“A relationship is the most effective antidepressant.” Jaak Panksepp PhD., The Archeology of Mind
Many people forget that the state of the relationship is something they create together, and it rests on the states that they reinforce most of the time and bring to their relationship. This takes insight and self-awareness to remember, especially in times of trial and change. We are prone to act out our fears and injuries in ways that damage the emotional core and connection. Many of us get triggered into past unresolved pain and distressing memories that have not been brought fully into our awareness and integrated. In the moment it feels to be about what is happening now, feels to be all about what our partner said or about some look they gave us.
In those moments, our history may alter what we see and hear. And we can react as if our survival is on the line. These are the times when partners can help each other out, make progress toward healing old wounds, and grow in their capacity to love unconditionally. But this is not what we typically do.
However, with insight and daily practices, partners can learn how to be there for each other. We can learn to stay loving and vulnerable, expressive, and receptive, as least when it really counts.
“The roots of resilience…are to be found in the sense of being understood by and existing in the mind and heart of a loving, attuned and self-possessed other.” Diana Fosha
In 2013 I published Partner-Coached Healing, a kind of manifesto describing my personal practice-based evidence over 30 years as a therapist. It was also a cry against the dumbing down of therapy into cognitive and behavioral lessons, often labeled “evidence-based practice.” Insurance companies want therapists to offer this, because it is sounds practical and quick, but it is not the most effective treatment.
The central theme of my book is that we all need to continually grow in our insight. We need to do the hard-inner work—or we WITHER. As we heal and grow in our awareness, we can become better at giving our partners guidance on how they can best help us.
When both people are growing themselves and are willing to learn how best to support the other, then we can cultivate extraordinary relationships.
“An honorable human relationship – that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” – is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.” Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets and Silence
Many people know the ancient symbol of the Mandala but have never encountered the Mandorla. It consists of two overlapping circles (or Mandalas) representing the interdependence of different worlds or energies. It is a potent image of partners maintaining their own Inspired Self yet melding together.
The center is an almond shape between the wholes; this portrays a couple’s unique experiential creation, the place where they can grow and contribute together to the larger world. The center is beyond “either/or” thinking, beyond the “common ground” or compromise. The whole truly yields something greater than the sum of its parts, opening doors of possibility, discovery and creativity. It is the astonishing promise of relationship.
I use this image to describe the totality of two whole selves coming together, where the overlapping is the union—two hearts entwined or melded as one. This presents a picture of one of the central paradoxes in human life: we are separate (have a need to be free, to be our own person, significant and unique), while we are also attached (have a powerful need to commit to a loving relationship). One of these needs is not better or worse or sicker or healthier. They are drives that must be met in some way if we are to feel complete.
To explore the core of your couple’s world, you might experiment with asking your partner:
- How can I help you feel more connected to the important people, places, and things in our life?
- How can I be more “present” or attentive to you? What memories do you have of me being totally present?
- When have you experienced me bringing an inner peace or playfulness into our shared activities?
- What things have we done together that have given you joy?
- What more might we do?
- What would sharing our life and our decisions in the future look like to you?
- What is the meaning of our life together…our purpose?