Can we be completely honest about relationships – even the best of them? Relationships are messy, are they not? Yes, relationships can be wonderful, and they can also be difficult. Ending a relationship is certainly one of the most painful of human experiences. Beginning a new relationship that seems full of expectation and hopefulness can be one of the most frightening of human experiences, while also being exhilarating and magical. We may try, try, and then try again, with the help of the most recent manuals on love and “divorce-proofing” a marriage, and yet, no one that I know ever avoids the maddening and unavoidable messes that intrude on the heights and joys of intimacy.
I recently began re-reading Thomas Moore’s book, Soul Mates (1994). Since my first reading of Moore’s insight-filled work, I have experienced the odious experience of divorce, not once but twice. I have fallen in love — well, let’s not count the times — and fallen out of love. And sometimes, even though I am remarried to a wonderful partner, we have our times of hurt, confusion, and messiness. It is not so much that we necessarily lack the communication skills that we need, or that we could benefit from improving on techniques for conflict resolution. It is, rather, that our souls are created for conflict and messiness. Let me explain.
In romance, relationships seem to blossom and flower. We feel a sort of expansion, a feeling of us against the world. The couple in love usually is viewed by others as being a bit crazy or out of step with everyone else in their social circles. The couple in love may act as if they are above the strife and suffering of life in the world. They appear almost ethereal, given to aesthetics and emotional heights that regular human beings often experience as pure indulgences. But this is the way of romance. It’s an adventure, full of hope, expectation, feeling larger than life, and often filled with riskiness and daring and even a kind of wondrous madness. The feeling of having found one’s soulmate sustains us through the maddening times because the other person feels like the one and only person in the world who is just right for me.
Psychologically, a unique feature of romance is that ego defenses come down. We tell tales to each other in love, sometimes tales never told to another person, because vulnerability reigns supreme. We are open, full of wonder, and full of whatever acceptance feels like – in love, acceptance is the aphrodisiac that sets our souls to flight. Until, somewhere along the line, someone gets their feelings hurt. The ego defenses that had softened, slowly begin to harden again, and a little distance creeps into the previously unfettered intimacy. The soul, at this point, imagined by the Greeks as a fragile butterfly, retreats little by little, unless the hurt is repaired.
On our better days, we know how to repair these hurts, but the truth is that most of us are ill-equipped to know how to repair the wounds of love. Where would be have learned how? Did anyone have the kind of upbringing to teach those skills of healing love’s wounds? I have been working with couples for over twenty five years, and I have yet to meet couples who are masters at knowing how to do this. Some are better than others, sure. But we all have egos, we tend to defend ourselves too much, and over time the soul tends to withdraw into a safe harbor far away from the life of the ego. The soul may reappear in a relationship at work, or in other zones where there is safety, or else the soul makes a new home in the shadows of fantasy, addiction, or some other symptom or illness.
Such is the way of soul. When the fragile butterfly of our being retreats, it enjoys creating a conflict just so it can come out of hiding once in awhile, even though the result is unpleasant. Or the soul may contribute to some other symptom or form of disturbance – anything to have a semblance of life. Carl Jung referred to the dark expressions of soul as having to do with the Shadow, the land of the repressed. So, if we want more soulfulness in life, this is the exploration the soul requires. We have to be willing to go down into our imaginations to see what the short-tempered outbursts symbolize at the level of the soul. To see what causes us to daydream and fantasize, what distracts us from our ego-centered consciousness, we have work to do on making peace between ego and Shadow.
So the messiness of our relationships, ideally, is our teacher. Our messes, when consciously engaged, are the teachers that show us the way to bring soulfulness to the lives we seek to live. I would have never consciously chosen the failures of my relationship history. At the same time, however, they have turned out to be exactly the wise teachers I have needed to serve me along my way. I have learned much because of the wounds of love, and I am grateful for those partners, pastors, and other healers who have opened my eyes to see the light in love’s dark shadows.