradigm.
Understanding a relationship from the point of view of standing under, of depth, of soft underbellies and hidden treasure; this takes time. It probably can’t be done in four or six half hour sessions. The real work of understanding has nothing to do with an intention toward solutions or fixing, it has to do with curiosity, capacity, courage, and a willingness to be profoundly mistaken.
The kind of understanding that we generally seek, daytime understanding, the brightly lit view from above, results in answers, equations, explanations that are testable and replicable. The kind of understanding that comes from descending into the dark spaces and standing under a thing or person or relationship, this never provides dependable data. It gives us nothing to count on. It stirs rather than calms. And yet stirring is often in order, and stirring always gives way to calm, eventually, though not on our timeline or according to our agenda.
While the counselling experience I’ve described was certainly not immediately satisfying or recognizably beneficial at the time, in retrospect it deepened certain things, and that deepening came to be illuminating. By having my depths and hidden parts essentially ignored and dismissed by a professional couples counsellor, by an expert, I was forced to confront my own depths and my own legitimacy directly. I increased my trust in myself. What choice did I really have? And I had a laugh too, mixed with the tears. I mean, who goes to couples counselling early in their own counselling career and has their counsellor tell your wife she should leave you?! That is some seriously funny shit! There seems often to be a kind of poignancy that comes with the bittersweet.
These days I will sometimes find myself in session with a couple where one person has very little or nothing to say. I remember my own experience, and I consider what it means to understand in the way I’ve described in this writing. I let the quiet one be quiet. I let myself stand under their reluctance and their silence. Sometimes I even prop it up from below – “It’s OK to have nothing to say right now. You can take your time. You’re welcome to just listen. I trust that you’ll contribute when you’re ready.” I know there are hidden worlds below the brightly lit uncomfortable silence. I know the silence has its reasons and its own hidden nature.
Daylight understanding, with its maps, formulas, cause and effect equations, and defensible rationalities has many benefits, but the darker kind of understanding, where you feel your way from below is also called for. Experiment with both. Practice moving between upper and lower worlds as you seek insight and satisfaction in relationships, love, and life.
Intimacy is one of those tender topics that comes up every day in my counselling work with couples. There’s a lot of confusion about what intimacy actually is. Intimacy often gets confused with sex, and while they are related experiences, they are also distinct.
Intimacy is the feeling that comes from revealing our inner self to be actively witnessed by another. Intimacy can feel extremely gratifying for some people, but can also be frightening or confusing. Revealing ourselves is always risky. There is no guarantee that our inner self will be embraced by the other.
If we are not embraced for what we reveal, we may feel rejected or misunderstood. This too can be valuable, opening doors to further inquiry and understanding, and also perhaps most importantly, helping us build capacity for disappointment, for tolerating the experience of not getting the validation we crave. Thus we learn to validate ourselves, represent ourselves, soothe ourselves, accept ourselves, no matter how we are received. From this perspective, risking intimacy becomes a win/win opportunity.
Nonetheless, individual appetites and tolerances for intimacy vary. Intimacy doesn’t feel good for everyone. A mismatch between lovers in this regard can be a source of frustration, anger and disconnection. The person craving more intimacy may judge their partner to be cold or withdrawn. The person with less appetite or tolerance for intimacy may experience their partner as intrusive or overbearing.
Intimacy needs can differ between people in a relationship
It’s common to assume that our personal intimacy needs are “normal” and should be automatically met by our partner. It’s tempting to pathologize or condemn them when they fail to meet these needs. It’s also common in counselling for the counsellor to collude, consciously or unconsciously, with the person who wants more intimacy. Often (not always) it is a woman who wants more intimacy, and a man who doesn’t see a problem. Hence, perhaps, the cliche of the man who resists couples counselling. In my work I’m careful to take a value neutral approach to intimacy, honoring all personal preferences and capacities. Regardless of one’s personal tolerance or desire for intimacy, exploring the topic with curiosity is helpful and illuminating. (Intimacy is also discussed at length in my book Conscious Kink for Couples – click here to read a sample.)
Liz and Colin appeared to have extremely different emotional experiences and needs. In their own words, Colin was rock solid; Liz was a rollercoaster. By the time they came to me for help Liz was ready to pull the plug on the relationship. She carried a lot of anxiety, and we talked openly about the impact it had on the relationship.
Liz also was very clear that she wanted a deeper level of emotional engagement with a partner, and she wasn’t sure Colin could provide it. Colin repeatedly stated his willingness to “do anything” to help Liz get her needs met.
This “can-do” attitude seemed consistent with his overall character and his way of moving through the world in general. Colin was good at holding a vision and making sacrifices as he worked for future goals. An interesting implication of this was that there was a sense of him always existing somewhere off in the future… somewhere else. But Liz wanted to feel him in the present, here and now. She would get so frustrated that she would question his love for her. This would launch him into an incredulous defense about how everything he does is for the relationship, which was probably true.
By his own admission, Colin did not understand what Liz was really asking of him. In session, I saw an opportunity to potentially help him get a taste of what she was looking for –
Me: “Colin, I’m noticing that even as Liz talks about leaving the relationship, a relationship you obviously care about, you don’t seem emotionally phased. What’s going on inside right now?”
Colin: “I’m thinking about what I’ll need to do to take care of myself. New apartment, that kind of thing.”
Me: “You automatically start thinking about how to deal effectively with whatever change might be on the horizon. You’re good at recovering from setbacks and at strategizing. It’s one of your gifts.”
Me: “I’m going to ask you to back up a step, and check out what it feels like to hear that Liz is considering ending the relationship. Start with your body. What kind of sensations do you feel in your body when you hear Liz’s words?
Colin: (Pause) “I feel an emptiness in my belly.”
Me: “That makes sense. Stay with that sensation of emptiness in your belly. In this moment there’s nothing to do about it. Just let yourself feel it fully. (Pause) What’s the emotion that comes with that emptiness?”
Colin: “Fearfulness. I’m afraid of having no one to lean on.”
Me: “Ah. Yes. It’s scary to be alone. Again, I don’t want you to strategize your way out of this feeling quite yet. Are you willing to stay with the feeling of fear a little longer?”
Liz had been desperate to connect emotionally with Colin, but she didn’t know how to get through to him. Colin had tried everything he knew to care for the relationship, but he genuinely did not understand what she wanted. In those few minutes of our session together, Colin stayed with his uncomfortable feelings without automatically moving into problem solving mode. Importantly, he was also revealing this inner experience to Liz. This was intimacy, feeling Colin expose his tender feelings. This is what Liz was starving for. This is what made her feel connected.
Feelings… Strength or weakness?
It was unfamiliar and counter-intuitive territory for Colin. He considered his ability to bypass his feelings and get a job done to be a great strength of his, and he’s right, to a point. It IS valuable to be able to feel lousy and still get stuff done, but not always. In this case Colin was tasked with something different, a new addition to his repertoire. No matter how vigorously he used the old tools he knew so well, they would never be satisfying for Liz unless some occasional insight into his feeling self was also included.
I made it clear to Colin that he was under no obligation to change his way of doing things. This was all optional. It’s not our “job” to meet our partner’s needs, it’s a gift we give to each other, and a way of answering the calling of the relationship itself. Sometimes, in an unexpected moment of clarity or insight, we might feel like it’s a gift we give ourselves too. For Colin, this encouragement, this permission to have his emotional experience, and to share it with his partner, to have it be welcome, this was something strange and new. It turned out that he found some pleasure in it, enough to spark his curiosity and create willingness to experiment further.
Toward the end of our session, Colin confided that he had never really felt okay with sharing his emotional experience. He felt pressure as a man to minimize his emotions in order to perform in the world. I found this to be quite insightful, and to match my own observations about gender expectations and social conditioning.
Colin felt vulnerable revealing his emotionality, and he simultaneously felt some satisfaction in it. Vulnerability is a necessary part of revealing our inner self to our partner. When we reveal our inner experience, there is no guarantee that it will be received favorably. We risk rejection, judgement, ridicule. We might be tempted to mitigate this risk by securing carte blanche acceptance, unconditional love, or validation from our partner in advance, “You have to promise you won’t get mad…”, but this undermines real intimacy, which requires us to risk being ourselves no matter the consequences. Only when we risk revealing who we are inside, and accept the possible consequences, can we experience intimacy. Meeting our spouse in this vulnerable place of risk and uncertainty connects us to some alive part of ourselves. We feel bonded and strangely powerful even as we also feel uncertain and fragile. Paradox abounds.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?
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.
“… 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 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.”
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.
On Friday I wrote a short piece called Why women leave men they love – What every man needs to know. Three days later 500,000 people had read it. Something struck a chord. People are reading the article and seeing themselves. Many, many women have shared their relief at knowing they are not alone in their desire for deeper connection.
Men are responding too. “Presence is so damned hot!” says one. Another laments “If only I’d read this two years ago.” A few have pointed out that the roles are reversible, that men want the same things and suffer in similar ways. I agree. Which begs the question – Why are women so much more likely to show up in my office BEFORE they drop the hammer, while men tend to wait until AFTER the hammer is dropped?
We’re ALL subject to social patterns and structures, and gender figures heavily. Assigning blame is a dead-end that always gets us less of what we truly want. Trying to understand what drives our behaviour – collectively, individually and in marriages is potentially enlightening. And so I take the approach of inquiry.
Let’s start with Why are women staying in marriages for years when their husband is emotionally absent? I’ve had numerous women confide that their relationship strategy is basically this: Somehow hold out until the kids are grown, then bye-bye. Which leads us to… Men – how did you not see this coming? Why did you do nothing? (Again, you can flip the gender to suit you.)
Frustrating as the questions are, honest answers exist. I hear them all the time, but never through smiling lips.
I didn’t know any other way.
I hoped it would get better.
I was busy with work.
That’s just the way it is.
I didn’t want to screw up the kids.
These sorts of answers can make us want to confront our partner with “ARGHHH… but, but, but… you, you, you…” But it’s confronting ourselves that will reap benefits:
I wanted to avoid conflict so I abdicated my responsibility to myself.
I always got away with it, so I kept doing it.
I feel lost and disconnected from my own life.
I didn’t know I even deserved attention.
Forgive me if I make self-awareness sound easy. The insights above can be extremely hard-won. Of course it takes time, and tears, to get to this place of acknowledging our own part in a painful relationship. We avoid it because it offends our ego. But truth wants to find you.
Therapist David Schnarch says something like “Only marriage can prepare you for marriage.” What he means is that the problems we encounter in relationship are the right ones, at the right time. They reflect our current level of maturity or development. No one expects someone in eighth grade to ace grade twelve exams. But that doesn’t mean exam time isn’t stressful for everyone.
Once we begin coming to terms with the reality of a relationship in crisis, we may turn our attention to how we respond in the face of change. Change happens. It’s not negotiable. Yesterday’s experiences changed us, and we are different today. Our choice lies in how we align ourselves with the change process.
Whether or not a couple chooses to stay together when they hit their crisis point, some kind of change will be required. Often one partner makes a decision that changes everything. That’s reality. Avoiding reality has big costs. As Byron Katie observes “When you argue with reality, you lose, but only 100% of the time.” So do we actively participate in the reality of change, accepting the discomfort and uncertainty along with the exhilaration of growth? Or do we resist because change is scary and painful? (Hint – the first one gives us more and better options.)
They feel terrible about it. It tears the heart out of them. But they do it. They rally their courage and their resources and they leave. Women leave men with whom they have children, homes and lives. Women leave for many reasons, but there’s one reason in particular that haunts me, one that I want men to understand:
Women leave because their man is not present. He’s working, golfing, gaming, watching TV, fishing… the list is long. These aren’t bad men. They’re good men. They’re good fathers. They support their family. They’re nice, likeable. But they take their wife for granted. They’re not present.
Women in my office tell me “Someone could come and sweep me off my feet, right out from under my husband.” Sometimes the realization scares them. Sometimes they cry.
Men – I’m not saying this is right or wrong. I’m telling you what I see. You can get as angry or hurt or indignant as you want. Your wife is not your property. She does not owe you her soul. You earn it. Day by day, moment to moment. You earn her first and foremost with your presence, your aliveness. She needs to feel it. She wants to talk to you about what matters to her and to feel you hearing her. Not nodding politely. Not placating. Definitely not playing devil’s advocate.
She wants you to feel her. She doesn’t want absent-minded groping or quick release sex. She wants to feel your passion. Can you feel your passion? Can you show her? Not just your passion for her or for sex; your passion for being alive. Do you have it? It’s the most attractive thing you possess. 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 you think you’re present with your wife, try listening to her. Does your mind wander? Notice. When you look at her, how deeply do you see her? Look again, look deeper. Meet her gaze and keep it for longer than usual, longer than comfortable. If she asks what you’re doing, tell her. “I’m looking into you. I want to see you deeply. I’m curious about who you are. After all these years I still want to know who you are every day.” But only say it if you mean it, if you know it’s true.
Touch her with your full attention. Before you lay your hand on her, notice the sensation in your hand. Notice what happens the moment you make contact. What happens in your body? What do you feel? Notice the most subtle sensations and emotions. (This is sometimes called mindfulness.) Tell her about what you’re noticing, moment to moment.
But you’re busy. You don’t have time for this. How about five minutes? Five minutes each day. Will you commit to that? I’m not talking about extravagant dinners or nights out (although those are fine too). I’m talking about five minutes every day to be completely present to the woman you share your life with. To be completely open – hearing and seeing without judgement. Will you do that? I bet once you start, once you get a taste, you won’t want to stop.
<Note – The gender dynamic outlined above is reversible. It can go both ways.>