You might want to believe you’re on a single, united journey together, but that would not be entirely true. You can be sure that they have their own journey to make; sometimes your partner’s journey will interlock seamlessly with your own, sometimes it will diverge, causing unrest and friction.
Their journey, one way or another, will eventually take them from you. There is no other way. If not by choice or circumstance, time will catch up and death will come between you. Contemplate this truth. Remind yourself often, even until it breaks you. Then maybe you grieve for the loss to come, and learn to hold on lightly to what you have, for it is not yours to keep.
Your partner’s journey includes their own discoveries and challenges, their own hard decisions, sacrifices, dilemmas, and predicaments. Your partner’s journey will have them facing their own heart-break, their own dark nights of the soul.
Parts of their journey will need to be faced alone
Some of your partner’s journey will inevitably need to be faced alone, no matter how much you love them, how much you need them, how much you want to protect, rescue, or soothe them. The same, of course, is true in reverse.
Much of the art of relationship is about how we honour our partner’s journey even as we honour our own, how we navigate the borders and boundaries that keep us as two even as we move as one. Your relationship asks this of you – Can you recognize the unbreakable sovereignty of both you and your partner even as you dance in the longing for some kind of permanent “we”?
What does presence mean in a relationship, and why does it matter so much? I will sometimes hear a client lament that their partner does not feel “present” in the relationship. This feeling of lack, so acutely felt by one person, can be a complete mystery to their partner. I’ll have someone tell me in session, “My partner says I’m not present in our relationship… I have no idea what they mean.”
Here’s the short answer, then we’ll dig deeper into the question:
When your partner complains that you are not present in your relationship they usually mean you are distracted – in your head, on your phone, checked out, too tired etc – but underneath it probably also means that you are unable to meet them emotionally. There might be good reasons for this. You might find their emotions confusing, overwhelming, or even boring. You might not be used to engaging with someone on an emotional level (many people are raised in non-emotional or overly-emotional households and do not learn emotional skills). You might even feel cut off from your own emotions. Or maybe you just don’t enjoy emotional closeness as much as your partner does, which is fair, and is probably a good thing to explicitly tell them.
The primary definition of presence in the dictionary is pretty straightforward – “the state or fact of existing, occurring” – but not very helpful. Clearly you exist, but existing or occurring is not always enough to be felt as present. The kind of presence we talk about in relationship is about the particular quality of your presence… how you show up… how you are experienced by your partner.
A second definition of presence sheds more light, “the bearing, carriage, or air of a person.” Here we begin to see how the mere fact of existing is necessarily coloured by particular qualities. But what are these qualities? What sort of bearing or carriage are we talking about?
A third definition of presence deepens the mystery, but also reveals a clue, “a person or thing that exists or is present in a place but is not seen; something (such as a spirit) felt or believed to be present.” Ah! The kind of presence that many hunger for in a relationship (maybe you, maybe your partner) is actually invisible! In a sense this is true. The kind of presence desired in a relationship may be more felt than seen; it is the spirit in which you present yourself.
In what sort of spirit do you typically present yourself to your partner? It’s a good question. A spirit of curiosity? A spirit of problem-solving or solutions? A spirit of exhaustion? Limited attention? A spirit of acceptance? A spirit of denial? A spirit of confidence? Vulnerability? Receptivity? A spirit of skepticism? What is your typical bearing, carriage, or air? The possible answers are infinite, but probably you habitually show up in a narrow and predictable way just like most of us.
When a person complains that their partner is not “present” they usually mean that they do not feel seen, known, and engaged. They feel invisible, alone, and disconnected.
Presence in this sense is first about paying attention and not being distracted. Having your wits about you. Being solid, grounded, in the moment. Presence also implies a certain kind of non-judgemental attitude, a capacity to listen and to hear. When we are present with our partner we give them our attention and we allow them to be as they are. This kind of presence is simple, but also sophisticated. And these days it can be rare.
This kind of presence is also closely associated with the feeling of intimacy (I explain this more fully in my bookThe Re-Connection Handbook for Couples). This feeling runs deep for many, and it can become a deal-maker or deal-breaker in a relationship.
How to practice being present
If we want to learn to be more present in our relationship we must put aside our agenda for our partner. Most of us have an idea of how our partner could be improved – how they could be better, more happy, or more effective if only they would change this or that habit or way of being. This agenda for our partner is incompatible with being truly present. You can come back to your partner improvement plan another time, but if you want to practice being present you’ll need to put it aside for now.
Being present has zero to do with changing, fixing, or problem solving. To be present, we must develop a tolerance for the contradictions and dilemmas that our partner reveals. Our mind must remain receptive and clear, or these contradictions and dilemmas will get stuck in there and make noise, and soon we find ourselves offering advice or trying to fix our partner; in that moment our presence has disappeared, and our partner feels the pain of its absence.
Sometimes our partner has a criticism of us. If the criticism seems particularly unkind or unfair, our defences will likely kick in. As soon as we go into defence mode we have lost the spirit of presence. Addressing our partner’s criticism may be necessary, but first take a few moments to hear what your partner is really saying. Pause. Experiencing you as present, listening, attentive, might have a disarming effect. Sometimes this turns out to be all that is required.
Being present doesn’t mean being invincible; this isn’t about armouring yourself. You’re still allowed to feel the impact of your partner’s words and actions. In fact, being present makes you more sensitive, not less, but it also makes you more capable of tolerating emotional discomforts.
It also doesn’t mean being an emotional punching bag or doormat. We can potentially argue and defend ourselves and still remain present, but it’s hard to do both at once. And sometimes presence might not be called for, might not be the goal. It’s not like you have to be 100% present at all times. That would probably be exhausting. Nonetheless, for many people a move toward more presence in the relationship is called for and will have positive effects. Sometimes it turns a failing relationship around.
Being present first to your own inner experience helps you respond skillfully and accurately to your partner. When we are present to our own experience as well as simultaneously being present to our partner’s, we are better able to sort out our own emotionality. For example, being present allows us to discern between our hurt feelings and our anger, and thus gives us the opportunity to cut to the truth and then respond accordingly. Being present to yourself really just means that you know what you are feeling, that you’re familiar with yourself from the inside out.
Much non-presence stems from an unwillingness to see and feel without too much judgement. When we can not tolerate the truth of our self or our partner, and this is common, we will not allow ourselves to be truly present.
Presence, sex, and eroticism
It’s worth noting that the kind of presence we are talking about here can be a crucial factor for feelings of sexual connection. Without the feeling of presence in a partner, many people (especially women) do not become aroused, even if they wish it were otherwise. Presence in this sense is not the same as mere familiarity (nor opposite to it) but is instead related to the immediacy and the aliveness of the moment; presence indicates aliveness, and in a sexual context has a particular kind of feel.
This feeling of erotic presence and aliveness is difficult to define and to talk about. If we don’t have a clear understanding of it or a shared language for discussing it, the lack of erotic presence becomes all the more frustrating and damaging to the relationship.
Making your presence felt
Demonstrating presence sends our partner the message that we truly see them, that they are known. This tends to have a moderating effect on the nervous systems of both involved; it calms us down and reduces anxiety, and it just generally feels good. Regardless of the content of our verbal interactions, experiencing each other as present feels good and satisfying on a fundamental, non-verbal level.
Being present to our partner and sensing their presence with us is a way to build trust and goodwill. When this trust and goodwill is available we feel nourished from our interactions, and we are able to better weather the storms of life; we experience more enjoyment in the relationship, and more gratitude for each other. Presence also helps us navigate conflict when it arises. Presence is helpful and appropriate in times of relationship peace, love, conflict, and war.
Presence doesn’t come naturally to everybody, but it can be practiced and learned.
The first prerequisite for being present is an ability to tolerate emotion, yours and your partners. Sometimes this means tolerating strong emotions. If you habitually avoid conflict (or instigate it) you’ll need to address this one way or another.
Other qualities of presence to practice include –
Can you be curious about your partner and their experience (maybe you think you know everything about them already)? Can you be curious about your own as well?
Let all your senses be open to this person. Notice all that they are communicating, verbally and also subtly, through body language, tone etc. Let the raw data wash over you, do not get stuck in interpretation.
Notice how your body and mind automatically reacts to your partner. Where does your body tense up? Where does it collapse? What are the words, stories, images that run through your mind as you are present to your partner?
It isn’t the time to judge them wrong or right, good or bad. Let them be as they are. Practice moral neutrality. (Note – Discernment, aka judgement, is often necessary and appropriate, but it’s also worth putting it aside for a time in order to be present in a more simple and direct way.)
It takes courage to face someone exactly as they are!
Your partner’s experience isn’t yours. Feeling the boundary between you rather than taking what they say personally helps you be more present.
Even if you’re in conversation, practice listening deeply when it’s your time to listen.
Presence has a strong physiological aspect as well as mental, emotional, and psychological. Feeling “grounded” in your own body is necessary in order to be present to another. In fact, your partner’s body silently and automatically reads your body for cues (and vice versa) in every moment. These cues either agitate or calm their own physiological systems.
To optimize your own physiology so as to communicate the right kind of presence and send the right cues, use these tips –
1. Sit or stand tall and comfortably with your shoulders comfortably back.
2. Face your partner. Let the front of your body face the front of their body. Now let the front of your body soften and relax. This softened front body signals receptivity and willingness to engage.
3. Maintain eye contact, possibly more than usual.
4. Soften your facial features. This sends a signal to your nervous system (and your partner’s) that all is well.
5. Bring your awareness to your breath, to its natural pattern of rising and falling. If your breath is shallow, try deepening it. Keep your breath slow and deep, steady and strong, natural and relaxed. Let yourself feel nourished by your breath. If you notice yourself becoming agitated, falling into reaction or judgement, or otherwise losing your quality of presence, bring your attention back to the sensations of your breath rising and falling. Let the steady rhythm of your breath be the place that your quality of presence comes from.
Adopting a physical posture of presence along with the qualities of curiosity, awareness, self-awareness, non-judgement, courage, differentiation, and listening will make your presence feel even more powerful and satisfying for both of you.
Learning to improve your quality of presence in your marriage or relationship is a lifelong practice that pays big dividends. Use the instructions and outline above to hone your practice. A basic mindfulness meditation practice can also help. If you need more support, talk to a counsellor, coach, or therapist.
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. Francois was resentful, and he 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.
The end of a relationship or marriage can feel like death. Grief is an appropriate response. This means anger, sadness, denial might all arise.
It’s visceral. Breathing is hard. You can’t sleep. For the person being left it can feel like the end of the world. You wonder if you’ll even survive. To say you’re hurt and confused or angry is too little. It feels much bigger, like everything has been turned upside down and shaken, like the ground has disappeared under your feet.
Along with negotiating urgent practical matters like finances, housing and parenting, you might also come face to face with abandonment, rejection and self-esteem issues, some of which may have been dormant and are arising for the first time.
This is a very, very tender spot to find yourself. It’s immensely uncomfortable. In my work as a counsellor I notice patterns and common tendencies in my clients. I’ve also identified opportunities and choice-points for moving forward in a healthy way. Here are five principles that can help –
1. Feel what you feel
Feelings aren’t negotiable. They can’t be wrong. They simply are. It’s important to feel what you feel. When we deny uncomfortable emotions they come back to haunt us, or they drive our behaviour from underneath consciousness, without our active consent. Rule of thumb – there’s no need to either encourage or deny feelings. Notice them, name them (“I feel sad”) and watch them change over time. Note – Anger is a feeling. Fear is a feeling. Sadness is a feeling. “S/He’s a control freak” isn’t a feeling. (More on that in a future article.)
2. Take thoughtful action
We don’t necessarily choose our feelings, although we choose how we act on them. As much as noticing our feelings is important, it would be a mistake to act on them without consulting our rational, thinking self. The trouble is, when strong feelings are present we don’t have much access to the part of our brain that makes well-considered choices. Take some time. Let feelings settle before you make important decisions around child custody, financial agreements or emails to the in-laws. Breathe.
3. Get support, but not from your (ex)partner
The person who is leaving the relationship is almost certainly not the person to help you cope with the pain you feel. You might feel extremely needy or drawn to this person right now. Do not give in to the urge to seek comfort there, especially if it is not offered. If you are holding out hope for reconciliation, say so, but then get support elsewhere. Seeing you pick yourself up, brush yourself off and take support from others is the most attractive thing about you right now in your (ex)partner’s eyes. Turn to friends, family and community for support. Tell them what helps, and what doesn’t. Find a counsellor or therapist that you trust.
4. Stay open, even when it hurts
When we feel hurt and angry we look for an explanation. We want to understand. We assume we shouldn’t feel this way, that it’s a big problem. And so we search for a reason. The reason we find is almost always some version of I’m bad or They’re bad or The world is bad. What these three positions all offer is a way out of the confusion. Assigning cause (blame) does relieve some tension. The problem is that each of these three beliefs locks us into an adversarial relationship – with self, with other, or with reality (the world). I’m not saying that your relationship ending wasn’t caused by you or them or the unfairness of the world. But getting too fixated on any of those causes makes you rigid and closed to possibilities that might be just around the corner.
5. Help others
This piece of advice was given to me by a friend over a decade ago when a relationship was ending and I was in deep pain. His simple and wise words led me to the act of writing this for you now. Helping others gets us out of our own head and puts us in direct contact with the universal experience of suffering. Everybody hurts. Help someone. Share their pain, and feel your own soften.