‘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.’