by Richard Harvey
Relationships and projection
An intimate relationship – partnership or marriage – is one of the most potent catalysts for wholeness and authenticity there is. Relationships can also be the most deathly and least life- enhancing environment for the human spirit. It all depends on honest and open communication, deepening and growing in intimacy, and the courage and willingness to venture into unknown territory together.
Love relationships have the power to re-stimulate the unresolved issues of our early childhoods, because when we are in love we are at our most open and vulnerable. Since most of us didn’t get all we needed or wanted in our early lives, these same needs and desires arise in our relationships and are often expressed inappropriately. We may have the unrealistic expectation that our partner can fulfil all our needs. We may idealise our partner who can then only fall from grace and disappoint us. We will never find a partner who meets all our historical desires, because these desires belong to the past: they are part of our frozen history. Relationships compel us to face ourselves and offer us the chance to resolve the unfinished business of childhood, because they re-open our issues around dependence, nurture, and care.
For those of us without a loving relationship, the promise of finding someone can unleash idealistic fantasies. We can dream about how lovely it will be when we find that special person who will cherish and care for us. From a distance a loving relationship is all soft- focus – comfortable and idealised. But relationships have the potential to take us to the very edges of our personalities and uncover the hidden aspects of ourselves that we hoped no one would ever see. Relationships insist that we grow, open our hearts, and become authentic.
A relationship that measures its success on pleasure and fulfilment is hard enough. But when a relationship is considered primarily as a vehicle for growth, we open ourselves up to profound psychological and spiritual challenges. The journey of human love may be the most profound activity for a human life. Depending as it does on our ability to know not only ourselves, but also to know our partner, a growthful relationship must be firmly founded on awareness, clarity, acceptance, and trust.
Difficulties arise when one partner wants a growthful relationship, while the other is content with comfort and warm familiarity. The partner who wants more is most likely to become the agent of the break-up. The prospect of breaking up is what most often causes a couple to look more deeply at their relationship.
Usually one half of the couple is for and one is against the relationship continuing. This polarisation is the outcome of the interdependent, projective aspect of the relationship which began at the couple’s first meeting. When we meet someone who we are to develop a relationship with, a highly complex exchange happens. Unconsciously we offer denied aspects of ourselves to each other and the dynamics of the relationship are created. These dynamics give the relationship its fundamental form and dictate its unfolding. Through the psychic exchange, each partner now ‘possesses’ a part of the other. Over time the two partners become polarised and resentful, because the other has a part of them that prevents them from being their whole self.
The buried negativity arising from persistent compromise rises to the surface as the years go by and finally spills out in burgeoning resentment which poisons the relationship. Couples in difficulty must inevitably separate to join. The separation must take place whether the two partners stays together or break up. Only by separating and finding a sense of themselves as individuals are they enabled to relate to each another anew, perhaps for the first time. Strong, healthy boundaries enable relationship. But how do loving relationships turn sour? How is it that the future partner we see across a crowded room and are immediately attracted to turns out, after ‘the honeymoon period’ is over, to be just like the previous partner who we learned to despise? To answer this, we must look in more detail at the psychic exchange that takes place at the first meeting of the two individuals who become a couple.
In the laws of physics, opposites attract, but in interpersonal relationships, the reverse is true: similars attract. The way in which this works is unconscious and mysterious. We meet someone and experience a strong attraction. During that first meeting we establish a contract – a binding agreement in which inner aspects of ourselves are exchanged through the process of projection. We may give the other our beauty, our confidence, or our ability. Our future partner unconsciously invites and accepts these inner qualities to compensate for an imbalance or lack that she or he feels inside. This exchange of qualities goes on quite invisibly and unbelievably rapidly when we meet a prospective partner. The success of this invisible process is so crucial to the emerging relationship that its failure is more common than we imagine. We are usually only aware of this mating ritual as a charged social interaction.
The remainder of the relationship may well consist of attempts at taking back and re-owning the projected qualities that we gave each other and that were ours all along. This is often painful. We have, after all, projected the qualities onto the other because we had a reason to deny them. We are resistant to taking them back because the defences of our character depend on our projecting certain qualities successfully to substantiate our character and justify our defence. Suppose, for example, that a key element of our character defence is unloveableness. Then we need to wear our partner down, however much they may love us, until they give in to negativity toward us and confirm that we are unlovable.
Most often, even amid the difficulties, the partner we are with is the right one for us. The two people in a love relationship are merged and somewhat mixed up as a result of exchanging projections. Consequently, when a couple is divided over the inner journey, one is most likely acting out the inner search for the relationship as a whole – one expressing resistance, the other expressing willingness. Since projection is unconscious, the desire of the resistant one is hidden, even from themselves. It is perhaps unsurprising then that when a couple break up because one of them is practicing inner work and the other is against it, the resistant one finds himself on his own inner journey after a few months, doing what he had been so opposed to in his partner when they were in the relationship. The end of the relationship has meant that he can retrieve the part of him that wants to find out who he is and, without the partner carrying that projected part, he is now able to do it for himself and face his resistance, balanced with his enthusiasm to explore.
Ritualising the end of a relationship
Intimate relationships are an expression of archetypal energies or gods – the same kind of energies we encountered earlier when we looked at the lessons our parents teach us. Archetypal forces are impersonal, though they dwell within us. Our life gives them form and expression, and our personality embodies them. When we treat archetypal energies with contempt and dishonour, they become a personal threat. When a relationship breaks down, the god becomes a devil and, as the mythologist Joseph Campbell pointed out, the devil acts like a god in reverse, exerting negative, threatening power.
In relationships we evoke the gods – the personifications of powerful energies of life that act in both inner and outer worlds – and this is why the end of a relationship can be so devastating. It is a deeply responsible act to work on ending a relationship in a way that leaves the least residue or unfinished business. Resentments should be released and appreciations expressed to create clarity, understanding and forgiveness, to allow each partner to go on in their lives with space in their hearts.
The dark side of relationship reveals its potency. A relationship that is not open, that stores up resentment daily, that leaves things unsaid and feelings unexpressed, eventually ends. Either it withers and dies, or it explodes. When it withers the partners maintain a façade of relationship, but within, there is no life or love anymore. When it explodes the partners physically break up and any further contact is based on anger and hatred fuelled by built-up resentment.
Sadly, many couples who break up never resolve their differences or achieve a satisfactory ending. Though some try, there is no real willingness to let go of the resentments or clear up the emotional litter of the relationship. A mere mention of one partner’s name and the other partner’s face distorts and spouts vitriol. Each is concerned with what was done to them and how they were mistreated, betrayed, rejected, and abandoned. They will never truly forgive each other as long as they live. Deep beneath this layer of blame and hatred lies the true motivation for maintaining the resentment: without resentment the small self cannot survive. The small self is our identification with our conditioned life view, the character we have formed out of past experience which limits present experience and inhibits personal development. It is only by creating situations where resentment can flourish that we nourish and sustain this small self. Love relationships are not only one of the most potent ways to grow, they are also one of the best ways of providing us with material for resentment, bitterness, and hatred.
While resentment sustains our illusion of separateness, relationship and intimacy move us steadily towards wholeness and integration. Self-exploration makes a profound impact on relationships. When one partner in a relationship practices inner work, the other is challenged to look at himself. If the partner who is on the inner journey outgrows the one who is not, she is likely to become estranged and the stability of the relationship is threatened. The partner exploring inner work is usually charged by the other with ‘navel- gazing’, too much self-absorption, and not caring about others. Often the partner who is against the inner journey adopts a political, ecological, or charitable position. They express concern about the state of the world and what can be done about it. These lofty concerns then become a way of avoiding and projecting their own needs of the relationship.
To love a flesh and blood person who is close to us seems to be a harder challenge than to love the whole world. The whole world is faceless and does not require personal intimacy for us to love it. We can feel some kind of love and compassion for people who are distant from us. They can be imagined or idealised, so we can project our thoughts and emotions indiscriminately. This kind of love is one-way traffic, without the difficult dimension of relationship dynamics, differences, and negotiation. Yet most of us have the potential to open our hearts and share ourselves intimately with another, but we may lack the emotional capacity to let the other into our inner world, when there is so much filling us up already.
When a relationship ends irreconcilably the two partners are usually left with unfinished business in the form of unexpressed resentments, built-up anger, blame, and hatred. These feelings seem to have no healing outlet and no apparent possibility of resolution. I have seen many couples who are trying to revive, dissolve, or reinvent their relationships. Very often by the time they get to the stage of coming to see me, their relationship is floundering and sometimes in its death throes. When a couple acknowledges that the relationship is at an end, even when they wish it wasn’t, great honesty and emotional transparency are called for to enable the two people to go on in their lives in an empowered way.
The end of a relationship should match its beginning. Where there has been a long courtship or journey into intimacy, a similar depth of process is needed to release the relationship. Where the couple has passed through a marriage ceremony, a similar ritual is required to break the ties. But couples may be reluctant to release each other, break the ties, or recognise the need for ritualising an ending. Instead, couples who have separated and consider themselves ‘out’ of relationship with their exes remain very much attached – in some cases for the rest of their lives.
This is a human tragedy that can be avoided. With honesty and commitment, the issues that still bind the two people together can be healed. Inner work for couples breaking up requires an open space for expressing appreciations and resentments, which is empowered by a third person (or persons) who acts as a witness and should be neutral in regard to the two partners’ grievances. The witness facilitates the healing that leads to mutual acceptance. The process of inner exploration should be concluded with a ritual; a ceremony devised by the two individuals themselves in consultation with the witness.
This is a very powerful form of release for both partners. The couple must be willing to be transparent and partners often experience a strong impulse to be more honest with each other than they have ever been before. With nothing to lose and no investment in preserving the relationship, intimacy may deepen and, ironically, the couples’ communication can reach depths they never achieved while they were together. The liberation that results from the ending ritual is beneficial for both because it infuses subsequent relationships with new clarity and deeper understanding. When we can clearly acknowledge what we have gone through and what we needed to do with our partner, recognise what we were given, state our resentments, wish our ex-partner well, offer our regrets, our forgiveness, and our appreciation of all that we have shared together, we can truly let go.
A young couple called Pamela and Bill came to see me. They were resigned to the fact that their relationship had ended and they wanted to finish as thoroughly as they could. Together we devised a ceremony. In a ritual attended by their two closest friends, Pamela and Bill spoke of their disappointments and their failures, their shame and their grief, as well as their joys, their fulfilment, and the love they had shared. Pamela spoke of her frustration with Bill. She felt that he didn’t really ‘see’ her and acknowledge that she had grown into a strong woman. She resented Bill’s lack of openness and his unwillingness to grow with her in new ways. Bill expressed his disappointment that their relationship had failed. He was still attracted to Pamela and was nostalgic for the early period of their relationship. He resented the arguments, Pamela’s fiery tempers which he could not understand, and that their child would now have two homes and two separated parents. When all these things and more had been said they expressed their desire to forgive each other, appreciate what they had shared together, and create the space in their lives to move on.
When the mirror our partner provides is taken away, a flood of raw projections returns to us. Now we may be able to see ourselves as never before and, if we are able to accept ourselves, lessen our need for someone to act as a screen on which we project our disowned parts.
If we can stay with it to its closure, the end of a relationship can be an intense period of growth. If we don’t shrink from the challenge, we may begin to see ourselves more clearly and with more awareness. Paradoxically, withdrawing projections and the self-acceptance that arises from it is precisely the dynamic that enable us to relate truly to another. This time can bring about a change of heart. Couples may decide, after all, to stay together.
The path of love
If we can make it through the romance and enchantment of ‘the honeymoon period’, relationships have the potential to develop through three essential stages.
The first stage is loving enchantment. We love the other as we would like to be loved ourselves. We cannot do enough and we put our own needs on hold while we bask in the warmth of the first flushes of intimacy. The accumulated pain of our past relationships and childhood conditioning is washed away in the joy and elation of love. Fascinated by everything our partner is and does, we are devoted to expressing our love and pleasing them. This is a truly magical time dominated by feelings of self-expansion and being in love.
The second stage is projecting past hurts. In time our resentments surface as our idealised partner and our relationship begin to show flaws. We feel justified in revealing more of ourselves – what we need and what we want – and our deep urge is to express a darker side of ourselves and still be loved. If we become more open and honest, we may be willing to show our darker side. As we become more familiar with each other, we may even break the boundaries of honouring and simple respect. Alternatively, we may experience the darkness in our partner as a further opportunity to love them, ever more deeply. This is a time to choose, either consciously or unconsciously, to deepen together or to abandon love and the relationship.
The third stage is spontaneous love. It represents a quantum leap and is the stage that most of us avoid because there is no going back from the insights and the heart-opening it offers. We start to love in a wholly different way knowing that the lover is more blessed than the beloved and we begin to love our partner more deeply than ever. We value the precious opportunity to love more highly than our fragile, human need to be loved. At times we transcend the usual restrictions of human love, which are so inevitably bound up with fear, need, and desire. Our relationship is characterised by abundance, generosity, and real love. We may explore the deeper questions like, “What brought us together?” “What do we need to fulfil in this relationship?” “How can we be true to ourselves and honour our relationship?” knowing that the pairing of two human beings is bigger than the sum of the two halves.
Love between two people is always indefinable. We can say what it is now – in this moment. But our definition never holds true for very long, because love manifests spontaneously, and sometimes unpredictably. As we surrender to deepening forms of love, it may not live up to our personal expectations, so we may become disillusioned. When we do, it is because we have confused need and desire with love. If we can distinguish clearly between these three human experiences then we can open to a real deepening in relationship. When we truly love someone, we are centred in our hearts. Out of our love of ourselves we are able to extend love to another and we tend to be less confused about our needs and desires. Need and desire are innate human experiences, so it is best to own them and respond to them honestly and treat them as a valid part of us. Sometimes, simply sharing them openly with our partner will take some of the urgency out of their demands. Making them transparent lessens the darkness in which they are repressed.
Many of us feel ashamed of our needs and desires. Needs persist whether love is present or not. If we can’t answer the question “What do I want and what do I need?” and be open and clear about what we really want, we cannot grow and flourish in a truly successful relationship. To grow in our relationships we must address the issue of time seriously, because of the complex demands on us. Too much time spent in outward pursuits can lead to neglecting the relationship, which needs our time and care to grow. Relationships do not just happen and they do not survive neglect. Making time for intimacy, sharing, and deepening enables our relationships to grow and thrive. So, considering how we balance our time is essential for the health of a growing relationship. How do we find time for ourselves, time to be together, and time to fulfil our responsibilities in the world?
We must work at achieving a balance. Structuring our time in a disciplined way between these three basic needs (and being aware when we get out of balance) is enough. A third of our time fulfilling duties and responsibilities, a third of our time in relationship and service to others, and a third of our time in relationship with ourselves and meeting our personal needs is a good model to aspire to.
When two people enter into a relationship in middle or later years there is a tendency to want to relive the past through a sham of adolescent romance. If this is done with awareness, knowing that the relationship is fulfilling some missing experience, it can be successful and rewarding. But often, the sham of romance in middle years kills the relationship because it is not appropriate for the age of the partners involved. Older people, who have not given up their youthful desire for a purely romantic relationship for a deeper longing, sadly miss out on a more profound fulfilment. From the fifties on, if a new relationship is to work it must be based on mutual growth and spiritual values, a more searching connection of enquiry, mutual concern, consideration, and caring. Small things, which directly contrast with the more spectacular emotional bonds of our earlier years, like fondness, living together harmoniously, and cups of tea in bed are valued, vital, and more important than they used to be. While our partner may still be a sensuous and sexual partner, he or she is also now, more than ever, a companion in love, a fellow traveller to that far horizon which is closer than ever before.
Today, relationships are subject to a floating paradigm that is in such a restless process that it offers no solid guidelines. There is a lot of space for creativity and experimentation, as well as a lot of potential for insecurity and misunderstanding. The variety is extensive: heterosexual, gay, lesbian, inter-racial, diverse age, mentally-impaired, physically-impaired relationships – all pose particular challenges and offer unique rewards.
Furthermore, we face the choice of relating to one person or having a variety of relationships – a monogamous or polygamous love life. What is the value of monogamy today? Unfortunately, many examples of monogamy are based on the fear of ending the relationship that stems from cultural expectations and morals dating back hundreds of years. It is questionable whether such values and morals apply to us today. But despite the negative associations, a committed monogamous relationship yields some of the most profound and growthful treasures we could ever receive, both psychologically and spiritually. In a sustained monogamous relationship, we cultivate the qualities of loyalty and commitment in the challenges of constancy and the tests of time. A truly committed relationship challenges us to deep acceptance, to the healing of everything about us that we consider unlovable, to grow and develop through hardships, pain, and joy. As the relationship goes through the inevitable and often tough changes of a shared lifetime, we face the prospect of being truly known by another and sustaining something enriching and unique.
Ultimately, we can meet the test of deepening in love to such a degree that we are no longer separate, no longer on our own. We cannot do without the relationship and we cannot do without each other. But this is not the unhealthy dependence borne of the regressive merging of two individuals, the infantile dependence we discussed in the previous chapter when we looked at boundaries. Rather it is our heart surrendering to the liberating path of deep intimacy. Our happiness is bittersweet, because we know that we will have to leave each other someday. With profound wise foolishness, we love rather than refuse to love. We can no more deny the stirrings of our hearts than we can renege on our humanity or our spirit.
In real love the specific merges with the universal. The boundaried individual leads us to unboundaried freedom. In a delicate play of the heart we at once respect and love the individual we are with and at the same time we honour existence through our love of them. Our love is both personal and impersonal, both individual and transcendent. We see all men or all women in our partner and we honour the sacredness of life through our relationship. If we are blessed with the path of relationship, the riches we receive can be immeasurable.
One of the benefits of relationship and intimacy is support, encouragement, and companionship on life’s path. No one stands alone; we all need one another.
(This article has been adapted from Richard Harvey, Your Essential Self, Llewellyn Publications 2013, chapter 4: Relationships, 79-90.)
Richard Harvey is a psycho-spiritual psychotherapist, spiritual teacher, and author. He is the founder of The Center for Human Awakening and has developed a form of depth-psychotherapy called Sacred Attention Therapy (SAT) that proposed a 3-stage model of human awakening. Richard can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.