Must Our Histories Cast a Shadow on Love?

Can love really be easy? Can relationships be easy? Or do our darker sides, our shadows, that are born out of neglect, abuse, or lack of nurturance early in life—result in us having to work hard to love and be loved? Do our early life emotional deficits—as well as rejection and failed relationships later in life—create fear, mistrust and self-doubt that will require hard work to overcome?

Do I need my partner to trigger me?

The notion that relationships are hard work is supported by statements of Harville Hendrix, famous author of Getting The Love You Want. He claims that we are drawn to partners who unconsciously remind us of both the positive and negative traits of our parents, and serve us by triggering our childhood wounds. Or another famous therapist, Dick Schwartz, who coined the term “tor-mentor” to describe our partners, because he believes our partners torment us as a means of promoting our growth.

And then, of course, there is Freud who introduced the idea of repetition compulsion, which suggests that we have an incomplete dynamic with one of our parents, usually of the opposite sex, and that as adults we look for someone with whom we can complete the dynamic. For example, maybe as a young child I was unable to connect fully with my mother because she was a rager. I then grow up and look for another person, probably a woman, who behaves in similar ways—raging—so that I can satisfy my childhood desire to get a raging woman to love me.

The problem with trying to resolve this dynamic from my childhood is that I will be attracted to someone who rages and isn’t easy to connect with. That’s why I was never satisfied when I was young—I couldn’t easily connect with my mother when she was raging—and I won’t be able to easily connect with a woman today when she is raging.

Accepting the hole in my heart makes me more whole

The solution is to accept that I will live with this hole in my heart forever. It is a hole that cannot be filled by relating with a woman who rages. I may be able to fill that hole by connecting with another kind of woman, but the original desire—connecting with a woman who rages—will forever go unmet. Paradoxically, when I accept my hole I become more whole.

I strongly believe it is a mistake to stay in painful relationships in which our childhood wounds are triggered and justify staying based on the belief that the relationship is necessary for our growth. There are three things we can do to avoid such relationships and ensure our growth.

  1. We individuate from our parents so that we don’t unnecessarily try to resolve our parental issues with our partner.
  2. We individuate from our partner by open heartedly, and with humor, shining light on our shadows.
  3. We learn to access heart consciousness, experiencing love that is not dependent on any other person, and this makes love easier when we do find the right person.

In our work, Hannah and I model and teach that love can be easy. But, we also support people in working with their “shadow” aspects. What does “shadow” mean? To me, it has to do with the aspects of myself that I deny; therefore I keep them hidden in the shadows. I avoid owning the aspects of myself that I find embarrassing, disappointing or confusing, which include some of my beliefs, behaviors, needs, and fears.

Shadows fade in the light

People often equate their “shadow” or “dark” aspects to being “bad” or “wrong.” But I don’t think of my shadow aspects as bad, rather they are aspects of myself with which I am uncomfortable. And shining light on my shadows is part of the solution—and this too can be easy. But so often we hear things like, “You have to be courageous to confront these parts of yourself,” or “You need to be brave to look into the abyss.”

As soon as one suggests that it requires courage to do something, that presupposes that it will be hard. But what if we do away with the idea of courage—and stop anticipating that what we need to do will be hard? Then, facing my shadows can be easy. Think of it this way, all I’m doing is embracing notions I have about myself. After all, what is a shadow? It’s an idea, a critical judgment I hold. It’s not the Truth.

You may respond by saying, “Well, I did a terrible thing, I committed adultery and I’m ashamed of myself.”

Okay, that’s not usually a “good” thing—committing adultery—but it is an experience and it is up to you how you use that experience to shape your life. I’m not trying to minimize one’s poor behavior, I’m saying, “own it, learn from it, grow into a better person.” As Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self.”

The 3 R’s

There are 3 R’s that make it easy to work with our shadow aspects.

1) Remembering that I tell myself stories . . . about my childhood, my previous relationships, my failures and limitations—and although the details of my stories may be accurate—the meaning I make, the conclusions I reach, are all made up. When I remember this, I stop taking myself, my stories and my explanations for why I am the way I am so seriously. The point is to become aware of the stories I tell myself, to become aware of my shadow, without over-identifying and thinking “that is me.”

2) Realizing that everything is temporary helps me shine light on my shadows, allowing them to change, evolve, become transparent so that they no longer stimulate the same kind of emotional response. It is my resistance to my shadows that sustains them.

3) Revealing the purpose of my shadows frees me from my shadows. For example, as soon as I reveal that I am afraid of intimacy—which is a very intimate thing to reveal—my shadow is no longer in hiding and once it comes out into the sunlight it is no longer a shadow.

Now, I want to come full circle back to the idea that love can be easy. Easy is not the same as lazy. In our marriage, Hannah and I pay a great deal of attention to our relating. We don’t think of it as hard work, in part, because we nip any problems in the bud, before they become too big and scary. Additionally, we remind each other that we are best friends and our intentions are to be kind and helpful. This is the context within which we relate.

We never use the notion that “love can be easy” as an excuse to avoid a difficult conversation or walk away from our discomfort. We never say, “Well, if this isn’t easy then it isn’t meant to be.” Instead, we say, “Love can be easy even if this moment feels challenging so what do we need to do differently?”

Having individuated from our parents made it easier for us to form a healthy relationship, and we have intentionally focused on individuating from one another. In hindsight, if we had access to the tools of Live Conscious, the entire individuating process would have been faster and more graceful. And, without those tools I don’t believe we could have ever arrived at the space we’re in today, making love easy.

If you want to take a bold step, complete the Personal Information Form, which will help you—and us—determine if it makes sense for you to attend one of our retreats. In all the retreats we do the combination of the bright sunlight and being part of the Live Conscious community make it possible to move past your shadows and learn new ways to be in relationship . . . with yourself and others.

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