Intimate Relationships As A Vehicle for Spiritual Growth

“If life is a school, relationship is its university.” – Judith Saly

From the soul’s point of view, each of us is here on earth to fulfill our inner design. In that process, it doesn’t really matter whether we remain in one intimate relationship for an entire lifetime, have many intimate relationships, or even have none at all. We will, of course, always be in relationships; the very essence of human life is interdependent and relational. Yet whatever our specific relational circumstances may be, our real work is the work of becoming more fully ourselves.

However, most of us have a very strong drive toward intimate relationships – or at least, toward pair-bonding, a process we hope will provide us with the feelings of safety and security that we often confuse with intimacy. In fact, true intimacy rarely creates what the human personality self experiences as “safety,” and the kind of safety that seems desirable to some parts of the personality actually leads to stagnation of other parts of us, and of our soul. This is one reason why so many of us experience romantic relationships as a source of great confusion and suffering.

True intimacy is an experience of deep contact in which one consciousness appreciatively encounters another. Since each of contains many levels and aspects of consciousness, we can experience intimacy (or lack thereof) within ourselves, or with any other living thing. Although intimacy may be present with people whom we know very well, a sudden flash of intimacy can also occur in a brief exchange between strangers.

Intimacy takes place on the level of consciousness, the level where the soul resides. Therefore, it both requires and facilitates authenticity, the dropping-away of social masks. This is one reason why many people find it easiest to experience intimacy with animals, who neither wear social masks nor respond to such masks in us. It’s also why so many of us find it surprisingly difficult to actually be intimate with our lovers or partners. Very often, people in designated “intimate relationships” fall into patterns which are destructive to intimacy – for instance, when we attempt to require certain feelings or behaviors from each other or from ourselves, or when fear leads us to hide aspects of ourselves. Ironically, the intimacy in most “intimate relationships” has a very short life-span, if it is ever present at all.

Many of us hold particular visions or ideals for romantic relationships. We may believe that our partners should or must have particular physical and emotional characteristics, live their lives in certain ways, and be with us in ways our human selves find pleasurable or comforting. While there is nothing “wrong” with any of these beliefs or desires, they have absolutely nothing to do with love or intimacy. They are based on a transactional model of relationship, a model which is appropriate in a market context (“I’ll give you one dollar, you’ll give me one avocado”) but is irrelevant, even antithetical, to authentic connection.

“But having a partner who is X or who does X would bring me joy,” part of us may protest. Actually, that’s not exactly true. Our human selves have many preferences, and as we’ve discussed, it is harmonious for us to arrange our lives in accordance to those preferences, rather than in opposition to them. Yet the exclusive goal of creating a life that meets our preferences leads to a never-ending search – since no matter what we choose, our deeper work will always present itself to be done, often in ways that bring challenge or discomfort. And joy is an inner soul movement that can and does often arise regardless of whether our preferences have been met, or completely subverted. For instance, no parent would prefer to have a child with Down syndrome or severe disabilities, yet many parents of children born with such conditions report that their children bring them enormous joy.

The belief that we must have things a certain way in order to be happy emerges from a part of the self that has not released life on its own recognizance, has not said Yes to ourselves and our world as it is. All of us have such parts, but allowing them to dominate our relationships is a recipe for pain, both for ourselves and whoever we attempt to “love.” Love does not dictate conditions; love embraces conditions exactly as they are.

Eckhart Tolle says matter-of-factly, “In case you haven’t noticed, relationships are not here to make us happy.” Yet even when we have noticed this, we may continue to hope blindly that it’s simply because we haven’t yet found the “right” relationship, the partner who will give us everything we want and believe we need.

Practicing the rewarding and demanding work of intimacy is an important part of the inner design of most people. Yet this work, when properly understood and engaged, looks little like the “happily ever after” myth we grew up with. In fact, the ability to develop and sustain true intimacy with self and others depends upon the willingness to wonder about ourselves and each other, to stretch, explore and inquire in an atmosphere of open, compassionate curiosity. In his book Soul Mates, Thomas Moore describes this well:

“I am not referring to endless analysis and introspection, which can dry out a relationship with the drive toward understanding. Wonder and open discussion are more moist. They keep people close to their experience, while at the same time they offer a degree of imagination, an element sorely needed in every intimate relationship.”

Truly intimate relationships require us to be willing to see and know our partners, and also to tolerate being seen and known. At the same time, they require us to bear those ways and times when it appears that our partners cannot or will not see or know us, and those times when we ourselves fall short of that difficult work.

Relationships that are genuinely intimate also require us to take responsibility both for our own pain, and our own needs. In fact, relationships of all kinds are ideal places for practicing the challenge of self-responsibility. We can start by remembering that other people, including our romantic partners, are never the cause of any pain we experience. All other people can do is illuminate the collapsed places in our own beings – places of soul loss, damaging imprints, shame or self-hatred, victim consciousness or problematic emotional postures. Because of the spotlight they shine on these hurt places within us relationships can be great catalysts for growth and healing when we allow them to be – and when we can accept the messages they bring us without blaming the messenger.

Full self-responsibility requires us to remain clear that it is never our partner’s job to meet our emotional needs (nor, of course, is it ever our job to meet our partner’s needs). Of course, if none of our emotional needs are ever met within a given relationship, we may decide to discontinue that relationship, or to change its form. But in most cases, those whom we attempt to love do meet some of our needs, some of the time. Strangely, the fact that some but not all of our needs are met often causes us great pain. Faced with this situation, most of us either try to exert pressure on our partner to meet more of our needs, or begin to punish our partners or to emotionally withdraw from the relationship. Rather than reacting in this way, we would be better served to inquire into these things we experience as “needs,” and the real source of the pain we feel when they are not met. Generally this process of inquiry can lead us toward healing processes that have little to do with our current relationships, and much to do with ways we have separated ourselves from ourselves, from compassion, and from life.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should remain in relationships that we don’t want to be in. It simply means that whether we choose to end a given relationship or stay within it, we recognize that the pain, fear or other challenging emotions that have been brought up in us are ours – ours to work with, heal and dismantle. In fact, the most painful relationships of all are those in which people refuse this self-responsibility, and instead persist in endless power struggles and unsatisfying negotiations with each other, all in an effort to flee from difficult emotions. In contrast, the most rewarding relationships are those in which both partners recognize their own responsibility, and work side by side on their own growth and healing – including those areas in need of healing that are continuously brought to their attention by the relationship.

Sometimes people attempt to support one another by taking over the emotional work our partners find most difficult, but this is a risky approach. For instance, Person A has trouble allowing herself to be vulnerable; Person B provides a safe space for her to do that. Person B has trouble valuing herself; Person A continually reflects her value back to her. Although this type of dynamic can be supportive if it leads to Person A becoming more able to tolerate her own vulnerability and Person B becoming more able to value herself, all too often this is not what occurs. Emotional support, like physical crutches, can be used in ways that facilitate healing, or in ways that keep us from that healing.

The purpose of a crutch is to support an injured leg by allowing us to keep weight off it for long enough that it can heal, so that it can then bear weight once again. Yet if we use the crutch improperly, we may become so accustomed to leaning on it that our injured limb never regains its strength; instead it becomes weaker, even atrophies. Sometimes well-intentioned intimate partners provide exactly this sort of unhealthy crutch to one another. They may not realize until too late – when either or both partners are feeling stifled, stagnant, or desperate to regain her own power – that they have “outsourced” skills they truly needed to develop for themselves.

Another soul posture crucial for the experience of true intimacy is the ability to embrace change. Because human beings are living, growing, changing organisms, change in our relationships is not just likely, but certain. Yet, although the soul is tuned to follow joy through a constant series of movements and calibrations, our human selves often fall prey to the erroneous belief that our personal happiness will come about by achieving and maintaining a fixed, unchanging state. When we do experience happiness, some part of us reflexively assumes that it will continue if only we can find a way to maintain the exact conditions present in that moment. Of course, this is impossible; we can never maintain a fixed, unchanging state – not within ourselves, not within our partners, and certainly not between two living, growing people in a relationship that must also grow if it is to survive.

The truth – as many people have already discovered – is that if we want an easy, predictable and relatively unchanging long-term relationship, we would do better to adopt a dog. The stable companionship available from “man’s best friend” is simply not possible with human beings, nor should it be. Human intimacy offers us something entirely different: a kind of love that is far more challenging, and also offers us much deeper possibilities for transformation. Thomas Moore describes this kind of partnership as a sacred marriage, “a union at a far deeper or higher level than personalities and lives.” The deepest commitment we can make to one another is a commitment to supporting the growth of our own and each other’s souls, even while knowing that this support may require difficult labor on the human personality level.

In fact, since our primary responsibility is to the project of our own soul’s development, any relationships we form with other human beings are rightfully subordinate to the needs and signals of our souls. This subordination does not mean that we cannot truly love others, or receive their love. Rather, it means we must expand our notion of what it means to love others, and to receive their love. Many people attempt to conduct intimate relationships in a manner that has nothing to do with genuine love, requiring instead that each member of the partnership attempt to constrict and control herself or her partner. Such partnerships require compromise and sacrifice at every turn; in this scenario, where people disallow real contact with themselves and each other, there is no alternative.

Of course, there is nothing “wrong” with compromise or sacrifice. The soul actually welcomes these experiences, too, if they come about in a context that brings joy. Something that appears to be a sacrifice when viewed from the outside may have a wholly different meaning to the person or people involved. For instance, all parents make numerous sacrifices, yet if having children is a genuine part of their inner design, the meaning of what they must “give up” in the process is transformed. If an apparent “sacrifice” represents a fulfillment of someone’s inner design, it is not truly a sacrifice at all; it would, in fact, be more of a sacrifice to forego that fulfillment. Once again, only our own experience of joy – or our lack of joy – can help us discern what is and is not in alignment with our inner design.

Like every other aspect of life, we, our partners, and our relationships constantly change, morph and transform. If we are able to welcome this natural process of reconfiguration, it will energize us and deepen our ability to love and be loved. If not – if we respond to changes in our partners or ourselves with fear, grief, judgment or anger, or with an attempt to manipulate or suppress ourselves or the other person – then we will find ourselves working against the movement of love within us and outside of us.

Again, this doesn’t mean that we should remain in partnerships in which we or are our partners have changed in ways that make us deeply incompatible. At times real love requires us to release ourselves or our partners with well wishes and blessings. When properly understood, this kind of parting can be deeply intimate and loving. At other times, love can help us re-shape our relationships in ways that continue to suit our partners and ourselves as we change.

Few of us have been exposed to the kind of love that is able to encompass growth and change. Instead, we are told that if we “love” someone, we will make pledges like these:

“I will love you forever.”

“I will never hurt you.”

“I will never leave you.”

“My feelings for you will never change.”

This misunderstanding of love pits our “love” for another person against our soul’s deep need for growth. And, since our lover’s soul contains the very same need, this misguided attempt at love leaves us working against his or her deepest well-being, too. If part of us still subscribes to the transactional model of relationships, we may feel angry and bitter when these promises inevitably get broken. “I kept giving you dollars, but you stopped giving me avocadoes,” or “I gave you good avocadoes, but I see now that your dollars were counterfeit all along” would be reasonable complaints to make in a marketplace, but since love and intimacy are not soul-movements rather than transactions, these kinds of protestations only take us further from real love.

In order for relationships to serve us on a soul level, we must revise our understanding of the nature of commitment. Commitments like “I will stay with you forever” are inherently limiting to the full flowering and expression of the soul. Perhaps staying together “forever” will produce conditions under which both people can thrive and fulfill their inner design; perhaps it will not. Since there is truly no way to know or predict whether this will be so, it is misguided to make such vows. If it turns out that the soul’s fullest growth is not being served by these conditions, joy will depart, resentment will set in, and the vows will be eventually be broken, whether emotionally, physically, or both.

Yet there is a very different kind of commitment we can and should make with those whom we love, or wish to love. In place of commitments which attempt to predict or mandate a specific outcome, we can instead commit ourselves to a loving, conscious process. Here are some examples of such commitments:

“I commit to allowing my higher self and my soul to work through me in all aspects of my life, including this relationship.”

“I commit to the effort of loving both you and myself as fully as I can.”

“I commit myself wholeheartedly to my own growth and development, and to using this relationship in the service of that commitment.”

“I commit to doing my best to remain present with you as we learn together about the nature of love.”

When made with deep feeling, these commitments are actually far more challenging than the “old” commitments, because they require so much more consciousness, attention and presence. They are commitments to ways of being, to energy flows, as well as to actions. The soul rejoices at these sorts of commitments; they facilitate true intimacy with both self and other, thus supporting the fulfillment of our inner design.

Author and aviator Anne Morrow Lindbergh offers a poetic description of this process:

“Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what it was, nor forward to what it might be, but living in the present and accepting it as it is now. For relationships, too, must be like islands. One must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits – islands surrounded and interrupted by the sea, continuously visited and abandoned by the tides. One must accept the serenity of the winged life, of ebb and flow, of intermittency.”

And poet Rainer Maria Rilke concurs, “Love consists in this… two solitudes that border and protect and salute one another.”

It is the deepest expression of love to support another on her or his growth path, wherever it may lead. If you cultivate the ability to give and receive that kind of support, your relationships will become truly intimate, durable and nourishing.

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