To re-discover the magic of the early days of relationship, to meet once again the partner that you once loved so dearly, you must begin a new kind of exploration. This exploration leads to the discovery of the many selves that live within you. These selves interact with your partner's selves and cause all kinds of mischief. As you begin to understand these selves and how they interact, much of the confusion and difficulty of your relationship will become crystal clear.
Relationships are alive. They change; they grow. One of the important lessons we’ve learned over the years is that whenever we stopped our own growth and tried to keep our patterns of partnering safely static, our relationship died a little.
We discovered that relationships are like plants that require larger containers as they mature. If you try to keep them in the pots that were fine when they were young, they will either die from lack of nourishment or they will continue to grow and they will eventually burst the vessel that has held them. Over the years, we have seen both. We have seen the pain of long-dead relationships that continue in form but not in feeling and we have seen the anguish of broken committed relationships.
We have been privileged to look at many thousands of relationships. We saw that what worked for people at 17 was not necessarily what worked at thirty, or forty when they were trying to balance love, careers, and children. We noticed that life, and relationships, had a tendency to get more complex as people got older. New stages in life made new demands upon partnering.
Happily, we discovered that it was not necessary to lose the passion of the early stages of our relationship, but we did find that the business of life demanded new information, new ways of being in the world, and new ways of relating to one another. It was a challenge.
When we talk about changes and growth, does this mean that you (or we) have been doing things wrong up until now? No, not at all! It just means that there is a possibility to build upon what you already have and to move towards a richer, more rewarding relationship.
People seem to expect that everyone knows all about relationship, that this is part of our original equipment at birth. But that is just not the way it is. There are certain things we know and certain things we do not know. What we do not know, we must learn. This learning is a lifelong process; one that pays great dividends. We think it is fascinating.
Are you wondering where to look for this information? Just look around you; there are an amazing variety of places to go to learn about relating and there is a wealth of information available. Books, magazines, films, even music and art teach us about relationship. You can learn from your therapists and your teachers. There are workshops that train people in relationship skills. You can learn from your family and friends. But most of all, you can learn about partnering from the partnering process, itself! So, know that there will always be opportunities for you to learn about the process of relating and to use this learning to understand and improve your partnering.
We have a particular view of partnering and of the lessons to be learned from it. It is based upon our picture of the psyche that we call “the Psychology of the Aware Ego and the Selves.” Since it is this viewpoint that provides the foundation for this book, we’ll spend some time in the looking at the selves that exist in relationship. For more detail, read our book Embracing Our Selves.
The Many “Selves” in Relationship
You are not a single entity and neither are we. Each of us is made up of many “selves”. These selves are the building blocks of the psyche. They are independent units or personalities. Each of these selves is like an actual person living inside of us. Each has its own history, its own way of looking at life and each has its own way of living in the world. How you will behave in any particular situation will depend upon the self that is in charge at that moment. This is normal, there is nothing strange about it. Let us see what this looks like.
Haven’t you had days (or even moments) at work or at home when you knew that you were in charge, when things seemed to flow smoothly and the right answers were there when you needed them? Then there are the other times when you feel awkward and everything seems wrong. It is as though somebody else is running the show. Decisions are difficult to make, you have an insecure feeling, you question everything you do and nothing feels exactly right. Actually, somebody else is running the show. There are two different selves operating at these two different times. The first is someone who is both in charge and decisive. The other is an inner critic who criticizes everything you do or say and makes you awkward and insecure.
Here is another example of two different selves as they operate in two different parts of someone’s life. Let us look at Helen to see what can happen. Helen is an intelligent, attractive, chic, thirty-five year old divorce lawyer who specializes in mediation. She is an uncomplaining, independent person who worked hard to get to this point in her life. It took a lot of discipline to finish college and law school and to pass all her examinations, but Helen persisted and is now a partner in a highly respected law firm. Despite her professional success, her career is not all that is important to her. Helen loves her partner deeply and is devoted to her family and friends. She tries her best to balance both worlds.
Helen is literally one person at work and a different person at home because different selves operate in each of these settings. If you saw Helen at work, you would be impressed with her objectivity and her amazing ability to deal with complex situations and angry clients. She coolly considers the input or needs of others, but she keeps her eyes on the objective facts of any situation and deals with it accordingly. When Helen is at work she is totally sure of herself and her ability to see facts clearly and to make the right decisions. Her own emotions and the feelings of others do not affect her in any way. However, when Helen gets home, things are different. She becomes more personal and emotional, more easily influenced by the feelings and needs of the people around her. She cares very much about the feelings and reactions of her partner, her family, and her friends. She wants everybody to love her. At home, Helen's decision making and her actions are deeply affected by the people she loves and the objectivity and coolness that we observe at work is nowhere to be found. Again, these are two different selves. They are operating in two different situations. The first self is one we would call an “objective or impersonal self” and the second is a “personal or feeling self”. What might two different selves look like in a single relationship and a single location? Let us look at Angela who, although also 35 years of age, attractive, and quite intelligent, is quite different from Helen. In contrast to Helen, Angela left school after finishing two years of college in order to get married and have children. She loves being at home. She plans to move into the work force later in life but for now, her husband earns enough money for the family to live comfortably and a career does not look appealing to her. Her mother was not a motherly nurturing type, but a successful saleswoman who had to spend a great deal of time traveling. Angela had been left home with a nanny much of the week when she was young, so she vowed she would put her home and family first when she grew up. She loved playing with dolls and she began to baby sit for the younger children in the neighborhood when she was quite young. People often commented upon her motherly qualities and her competence with youngsters.
At Thanksgiving Angela spends hours creating a wonderful feast for everyone. She sings as she cooks and truly enjoys the entire day of preparation. She feels creative, full of life and energy. Then, after the meal is over, quite suddenly and without warning, she becomes angry and resentful. She feels exhausted, unappreciated and generally irritable. She muses to herself that her guests are truly inconsiderate, that nobody else ever does anything to help her and that everyone always takes advantage of her.
Does this mean that Angela was basically begrudging? That underneath it all she feels like a martyr? No, not at all! These are just two different selves, each doing what it does and, we might add, doing it rather well. The first self is someone who loves to take care of others. This nurturer truly enjoys preparing meals and does not begrudge the time or energy this costs. In contrast, the second self is not a nurturer and sees no value in caring for others. In fact, to this self, the preparation of a meal for others is a waste of time. It is more self-involved; it is a judgmental self which is harshly critical of others and sees all their selfishness and imperfections.
Here, as with Helen, we have two very different selves which operate independently of one another, but in contrast to Helen where her different selves are in different settings, of Angela's selves operate with her family. You can see how her family is not relating to Angela as a single entity, but to Angela's different selves. Remember please, this is just normal relating. There is nothing strange about it.
So, when you are in a relationship this relationship is not between two people but between two groups of selves that are constantly interacting. In Angela’s example when you come in contact with her you are either relating to her “nurturing self” or her “judgmental self”. You can never be quite sure about which one will be in charge at any moment. This is quite a challenge! (It can also be very exciting because who can be bored when there is so much going on all the time?)
Think about it. Think about how different it is to relate to someone as the selves in charge begin to shift. These selves can be protective or attacking, responsible or irresponsible, nurturing or needy, selflessly giving or selfishly greedy, controlling or passive, dependent or independent, self-assured or self-critical, supportive or judgmental, hovering or unavailable, loving or hateful. There are all kinds of possibilities and they are all in each of us! Even when one of these selves (for instance, the supportive self) is in charge of your partner’s life, you may sense the opposite (for instance, the judgmental self) without your partner even being aware of its existence.
When we know about these different selves much about our relationships becomes clear. When we do not, we are easily hurt, confused and angered by our partners. We often feel betrayed by them. We bemoan their lack of consistency and question both their truthfulness and their underlying motivations. We ask ourselves questions like: “What ever happened to the wonderful person I married?” “Where did our sexual relationship go?” “Why did he take time out to help us last week if he resented it all along?” “Why doesn’t he ever take the time to sit quietly with me these days when he used to say how much he loved doing this in the past?” “Was she hiding her real self from me all along?”
When we do not know about the different selves, we judge our partners with comments like: “All men (or women) are like that underneath!” “You can never trust anyone, they all have hidden agendas.” “He (or she) only gives to me with strings attached.” We over-generalize. Or we become critical of our partner and openly criticize him or her. Or perhaps we become withdrawn or depressed. Sometimes we even become critical of ourselves and worry about why we ruin all our relationships. What is the secret of relating that we don't know? Why do others seem to have such smooth uncomplicated relationships? What did we do that turned this marvelous person into a monster? Some people get so hopeless about relationships that they decide it just is not worth the bother. They're better off alone. Well, we are two people who think it is definitely worth the bother and we would like to make things a bit easier by helping you to begin to recognize the selves and to learn about what really goes on in your relationships.
When you know about the many selves within each of us, changes and inconsistencies are no longer a mystery and you begin to recognize that your partner has not changed at all. It is, instead, the self or selves in charge of your partner’s interaction that have changed.
How Did We Find Out About These Selves?
We discovered the existence of these selves early in the early 1970’s. We had been involved in a mutual exploration with an emphasis on dreams and active imagination. Then something amazing happened. I (Sidra) will never forget the day that Hal asked if he could speak with the little girl in me. At that time, the very last thing I could have ever imagined was that I had a “little girl” in me. If, by any chance I did have one, it was even more unlikely that she would be sensitive or vulnerable. I smile now as I remember how much I prided myself on being a strong, reasonable, mature woman who did not let her feelings run her life, mess up her relationships, or stand in the way of accomplishing her goals. In those days, I would have been horrified if anyone had ever told me that I was sensitive. I equated sensitivity with irrationality and weakness. After all, I was from New York.
But I did trust Hal and this psycho-spiritual exploration had been fascinating thus far. So I moved over to a coffee table and I rested my head upon it and I tried to let myself become a little girl. It worked! Much to my surprise, I could feel myself change. I could feel the world change. I felt very small, the room became large and my perceptions became extremely acute. I was suddenly filled with feelings and memories, and I did not want to (and could not) talk. I felt like a little girl who had been safely hiding in a cave for her entire life. I did not want Hal to talk very much. I just wanted him to be there with me. He stayed with me, making occasional comments as I sat there, mostly silent, with pictures flashing through my mind. I felt as I had when I was a very, very little girl. It was astonishing.
When I returned to my original chair, I felt like my old (sensible) self again – but with a difference – I knew that this little girl was real and there was no questioning that fact. I knew that there was a lot more to me than the reasonable, mature woman I thought I was.
We both knew that something very important had just happened. We realized that selves did exist. They were not just theoretical constructs. They were not just “complexes” or “patterns of behavior”. They were like real people living within us. We then moved on to meet Hal’s little boy and from there to meet and talk with many of our other selves. This method of communicating with the selves is what ultimately became known as Voice Dialogue. It was a marvelous period of joint exploration as we came to know each other at deeper and deeper levels and as we learned about the many selves.
We divided these selves into primary selves and disowned selves. As you can see, Sidra’s primary self at that time was a very reasonable and very sensible and rather proper New Yorker. Up until she met this little girl, she had (proudly) disowned all of her more sensitive selves. Hal’s primary way of relating in the world was through his wise and very responsible father. He had (proudly) disowned all his more irresponsible or foolish selves.
This is a very important differentiation because our primary selves and our disowned selves have a great impact on all relationships. In fact, the interplay of these primary and disowned selves between people is responsible for much of the pain and misunderstandings in relationships. What, then, do we mean when we talk about these selves?
Primary selves are the selves that have developed to protect us in the world. They are the basis of our “personalities”, our way of being in the world. They are, literally, who we think we are. Basically, it is their job to guard our natural sensitivity and vulnerability and to protect us from pain and failure. They try to earn us love, and they do their best to help us function successfully in our world.
Different primary selves develop in different people. Your primary selves developed to deal with your own life. There is always a good reason why your primary selves are what they are! They have done the best that they could do in light of the specific circumstances of your life. Your own particular group of primary selves was influenced by your genetic coding, your family, the people in your life, your birth order, your culture, your religion, the schools you attended, and the historical period in which you were raised. For those who think in terms of astrology or karma, these, too, could influence the development of your primary selves.
The key here is that your primary selves are who you think you are. For instance, Bob sees himself as a sensible, rational, responsible person. Bob is a 58-year-old accountant who has been married to Nancy, his high school sweetheart, for the past 33 years and is the father of two successful grown sons. Bob does everything in moderation and with a great deal of planning. His entire retirement is already worked out and his pension is adequately funded. Bob does not talk very much and he is always even-tempered. He thinks carefully before he speaks and he has never been known to raise his voice. Bob is proud of the fact that he is not foolish and not easily swayed by his feelings. He knows how to think things through when he makes decisions. Bob learned early in life that emotions are notoriously unpredictable and can be dangerous. His parents were both emotional and irresponsible. Their raging arguments and the unpredictability of their moods frightened Bob and made him feel unsafe. So he developed primary selves that made him feel safe. His primary selves are his “responsible self” and his “rational (or sensible) self”.
Primary selves usually emerge early in life, although not always. Bob’s primary selves developed very early in life. He began to “figure things out” when he was very young. But your primary self may have developed later. Early in life your primary self may have been a dreamer and you may have enjoyed happy hours alone playing by yourself or daydreaming, but once you went to school this no longer worked. So you developed a new primary self, an achiever, and you put the dreamer away.
Your primary selves can change over time, like changing from a dreamer to an achiever – or perhaps from a “good girl” to a “rebel”, or from dependent to independent. Sometimes your primary selves change back and forth. You might move from "good girl" to "rebel" and back again to "good girl".
There is another interesting aspect of our primary selves that often has a significant impact on our relationships. Many of us have different primary selves that operate in different areas of our lives. You may be a cool, clear businesswoman at work, but turn into a needy incompetent child when you are with your husband. Conversely, your husband may be a responsible, helpful, adult type of person when he is with the neighbors, but when he is at home he seems to become a stubborn child. He has the time and energy to help the man next door repair his entire roof, but he cannot find five minutes to change the washer in your dripping kitchen faucet. Here we have different primary selves in different situations.
As you might well imagine, these changes can be confusing and irritating. “Why,” you might think, “can’t my husband find the time to change the faucet?” Or, conversely, he might wonder to himself why you cannot figure out how to balance the checkbook at home when you do such a great job of it at the office. The simple answer is: although it is the same body, you are dealing with different selves.
These different primary selves literally take over in these different situations. It is not a matter of choice because there is no choice. The takeover is automatic. First one primary self drives our psychological car and then, in another situation, another takes over. The changes in behavior are perfectly understandable once we know about the selves and how they operate.
Let us return to Bob who, early in life, became very reasonable and kept everything under control. What happened to his emotions? What happened to his natural instinctual energies or his impulses? He got rid of them. They were too dangerous.
Equal and opposite to the primary selves that dominate our lives are the selves that we discard or disown. Bob, in his growing up years, disowned his emotions and his natural instincts. These were not safe. These were the primary selves of his parents and Bob did not want to grow up to be like his parents.
Whatever parts of us we try to get rid of in our personality, life will bring to us in the form of people who are exactly like our disowned selves. We can definitively predict that Bob will meet people who carry his disowned selves. Each time he does, these people will be a challenge for him. He will either be strongly attracted or strongly repelled or some combination of the two. He is very likely to marry an emotional woman. If his wife is not emotional, his oldest child will be emotional, or he will have a very nervous dog. If this does not happen at home, there will be someone at work who lives life in a very emotional way. Hal has always said that these disowned selves are like heat-seeking missiles, aimed at us by the intelligence of the universe, and find us they will. There is no escaping them. There is just the challenge to learn our lesson, and to integrate them in a way that is safe and protective.
How Can I Discover My Primary and Disowned Selves?
It is surprisingly simple to discover your primary and disowned selves. You either judge them or overvalue them in others. Sometimes you may both overvalue and judge them at the same time. So, when you come across somebody who really pushes your buttons, you can be sure that you have met a person who is carrying your disowned self. Once you determine exactly what it is that you judge about that person, you have discovered one of your own disowned selves. Then, just look for the opposite and you will find your own primary self.
Now let us see how this works. We are going to take you through a very simple exercise. But first, some guidelines. Give yourself uninterrupted time to do the exercises in this book so that you can give adequate thought to your answers. Even ten or fifteen minutes will do. Relax and center yourself by taking a few deep breaths before you start. Write down your thoughts as they occur, do not censor them. There are no right answers. It is often helpful to keep these exercises in one place like a notebook, a file folder, or a new folder in your computer. You might even want to start a journal devoted to the relationships in your life and include these exercises, additional thoughts you might have about your present or past relationships, and any dreams that you might have as you read this book and think about your relationships. Keep this material in a private place so that you can be totally free in your thoughts and your writing.
Disowned Self Exercise I: Judging Your Disowned Self
Think of someone in your life who pushes your buttons – perhaps a family member, a current partner or a partner from the past- somebody whom you judge. (This should not require a great deal of thought. Pick a person who really annoys you, hopefully someone who has annoyed you for years.) What is it about that person that you judge? In which area do you feel superior? Be specific as you write down the most irritating or reprehensible attribute of this person. When you discover what this is, you have learned about one of your own disowned selves. Whatever it is that you judge about this person is one of your disowned selves. Now look for the opposite quality in yourself, see how you contrast with this person. What kind of person are you? What are the qualities that you are proud of having? Write down these qualities. You have just described one of your primary selves.
You now have a picture of one of your primary selves and one of your disowned selves. (You can repeat this exercise as many times as you wish to discover more of your primary and disowned selves.)
Let us say that you have chosen your partner as someone whom you judge. What is it you judge? Perhaps you think that your partner is too selfish, too self-involved. You, in contrast, are usually available to others when they need you and you feel that caring for others and being considerate of their needs is a very important part of life.
We would say that your primary self requires you to act in a responsible way and that you disown your own selfish or self-nurturing self. This primary self, this caretaker, has very strong negative reactions to people who are not caretakers. It is this primary self that judges your partner and finds his/her behavior reprehensible.
This is a common set of opposites that we find in relationship. One partner gives other people’s needs first priority and the other partner takes care of his/her needs first. Which one is right? Neither is right. No self is completely good and no self is completely bad. Each has something to contribute to the system and each person in the relationship has something important to teach the other. What is important is that we develop an ability to stand between these opposites and learn how to use them both in a new way.
Taking care of others is neither good nor bad, it is simply taking care of others. Being tuned into one’s own needs and taking care of oneself is neither good nor bad, it is simply having the ability to take care of oneself.
Disowned Self Exercise II: Over-valuing the Other Person
Now think of someone you over-value, someone you yearn for, someone who is so wonderful that you feel decidedly “less than” when that person is around. This person also carries your disowned self. Again, be specific about what it is about this person that is so wonderful. For instance, you have chosen a former lover who is very well organized and always seems clam, cool and collected. Once you have figured this out, write down a description of this quality. You have found another disowned self, your "organized, calm, cool and collected" self.
To discover your primary self, look for the opposite in yourself. What kind of person are you? As you think about it, you, in contrast to this former lover, are disorganized and always a bit frazzled. You have found a primary self, it is disorganized and a bit frazzled.
These disowned selves that we overvalue are often our fatal attractions, the people we feel that we cannot live without. How does this work? In very practical terms, we become attached to people who fill in our missing pieces, people who carry our disowned selves. For example, you might be the kind of person who does what is expected and follows the rules. You are cautious and think always of how others will react to what you do or say. We would say that your primary self is a strict rule-maker who wants to be sure that you always do the right thing; it is a self that is always concerned with what people will think about your behavior. Because of this, you admire the self-confident people of the world, the free spirits who do not worry about what others think. The partner you choose is like this. She never worries about what others think. She lives her own life and does as she pleases. She is not foolish or anti-social, she is just very independent. When you are with her, you feel safe. She is able to reassure you; she helps you to be more independent of the opinions of others and she encourages you not to worry so much about the rules. She is your "fatal attraction": you feel as though you need her desperately and that your life is incomplete when she is not around.
Which kind of person should you be, one who follows rules or one who does not worry about them? Which of these is right? Again, neither is right. Each of you has something to learn from the other.
The Basic Law of Relationship: Learning to Work with Our Selves
Whatever we disown is what we attract. This is the basic law of relationship. It is almost as though there is a kind of intelligence within us that moves us in a particular direction. Some refer to it as “entelechy”, the purposive nature of the psyche that pushes us to complete ourselves, to become all that we can become. It senses what we are missing and then pushes (or pulls us) to fill the vacuum. Of course, what we are missing is what we have disowned. If we think of relationship as the vehicle for completing ourselves, then we see each of the people who carry our disowned selves as our teachers. We talk later in this chapter about reclaiming our disowned selves.
It was fascinating – as well as challenging and often difficult - for us to learn from one another in this way. We carried so many of each other’s disowned selves, we sometimes wondered whether our relationship would survive. Hal was a spiritual intuitive and Sidra was a rational pragmatist. Hal was interested in the process and Sidra was interested in the solution. Hal was a laid back Californian and Sidra was a proper New Yorker. Hal was UCLA and Sidra was Barnard. Hal was a spender and Sidra was a saver. Hal was dedicated to his mission on earth and Sidra was dedicated to her children. Hal was an introvert and Sidra was an extrovert. This list may not be endless, but it certainly covers a vast territory.
Over the years, we sometimes over-valued the disowned selves that we carried for one another but, more often, we judged them and tried to change them. Until we became aware of this basic law of the psyche, we usually saw these disowned selves as the enemy and there were times they caused us much pain. A great deal of the pain that people experience in relationship is based on the fact that they have no understanding that they are carrying each others disowned selves.
This is true in all relationships. At first, we may find our disowned selves irresistible when we see them in our partner, and then we usually find them impossible. Sometimes we find them both irresistible and impossible at the same time. Very confusing, very upsetting, isn’t it? But that is just the way things are. We are glad to tell you that we have discovered the explanation for all of this. It is the “great computer in the sky.” It’s a fantasy we have but we think it explains a great deal about relationship.
Our fantasy is that the intelligence of the universe has representatives in heaven whose job it is to help each of us embrace all the different parts of ourselves so that we can become fully who and what we were meant to be. These people have many large computers in the sky on which are programmed all the people in the world. This list has a very special category --- a listing of their primary and disowned selves. When they decide to evaluate someone they look at the primary selves of the person and then figure out who they need to be with in order to meet their disowned selves.
For instance, when they were examining Hal they found that he was very mental, very responsible, very spiritual and not too grounded so far as business and finance were concerned. His journeys were all on the inside and the world felt very unsafe to him. So they started their computer going. (For Hal and Sidra they used a Mac with OS 8.5 because they were from California.) Around and around it buzzed and then it landed on Sidra. Hal will love her so that will balance his mind. She loves to travel, so she will introduce him to the wonders of the world outside of California. Since she has a strong need for financial security, she’ll teach him about money and savings and how to plan for the future. Of course, he will teach her about the things he knows. He will introduce her to the world of the spirit and to the meaning of her dreams. He will teach her about honoring the process as an alternative to rushing towards solution. They will either kill each other with their judgments or they will recognize the higher meaning of all relationships, their own included. And what is this higher meaning? It is to understand that all relationship, when understood and used properly, can become our teacher, healer and guide.
Your Partner is Your Teacher
The people in our lives who carry our disowned selves are our teachers. When we realize this, life and relationships look different. This is true of everybody in our lives, not only our partners; but it is usually our primary relationship that carries the biggest charge. Let us take a look at how this works, using one of our own sets of disowned selves that the great computer noted in the last section.
It was early in our marriage and Hal had a number of debts he wanted settled. Hal had generously supported the Center for the Healing Arts for many years because he felt strongly that the introduction of a holistic approach to healing was truly important. He had borrowed money in order to do this. In contrast, Sidra had been extremely conservative throughout the years in her spending, never buying on credit (not even a car), she always lived well within her income, and she had a substantial equity in her home.
One evening, at dinner, Hal suggested that Sidra re-finance her home in order to pay off his debts. With the freedom of speech that came after two Martini’s, Sidra (who is usually more tactful) said: “I would never do anything like that! Giving you money would be like pissing it down the drain.” and she laughed. This is what a primary self sounds like when it is threatened. Sidra’s “thrifty housefrau”, horrified by Hal’s “spender”, could never part with that money, even if it would cost Sidra the relationship.
At that point we had a choice. We could have become enemies. If we had, Hal would have seen Sidra as an inconsiderate selfish miser and Sidra would have seen Hal as an undisciplined profligate spender. Each of us could have enlisted sympathetic supporters from amongst our friends and families who would agree that the other person was simply impossible. The war could have escalated.
Instead, we realized that there was a lesson in this for each of us. Hal immediately saw his lesson and began to watch the way he handled his finances. He used Sidra as a teacher. He never lost his basic generosity with money, but he now thought first before he committed funds anywhere. Conversely, Sidra began to lighten up a bit. We used to joke about the tiny little purse she would grudgingly open in order to hand out a few pennies. Without losing contact with her primary self, we called her the thrifty housefrau, Sidra learned to spend money not only for the basic necessities, but for pure enjoyment as well. She integrated Hal’s generosity and ease and life was a lot more fun.
Each of us learned to stand between the opposites – we could feel the self that wanted us to spend and, at the same time, we could feel the self that wanted us to save. This is a pretty straightforward example from our own experience and it gives the basic paradigm for learning the lessons that life is able to teach us through our relationships.
These apparently irreconcilable differences in relationships, the places where we bump up against our own disowned selves as they are mirrored back to us by our partners, are the opportunities for the greatest growth. Our primary selves do not like what they see in the mirror, but as we separate from these primary selves and make use of this larger perspective, there is another world waiting for us. We begin to see the value of the selves carried by our partners. We get a sense of what it is that we are missing and we have the chance to claim this for ourselves.
As we reclaim these disowned selves - without losing our primary selves - we usually reclaim our relationship. The partner who looked so impossible (e.g. too frugal or too irresponsible) a moment ago suddenly looks just fine again and you're glad that he (or she) is still around.
How Can I Learn the Lessons that Relationship Has to Teach Me?
All this may sound daunting, but it really is not. The first thing to do is to start to think about yourself and your relationships in a new way. Think in terms of the many selves – both yours and your partners - and watch how these selves behave. If you do no more than this, you will have accomplished a great deal; you will have changed the way you approach relationship. You will be living relationship as a joint venture.
For instance, your partner is particularly irritating today. Last night when you were relaxing together, you liked him a lot, but now he infuriates you as he slowly sips his coffee. He seems to be accomplishing absolutely nothing while you have a million important things to do and there is not enough time to take care of them all. You look at your calendar book and it is crammed full of appointments and lists. You look at your partner with silent fury and wish he would get moving.
You have two choices here. You can work harder and harder and get more and more angry as you watch your partner enjoy himself, or you can step back and say to yourself: “Could this be what I was just reading about? I am judging him and I feel a great deal of anger. Could I be looking at my disowned self? Is there a lesson for me here?”
We would encourage you to make the latter choice. After all, why be miserable? Why throw out a perfectly good partner because he knows how to enjoy a good cup of coffee in the morning? Besides, wouldn’t it be nice if you knew how to slow down?
If your partner is carrying your disowned self – and we assure you that he is – then you have a clue about which self is in charge of your life. It is a self we call “the pusher”. The pusher is a very popular primary self, especially amongst successful people. The pusher knows how to fill in appointment books, make lists, and get things done. As a matter of fact, that is all the pusher knows. But he does his job well. The problem is that your pusher does not have a turn-off switch. He can only move in one direction; he can only speed up. In contrast, your partner has a primary self that is more relaxed. His primary self has as its main rule in life: “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.”
As you figure out the lesson in this, you have already accomplished a great deal. You have gotten a picture of your own inner pusher (usually a much more demanding taskmaster than the outer pushers of the world) and you have separated from it. This immediately makes life look more manageable and you will feel far less harassed and irritable.
You now have some choice in your behavior. You might even be able to join your partner for a relaxing cup of coffee before you begin your day. This would mean that you have actually separated from your primary self (the pusher) and begun to integrate the more relaxed self that your partner carries. It would mean that when you do begin your day, it will be you and not your pusher who does the work.
What a difference this makes! As you separate from your primary self (your pusher) you no longer look at the world through its eyes. Life is no longer a series of pressing chores and obligations. Your partner no longer irritates you as he had a moment ago, when your pusher was evaluating his behavior. As a matter of fact, your partner who just a moment ago was looking like the laziest man on earth is beginning to look like a human being again and an attractive one at that.
You have just seen how we can use our judgments of our partners and, conversely, their judgments of us, as the clues that point us towards the discovery of our disowned selves, the missing parts of our personality. What we judge in others are our disowned selves. When we realize this we can spare ourselves - and our partners - a great deal of pain. Unfortunately (for those of us who like to feel superior) we also lose that great feeling of self-righteous moral superiority.
We do not want to give you the impression that these judgments are fun. Our judgments of our partners and their judgments of us, are usually pretty unpleasant. Sometimes they are more than unpleasant; sometimes they can be downright miserable and hurt dreadfully. On a really bad day, they can damage a relationship beyond repair.
However, these judgments are gold mines of information. When your partner looks lazy to you and you are feeling extremely irritable, you can be sure that you are in the grips of your pusher. When your partner seems too uncaring, you are probably in the grips of your caretaker and it is likely that you have become excessively caring. In the same vein, your partner’s judgments of you carry a lesson and a message. When you are in the grips of your caretaker, your partner will judge you for giving away too much of your time. When your pusher is in charge, your partner will complain that you are a workaholic or that you are too driven.
Standing on One Foot is Unstable - Introducing the Aware Ego
When you live your life through a primary self it is as though you are hopping through life on only one leg - without a crutch. Picture what this is like. You are unstable and easily pushed over. This makes relationships difficult. If you are able to stand between opposites - that is, between two opposing selves like the spender and the saver - you have two legs to stand on and it is not so easy to push you over. Let us see how this works.
Bernie is responsible, careful, thoughtful, and really nice; the oldest of 3 children. He's also very handsome and smart and plays a great game of soccer, but that has nothing much to do with his primary selves. Although Bernie is only 29 years old, he is already respected by his colleagues and has been offered a partnership in his accounting firm. Everybody seems to lean on him, even his parents. Bernie is a handy guy. He can repair just about anything around the house and it seems as though he knows just about everything there is to know about computers as well.
Bernie is married to Annie, a perfectly delightful 25 year old. She works as an artist illustrating children's books. Annie is an only child, and her parents absolutely doted on her when she was growing up. They encouraged her to express herself in every aspect of life and did everything they could to enhance her creativity. They made few demands on her and were only too happy to take responsibility for the less exciting aspects of life. So Annie does not think very much about responsibility, finances, or the future. Instead, she is creative, spontaneous, and is often a lot of fun. Since she does not worry very much about the consequences of her actions, she often takes risks. Annie's primary self is a charming free spirit who doesn't worry about the future and is not particularly concerned with the needs or expectations of others.
In contrast, Bernie’s primary self is very responsible and very nice. If somebody needs something from him, he must be responsive to this need. He is always available, giving advice, time, and even money when it is needed. He is the proverbial rock that everybody leans upon. Even though Bernie looks strong and solid, he is going through life on only one leg – the leg of the responsible father – and, because of this, he is basically unstable. If his wife, Annie, wants to destabilize him, she has only to accuse him of being selfish. She may say: “You always think of other people, not of your family.” He is very upset by this because according to the rules of his primary self he must responsibly take care of everyone’s needs — including those of his family — which he feels he does pretty well.
Bernie would be no more stable if he were to adopt a more selfish and self-serving philosophy of life. This often happens as people go into rebellion against the original way of being. He would be merely trading one leg for the other. Instead of Mr. Nice Guy being available, his new primary self would be Mr. Selfish who always puts himself first and automatically says no to others.
If Bernie were not living life either as a responsible father or as a more selfish person, he would be standing between these opposites. He would be able to make a choice when someone needed him. He would be able to embrace the good father in him with one arm and his more selfish side with his other arm. He would begin to have a choice about how much to give or not give. He would be standing on both legs embracing these two important opposites.
Now exactly who is the Bernie who is able to do this? It is not the same Bernie who was always responsible. At that time Bernie was identified with his primary self and this primary self automatically made all Bernie's decisions. The new Bernie is operating from what we call the aware Ego. It is this aware ego that learns how to stand between opposites. For Bernie, it would be an aware ego that can stand between his responsible nature and his selfish nature and have some real choice in deciding what works for him and what does not work for him. You can read more about the aware ego in any of our books or hear about it on our tapes.
This aware ego is very important. When you operate from an aware ego, you have separated from a primary self and have broadened your options by gaining access to the selves that you have disowned. You are no longer dominated by the rules and requirements of your primary self, but you still have access to its ideas and opinions. This gives you much new information and the freedom to make healthier, more creative decisions. You, like Bernie, will be able to make real choices and you will be less easily destabilized by either judgment or self-criticism. All this adds up to a totally new way of relating to others.
There is no free will until you develop an aware ego process that can stand between opposites. We call it a "process" because the aware ego is not static but is constantly evolving and changing over time. Only then is it possible to make real choices, whatever the opposites may be. Now that Bernie stands firmly on two legs between opposites, he can either give or not give, depending upon the situation. As a responsible father, he must give no matter what the consequence to his emotional, physical or financial wellbeing. From his more self-serving nature, he would be impervious to the needs of others and feel only his own needs. Each contributes its piece of information to Bernie who can then process it and make a choice about what he will do.
It is difficult for our "two-legged" Bernie operating from an aware ego to be destabilized by Annie’s judgment. Now when she says to him: “You never think of others, but only of yourself”, he realizes that this is not true. Indeed, sometimes he does put his own needs first, as in this particular situation, but at other times he puts others’ needs first. It all depends on the situation. He can listen to her comment and it will not automatically destabilize him because he has no rigid rule demanding one kind of behavior or the other. There is no destabilization and no problem. A major argument has been avoided. There is a deep change in the nature of their relationship and an increased stability and trust.
Understanding How Destabilization Can Undermine Your Relationship
Destabilization in reaction to your partner’s judgment is the clue you want to follow. When you are standing on one foot, you are easily destabilized. If you lose your equilibrium – and, we might add, your sense of humor – you can assume that you have come up against a pair of primary and disowned selves that are operating in your relationship. This does not mean that the relationship is over, it just means there is a clue waiting to be noticed. What might this look like?
Mark and Sandy have been married for 15 years. They worked hard over the past ten years to build a successful restaurant with Mark as an inspired, creative chef and Sandy as competent, careful, and charming hostess. Since they have no children; the restaurant is their major creation together. They have done very well as partners at work, but recently they have begun to invest their money in the stock market. Destabilization threatens their relationship because, when it comes to investment strategy, their different primary selves come to the fore.
Sandy is naturally fearful and hates to take risks. Mark, on the other hand, is more impulsive. He makes decisions quickly and is a risk-taker. In the development of the restaurant, these two different styles were complementary with Mark pushing for new ideas and Sandy working slowly and methodically to implement them. But the stock market is a different story. Mark has just heard about some great new stock offering and he's ready to move before it is too late to take advantage of this unusual opportunity. Sandy, on the other hand, is afraid of losing their hard-earned money in this investment and wants to take her time and investigate everything thoroughly.
As she gets destabilized, Sandy judges Mark for being too impulsive in his decision making. If Mark becomes destabilized by Sandy's judgment, he can react in one of two ways. He can become angry and judgmental or he can withdraw and feel like a victim. Either one means trouble. Let us assume for a moment that Mark has done his work and that he is aware of the more impulsive side of his nature as well as his more cautious side. He is standing on two legs between opposites and operating from his new aware ego. What happens then? He is not destabilized. He can receive the criticism from Sandy and handle it in a very different way. He neither has to become victim or attacker. He sees it less as a criticism and more as a comment or observation from Sandy, and thus is able to respond to her in a more appropriate and even affirming way.
There is no right or wrong in this situation. Sandy is destabilized and expresses it by judgment. She has to learn to express her fears about risk taking and she also has to learn to embrace Ms. Impulse as well as Ms. Caution in her own personality. Then she doesn’t need to judge. Instead, she will be more accepting of Mark’s behavior.
Each of the partners is faced with a challenge. Mark is faced with the challenge of separating from his impulsive self and learning how to use caution. Sandy is faced with the challenge of separating from his cautious self and learning about his own impulsive risk taker. They are both using their judgments as a searchlight to discover the work they need to do to complete themselves. They each carry the medicine that the other one needs. When they approach their differences as a part of a joint venture, this totally changes the nature of their relationship. They move from enemies to partners. We would consider this a real improvement!
What happens if they do not do this and the destabilization continues? If Mark and Sandy do not view their differences as a challenge and learn from one another, then their primary and disowned selves become increasingly exaggerated as they play out their accustomed roles. As this process continues - and it feels like an out of control train running downhill - the partners move into opposing armed camps as they defend their positions and intensify their judgments of one another. We call this polarization. As this happens, we see Sandy become more and more cautious and Mark more and more impulsive. Each of them would become more and more judgmental of the other until they can hardly bear to be together.
In primary relationships there are a number of primary and disowned pairings that get intensified by this process of polarization. Perhaps the most common are the ones that. John Gray has written about in his book, Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus. Here we have several different sets of primary selves: men’s are impersonal, rational, and introverted and women’s are personal, feeling, and extroverted. While these differences are to be respected, we feel that each partner has a real teaching to offer the other in terms of disowned selves.
Other differences that have a tendency to become polarized in relationship are: responsible vs. irresponsible, pusher vs. relaxed, organized vs. disorganized, assertive vs. passive, able to set boundaries vs. not able to set boundaries, outgoing vs. withdrawn, spender vs. saver, worrying about what people will think vs. not caring, or rule follower vs. rebel. Any set of opposite selves can polarize in relationship. Let us look at some more examples of this.
Perhaps you have noticed that there are certain people who make you feel responsible for them. The more responsible you are, the less responsible they seem to be. Children are particularly good at doing this. You feel responsible for their homework, their health, and their ability to succeed in the world. The more responsibility you take, the more they give you. The more responsible you are, the less responsible they need to be. Your primary self is “responsible” theirs is “not responsible”.
This can happen at work when there is a job to be done. At one of our workshops we met Edward, an unmarried, hardworking surgeon who spent his (very rare) vacation time scuba diving in tropical seas. Many women had tried to lead him to the altar, but he had never found anyone who was perfect enough. Edward's primary way of handling life was by being compulsively competent and controlling. He felt that the only way to do the work properly was to do it himself; and so this is what he usually did.
Although Edward was a control freak he needed help to run his office. In a period of six months he had hired and fired six nurses, blaming each one for being impossibly incompetent. Edward's controlling self was in charge of his office and was constantly criticizing the incompetence of these nurses that came to work for him. The more competent and controlling he got, the more incompetent and out of control they became. Their differences became more and more pronounced. This is what we call polarization.
We see this kind of polarization everywhere, but it is particularly noticeable (and troublesome) in the relationships between parents and children. A tidy parent is guaranteed to have at least one untidy child. That child is likely to get more and more untidy in the parental home while the parent becomes ever more distraught. Funnily enough, once that child moves out of the house, it is quite likely that she/he will keep a tidy home because there is no longer anyone to polarize against.
Let us see what this looks like with siblings. We often say that siblings divide up the pie of primary selves. Each takes a particular piece, decides it's the best, and then judges everyone else's piece. For instance, the older brother becomes a high achiever and wins educational honors while the younger brother does poorly at school. The better the first performs, the less well the second does, until it is hard to believe that they are from the same family and have been gifted with a similar intelligence. Two sisters polarize over their looks with the older paying a great deal of attention to her appearance while the younger totally ignores hers. The more fuss the older sister makes, the more the younger sister will judge her for being shallow and the less attention she will give to her own looks.
These polarizations occur in all relationships, both personal and professional, and the judgments that accompany them cause great discomfort and destabilization. However, as we have showed you, there is a great deal that we can learn from our judgments and destabilizations. They are the searchlights that illuminate our disowned selves.
Learning from Self-criticism
We have just looked at the way in which judgment – either our own or our partner’s – can destabilize us. A second way to become destabilized is to be self-critical. We have written an entire book, Embracing Your Inner Critic, on this topic because this inner critic is such a painful self. In this book, however, we are just going to deal with one aspect of the inner critic, its ability to destabilize you in relationship.
When you are identified with a primary self, you are pressured to follow the rules of that primary self. When you fail to follow these rules, your inner critic comes in to enforce them and it attacks you. Once the inner critic gets a foothold, it has a tendency to move into adjacent territory liberally spreading criticism wherever it goes. It may be some time before you can escape the inner critic’s barrage of negative comments about who you are, what you look like, and how you behave.
We can guarantee that once your inner critic has attacked successfully, you will be destabilized. One of the best defenses against the attack of the inner critic is the ability to step back from the rules of the primary self and to stand between opposites. What does this look like?
Let’s learn from Sally. Sally is a 60-year-old woman who lives with Anne, her partner of 30 years, their 5 cats, and a pair of llamas in a beautifully renovated old farmhouse in Vermont. Both Anne and Sally are successful free-lance writers. Sally comes from a background that valued perfection and her primary self is, understandably, a perfectionist. (After all, that was Sally's best way to fit in with the family.) Her perfectionist’s main rule is “If it’s important enough to do, it’s important enough to do it perfectly.” We have no argument with the idea of doing things well. However, it is apparent that a rule like this one is really a set up for self-criticism. After all, who can always be perfect? The inner critic is famous for talking about our “mistakes” and our “failures.” With a perfectionist as a primary self, Sally is pressured to behave perfectly in her relationship. She must never do anything that might create problems in the relationship and she must never, ever make a “mistake”.
If Sally goes to the store and accidentally picks up a bag of dog food instead of the cat food she meant to buy; then she bought dog food instead of cat food. She can return the dog food to the store and buy the cat food. But when the perfectionist is in charge (with the inner critic following close behind) this becomes a dreadful mistake; Sally is destabilized and thinks to herself: “How could I be so stupid?”
When Sally notices that she is dominated by the perfectionist and separates from its way of thinking she has some choices in life. With the perfectionist driving her psychological car, Sally has no choice; everything must always be done perfectly and her relationship should always be running smoothly. With Sally in charge there would be priorities. Not everything would have to be perfect. She could buy dog food instead of cat food and it would not become a national catastrophe.
Sally might even move on to the next step in which she would no longer be under pressure to do anything perfectly. Instead, Sally is permitted to do the best she can and her best is good enough. She might even get in touch with a group of disowned selves that do not care at all about perfection. These selves would rather finish things quickly rather than perfectly. They do not care about what people think, they do not fear criticism, they enjoy leisure and they love lying in the sun and doing nothing. Sally is now able to walk through life with one arm around her perfectionist and her other arm around her sunbather, a free spirit who does not care one bit about perfection. She has choice about when and where to strive for perfection and life is a great deal more pleasant.
What happens if there is no longer a rule about doing everything perfectly? Sally’s inner critic would have far less to criticize!
How does this relate to Sally and her partner? In the past, when Sally’s partner criticized her for “making a mistake”, she felt terrible because her inner critic agreed with the partner’s judgments of her. Together, they accused her of making a mistake. But, when Sally separates from the rule that says she can not make mistakes, she is no longer destabilized by her partner’s judgment. She no longer needs to defend herself nor does she need to beat herself up “for being so stupid.” She can listen to the judgment and consider what her partner is saying but the emotional charge is missing. Sally’s partner is no longer capable of pushing of her buttons. Now she can buy canary food instead of cat food and it doesn’t matter. It was the rule about being perfect that exposed Sally to the years of destabilization.
You can see from this example exactly how this destabilization in the relationship gave Sally access to a new way of being in the world. The destabilization led Sally to the discovery of the underlying rule she had been living by and, beyond that, it led to the primary self that had made that rule. This enabled her to separate from her perfectionism and to begin to embrace some very new and exciting ways of being in the world. By now, you have a clear picture of how opposite selves attract --- and later repel – one another and how much you can learn from this.
Learning about the gifts these disowned selves bring to you and to your relationships changes your partner from a problem to a teacher. It is important to keep in mind the statement we made in Embracing Our Selves that we repeated earlier in this chapter: Every disowned self becomes one of God’s (or the universe’s) heat seeking missiles. Once we know this and begin to play with the missiles instead of cursing them, relationship has a chance to develop into a dance rather than change into the torture chamber it so often becomes. Now let us take the next step and see how these selves interact in our relationships.