Love Between Equals: Relationship as a Spiritual Path

The following excerpt is from Love Between Equals: Relationship as a Spiritual Path (Shambhala Publications, 2019)

As a psychoanalyst and psychologist who has been in the business of couple therapy for decades, I have the impression that it is harder today than ever to thrive in a couple relationship. In the 21st century, intimate and reciprocal love between adults in a committed relationship seems in many ways more problematic and unhappy than anyone thought it would be following decades of struggle for gender equality and sexual freedom. At the same time, “falling in love” has come to be synonymous with finding someone who is “perfect for me” or someone with whom “I have chemistry.” Our individual desires and feelings are guiding ideals for finding and keeping a partner, now more than ever. All of this is in the nature of what I call “personal love” – a way of being together that we take personally.

Of course, not all relationships and marriages begin with falling in love, but today most of us seem to believe falling in love is the ultimate stamp of validity that shows “this person is right for me.” But falling in love means falling into an unconscious idealizing projection, imagining how another person will complete you or care for you in the ways you most need or desire. By necessity, that person will fail at this because it is impossible for two adults to do this perfectly for each other in any enduring way. Inevitably, in the process, you will both encounter the pain and humiliation of falling off the pedestal of idealization and into the pit of disillusionment and power struggles.

It is what you do next that can either lead you to repeat the mental habits of idealization and disillusionment — leaving your current relationship for someone more “perfect” for your needs or feeling like your relationship is a prison of no escape – or to step onto a new path of greater freedom and love. This new path will lead you to transform your disillusionment into a true intimacy and a lively engagement with a particular other person whom you chose for yourself. And that path begins with the uncovering of your own “enemy-making” tendencies to find a close repository for what you do not like, or have refused to change, in yourself. The most convenient repository is always someone who is within reach and who is an equal and is supposed to know you well, and by whom you feel insulted, betrayed, wounded, rejected, or blamed. This is someone you care about, to whom you feel entitled to give advice, someone who is anything but a stranger.

In our most intimate relationships, where we depend on others for our own welfare, it seems almost impossible for us to step back from the impulse to blame another or shame ourselves when our hopes and ideals are dashed. Drawing on my decades of practicing Jungian psychoanalysis and couple psychotherapy, as well as my decades of practicing Buddhism (especially Zen and Vipassana), I have come to believe that our contemporary demands for a “love between equals” (I will say more about this below) require new skills and a new kind of wisdom to find our way from falling in love to true love and on-going intimacy. These skills and wisdom come from a blend of two different contemplative traditions: psychoanalysis and Buddhism. Psychoanalysis teaches us how to examine what we have unconsciously and unintentionally projected into a close other, or identified with from that person’s projections into us. It focusses our attention especially on the intersubjective or interpersonal space between two people. Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches us about our profound and radical interdependence and the ways in which we arise with other beings and focusses our attention especially within our own subjective experience. Both practices also teach us to pay close attention to the stories we tell ourselves about “self” and “other.”

Being able to step back from your impulse to make an enemy of your beloved, and to become aware of your own feelings and desires, means that you begin to develop compassion for, and wisdom about, the human condition of loving another: our profound unconsciousness and our profound interdependence. Love between equals, as you will see, requires psychological and spiritual development in all those who are called to it. No one is already prepared for this kind of love because it has not really existed before. And so, we are only beginning to understand how to love someone who is your equal, whom you chose for yourself, and whom you want to become your friend and witness, to know you and see you and feel you, and to accept you profoundly. Having wanted and invented this kind of “true love,” we human beings now need to live up to its demands.

In this book, you will learn how to become skillful and wise in your own development when (1) you gain insight into the “enemy-making factors” in yourself; (2) develop compassion for these factors in all humans; and (3) create a mindful space between your cherished “self” and the threatening “others” that you co-create in all of your relationships. When you are able to do these things reasonably well with those close others who are your equals and whom you want to love – your partner, your siblings, your adult children, your parents – then you can take yourself out into the world, knowing exactly how to work within yourself to be able to retain your respect and dignity (for yourself and another) in any kind of conflict, under all kinds of conditions. Personal love will be your teacher and I will be your guide.

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