Read the full story here: Loving, 50 Years Later
In hospital in 1972, Paula Keogh fell in love with the poet Michael Dransfield. In her new memoir she captures the voice of her illness and the man she loved
There’s a story Marie de Hennezel likes to tell about a 99-year-old woman, a resident of a small French retirement village, who would regularly harm herself by masturbating with whatever she could get…
Read the full story here: Sex after 60: What’s age got to do with it?
“To exercise power costs effort and demands courage. That is why so many fail to assert rights to which they are perfectly entitled – because a right is a kind of power but they are too lazy or too cowardly to exercise it. The virtues which cloak these faults are called
patience and forbearance.” (Nietzsche: Human, All too Human)
There are names flung at women like me. When I was younger, men could hardly make up their minds as to whether I was a cock tease or an easy lay. It didn’t bother me at all. I grew up in a very liberal town in South Africa, where the boys were sweet. They were happy to kiss for days and days, spent hours pleasuring their girlfriends with their hands and, I think, took pride in just taking their time about things. No-one ever came near to forcing me into doing anything I wasn’t ready for.
As a teenager, I got dumped by a boy I really liked because he wanted to have sex and I didn’t. He was gorgeous. Older than me by a few years and I adored him. We weren’t ever really ‘in’ a relationship. I used to go around to his house and lie on his bed with him and chat. He was madly handsome and very gentle and sensitive. I realised that it was getting impossible for him when his mum took me aside and told me that I should stop leading him on. He contacted me recently on fb. We had the best memories of each other. I sent him a private message. “Thank you for never forcing me to do anything I wasn’t ready for.”
Shortly before my sixteenth birthday, I discovered that I was falling crazily in love with another ex’s best friend. I couldn’t bear all the fuss around, ‘giving away’ my virginity. So, I slept with someone else. Someone I wasn’t crazy about, but liked a lot. I mean, we ‘got on’. Then I left him. To pursue the young man, I was deeply enamoured with. The first night we were ever together, he refused to do anything but lie next to me. It was utterly marvellous and romantic. If, when we did have sex, he felt disappointed that I was no longer a virgin, he didn’t say. He certainly never asked me who or when or why. Nor did I venture the tell.
Unfortunately, for all concerned, I found that I enjoyed sex rather a lot. I also discovered I had a bit of a wandering eye. A lot of a wandering eye. And hands. Sixteen was tumultuous for me at any rate. I left home, went to a cram college and had three or four intense relationships. I behaved appallingly and carelessly with people’s hearts, following my own without remorse. Yet, I am still one of the few women I know of any age who is able to say: “I have never had sex with anyone that I didn’t want to.”
Given the appalling number of people I know who have been sexually abused – date rape, childhood abuse and sexual abuse even within relationships: this appears to be somewhat of a feat. I feel fortunate that at an early age, I fell in with a crowd of artists and intellectuals. Socialists, feminists, queers, rule-breakers, who made it clear that ‘No is No!’ The worst sex I ever had, was with someone out of this circle was a drummer in the pub band where I was bartending. His ego was as big as his 80s hair, and he seemed to think it was my duty to give him a blow-job without him taking part in any reciprocal pleasuring. It is as close as I have ever come to feeling abused in bed. I made sure to keep as wide a berth from both him and his hair afterwards, despite his superb drumming.
As someone who has recently started ‘dating’ again, ie thinking about having sex with people other than people I have either already known for years, or who are generally within my circles, the question of consent is really important to me. I would hate for there ever to be a situation in which my ‘No’ was construed as anything other than clear refusal.
I am aware of my own sensitivities around sex. When I was younger, I loved hook-up sex. In my late 20s, I prided myself on running a small ‘harem’ – I had a few men who I had regular casual sex with. We were happy to hook up at the bars/clubs we used to frequent and I found it perfectly acceptable for them to ring up or pop over. I have no idea if any of them knew about each other, and we never discussed what it was. It was clear. Hot sex. No relationship, little chat, just sex. Still, I would never have referred to any of these men as ‘fuck buddies’. They were, in the main, artists and performers like myself.
People with whom I had that elusive ‘chemistry’ that can tip an acquaintance into an object/subject of desire. We had chemistry and mostly were not interested in forming long term relationships. They were people who were part of the small, alternative art/political circuit in South Africa. Left-wing, socialist and in the main, influenced by feminist ideas. They were friends in the wider sense of being ‘comrades’ or ‘fellow travellers’. There was a marked absence of hostility or misogyny. I was never called out for my promiscuity, which was, at the time, probably quite refreshing. “No is No!” was never questioned and non-consensual sex was certainly viewed as uncool. It was perfectly acceptable to request non-penetrative sex if one desired. It was sex with all the openness and willingness of youth, innocence and gaining experience. As we all came from a small circle where we were bound to bump into each other, it was unlikely that anyone you had sex with would follow up an encounter with shameful freezing-out or non-acknowledgement, whether or not hook-ups turned into longer term arrangements. The artificiality of shame had not entered our lexicon. I liked to have sex as a fast way of getting to know someone. As Julie Burchill has claimed of her youth, it made sense to have sex with someone to see if I wanted to get to know them better.
Whenever I strayed too far from that circle, for example when I was doing a lot of meditation/self-development work in the 90s and meeting people from a much wider circle – hook-ups often became fraught. Men distanced themselves after the act. I became aware of the phenomena of ‘vagina dentata’, the toothed vagina. Apparently, some men are terrified that they can be addicted to someone via an attachment to their vagina. I found it curious. How could some men be so cool and others so fucked up? I mean, what was it about some men that they assumed as you had slept with them that you would automatically cease to be a person? “What? You used to look me in the eye and now all you can see is my needy vagina?” I had to ask myself, did feminists make better lovers? There were the men who hung out and if you had sex managed to keep their shit together; others didn’t, one lover went into meltdown the morning after and I had to pull him up short by saying, ‘Please behave yourself or I shall have forgotten you entirely by mid-morning.’ But there was still a sense of negotiation and I was never, thankfully, sent an unsolicited dick pic or experienced the assumption that I would welcome having someone’s cum all over my face.
Now, of course, I am talking about the pre-digital, pre-app age. Hook-ups were negotiated in meat space. There’s an awful lot you can tell about chemistry when your potential shag is four inches away from you and making eye contact. There is a lot of accountability when you know you will frequently run into that same person again and again and, within the confines of small circles of friends, you would most certainly know some of their ex or future lovers.
Love in the megacities throws up a whole host of possibilities for both instant gratification and anonymity. I am not particularly into hook-up culture now. As far as I am concerned, it is just another great thing that cis-gendered people have appropriated from queer culture and fucked up. Hook-up culture within queer culture may have been driven by utility and instant gratification, but was circumscribed by the nod and wink of counter-culture. Cis-gendered hook-ups can feel like the utility without the camaraderie and cordiality of acting against the status quo. It’s unsexy. There’s an odour of entering into sexual liaisons in bad faith, ie with the same mindset formerly employed for paid for services in prurient societies. I can’t be the only person to find it galling to be treated as if one had been bought on the marketplace rather than having entered into a free and fraternal exchange.
Perhaps I have been ruined by marriage and an unhealthy interest in creating intimacy. What does it mean? What happens if someone touches me and I find myself repulsed by the quality of their skin? How close can I let people in?
London, is a smorgasbord of opportunity. One must assume that it all works only because people have figured out consent. My friends who are into BDSM tell me that the most consensual sex they have had is within these relationships. There is an agreement around what will or won’t be done. Sexual chemistry and attraction is down to having a relationship of trust and where boundaries are respected.
Vanilla relationships, like the ones I have blundered into all my life, have far more blurred lines. Even as I write, I can’t help thinking of that fucking awful song. The misogyny that accompanies some internet posts – ‘Well you shouldn’t have been dressed like that’, ‘Shouldn’t have drunk like that’, ‘Shouldn’t have gone home with a strange man’. Fuck that. They should have heard their ‘No’ as ‘No’.
My friend who performs at the Poetry Brothel as ‘Wild Iris’ has a poem about it. She asks, ‘How many times did I have to say no?’ Well, the answer should be ‘once’. Just once.
I’m horrified by reports that young women are being sexually groped and assaulted at school, that often they are having anal before kissing, that they are being slut-shamed if they choose to be as open about sex as their male counterparts. That the rise and accessibility of porn means that young men think it is ok to come on someone’s face without permission, or to have penetration without preparation. In this arena, it is not just young people who have to be educated about what it means to have a live person in front of you. Almost everyone I know who has ventured into online dating or apps has, at some point, received ‘the unsolicited dick pic’ or been faced with inappropriate sexual content. The lines between instant access internet porn and instant access sex are not always clear. One person’s ‘date’ is another person’s ‘prelude to sex’. Ewwww is our most common expression.
There is, as antidote, a lot of discussion about consent. A re-invigorated interest in asserting that, ‘No is No!’ and beyond that, to moving the discussions to a more communicative, co-relational, ‘Yes is Yes’. I’m uncertain about the dynamics of that. I’d like to try it, though my soul shrinks at the thought of asking someone. ‘May I touch you?’ ‘May I kiss you?’ I’m embarrassed when I think of how I may have accosted men in my past. The assumption that ‘All men are up for it.’ I wonder what it would be like to take the lead, and ask, ‘May I……?’ It strikes me that maybe men also struggle to find the words to ask for what they want.
I was shagging an old friend. It was great and then out of the blue, he suggested anal. I said, ‘No’. ‘What?’ he replied. ‘You’ve never done anal?. It was early in the morning. I didn’t feel like explaining. The only anal I had ever had, had been consensual and spontaneous, but it had hurt for days after and I was sure I had been torn. It was not something I wanted to try again without lots of lube, analingus and condoms. And time. Lots of time. So I just said, ‘No. Not without lube and condoms’. So, bless him, he stumbled to the kitchen. I saw the light of the fridge reflected in the window. He came stumbling back, pleased with himself, with a great big blob of butter on his hand.
Immediately, I said, ‘Fuck you and your Bertolucci fantasies!’ To his credit, he sat down and flicked the blob of butter out of sight. I think that is the first time I felt anything near love for him. We continued to have hot, consensual sex, but if that had that happened with a complete stranger, I am not sure if I would have felt confident enough to make my ‘No’ clear and would more than likely have cleared out immediately in embarrassment.
How do you negotiate consent with a complete stranger who assumes that as you are over 50, you have either done everything there is to do already, and therefore, why wouldn’t you do them now? How do you explain to a complete stranger, that yes, you liked snogging them 5mins ago, but they have just dived for your clitoris and it all feels a bit ‘smash and grab’? I honestly can understand that it must be very frustrating for men to think that they have a chance of having full penetrative sex only to be fobbed off at the last moment. In the vast pool of unreserved sexual conquests, it must be tempting to see every date as a bona-fida sex partner. I wish I felt the same. I certainly know women who are so in charge of their own sexuality that they feel they can have sex with anyone. That it does not matter. I am way more repressed that I thoughtI was. I have a zillion gate-keepers measuring everything from the temperature and humidity of your skin to the woolfishness in your eyes, to the colour of the buttons on your shirt. I am capricious, not because I am holding out, but because I already know that I want something deeper, stronger and more interesting than straight utility. I have been ruined by age, self-awareness and deep feeling for things that bubble under the surface of the skin.
Sex is a lot like dancing. Some people are good at it. Intuitive. Some people are good together. Personally, I prefer dancing by myself to dancing with anyone really clumsy or anyone terribly formulaic. But each to their own. Some people like being led. Some people like to follow. There is an exercise we do in drama groups called ‘The Mirror’, it’s an exercise in leading and following. First one leads and then one follows. Then you swop around. The facilitator calls when to make the changes. As the exercise advances, the facilitator says, ‘Ok, now change by yourself who leads and who follows, without my instruction.’ In some partnerships, the change is seamless. It’s beautiful and tells us (the audience) a lot about the way energy can move between two people. It becomes a beautiful dance of shared power, shared leadership. It can also expose the power dynamics in relationships. Who holds on? Who must dominate? Who is afraid to lead? Who hates to follow? At the end of the session, you ask the participants to reflect on their own feelings. ‘What did you enjoy? Why? What made you feel uncomfortable? Why? For some people, following is wonderful, they can relax, not make decisions: for others, the power of control is the thing. The mirror exercise, dancing, life – it’s all about power. Who has it. Who wants it. Who surrenders theirs? How they share it? What they will do to keep it?
Speaking to some of my female friends, of all ages, who are having regular hook-up sex, it has become apparent that the sexual freedom that was so liberating and celebrated for adventurous women in the 80s, has now turned into something where women are once again being subjected to double standards. Slut-shamed by their more conservative friends and treated badly by men who move through them with the same respect they would give to a late-night kebab take-out. Tasty but forgettable. Or just disrespectful in a myriad of ways that reveal a lot about the disjuncture that many men have between the needs of their penis and their ability to connect at a meaningful, human level once their penis has entered the conversation. I am hearing, from multiple conversations, ‘Just show some respect’. What does that mean?
Here’s the thing – I honestly think that I can’t have sex with fascists, neo-liberals or conservatives, but the surprise is people who I vaguely consider to be ‘on the same side’ coming at you as if your body is another commodity that they can ‘have’. That they can move through in the same ‘rapey’ way that you can travel through the city. In fast lanes and elbowing people as you go. The city can be an alienating space. Your body is the last point of defence. The final space where you can circumscribe a boundary. ‘This far and no further’. In this context, the replacement of ‘No is No’ , a reactive, protective measure, with ‘Yes is Yes’, a proactive, relational discussion becomes really sexy. Resistance to the status quo is sexy. Creating intimacy as a counter-weight to fast-food, fast-sex, immediacy. What would it be like to create a slow sexual intimacy with someone who I don’t know, but who is unafraid and unguarded? Can we deepen our human accords through the act of sex? Can we leave the intimacy of the sexual encounter and still keep the integrity of relationship, whilst still not placing currency on their ability to create intimacy? Can we create intimacy and cordiality even within the potential anonymity of the city? Can sex be a gateway to intimacy between friends, or are we just moving parts of pleasure? As capitalism kills the city, and the environment and equality are fucked, can we help create intimacy as an antidote?
So maybe, ‘No is No!’, is not enough. Beyond the politics of refusal, perhaps the only way to maintain a defence against utilitarianism is to create spaces for intimacy. For consent. For slowing down. For moving less expediently, less hastily. For treating everyone as lovers and friends, not temporary objects. Maybe in that context, consent is powerful. Consent is sexy. Is there something beyond ‘fuck-buddy’ that isn’t a commitment to monogamy or sexual currency? ‘Yes is Yes’, in a time where there is so little one can say a fulsome and hearty, ‘Yes!’ to?
Moral meaning and the creation of morality starts with ‘No!’ but surely we must find ways to evolve this negative into a meaningful ‘Yes!’. Let’s consider how we could do that…
Debra Watson is a participative theatre, media and arts facilitator, performer and poet. Her blog page is www.debrawatsoncreative.com.
She performs as Bibi Snythe at The Poetry Brothel London. You can purchase her book of poems ‘Be Loved’ for £10 by contacting her here: https://debrawatsoncreative.com/poetry-performance/
‘The man, who, being really on the Way, falls upon hard times in the world will not, as a consequence, turn to that friend who offers him refuge and comfort and encourages his old self to survive. Rather, he will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help him to risk himself, so that he may endure the suffering and pass courageously through it. Only to the extent that man exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him. In this lies the dignity of daring.’
Karlfried Graf von Durkheim
It is interesting how when we start our journey we have completely the wrong idea – that somehow by magic we will wind up in some blissful nirvana. Instead we find the path narrows, gets more painful as well as more joyful, and there are fewer and fewer true companions.
Opening the heart is devastating as we feel everything more acutely. It seems there is no anaesthetic if you want to become one with life, only a singular commitment to being all of it, to incorporating more and more until the conscious life reflects the wholeness of the Self.
In moving into a loving relationship recently, I am being tested to the core of my being and everything that is not love is crawling (and sometimes shooting) to the surface of my consciousness. Loving is hard, painstaking work. No wonder many of us renege on it before we get more than a few steps down its dusty road.
The Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee recites a meeting with an aspirant who when asked if she was prepared to spend the next few years peering into her own shadowy darkness said a flat ‘no!’
Bully for her for at least she possessed the honesty of foresight and a degree of self awareness that seems to completely bypass many New Agers bent on their next manifestation, which will presumably acquit them of the sludge of self discovery.
This mistaken awareness that suddenly we should be feeling good all the time once we are ‘awake’ can lead to a very rude awakening of an entirely different sort. After all, true peace is freedom from the need to feel good all the time. That is simply the tyranny of the ego which, as ever, wants life its own way.
Certainty is a curious thing. How often do we give our power to those who appear sure of themselves and seem to offer the safety of certainty and with it direction? Yet power almost always lies in the hands of the ‘wrong’ people because those who are power driven are most often at the beginning of an evolutionary cycle where the developmental task is to build a strong ego.
At that early stage there is only a tiny amount of light in the soul and it is this inability to see the full spectrum of life in all its varying shades which lends the power of certainty. Tyrants and despots everywhere do their worst under such limited insight.
In ‘spiritual’ circles we can observe the same phenomenon: the need for egoic power masquerading as ‘love and light’. Give me teachers of human frailty, compassion and self doubt any day; someone who is willing to be vulnerable and say ‘I don’t know’ when necessary and someone who has seen enough of life to know their own failings. That involves moving around the wheel of life, experiencing many different facets of one’s humanity, making mistakes, and being authentic rather than perfect.
In reality, whoever we are, sometimes the floor keeps opening and we just keep on falling through it to yet another rock bottom. Along the way, we pass through those feelings we spent a lifetime or more avoiding, until we reach the core of the conditioned mind – worthlessness and self hatred – only to finally discover that within us lies an invincible summer.
Courage is required not to circumvent this process, and faith. If you just want ‘love and light’ in your life don’t even begin, keep holding on to what makes the ego feel safe. But it seems to me, that for all of us, there comes a point when the only thing we can do is to let go and live our own peculiar passage through time until we land in eternity.
And it is precisely that journey that has called me in recent months and some days I have zero confidence in my ability to make it and withstand its searing test. Yet in truth I know the hero’s journey is the only game in town and, however I may complain, it is a burning of the heart that I want.
We so often think love is soft and warm, but it takes time and maturity to learn that love has a hard, cold edge too that is ruthless about Truth or Reality and exists only in Freedom. Love is a laser beam that cuts through to the heart of things, discarding all that fails to serve its interests.
The Sufis say that love’s apparent absence experienced as emptiness and longing is just as important as the heat of its sun. If we really love another, it seems we also have to be prepared to let them go if being with us is not in their own best interests.
Love’s agenda is different to the self-serving needs we impose upon it and sloughs us off like some bucking bronco when we try to bend it to our will. The conditioning of our co-dependent culture can make it hard to be clear in the mind yet that is what we owe one another. We must never compromise our complexity for a false peace.
Give me someone who can talk about their in between places, not their successes, achievements and ambitions. Someone who has done the work of traversing the wild current of their own innards, their dark history; someone who has travelled and understood what appears to be the most insignificant cul-de-sac of their deepest being.
I am not interested in those who can bang a drum, perform a ritual and look good. I am interested in the person who will tell it how it is, talk straight, disappoint me to support themselves, understand the simple value of kindness over spiritual trickery, clear with me by making an amend when wrong while looking me in the eye and speaking from the heart.
Those people are few and far between in my experience yet I would take one of those, the person whose heart is true, over any number of do-gooders, shamanic pretenders or weekend warriors. It is interesting how deep psychotherapy has gone out of vogue, the slow pain-staking work of true self enquiry in favour of quick fixes and sudden shifts.
I want you slow cooked or not at all, I wrote a while back. For it seems to me that unlike the day world or ego, the soul likes to meander and take its time and seeks to root out even our smallest transgression or quirk, all that we had long forgotten and never wanted to see again. How many are truly up for the underworld journey?
Some people like to think they will be immune from pain the more they mature in consciousness. But that is simply a ploy by a mind still burdened by the fantasy of its own power. The more conscious we become, it seems the more sensitive we are, not less. Shams, the poet Rumi’s master, moved away, in pain, from those whose unconsciousness assaulted his depth of awareness and Love. Isolation is, ultimately, preferable to a long bath in idiocy.
It is a great unwisdom to always be trying to escape our vulnerability, be positive at every moment, always to be on the up and on the make. For as the poet David Whyte points out, there is no escape from it, we are our vulnerability. So the question is more about how we become one with it without letting it consume us, rather than trying to outrun it, control it, and allow pride to throw a veil over our humanness.
The current idea that we must heal or fix everything is based, I believe, on a flawed concept of what it is to be a human being. Rather than always thinking of being better, we could simply keep opening to those pockets of unconsciousness we all carry, allowing their gifts to come forth. We are not static entities, but life unfolding, awareness awakening slowly, over time so we can integrate at all levels. There is no rush. We will all end on a breath.
As for relationships, I know that infatuation is a potent impostor, an ersatz love, a sugar-hit for the soul, that simulates the real thing, a near miss that is a million light years away. It is the mind’s version of what love looks like when it has had a failed, often devastating, experience of the real thing. It is so beset by desire, fear and projection it has little hope of peering out of the fog of its imaginings to see clearly.
And yet somewhere, hidden in its dark and desperate recesses is the grain of something finer. There is no wanting in love and to arrive at this place, where the only desire is for the beloved’s happiness, will excoriate the ego.
To transform infatuation into love is one of life’s true rarities, yet holds the seeds of greatest potential for true love and freedom. Yet it means a complete transformation in outlook and attitude with the ego no longer dominated by consciousness but sinking roots deep into the unconscious where all its repressed memory of failed love lives.
And so my love, I am still here, stretching toward you as you stretch toward me and I am reminded of the words on love from the first spiritual book I read, Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled: ‘Love is the willingness to extend oneself for your own or another’s spiritual growth.’
Amen to that.
Morrie and Betty Markoff, 103 and 100, say that there’s no particular secret to their very long marriage, other than tolerance, respect and luck. But why has Morrie never told Betty that he loves her?
Read the full story here: The 100-year-old couple – still married, still going strong
Path of Love is a powerful personal development process with lasting results that integrate daily into your life. This self-development workshop is for people seeking a deep and lasting change for themselves
Read the full story here: If this is a dodgy hippie love cult, sign me up
‘There is no force in the world but love.’
At the core of all longing, striving and struggle languishes the bloodied, tender heart, with all movement either taking us further into the heart wound and the possibility of wholeness or into contraction: the recoil that cuts us off from life and love. The heart is either opening or closing.
In the first flush of romance the heart blossoms like a spring flower but, drawn to rekindle the wounds of childhood, the heart’s eye knows just the right partner to select: those who will frustrate and deny fulfilment just as mum or dad did way back when.
Is this some cruel trick of fate that renders love powerless, or is it instead precisely this lighting of love’s flame in this particular person that offers an opportunity to transcend all that is loveless and unloving and return us to the most profound healing?
Relationship as spiritual path has a hard time of it nowadays and it is easy to give up on human love, but for some the journey of learning to love another and allowing oneself to be loved offers the ultimate redemption. Does it not make sense that if a man is wounded by mother and a woman by father then in loving and forgiving and being loved and forgiven by the beloved a person can experience a sense of homecoming like no other?
But why do so few find the healing balm they seek, instead foundering on the rocks that lay in the treacherous waters just outside the honeymoon isle? How can redemption be found when thrashing around for power? As Nietzche said, where there is the will to power then love is absent.
The key battle for most couples centres around the two-year-old self’s struggle for both attachment and autonomy. If you have not had sufficient attachment needs met at that and later developmental stages the psyche will keep seeking closeness and merging. If you’ve not been given sufficient autonomy and independence then the movement is away from relationship to satisfy that particular need.
Few of us had our early need for both attachment and autonomy handled well, setting up the later push-pull of adult connection. We want love, we fear being smothered. We could call this the love addict and the avoidant or the fuser and the isolater.
In truth, both poles are usually operating in both people, although one partner will invariably tend toward one position, polarizing the other partner. Yet the truth is both people have exactly the same need, to love and be loved, with both operating their individual set of defences to protect the wound of the heart. And they can easily reverse roles as the poles shift on their axis.
I have seen this again and again, both in my own personal relationship life and, formerly, as sex and love addiction therapist at The Priory Roehampton.
Essentially, we are all trying to get at and integrate the material we repressed as children and we are unconsciously drawn to those we think could help us get it – namely our complementary opposite. The goal, as psychiatrist Carl Jung said, is to integrate those fragments of ourselves we buried as children so our conscious life can reflect the wholeness of the Self.
Some of us learned, for instance, that our anger was unacceptable, others their sadness. We soon realized that we could not be ourselves and emotionally survive in our families. Socialization only served to gird that belief as we discovered eros, the life force, was blunted in the wider world of school, friendships and work as well.
But then that magical person comes along and we project all those wonderful qualities we have hidden from ourselves on to them. They appear to have all that we lack and for a while – the honeymoon period – we feel whole again.
Yet it is an ersatz love, based on projection and adoration, our own narcissistic longings. As Robert A Johnson points out in his marvellous work We: The Psychology of Romantic Love, our so-called love is a Western phenomenon that coincides with the loss of an authentic spiritual life, the rightful home for our deepest longings.
The reason the Sufi mystic Rumi is one of the world’s most popular poets is that he writes, beautifully of longing and spiritual love in the language of romance. Perhaps, just as Jesus spoke in parables, this Middle Eastern master transmitted his own message in the only language that we could understand.
It is the perfect spiritual fodder for modern western romantics who seek, unconsciously, a return to the paradise garden, Eden before The Fall:
‘If you have lost heart in the path of love, flee to me without delay. I am a fortress invincible.’
Rumi speaks from the position of an enlightened one, but such words could easily be uttered from one desperate love to another, Romeo to Juliet, Tristan to Isolde.
Yet during what alchemists call nigredo, the dark night of the soul, couples fall into the power struggle and most do not emerge – at least not together. What was once admired in the other becomes hated, a cause for both perplexion and consternation.
The reason for this, though hidden, is simple. What we admire in the other is what we buried in ourselves and although we both need to reintegrate those qualities and are indeed attracted to them, because they were originally taboo they stir up some pretty deep anxieties.
Yet the childhood need for love and affection, which remains with us until satisfied, is so powerful that when it is denied we contract against our own need like a circuit breaker. Some move so far away from that need they no longer know it is even there. Such people are truly lost and often cannot be reached easily. Throw in abuse and brutality and you get the Hitlers and Stalins of the world.
One of the most helpful things we can do is make friends with our own needs and neediness and do the same with our partner’s. It is probably wise to move away from those who act tough and needless and refuse to change and the current crop of seekers who are doing a spiritual bypass and residing in a need-free nirvana. Anti-dependency, after all, is simply the flip-side of co-dependency.
But unfinished business does not just come from childhood, it comes from past-life connections with our partner too. I have come to believe that most, if not all, of our more serious relationships are with those we know from other incarnations. I am also aware this is a radical view unacceptable to most.
We are drawn towards those on our path on many different levels and will rehash the same old battles until we learn to love one another, which may mean letting go and moving on. I find current theory on relationships limited and primitive in one way or another and certainly using addiction models to treat relationship issues is a mixed blessing, healing some and reinforcing early experience of shaming and harshness in others.
The most complete and hopeful work comes from the pioneering psychiatrist Harville Hendrix who seems to have put all the component parts of relationship together and made sense of them.
In a nutshell: we are drawn to people who share positive and negative traits of our parents to win an old childhood struggle for love; to change brings up our fear of wholeness, which was not allowed as children; we are so fearful of our own wholeness we fear we are going to die if we change – hence most relationships fail during the power struggle; we have to confront and contain the life force (eros) within us that has been trapped since childhood; in finding a container for our feelings and needs with the help of our partners we begin to feel safe enough to heal and, most wonderfully; in dedicating ourselves to meeting our partner’s needs we restore ourselves to wholeness.
The last part is paradoxical but true. If the partner our heart’s eye selected contains all the qualities that we have repressed in ourselves, which we are first drawn to and later detest, then in loving them we are really loving parts of ourselves. When partners become allies and not enemies dedicated to healing the childhood wounds in each other, with loving turning outward towards the beloved in reciprocity, a circle of love is formed which is deeply satisfying to both parties.
Love, always cleverer than the self-serving ego, only finds itself through acts of unconditional generosity and giving.
Finally, restored to wholeness not just through their partner’s love but critically through the act of loving itself, a couple can bring love and healing balm to all those around them.
As Rumi, said of the relationship with his spiritual guide and teacher Shams:
‘Those tender words we said to one another are stored in the secret heart of heaven. One day, like the rain they will fall and spread and their mystery will grow green over the world.’
Read the full story: Every successful relationship is successful for the same exact reasons