April 29, 2002
The Conscious Relationship
We are conceived in relationship, born in relationship, and raised in relationship. It is in relationship that our needs are met - or not. It is in relationship that we get hurt, and it is in relationship that we must be healed. As social animals, this is our nature.
Although it is often necessary to seek solitude as an aspect of healing, it is never in solitude that we can be fully healed. We must always come back to relationship to be whole.
As dependant infants, the fulfillment of our needs must be delivered to us by our parents or primary caregivers. If this relationship is flawed, the injury - and adjustments to that injury - create patterns that repeat into adulthood in an attempt to fulfill the needs that were not met. Children with emotionally distant parents will often repeat that pattern by finding themselves attracted to emotionally distant partners. Though they are not able to get what they need from these substitutes, there is something compelling about these distant people - something very familiar (from the Latin for "family"). The child never had their parents, but the pattern they did have was the struggle.
For better or for worse, our childhood patterns are imprinted into our brains and bodies, and those patterns continue into our adult relationships in the form of unconscious behaviours. We are unaware that many of the ways we act are due to the "triggering" of old imprints by present situations.
Much of our neurotic "act" takes the form of projecting these unconscious needs and expectations onto our partners. For example, if we grew up in the emptiness of a life with a distant parent, our imprints may project themselves as the unconscious expectation that others will be this way. We might react to this projection by attempting to change or fix the "partner/parent" and finally get the intimacy our bodies long for.
The projection of these expectations onto the people around us is called "transference" - transferring our childhood needs onto others, including our therapists. We "sleepwalk" in the world of the here-and-now, reacting blindly to the projections from the "there-and-then."
It is no wonder relationships are often a disaster.
When the neurotic entanglement of projections occurs and both parties are unaware of these dynamics, the relationship is what I call "unconscious." When, on the other hand, both partners are aware that much of their behaviour is driven by earlier roots, the relationship can begin to become "conscious."
In the primal community, we call neurotic drives our "stuff." When our stuff gets triggered by our partner's behaviour, we either "act it in," "act it out," or "take it to the mat." When we "act in" we do not express our neurotic pain outwardly and hold it in our bodies. This may cause tension, headaches, and other physical illnesses. When we "act out," we express our stuff at others, "dumping" feelings on them that come from our past imprints. Both acting in and acting out do not directly heal, because the root cause of the pain is not addressed, fully felt in context, and released. We either blame ourselves or blame others.
To heal these old wounds we must take responsibility for the fact that they do not originate in us but that, as imprints, they do reside in us now. To heal, we must "own" our feelings - admit that they are ours and work with them.
The phrase "take it to the mat" refers to the common practice of doing feeling work on a mat, which often allows for greater freedom of expression. In common use, however, "taking it to the mat" refers to owning your primal feelings and expressing them in a safe and responsible way - which does not abuse others or injure yourself.
The essence of a conscious relationship is that both partners are aware that they each carry old stuff. It's also essential to recognize that both partners invariably bring some of their old stuff into every conflict - every one. Even if it appears that your partner is totally to blame, there will be some aspect of your own stuff that causes or allows the conflict to exist.
This realization is vital to the success of every relationship. Without this recognition, conflicts escalate into wars because each party feels they are absolutely right, and that their partner is absolutely wrong. Since we innately know it isn't entirely our fault, we never want to roll over and totally accept the responsibility of such extreme accusations. Although some people take the blame in order to "make nice," they usually harbour resentment toward themselves or their partner. These hidden feelings inevitably fuel another conflict.
Recognizing that it always "takes two to tango" is a gigantic step in turning a dysfunctional relationship into a conscious, healing, therapeutic relationship. When a conflict arises, with this awareness, it is possible to ask for a moment to reflect on strong feelings and their origins. This pause alone can prevent a battle from taking hold.
If necessary, each partner can "take it to the mat" - with support or on their own. When the old stuff is felt, acknowledged, or resolved, the two of them can come back together and address the present-day issue with greater clarity.
The awareness of unresolved needs and pain also allows genuine compassion to arise - for ourselves as well as others. We understand better why we do the things we do. When we can see and feel the innocent, hurting child in each one of us, we can no longer wage war.