Chapter Two - Potential
It seems to me that true love is a discipline. -
Intimate relationship can be the source of great joy,
a way into personal growth and emotional healing. It can also be the
source of deep suffering. It is frustrating to know how much joy
relationship can bring, yet to see the frequency with which we turn it
into suffering. The intention of this book is to help cultivate the joy
of intimate relationship, and to show how to turn its painful aspects
into an ally of personal development.
The benefits associated with becoming more skillful in the ways of
relationship are many. Because the quality of an intimate relationship
has such a profound impact on the quality of one’s life, any improvement
in it offers great leverage in positively affecting our personal happiness.
Additionally, by liberating our energy from chronic conflict, we can reap
great rewards in other aspects of our lives, such as work and health.
All of this presupposes the willingness to prioritize intimate relationship
as an area of life that deserves focus, study, and effort. Because intimate
relationship is so familiar, like the water we swim in, we tend to
give it too little constructive attention. We expect that if we are “in
love,” it should all work out. Unfortunately, too often it doesn’t. What
is required is willingness: willingness to change our habitual and unconscious
forms of relating. Experimenting with different and more consciously
constructed attitudes and behavior results in benefits for the
quality of one’s relationship and one’s life.
The entry gate to intimate relationship in our culture is generally
determined by the process we call “falling in love.” “Romantic love,”
while being an incredibly strong force in igniting relationship, is not
sufficiently powerful to sustain a high quality intimate relationship over
time. Many jokes are made in our culture about the barrenness of marriage
as the years roll on. This attitude points to the insufficiency of
romantic love to sustain a relationship, and to the lack of understanding
about what does foster intimacy as a relationship matures.
One key to growing intimacy in relationship is a focus on purpose. The
purpose of intimate relationship is a combination of factors, which vary
for different people and different couples. My image for representing
purpose in intimate relationship is that of two people walking hand-inhand
down the same path toward similar destinations. The highest form
of intimate relationship, in my view, occurs when the partners walk
side-by-side toward personal growth, spiritual awakening, and the joy
As we will emphasize throughout the book, one of relationship’s
greatest gifts, and at the same time one of its most challenging aspects,
is the mirroring that it provides. It is in the very nature of partnership
that both our dark and light aspects are reflected back to us by the other.
We can see ourselves in the other in ways we cannot without that reflection.
If this process is handled in a mutually supportive and loving way,
we can learn to accept both our greatness and our faults in a manner that
would be inaccessible to us without the mirror of the intimate other. In
a general sense, on our own we often do not know what state we are in
emotionally and mentally. We simply swim in familiar inner waters. In
partnership, our moods, behavior, attitudes, energy, and other not-yet-
conscious feelings and states of mind are bounced back to us through our
partner’s experience of us.
The process of projection—that is, casting one’s own attributes, feelings,
or attitudes onto other people—usually demonstrates the parts of
ourselves we have rejected, but are now ready to accept. We are cued to
the presence of this possibility by noticing our reactivity to that quality
in the other. Our strong reaction to our partner’s lack of confidence, for
example, is almost certainly an indication of some unresolved issue we
have with ourselves around confidence. By seeing this in the other, we are
presented with the opportunity to see and heal our own self-rejection.
Another way to look at the purpose of intimate relationship is to
define it as a growth practice. That is, to view it as practice in much the
way that meditation and yoga are spiritual practices, or that running is
a physical practice. Relationship can be seen as a process one devotes
oneself to in order to grow emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. John
Wellwood, a student of relationship, expresses it well when he says, “For
many of us today intimate relationship has become the new wilderness
that brings us face to face with our gods and demons. When we approach
it in this way intimacy becomes a path … an unfolding process of personal
and spiritual development.” In my experience, those who reap the
greatest benefit and joy from relationship are those who do approach it as
a practice. This means demonstrating a devotion to the path of intimacy,
a willingness to give it ample attention, and a commitment to working
diligently to learn all that it has to teach.
One of the great gifts of intimate partnership is the possibility it offers
to create a Healing Relationship. Within intimate partnership the possibility
for healing old emotional wounds is enormous. It can create the
conditions for a healing that fosters more openness within, and an ability
to be and behave in the present without carrying the limits of old history
into our actions. Intimate partnership does more than any other structural
condition in our lives to facilitate the kind of healing that enables us
to make choices rather than to remain tethered to unproductive habitual
reactions. Because intimate relationship pushes so many of our emotional
buttons, the surfacing of old wounds for healing makes it possible
to restore ourselves to a more empowered state.
The Healing Relationship consists mainly of four elements, which I
discuss in depth later in the book. The first of these is what I call the
U-Turn. This is an approach to interpersonal conflict aimed at turning
friction into learning by taking responsibility for our feelings and the
reactions we direct at our partner. The second is cultivating Emotional
Wisdom, which entails seeking to gain insight, understanding, and growth
by inquiring deeply into the feelings generated by the day-to-day process
of intimate relationship. The third is the practice of Gratitude and Kindness
toward our partner for making this life journey with us, for sharing the
joys and supporting us through the difficulties life inevitably brings. The
fourth and final element is the practice of Skillful Communication, which
involves learning the attitudes and behaviors that allow for clear, direct,
open, and honest communication, helping us both to avoid and to resolve
If we practice these approaches to intimate relationship, our individual
lives will inevitably grow richer, deeper, and more meaningful, while
our relationship with our partner blossoms as a source of mutual delight.
Making this effort goes beyond our own healing to serve as a model and
inspiration to others, for whom the Healing Relationship can serve as a
beacon and a model for peace.
When we consider that grammatically the word ‘relationship’ is a
noun, we can see the source of some of the problems in intimate relationship.
A noun is a fixed thing, a done deal, an article like a car or a coat.
But relationship is better understood as a verb, a process that implies
action and change over time. As a verb, it contains movement rather than
an arrived at, finished thing. When we say “intimate relationship,” if we
think “intimate relating,” an ongoing set of evolutionary changes over
time, it is easier to accept the challenges it brings.
Every relationship is unique, and generalizations have their limitations.
Orthodoxy of any kind can be stifling. Therefore, it is important
to say that the ideas presented here are offerings, not dogma. They are
pointers to help us discover our own unique truth, through our own
unique experience as individuals and as couples. The perspective is not
scientific in the strict sense of the word, in that it is not quantitatively
based using a randomly selected sample population upon which we have
tested and measured the correctness of a set of hypotheses. It is, however,
empirically based. It is built upon the foundation of observation and
the experiment of our own lives, as well as those of the many couples
we have worked with. It is predicated upon what Ralph Waldo Emerson
called “direct experience.”
The emphasis is on the internal and psychological more than the external
and sociological, and on the way in which we create our environment
more than the influence of the environment upon us. The internal and
external are, of course, linked. And it goes without saying that external
social and economic dynamics have a significant effect on the quality
of our lives and our relationships. Variables such as class, status, gender,
race, and sexual orientation impact us and our relationships greatly.
While history and society may define and limit the parameters of our
experience, the power of the way we think and feel has enormous potential
to improve the quality of our relationships within these parameters.
No matter what our place in society, and no matter what our geographic
position on the globe, the quality of our inner organization profoundly
influences the quality of our outer experience of life. One only need look
at the contented street dweller in India and compare him to the stressedout,
discontented American millionaire for proof of that.
I think of personal healing and growth work as analogous to the shape
of the classical yin-yang symbol of Eastern philosophy. One half of the
circle is in the light and one half is in the shadow, which suggests that to
experience continuous growth in this life we are required to work both
in the shadow and in the light. We expand our connection to the light
through an ongoing process of perfecting our spiritual, mental, emotional,
and physical being. And we learn the lessons inherent in the difficulties
and pain of the shadow aspects of life. We do so by honoring,
paying attention to, and inquiring deeply into the psychological material
that is contained within the suffering of this life. Shadow material is
a great teacher, as it is most often a matter of the unconscious bringing
to our attention what we need to learn in order to be whole in the
Chapter Four - Stay in Your
We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.
The first and perhaps most important principle of the Healing
Relationship is taking full responsibility for what is happening
inside our own skin. Nearly all relationship problems are individual
problems arising in the context of the couple. Consequently, we need to
own our thoughts and feelings, and not make them the responsibility of
the other. Whatever it is that our partner says or does, we are the source
of our own reactions.
Our partner cannot truly cause us to be angry, sad, hurt, or frustrated.
Rather, their behavior, which we may be experiencing as unpleasant,
serves as an impulse that triggers a set of thoughts and feelings within
us. Those thoughts and feelings happen within us, not within the other;
accordingly, they are our own responsibility. This simple and straightforward
truth so often evades us when we are emotionally triggered.
The common response to our partner when they say or do something
we find unpleasant is to blame them for “making us” feel bad. In reaction
to having been blamed, our partner will typically withdraw or attack
in return. Then we are locked in an unpleasant conflict arising from
the initial false assumption that they were the source of our discomfort.
Although they may have evoked our response, the reaction comes from
When we recognize that our feelings are playing out within us, the
more skillful response to our discomfort when triggered by our partner
is to take responsibility for what we think, feel, and do. This we
call Going Vertical. When Barbara says or does something that elicits my
reaction, my intention is first to go within, then vertically up and down
inside myself to understand what is happening with me. I don’t first go
horizontally, out towards her, making her responsible for how I feel. The
tendency in our culture is to go horizontal reactively: to focus outward
toward the other, blaming them for our internal experience. Then it is
common to try to change the other so that we can feel better.
If we learn first to go vertical, and only then to go horizontal by sharing
our internal experience with our partner, we have the possibility of
developing great intimacy. We first go within to understand our experience,
and then go horizontal to communicate it to the other. This combination,
in this order—initially owning our experience and trying more
fully to understand it, then communicating our inner landscape to our
We are most likely first to go horizontal inappropriately at those times
when a response to our partner’s behavior evokes a big charge within us.
That is, when we experience an outsized emotional reaction that is not
proportional to the context and to the behavior that is actually unfolding.
The big charge is a clear indicator that a sensitive place within us has
been triggered, and that it is time to make a complete U-Turn. It is time
to withdraw the horizontal energy, and to inquire gently and lovingly
within ourselves. Otherwise, we are behaving more like experimental
mice, reacting predictably when the stimulus is presented.
Going vertical requires that we slow down and not respond immediately
like those laboratory mice. We slow ourselves and make an effort to
become aware of our thoughts and feelings, noticing if any shift or openings
arise out of this inner exploration. Behavior that emerges from a
process of self-inquiry and understanding has greater integrity and tends
to produce more skillful action and better outcomes in the real world.
Dependency in a relationship feeds the dysfunctional horizontal
movement. Dependency creates merging with the other. When merging
occurs, whatever you are feeling, I am feeling. When one partner is
dependent, the other inevitably falls into some form of codependency as
well. Dependency, codependency, and the anxiety they produce push
the partners into losing their sense of center, their sense of what is objective
and real, their sense of “true north.” Under these conditions, each
partner merges into the other, while neither takes responsibility for their
own self. Going horizontal is the dominant mode of interaction, and real
intimacy is threatened.
Perhaps the single most important thing I can do for the quality of my
life and the quality of my relationship is to choose to fully own my own
feelings and thoughts—even when it is really difficult, even when I do
not want to, even when my fondest wish is to make my partner wrong.
Even then I need to own it.
Chapter Five - Don’t Try to Change
Those who see themselves as whole make no demands.
A COURSE IN MIRACLES
All suffering is based on attachment and craving.
A provocative statement related to the “stay in your own skin”
theme, and another excellent guideline in intimate relationship, is
“never try to change the other person about anything, ever.” Optimally,
change comes from within the other as a gift based upon a response to
our stated wants and needs, not as the result of a demand, coercion, or
The effort to change our partner from how they are to how we want
them to be is highly destructive to intimacy. Allowing and accepting
our partner as they are deepens the connection perhaps more than any
single factor. When, after much ineffective effort, we accept the futility
of trying to change our partner, there comes a great freedom, both
for ourselves and for the other. Once we release the mental, emotional,
and physical constriction associated with fruitless effort, a deep release
and relaxation results at all these levels. When we take the pressure off
our partner, they too experience release from constriction. We create
the conditions under which our partner can find the interior space to
accept us and make changes from within as a positive choice, rather than
remaining stuck in a pattern of resisting our coercion.
The alternative to focusing on trying to change the other is, of course,
acceptance of our partner as they are, focusing instead on ourselves as
the locus of change. This approach is both kinder to our partner, which
supports intimacy, and a far more empowering practice for ourselves.
Owning our thoughts and feelings then learning from them, rather than
making our inner experience the responsibility of the other, allows us
to move progressively toward being who we want to be. Not trying to
change another, allowing them to be as they are, is the strongest message
of acceptance we can give. And, acceptance is love in action. It contributes
far more to building intimacy in the long run than any sweet nothings
you can whisper in your beloved’s ear.
Conversely, when we are pushing to change our partner, we send a
strong critical signal of judgment. “You are not okay the way you are. To be
okay you need to be the way I want you to be.” Such an attitude results in
emotional distance. This does not mean that we shouldn’t communicate to
our partner what we want and need. It means we can express our thoughts
and feelings with even greater ease because both partners know that the
expression is without coercion and without attachment to outcome. Both
understand it is an expression, not a demand. This is a critical difference.
The challenge is to express ourselves fully, but not to expect change
from our partner as a result—not to be attached to “that which I want
will be given.” Rather, it is to accept “how it is,” and to learn from what
is happening within ourselves under the conditions of how it is. If fortune
shines upon us and our partner gives us the gift of a change in their
behavior, the skillful response is to accept it graciously and continue not
to expect change the next time.
I saw this enacted on the beach the other day in the difference in
attitude and behavior between two little girls as they played with a dog.
The first girl was trying her hardest to force the dog, Elijah, to give up
the ball so that she could play throw and retrieve with him. Elijah would
not drop the ball for her. He sensed, as animals often do, the coercion,
and so resisted it. This first little girl walked away frustrated and crying,
unable to change Elijah’s behavior. The second little girl, now alone with
Elijah, simply waited quietly, speaking appreciations softly and gently to
the dog. Elijah dropped the ball right in front of her and played throw
and retrieve with her for a long time, accompanied by the sounds of the
little girl’s shouts of joy and pleasure.
Similarly, the many programs focused on alcohol abuse—institutions
that work with people who most need to change—know this principle
well. Al Anon, an organization that works with people who have an alcoholic
in their families, strongly encourages its members not to try to
change the alcoholic, even though it is clear the alcoholic needs to change.
Most members have tried many times to manipulate, coerce, or cajole
the alcoholic into stopping drinking, with no success, and at a great cost
to themselves. The fundamental message of Al Anon is “do not try to
change the other, change yourself.” The message is to make the changes
in your own life that support a happier, more satisfying existence. If that
means leave, then leave; if that means stay, then stay. But do not waste
your precious life trying to change another, no matter how much they
need changing. It does not work, and is usually counterproductive.
The transformation of perspective from trying to change the other
to acceptance of the other, along with the shift in the locus of change
from you to me, is monumental and extremely challenging. It rises to
the level of a paradigm shift, a movement from one deeply ingrained
worldview and all the behaviors that emanate from it, to a new conceptual
framework and new behavioral patterns. The change can also
be described as a shift in emphasis from action to inquiry. The focus
changes from an emphasis on behavior—“what should I do to get you
to change?”—to self-examination. The accent is on asking, “what am I
experiencing at all levels of my being?”, which allows my actions to flow
from that inquiry. The shift is thus toward noting my inner responses
to what I am experiencing in the presence of the other at such depth
that my actions, rather than being conditioned responses or strategically
constructed behaviors, flow more easily and naturally out of the
resulting insight and understanding.
An example of this process is the very challenging question many of
us face at one time or another as to whether we should stay in a relationship
or leave it. Generally, the way we do this is to agonize over what is
the correct action, whether we should leave or stay. We drive ourselves
crazy scouring our list of what is positive and negative in the relationship,
trying to develop the cognitive answer so that we can take the “right”
action. It works better to sit with the process, deeply experiencing the
feelings we are undergoing without focusing on the action of whether to
stay or leave. From this experience, insight and understanding will arise
about our self, about our history and conditioning, and about what feels
right at a gut level. This inner knowing will direct us toward what to do,
producing an outcome in which we can have more confidence.
As we have seen, the movement of turning inward before acting outward
has benefits that go beyond building intimacy. It also supports our
own personal growth. One important way it does this is by serving as a
healing antidote for our early loss of self, which has set us up for codependency
in intimate relationship. As children, most of us were conditioned
to turn outward for self-definition rather than find it within ourselves.
We continue to do this as adults, especially in intimate relationship. This
results in the tendency for our partner’s state of mind and emotions to
determine our own state of mind and emotions. We need them to be
happy for us to be happy, and so on.
When we move toward staying in our own skin, not trying to change
the other, we are forced back upon our self, taking responsibility for our
own happiness. We learn to define who we are independently, based
upon our own thoughts and feelings. We are then more separate from
the moods of the other. We can be caring and compassionate towards
our partner without needing them to be different. It actually builds intimacy
to allow the other their sadness or pain rather than trying to talk
them out of it so that we can feel better.
The expectation that the other needs to change, and that we can
change them, creates a constriction within our bodies. It literally creates
a physical tightening; if we pay attention, this easily can be felt as a physical
sensation somewhere in the body. When we let go of expectations,
there is a tendency towards release and a feeling of expansion, a relaxation
and opening in the body. This information, which comes directly
from the body, does not lie. The letting go of expectations and control is
good for our overall wellbeing.
The gift we give our partner in doing this is allowing them the space to
experience the joy of being who they are, as they are, without the negativity
of coercion. Under these conditions we actually increase the possibility
of “getting what we want” because when they are no longer frozen into
reacting to our coercion, they can more easily give us that offering.
Gayle was in a relationship with a man she professed to love deeply,
who shared values that were important to her. But, she tried so hard to
change Barry that she drove him and herself half crazy. “He needs to
be more demonstrative, affectionate, and committed,” she said. These
demands for “more” drove a deep wedge between her and Barry. He
felt he was being authentic in his love for her, and committed to their
relationship. He explained that in his family of origin, people were not
demonstrative, so it didn’t feel natural or comfortable for him to be so.
But this explanation was not good enough for Gayle. She continued to try
to change him through her insistence, until Barry finally couldn’t take
it any more and left the relationship. Gayle ended up heartbroken. Her
efforts to change her partner resulted in exactly the opposite of what she
wanted. If Gayle had stayed within her own skin and accepted the level
of love and affection Barry was capable of giving, and had gone vertically
within herself to better understand her own strong reactions to “not getting
enough,” she might not have ended up alone.
When we commit to not trying to change the other, we have to
learn to deal with the disappointment of not getting what we want. Of
course, we have that same disappointment when we do try to change the
other, because it seldom works. However, the inner resources developed
through the practice of focusing inward, minimizing expectations, and
counting on ourselves for strength, makes it easier to withstand disappointment.
The irony in this is that the narcissistic joke, “it’s all about
me,” is at a deeper level actually true. When we are triggered by our
partner’s behavior, the skillful first assumption is to know deep down
and act on the knowledge that “it really is all about me,” even though our
habitual tendency is to assume “it’s all about you.”
A happier story than Gayle and Barry’s is that of Kelly and Mark. Kelly
complained for years about not having satisfying sex with her husband.
He wasn’t sensitive enough and didn’t touch her as she wanted. Mark was
confused and frustrated by this. He felt he listened carefully to every
thing his wife asked for, and was trying his best to meet her needs. After
working with the concepts of “staying in our own skin” and “not trying
to change the other,” Kelly finally got it. She started taking responsibility
for her own orgasm. Interestingly, she soon started finding that her
sexual life with Mark was much improved. “I’m owning it now,” she said.
“I am, for the first time in my life, allowing myself to open to sexual
pleasure. It is so clear to me at this point that both the good sex and the
bad sex are my responsibility. If I hadn’t stopped trying to change Mark
and really looked at myself, I think we would both have continued to be
frustrated and grown more distant.”
Anthony had a similar experience around jealousy. He blamed and
harped on his girlfriend Rita to the point of almost breaking up their
relationship. Because, he said, “I know you put on that perfume to attract
Richard,” their mutual friend. No matter what Rita said to deny her
interest in Richard, and despite the lack of any real behavior indicating
an attraction, Anthony would not be swayed. After much conflict and
pain, Anthony came to see that the real issue was not Rita or Richard,
but his own chronic jealousy. This stemmed, of course, from his personal
history. Anthony was able to say to Rita, “What I now know is that
when I smell that scent, this feeling I’ve known since I was a child comes
over me. I don’t understand its source yet, but when it happens again,
instead of nagging, I am going to try to work on that stuff. I want to find
a way to either let it go or deal with it, but not make it a relationshipbreaker
Owning our reactions is an act of peace. An act of nonviolence. At the
core of nonviolence philosophy is the belief that peace starts within. It
starts small and grows. If there is peace within us and within our relationships,
then we are the best kind of activists for peace. As the Indian sage
Patanjali, known as the “Father of Yoga,” wrote, “When we are firmly
established in nonviolence, beings around us cease feeling hostility.”
The “blame and change” habit is the opposite of peacemaking. It is
inherently violent, and tends to set off a cycle of blame and defense by
encouraging the equal and opposite behavior in the other. It triggers the
worst, not the best, in people. There seems to be an inherent desire
within all of us to be “seen.” To feel received for who we are, exactly as
we are. If others accept us, it helps us accept ourselves. The act of not
trying to change our partner is a wonderful way to love them, to support
them in being seen, and to allow them to feel better about themselves.
Being in intimate relationship with someone who feels good about who
they are is a blessing. The “not trying to change the other” approach is
one of the most loving things we can do to support our partner, and to
help ourselves grow up.
Chapter 14 - U-Turn Only
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye,
but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?
THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (7:3)
For the majority of us, the most troubling aspect of relationship
is the conflict that arises between partners. Yet conflict between
intimate partners is inevitable. We are each very different people with
different habits and tendencies. If we are real, at some point along the
way, either frequently or infrequently, conflict will arise. Like two boats
moving forward on a parallel course, at some point our wakes will touch.
At times they will merge in harmony, at other times they will clash in
Both singles and couples attend the workshops we lead on intimate
relationship. The singles often speak of yearning for a relationship. The
couples often complain of the difficulties they have in relationship, and
the pain of conflict they too often experience. Many of the couples
express a longing for the peace of being single, and feel their lives would
be easier alone. Acknowledging the inevitability of conflict and understanding
its potential for healing and growth can reduce this frustration.
Relationship is enhanced if we are conscious of our attitude toward conflict
and respond to it with awareness. Conflict, if handled skillfully, can
Understanding the way in which each of us uniquely reacts in the
presence of discord, no matter what its content, is an asset to handling
conflict in a healthy way. Beyond the specific issue about which we are
in opposition, what is our typical and general reaction in the face of
friction? Do we run from it, fearing our associations with conflict and
where it has led us in the past? Do we rush towards it, enjoying the
excitement of battle? Do we stay with it, comfortably or uncomfortably,
until we find resolution? If we are “conflict averse,” it is useful to inquire
into our feelings and commit ourselves to the Emotional Wisdom work
that will allow us to “stay at the table” in the face of discord, until resolution
emerges. Similarly, if our tendency is to rush into interpersonal
battle, no matter what its content, it would be wise to understand what
is at the core of this conditioning, then find a way to avoid engaging in
conflict for its own sake. Knowing our tendency, and healing its dysfunctional
aspects, allows us to bring less extraneous baggage into the
One couple I know, Noreen and Vern, have a terrible time when conflict
arises because they are both so wounded around it. Though their
disagreements do not rise to the level of physical violence, they do rise
to such high levels of emotional heat that it is damaging to them as individuals
and to their relationship. When I worked with Noreen and Vern,
what became clear was that each of their chronic response patterns to
interpersonal conflict was the key factor in creating their inability to
process any specific disagreement.
As she went deeper, Noreen noticed that the feeling she experienced
when she was in the presence of struggle was similar to one she felt in
her family of origin. They continually fought about issues related to her
disabled sister. Noreen felt what she described as a sour sensation accompanied
by profound self-criticism. It was not okay to have her own feelings.
She unconsciously believed that she should relegate herself to the
background because her sister’s needs had to take priority. When Noreen
realized this, she understood for the first time that during conflict she
was not seeing Vern as the man she loved, but as a surrogate sister who
was stealing the family’s love from her. These preconditions made it hard
for Noreen to constructively engage in conflict. Fortunately, her insight
into her history opened up the possibility for this to change.
Vern, for his part, noticed that his typical reaction to conflict was
fear and the tendency to withdraw. He felt unloved in the presence of
opposition. The feeling he associated with conflict was like the feeling he
experienced in his family of origin, where fighting was the predominant
mode of parental interaction. He was neglected and scared, and felt the
only way he could be safe was to withdraw to his bedroom and stay out of
the way. As happened with Noreen, Vern’s insight into his own process
offered him the possibility of alternatives. The ability to make more conscious
choices enables a healthier process and offers more opportunity
for constructive resolution.
There are many sources of conflict in relationship. Though we are
intimate, each partner does not necessarily have the same standards, perspectives,
and needs. These differences will, from time to time, come
into opposition. The most important cause of discord in partnership is
that we will not always get our own way. Our partner wants things to
be a certain way too. They have an opinion, a need. The imperative is to
find a skillful way to deal with this fundamental opposition.
The reason conflict goes beyond this initial and fundamental frustration,
escalating to higher levels of intensity, is that something in the
superficial opposition has touched an underlying and unhealed wound,
an historically based emotional injury, as we saw in the case of Noreen
and Vern, that often originates in our early life. The difference on the
surface, the content of the disagreement, is rubbing on that tender place.
Touching our raw spot causes a pain, and the tendency is to react with a
fight-or-flight response, aggression, or withdrawal. In our effort not to
feel our emotional pain, we allow the wounded aspects of ourselves to
pass out of awareness. They then reside in our unconscious layer. As a
result, we do not even realize that the wound has been touched. We just
become hyper-reactive to the situation without awareness. The whole
system contracts in response to the discomfort. We fall for the illusion
that it is the content of our disagreement that is making us so uncomfortable.
We are not even aware that it is actually the original emotional
injury that has been activated.
As I have noted, in my case this process is triggered when someone
“tells me what to do.” If my partner, in the spirit of support, reminds
me, “Did you take your checkbook with you?” as I go off to a doctor’s
appointment, I can easily take offense. Responding as if to a command, I
feel reactive and may snap sharply in a mean-spirited way. But the truth
is, if I slow down and become truly aware of my feelings, what I realize
is that my childhood wound around being controlled has been activated.
It is blinding me to the simple reality of the present, and I respond as if
in a time machine to the past.
The way out of conflict and into personal growth and healing in relationship
is through diminishing judgment and blame, and owning our
feelings. We need to possess as our own the discomfort we feel while
in conflict with our partner. It is our feeling in our body. It may be triggered
by the other, but the actual sensation of discomfort lies within us.
The best way to respond to this reality, the most empowering way, is to
withdraw our focus from the other and the differences between us, and
concentrate our attention within, on the feelings and teachings lodged
inside the discomfort. Going into the feeling and drawing down the wisdom
hidden in the emotion allows insight to emerge. Sometimes it even
allows release from the limitations imposed by the feelings. Understanding
this, we can shift our beliefs about conflict from seeing it as a wholly
negative experience to a positive, if difficult, one.
The process of owning our projections we call the U-Turn. And the best
way to deal with the feelings that arise in conflict we call U-Turn Only. The
heightened feelings that generate conflict, which we have been discussing
throughout this book, are fundamentally projections. We are seeing a disowned
part of our self in the other. When we begin to point the finger at
the other as wrong, the more skillful response is to make a gentle U-Turn:
that is, to kindly turn the interest and inquiry back to ourselves, lightly
beginning a loving self-investigation. What within us has been triggered?
Again using my own unhealed wound as an example, if Barbara advises
me that my shirt is dirty and I should probably change it, I can easily get
angry and make her wrong for telling me what to do. However, if I make
a U-Turn, using my awareness of the discomfort arising within me as a
reminder to go deeper and inspect myself, what I notice is that the real
energy in my reaction comes from a very crusty old feeling of aversion
to what I perceive as control. As I stay with the inquiry, feeling into my
own feelings, I can recall when I first began to have these feelings—as a
disempowered child constantly controlled by adults and relatively powerless
to get my own way.
As I come to understand the origin of this complex, I also understand
that those conditions no longer exist. I am no longer a disempowered
child. I am a fully empowered adult. I do not need to react from a disempowered
place anymore. I can choose to change my shirt or choose
not to change my shirt, free of any conditioned reactivity. The insight
brings me clear vision. My partner just made a suggestion. I can take it
or leave it. By making the U-Turn, I advance my healing, freeing myself
a bit more from this particular box. The next time it happens, I hope to
respond more in the present than from the past, acting with more grace,
whatever shirt I wear.
The U-Turn is the first step in the process of Going Vertical and then
Going Horizontal. By inquiring within and then communicating about
our self to the other rather than communicating about how the other is
wrong, conflict is minimized and resolved. Now, instead of attacking,
we are sharing about our self. Attacking creates distance and aversion.
Sharing creates intimacy.
The process of reacting to our partner, noticing our reactivity, then
making the U-Turn is, for better or worse, a never-ending enterprise.
Because of our deep conditioning, how we adapted emotionally and
physically to survive the war zone of childhood, there is always another
layer that appears after the previous layer has been removed. That should
not deter us. It is the best game in town. As in dropping physical weight,
the lighter we get, the more easily we move. We become more graceful,
we handle the challenges more skillfully, and we feel better.
Owning our projections is the anvil upon which the growth process
is hammered out. If we are willing to do the self-work, we will come to
deeply appreciate the immense value for personal growth that intimate
relationship offers. Robert Johnson, in Owning Your Own Shadow, illustrates
how taking responsibility for our projections in relationship can be playful
as well as helpful. He writes, “I recently heard about a couple who had the
good sense to call upon the shadow in their wedding ceremony. The night
before their marriage, they held a ritual where they made their ‘shadow
vows.’ The groom said ‘I will give you an identity and make the world see
you as an extension of myself.’ The bride replied, ‘I will be compliant and
sweet, but underneath I will have the control.’ They then drank champagne
and laughed heartily at their foibles, knowing that in the course of
the marriage, these shadow figures would inevitably come out. They were
ahead of the game because they had recognized the shadow and unmasked
A stunning example of our blindness to our inner process is the case
of the professional athlete who pretended to have such a strong Christian
morality that he refused to visit the White House after his team’s
Super Bowl victory because President Clinton was “immoral.” He was
soon after accused by his 17-year-old babysitter of getting her drunk and
forcing sex upon her on the bathroom floor just after her return from
the Catholic High School prom. Consider also the Moral Majority leader
who, after damning homosexuals to hell, was caught in a homosexual
affair with a male prostitute.
A less graphic, but still relevant example is the case of Bill and Joanne,
who came to me for couples work. They explained that they existed in
an almost constant state of battle. Bill said, “I don’t trust Joanne. I can’t
trust what she says or does.”Upon making the U-Turn, it became clear
to Bill that because of his own personal history and some mistakes he
had made in the past, the person he really didn’t trust was himself. He
projected that distrust onto his wife. He was seeing himself in the mirror
of his intimate partner.
Joanne said that Bill did not “accept” her. He didn’t listen to her or
“receive” her. She also said that Bill was constantly judging her. When
Joanne made her U-Turn and examined the feelings associated with this
story, she saw that she was primarily the one who did not accept herself.
Her habit, stemming from a critical father, was to judge herself constantly
and harshly. Joanne was seeing this reflected in the mirror of her intimate
By the end of our work together, Joanne understood and acknowledged
this truth about herself. Because of that, she experienced some
healing and peace. Bill recognized that the source of his reactivity was
not Joanne. That resulted in Bill being less judgmental of Joanne and
more at ease with himself in the relationship.
Herman Hesse, the brilliant German novelist, wrote, “Whenever we
hate someone, we are hating some part of ourselves that we see in that
person. We don’t get worked up about anything that is not in ourselves.”
The crazy truth is, it really is “all about me.” After we had hammered this
point home for two days at a workshop in England, one participant saw
the humor in it all and said to me at the end, “I was going to tell you that
you are gifted and talented at this work, but now I know that it’s just a
projection, and I am the one who is gifted and talented.”
Another frequent cause of interpersonal conflict in relationship, and
the fuel that feeds its fire, is the need to be right. Many arguments are
not so much about the subject in dispute as about two people fighting to
be right. More often than fighting to be right, we are really fighting not
to be wrong. This, like many of the dynamics discussed here, is most
often a result of early experiences in which being right was safe, and
being wrong was unsafe. If you gave the “right” reply to your father,
mother, schoolteacher, or other authority figure in your early life, you
might avoid a negative or punitive response. In the present, as an adult,
that conditioning remains. When in conflict, there is a part of us that
is desperately trying to avoid being wrong, because at the unconscious
level being wrong is associated with the potential pain of punishment. So
we fight to be right.
When Barbara and I finally realized how often the fuel at the bottom
of our conflicts was the struggle to be right, we instituted a simple,
humorous, but highly effective solution. Having become aware that most
of our arguments were over trivial matters and mainly a struggle not to
be wrong, we decided on an automatic solution. We divided the days of
the week equally into those days in which Barbara was by fiat defined as
“right,” and those in which I was “right.” On Monday, Wednesday, and
Friday, Howard Joel was right. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday Barbara
was right. On Sunday we would just duke it out. Though seemingly
nonsensical, this method helped enormously. It made us keenly aware of
how the actual content of our conflicts did not really matter, but was an
attempt to stay safe in the face of disagreement. The safety provided by
the formality and equality of this process proved to us that we can easily
drop our need to be right, and that doing so is unlikely to cause harm. It
helped raise our consciousness about the nature of conflict, safety, being
right, and being wrong. Now we no longer need this structure. It has
dropped away like the boosters on a rocket. We seldom argue over trivial
Along with the wish to be right is the innate desire to be heard.
There appears to be some deep-seated need within us to be received
and acknowledged. It seems to parallel the experience of the infant who
comes to know herself by seeing herself reflected back by the adults
around her. Being heard allows us to feel that we exist and matter. I get
very frustrated if Barbara does not respond to what I have said in a way
that indicates she has heard me. I need an acknowledgment that she has
listened and tried to understand what I am saying in order for me to relax
and listen well to her. If this does not happen, my attention is tied up in
pushing my way into being understood, and not on listening to Barbara.
Our friend Kate had the same issue, expressed in a somewhat different
way, with her husband John. For me, feeling that I have been heard is
getting a sense that my partner has listened and tried to understand me.
For Kate, it was seeing action forthcoming based on what she had said.
When John did not follow through on her requests to him, she felt she
had not been heard. If Kate asked John to slow down while driving and
John acknowledged her request, but eventually began to speed up again,
or when she asked him to do something around the house and he said he
would, but never got around to it, then she felt unheard, misunderstood,
and frustrated. This caused Kate to build up a weighty bag of resentment
toward, and distance from, John. She began to feel closed off to him
as well. Eventually it reached into the bedroom, and Kate was no longer
receptive to lovemaking. She literally felt she could not be open and
receiving to someone who was not open and receiving to her. It was this
issue of being heard that had to be worked through before their sexual
life, and ultimately their intimacy, could be restored.
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