Intimate Relationships

Intimate Relationships

Name me one issue that causes more people more confusion and pain—and more hope and joy—than intimate relationships.

I don’t generally work with couples in my practice. I tend to work with individuals, but we often talk about hopes, dreams, difficulties, and conflicts in that person’s intimate relationships.

This work opens up awareness of the underlying patterns that may plague a client’s relationships. It takes some time to sort this material out. For example, the client’s relationship with mother or father while growing up usually shows up in this process. The way we relate to an intimate partner has a lot to do with how we related to our first loves—our parents!

Feeling judged, disappointed, neglected, rejected, or abandoned by your partner? Does that feel familiar? It could be that you’ve ended up with someone who triggers old feelings that mom or dad brought up for you. We all tend to repeat the past unconsciously.

Do you continually seek the perfect soul mate to the point that you give up on relationships without giving them a real chance? It could be that you are unknowingly trying to re-create a perfect relationship that you had—or didn’t have but longed to have—with mom or dad.

Did you experience trauma of some kind when you were a child or adolescent? Do you find that those old hurts intrude on your current relationships? You’re not alone if you do.

Of course, it’s not this simple at all. It’s complicated on many levels, but I’m offering examples of common issues.

We seem wired to seek a special partner in life, and we pour a lot of longing and expectation into finding this mate. In fact, take a look around, and you’ll see that there’s a whole industry of self-help, special therapies, couples’ counseling methods, and workshops that promise to fix this very human conflict around achieving fulfillment in an intimate relationship.

Have you ever noticed how often (I’m not saying always) the hoped-for fulfillment seems to exist on the other side of a gulf we can’t seem to cross? It’s as though we stand over here on this side of the gulf, with longings for what we believe must exist over there, on the other side.

We cling to an idea of how a relationship is supposed to be, and we don’t live in the actual reality, right here, right now, of our relationship. Real relationships are messy—full of contradictions, and include happiness and frustration, aliveness and boredom, health and illness, fulfillment and disappointment, and togetherness and separation.

When I work with a client, our conversations often spend at least some time on questions of how to be in an intimate relationship that challenges, stimulates, and meets basic desires. Sorting this all through helps the client discover what he or she wants and doesn’t want, how to avoid sabotaging good relationships, and how to avoid getting stuck in bad ones. It also helps the client discover how to ground a healthy relationship with another person in a healthy relationship with his or her own self.

Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 11

Portland counseling

“On the other hand, a characteristic of childhood is that, thanks to its naïveté and unconsciousness, it sketches a more complete picture of the self, of the whole man in his pure individuality, than adulthood. Consequently, the sight of a child or a primitive will arouse certain longings in adult, civilised persons–longings which relate to the unfulfilled desires and needs of those parts of the personality which have been blotted out of the total picture in favour of the adopted persona.” -C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 273

I often wonder where spontaneous feelings of longing come from. Maybe this is one source. Each unique person has a lot of aspects to him or her that don’t get to be in play. These parts even get banished. The “mature” person has to get rid of them, because they cause trouble. They don’t comply with the dominant paradigm of self required to adapt to the world’s demands. Only trouble is, some of them are very worthwhile and want to be lived. Not living them out creates a deep sense of loss that may not even be identifiable. Interesting developments often occur when a person follows these longings, which can be seen as beckonings towards something important that has been lost.

Exploring Depth Psychotherapy

pathway to the psyche

Here’s a start to a few blog entries exploring important aspects of psychotherapy as practiced by depth psychologists of various stripes.
Let’s assume a basic working definition of depth psychotherapy. Let’s assume that it’s a form of therapy that goes out of its way to include the unconscious psyche in treatment. By unconscious psyche we mean at minimum certain dynamic patterns that are always at play beneath the surface of our awareness. Let’s assume that engaging the psyche stimulates growth and movement and often helps to ease problematic symptoms of emotional suffering.

So how does a therapist go about engaging the psyche? Truth is, there are lots of ways. There are lots of schools of thought in the history of depth psychotherapy, each with its own opinion about how this should be done. Today, as neuro-mania (the reduction of all psychological experience to brain phenomena) reveals its limits both as theory and treatment in psychiatry, renewed interest in the depths of the psyche is creating excitement as psychology begins to re-balance its lopsided though important focus on brain and behavior.

The best place to start exploring is the therapeutic relationship. Someone comes to therapy, usually in a state of suffering and concern. Something in the suffering–the symptoms–expresses the individual’s difficulty. I’ve found that it’s rare that people will seek out and commit to psychotherapy when they are feeling okay. Maybe they begin in a state of crisis and difficulty, and then begin to feel better, and continue therapy for the sake of further personal development, but it usually takes a painful difficulty, or symptoms, or a loss, or an illness, or a life crisis to bring a person into my office to begin an adventure of self-discovery and renewal.

The relationship of therapist and client therefore includes this aspect of seeking help, wanting relief and healing. At the same time, it’s odd to say yet definitely true that most people are ambivalent about the very same changes they long for. I can say this based on my experience both as a therapist and as a client! There’s something scary about change, apparently. Sometimes this is called resistance. Forces for change are mobilized, but so are forces against change. This is normal, and a good therapist makes room for ambivalence and facilitates change at the pace the client is okay with.

One fundamental gain in psychotherapy is the experience that the client has of being seen and understood. Having a hard time brings isolation, and most of us tend to hide the less fun aspects of our lives. Who wants to hear that? we say to ourselves. Or we try to share what’s going on, but it’s too much for our friends and families to handle, or seems to be. That’s why a depth psychologist will try and provide the kind of safe container that welcomes all of the client’s conscious and unconscious parts into the mix.

One final note for now: I’ve noticed over the years that many people in my office feel a deep longing that is almost unspeakable. Something is missing. It’s hard to say exactly what, but there is a felt sense of lack, and a heartache. I’m not saying therapy necessarily is the answer to this longing, but it can be surprisingly effective is accessing the longing and can even change the way a person gets to bring it into the world outside. Deep desire can lead to interesting transformations that ripple outward through a life. Transformation can happen from the inside – out. Inside the therapy office to outside in the world. Inside the inner self to outside in outer behaviors.

I will save this inner – outer dynamic for another post.


Longing for Paradise

I recently picked up a psychology book that I’ve had my eye on for awhile now. It’s written by a Jungian psychoanalyst named Mario Jacoby. The book is, Longing for Paradise: Psychological Perspectives on an Archetype. Jacoby’s theme centers on the importance of the paradise archetype in psychological life and development, not to mention in the work of psychotherapy.

This is a bit of a different take on “paradise” for psychological thinking, and it provides a good jumping off point for some reflections.

The usual schtick in psychology on this matter smacks of “nothing but” reductionism. Reductionism happens when you take a complex phenomenon and break it down into its component parts, and say that the complex whole is nothing but the sum of its parts. Here are some reductive variations that you might come across on the present topic: The longing for paradise is nothing but a regressive wish to dissolve into infantile, oceanic feelings of oneness, free from the conflicts that real life involves. Or, the longing for paradise expresses a developmental failure to mourn the loss of unity with mother, and to accept separateness. Or, the longing for paradise afflicts those who didn’t get an adequate holding environment in infancy, and so they forever long to redress that early lack. Or, the longing for paradise shows a rejection of limitation, and should be analyzed away as an inflated identification with the realm of the archetypal, and specifically with the archetypal Mother.

These are all possible ways to understand thing A (the longing for paradise) in terms of thing B (some form of developmental / psychological problem). Thing B is supposed to explain how and why thing A comes about.

Jacoby, in what I’ve read so far, knows how to think about paradise in developmental and psychopathological terms. He points to the early holding environment, in which mother and caregivers must respond adequately to the hunger, anxiety, distress, and need for touch and loving attention in the infant. If a good-enough experience at this stage doesn’t happen, he offers, significant disruption of emotional and relational health later on is likely. An inordinate fixation on paradise and a pursuit of paradisiacal experiences might well grow out of an early trauma to the holding environment, in which some degree of paradise is actually appropriate for the sake of the utterly dependent infant.

Naturally, psychology wants to explain the longing for paradise in terms of the early environment and early relationships. Where else but with mother do we ever get some measure of paradisiacal experience? Infancy even entails a certain timelessness. The rhythm of relationship to mother is the ordering principle of the moment-to-moment experience of being that psychology imagines the infant to live. Grown up time does not exist for the baby.

Modern attachment theory and infant observation seem to support such thinking. Clinical experience also seems to support the notion that early traumas to primal relationships create suffering in clients, and that the therapeutic relationship, when it works well, can bring some measure of healing to the early wound. The image of paradise is one image among others that can come up in this area of experience, in or out of the therapy room.


I think we need to think symbolically about this. A psychological theory is a kind of symbol that happens to be highly differentiated. But it’s a symbol nonetheless. I am using the word symbol in the sense given by the depth psychologist C.G. Jung. A symbol, in Jung‘s psychology, is a living reality. It’s an image that forms in order to communicate something that words can’t express adequately in a rational way. A symbol expresses an unknowable reality that otherwise we could scarcely approach at all.

I’m proposing that the psychologist or psychoanalyst is using the image of a good enough mother-infant relationship as a symbol. It’s a symbol that psychology uses to communicate to itself something unknowable–in this case, the elusive image of paradise, imagined as a state of being that is touched in infancy.

It’s important to take note that when a psychologist looks at the realm of infancy and begins to make theories about the infant’s inner experience, there is naturally a significant degree of projection involved. What the therapist experiences in working with clients at this early level of emotional experience, as it gets expressed in psychotherapy, ends up as part of the theory about the infant’s inner life. Even the therapist’s own longing for paradise gets into the mix, and possibly imagined as a lost state of being that the infant must have experienced, or is supposed to experience when things go well.

And why not? It’s very legitimate to create theory out of clinical and even deeply personal experience, in addition to data such as the observation of infants and mothers, so long as we are aware of what we’re doing.

Stay with me a moment longer if you‘ve come this far. I know this is getting long, and perhaps muddled.

What I’m coming around to is the fact that no matter the brilliant insights of psychology into the developmental substrate of the paradise archetype… the image of paradise remains the image of paradise, and psychology will never divest that image of its power by explaining it theoretically. Sure, the archetype can cause problems in living and relating. But in itself it’s not something to be fixed, cured, treated, analyzed. The longing for paradise speaks to an experience common to all human beings, whether or not the primal relationship with mother got disrupted. That’s what’s meant by calling it an archetype: it’s typical of human existing to touch this particular place.

What remains to examine is how this archetype expresses itself in psychological life and in psychotherapy. I’ve got a ways to go in Jacoby’s book, and so maybe I’ll save the rest for another post.