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.
(Note – I borrowed much from the late James Hillman for this writing, especially the linking of understanding to “standing under” as outlined in his provocative and difficult book The Dream and the Underworld.)
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