Evolving the Soul-Centered Relationship

Our idea of what we want in love relationships is evolving. Once, a stable partner with a steady job who could share the tasks of daily life and provide companionship through both good times and bad times was enough, and even something to be grateful for.

In cultures where men and women were paired off in arranged marriages, love, sexual-spiritual connection and soul partnership were not part of the discussion the parents of the bride and groom engaged in while negotiating the marriage contract.

Today, love relationships are being asked to provide more than food, shelter, clothing and companionship. While necessary, these things are not alone sufficient. As the human species evolves emotionally and spiritually, we are seeking a deeper level of connection and expression in our love relationships. The term “soul mate,” once confined to new age circles, appears in even mainstream vocabulary. Media images portray the fantasy of meeting one’s soul mate, someone with whom one can share a sense of deep loving connection, and enjoy a sense of intimacy and everlasting relational bliss. More and more people are recognizing that love relationships can be part of the spiritual journey of our lives, and that love relationships themselves can offer a powerful spiritual journey.

Yet, even though many people I know are holding visions of meeting soul mates, and succeeding at meeting people who feel like soul mates, in time their dreamy bubble bursts. “I was overjoyed to meet a man who felt like my soul-mate,” recounted a forty-year-old professional woman. “I expected to sail off to a life of joy and fulfillment. Everything was supposed to be easy. Things would just work. All past hurts and difficulties would be healed. But it didn’t work out that way!” To her dismay, this woman discovered that the very same stumbling blocks that had plagued her previous intimate relationships had reared their unwanted heads in her supposedly perfect, sacrosanct relationship with her soul mate! “I am disheartened and confused,” she reflected. “What went wrong?”

I have heard this sentiment echoed by both men and women of all ages, straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, sharing their experiences of short and long term relationships. How can the perfect couple unravel into the lonely couple?

The Evolutionary Spiral of Relationships

Love relationships proceed along the pathway of an evolutionary spiral and include three major stages: 1. The Getting-to-know-you stage, 2. The Shadowlands, and 3. Spiritual partnership.

The Getting-to-Know-You Stage: This stage at the beginning of a relationship, when we experience the bliss of new relationship energy, is the one the media has indelibly imprinted in our minds. Meeting another person with whom there is a sense of connection, attraction, sometimes lust, and infatuation feels exciting and wonderful. With this stranger we barely know,it is easy to put our best foot forward, focus on only the positive qualities in ourselves and the other, and experience the relationship as fun, easy and light. In this stage people often feel, “I’m in love,” “This is it!” and “Things are right!” The getting-to-know-you stage can last from one month to several years depending on the pace of the relationship. As intimacy increases, the relationship will cross over the threshold from this first stage to the second stage.

Because our culture is ripe with images of this excitement and infatuation, we begin to assume that relationships are always supposed to look, feel and be this way. When we find our relationships evolving and deepening, we are not prepared for what follows as we grow beyond this introductory stage.

The Shadowlands: Once the level of intimacy has deepened in the safety and trust that develops in a growing relationship, the relationship inevitably enters the second evolutionary stage, which I call the shadowlands. Few of us have ever been told that all deep, emotionally intimate relationships hit the shadowlands — a place that most of us wish to avoid or make go away. In the shadowlands, the new relationship energy and bliss of the getting-to-know-you stage seems to be lost and sometimes forgotten. Past wounds surface to be healed. Undeveloped parts of ourselves emerge for cultivation. Differences we never knew existed become crucial. We find ourselves emotionally triggered by our supposed beloved, and our good communication skills can be thrown to the wind.

In the shadowlands many people feel lost, frightened, disempowered and despairing. Too few of us have been taught that the basis of a sustainable relationship with another is a grounded, secure relationship with oneself. To navigate the waters with another person, one first needs to be clear about one’s own boundaries and needs. Yet, “need” is treated like a four letter word in our culture. Rarely do we find opportunities where it is truly safe to get in touch with and learn to articulate our needs.

As a result, too many of us are out of touch with our needs. We develop rigid boundaries or none at all. We may do things for others that don’t work for us or make sacrifices that we later resent. I watch people struggling to find an authentic, connected way of living from moment to moment. Many lack the sense of presence and self-knowledge this requires. I watch earnest people experience barriers to the intimacy they want and need or get enmeshed with a primary partner and lose touch with their own personal needs. Intimate relating becomes bumpy and difficult.

In the shadowlands, common responses are “It isn’t working,” and “This is too hard.” Both partners and the relationship as a whole feel stuck. As a result many couples break up, believing the relationship is the problem and leaving is the solution. Others stay together by putting up walls to keep them from the pain and necessary work of a deepening relationship. They remain together, but intimacy is compromised. A small percentage of couples recognize that the shadowlands are a necessary and important evolutionary stage, and then find the resources, inner and outer, to do their work, so that the relationship can continue to deepen and grow.

Without doing shadow work, the relationship cannot progress to the third evolutionary stage. By trying to avoid shadow feelings and shadow work, many relationships remain stuck at this stage of relationship evolution for very long periods of time, sometimes forever. Because fear of emotions and relational conflict is so prevalent in the culture as a whole, many relationships are stuck in the shadowlands.

Spiritual Partnership: The third stage of the evolutionary spiral is reached when partners do the often painful emotional and spiritual work brought forth in the shadowlands. The reward is greater intimacy and a sense of spiritual partnership. By healing pain, conflict, miscommunication and woundedness, partners can experience a sense of mutuality and oneness in addition to a sense of self. At this stage, both partners have learned to love themselves. They also can feel that the relationship has a life of its own — that there really is a “we.”

By tending to the “we” as well as to self and other, the partners can grow together and experience a sense of a higher purpose for the relationship. This higher purpose might be having and raising children, creating a loving home or doing a project of service out in the world. Whatever the purpose, the partners recognize that by working together, they can be more powerful and effective than either could be alone. In this way, the spiritual dimension of intimate relationship grows. Sexuality and spirituality often integrate at the spiritual partnership stage.

Because relationships progress in an evolutionary spiral, as we do the work at one level, we will continue to cycle through the others in an ongoing way. Periodically, shadow issues emerge even in a spiritual partnership. However, as the relationship matures spiritually and emotionally, the partners recognize the shadow work for what it is and take steps to work through and integrate new shadow parts as they emerge. The partners appreciate the intimate dance of relationship and develop skills and language to feed, nurture, value and sustain their relationship.

Personality-Based Relationships

When I was growing up, the relationships I witnessed were rooted in what I call the personality-based model of relationship. This remains the current paradigm in the mainstream of our culture, although more and more people seem to be feeling the evolutionary currents and growing beyond the limitations of this model. In the personality-based model of relationship, the relationship is rooted in external aspects of relating:

Role performance: Roles may be delineated along gender lines, like the traditional model of man as provider and woman as housekeeper, or along functional lines — enough income needs to be earned to support the household, dinner needs to find its way to the table, and the dog needs to get fed and walked. The two partners come together to negotiate their functional roles and allocate the tasks necessary to have a home and life.

Packaging: This ranges from height, weight and hair color to years of education and professional status, religious affiliation or the kind of car one drives. Personal ads often include a list of this kind of adjectives or criteria for a potential mate.

Common interests or hobbies: The theory goes that if you have common interests like playing tennis, riding motorcycles, or fine dining you will enjoy one another’s company and be a good match.

Outcome-directed: Just as the dating process centers on “is s/he the one?” once a personality-based relationship starts, the timer ticks towards goals of marriage, a house in the suburbs, two SUV’s and children. A romantic relationship is supposed to produce a life that fits a traditional set of cultural specs.

Overall there is less attention to inner attributes and emotional and spiritual compatibilities in a personality-based relationship, however it is still an evolutionary step forward from the arranged marriage. Here, an individual has free choice of whom s/he chooses to partner with, within a set of socially acceptable parameters.

Limitations of the personality-based relationship include:

1. The skills needed to build and sustain intimacy are often not considered when forming or attempting to live out a personality-based relationship. As intimacy deepens, the partners find themselves in the shadowlands, unprepared and unaware of where they are, how they got there, and what to do about it.

2. Partners often lack a language or tools to navigate relational challenges that emerge in any growing relationship. There may be significant limits in each or both people’s communication skills.

3. Partners are often scared of conflict or conflict averse. Conflict evokes fear of loss of relationship, abandonment, or triggering the other’s anger. Conflict is, therefore, suppressed.

4. Because dark feelings like anger, sadness, fear and disappointment are threatening, one or both partners may avoid them. As a result, the relationship may take on a superficial and inauthentic quality.

5. When either or both partners hit places of emotional vulnerability or unhealed woundedness, they often act out, blame, withdraw or finger point, without a conscious awareness that they are triggered and reacting. These are the behaviors that were modeled in many people’s families growing up.

6. Emotional and physical violence can often emerge from the shadows in the forms of yelling, name calling, making the other wrong, judging, hitting, pushing or verbally attacking. Either or both individuals may lack skills for containing or working with difficult emotions.

7. One’s deeper needs may be overlooked, suppressed or avoided. Needs are a source of shame. This creates barriers to intimacy and connection.

8. People commonly live with a silent, unspoken tension or high drama, as a result of discomfort with the natural emotional fluctuations that emerge in life and relating. Strong feelings can be suppressed or repressed. When inner tension gets too high, this can lead to explosive expression.

As the human species matures emotionally and spiritually, our concept and practice of intimate relationship is also being asked to evolve. As I look both at myself and the people around me, we want relationships which provide emotional and spiritual depth and substance. Old time personality-based relationships are no longer enough. We are yearning for spiritually anchored, soul-centered relationships.

Evolving and maturing is a birthing process. We struggle with the shadow aspects of ourselves and our partners. We work hard, sometimes not knowing if our efforts will bear fruit. We live with uncertainty and not knowing, learning to find our strength in being present to each moment. In time, the fruits of our efforts emerge from the birth canal as we create deeper, more authentic, soul-centered ways of relating.

Excerpted from Healing The War Between the Genders: The Power of Soul-Centered Relationship by Linda Marks (HeartPower Press, 2004)

Linda Marks, MSM, has practiced heart-centered, psychospiritual body-centered psychotherapy with individuals, couples and groups for nearly twenty years. You may contact her at LSMHEART@aol.com or (617)965-7846.