Linda: To the degree that early unhealed wounds and unmet childhood needs are carried into adulthood we will see our partner as having the power, even the responsibility to rescue us from the residual pain from these experiences by providing us, finally, with the quality of love that we never received. What we desire from this person is love that is healing, affirming, all-encompassing, unconditionally accepting, and empowering—in short, salvation. Not only is this expectation unrealistic, it’s unattainable. Still, the desire for love is so compelling that it frequently blinds us to truths that may conflict with these longings.
When we feel ourselves to be incomplete or lacking a sense of wholeness, we often seek out others to fill our emptiness. We have a kind of internal radar that tells us when we encounter someone who seems to possess the capacity to restore us to wholeness. Generally, such a person embodies inner qualities, character traits, and ways of being that are similar to those of one or both of our parents or caregivers.
These similarities reawaken old longings and wounds that we had buried in the recesses of our unconscious mind, protecting us from the pain of these memories. While we may have forgotten the details of these experiences, our unconscious mind still reacts to similar types of people with feelings of both desire and fear. What makes this person attractive to us is that we see them as someone whose way of loving feels familiar.
Such a person often inflames the desire for redemptive love, the kind of love that can heal our hearts and souls, not just make our bodies feel good. It makes us feel “right” with ourselves and removes feelings of unworthiness, doubt, anxiety, and disease. It is the love that will take away our feeling of being different, inadequate, or shameful, love that will make us right with ourselves and with our world. “This time,” we tell ourselves, “this person will love me in the way I really want and need to be loved, and their love will remove the pain and suffering from my life.”
This then is the redemptive longing; the hope of being saved once and for all from the suffering inherent in a life in which we feel ourselves to be unworthy of real love, which is by nature, unconditional. All too often, relationships that begin with dreams of divine bliss deteriorate into the hell of unrelenting frustration, bitterness, and unfulfilled longing. The person whom we had hoped would keep us from suffering becomes the source of excruciating emotional pain.
How someone whom we see as a gift from heaven in one moment can only a brief time later seem to be a curse sent from hell, is one of the great mysteries of relationships. Yet as we come to understand more about the real nature of what draws men and women together and what these unions bring out from within ourselves, the mystery disappears, as do many of the well-meaning, but agonizingly ineffective methods we employ to free ourselves of our pain.
It is not our disillusioned hopes that bring great suffering to relationships. These difficulties bring only “ordinary suffering,” which though unpleasant, is tolerable and often even productive, in that it can lead to deeper levels of trust, understanding, and intimacy. This kind of pain is inevitable and not inherently damaging, as long as we are able to deal with it appropriately. When we ignore it, like a neglected wound, or a mistreated ailment, what was once a minor disturbance, soon deteriorates into a life-threatening condition.
When these experiences recur, the well-being of the relationship is threatened. The anxiety and discomfort related to that threat trigger “survival responses” that are embedded in our behaviors characterized by defensive and controlling patterns. In a flash, we may find ourselves locked in a battle of wills fighting for our emotional lives, each reaction inflaming a stronger, more heated counter-reaction. This can be like pouring gasoline on a fire. Unless we can put the fire out and neutralize its source, we will be condemned to replay this pattern with this and/or other partners ad infinitum.
We can put out the fire at its source by coming to terms with the fears, longings, and unspoken grief within us that continue to reactivate the burning emotional embers. It is based on the premise that the tendency to compromise ourselves in order to gain love and acceptance is widespread, nearly universal and is the source of much of the distress that we often mistakenly attribute to others. Looking for wholeness and security through another is like seeking relief of a toothache from a painkiller. There’s nothing wrong with doing it and it will temporarily remove your pain. It is not an effective long-term solution, since it doesn’t get to the source of the problem.
When we use relationships to remove the pain of our inner fragmentation, we are establishing an addictive pattern that will ultimately intensify the problem that we are seeking to alleviate. Like an addict who needs ever-increasing amounts of drugs to “do the job”, our growing dependence upon others inevitably leads to increased suffering.
If the source of the problem has to do with our unwillingness to honestly face ourselves, the solution involves our ability to re-member (literally, to put back together again) our essential selves and claim all of the parts that comprise the fullness of our being. This requires a willingness to accept all that we are, not simply those qualities of which we feel proud, but those aspects of ourselves that are not so pleasing, about which we feel shame.
To do so is to express ourselves with authenticity and integrity. This doesn’t mean that we need to reveal our deepest darkest secrets to the world, but that we honestly acknowledge these and other truths to ourselves. In so doing, those aspects of our personality that we have tried to conceal gradually become exposed to our awareness, moving from the dark of the shadow into the light of recognition. This process of gradual illumination both to ourselves as well as to others is the essence of the work that over time will set us free.
~ Mark Twain