Choosing Our Special Partners

Last week Michael suggested a class on special relationships. I thought it was a great suggestion, but the topic is so huge that I thought we might start at the beginning—with the whole notion of choosing our special partners. Now by using the term “special partners,” I intend to primarily call to mind romantic partners, but I also want to call to mind “partners in any aspect of living.” The following quote uses that phrase and also sets the tone for how the Course sees our usual selection process:

It is sure that those who select certain ones as partners in any aspect of living, and use them for any purpose which they would not share with others, are trying to live with guilt rather than die of it. (T-16.IV.4)

Helen and Bill’s choice of partners (from the Urtext)

Our first passage comes from the Urtext, to which will turn repeatedly in this class. It is about Helen and Bill’s choice of partners.

The other question, however, I am more than willing to answer, because it is appropriate for now. You and Bill both chose your present sex partners shamefully, and would have to atone for the lack of love [in your choice] which was involved in any case.

You selected them precisely because they were not suited to gratify your fantasies. This was not because you wanted to abandon or give up the fantasies, but because you were afraid of them [the fantasies]. You saw in your partners a means of protecting against the fear [of really living out the fantasies], but both of you continued to “look around” for chances to indulge the fantasies [presumably, on the side].

The dream of the “perfect partner” is an attempt to find external integration, while retaining conflicting needs in the self.

Bill was somewhat less guilty of this than you, but largely because he was more afraid. He had abandoned the hope (of finding a perfect partner) in a neurotic sense of despair of finding it. You, on the other hand, insisted that the hope was justified. Neither of you, therefore, was in your Right Mind….

Jesus is saying that Helen and Bill chose their “present sex partners” because those partners couldn’t fulfill their sexual fantasies. This is because they were actually afraid of their fantasies, but they also didn’t want to let go of their fantasies. So they chose partners that could protect against those fantasies running their lives, but also hung on to the fantasies and looked for chances to indulge them on the side. In other words, they retained conflicting needs inside themselves.

So here we have a portrait of someone who harbors secret romantic and sexual fantasies. She yearns for these fantasies to be fulfilled, yet she is also deeply afraid of this. If these fantasies really got acted out, if they really came all the way out and became her life, they may prove too dangerous, or too guilt-inducing. So, to protect against this happening, she unconsciously looks for someone who doesn’t fit the fantasies. In doing so, she tells herself that she is being good and decent, yet all we are really seeing is her love/fear relationship with her own fantasies. For even though she fears them, she also hangs onto them, and keeps looking around for ways to indulge them on the side. As you probably can see, what initially sounded a bit strange is now revealed to be something that is actually closer to the norm. This person could be any of us.

Jesus then moves on to the topic of trying to find the perfect partner—the partner who will fulfill all of our romantic fantasies. He mentions the two typical attitudes toward the search for the perfect partner: giving up in resigned despair and holding bravely onto the hope. One has the advantage of being realistic; the other has the advantage of being heroically romantic. He says, however, that neither is right-minded. The dream of the perfect partner is really “an attempt to find external integration, while retaining conflicting needs in the self.” What does this mean? Our hope is that we can find that person who is so perfectly configured that we can join with them without changing anything on the inside. Thus, we will have healed our external split with others—we will be joined, integrated with another person. Yet we will still retain our split on the inside. Isn’t this what all of us want? We want someone who is so perfectly suited to us, that we can totally joined with them, while not challenging or changing anything within ourselves.

Discussion: Can you relate to being afraid of letting your romantic fantasies take over your life?

Discussion: Can you relate to Jesus’ comment about an attempt to find external integration, while retaining conflicting needs in the self?

Finding in another what we don’t have

For an unholy relationship is based on differences, where each one thinks the other has what he has not. They come together, each to complete himself and rob the other. They stay until they think that there is nothing left to steal, and then move on. And so they wander through a world of strangers, unlike themselves, living with their bodies perhaps under a common roof that shelters neither; in the same room and yet a world apart. (T-22.In.2:5-8)

In this case, we see something in another person that we lack, and we want that thing, and our idea of love is that we take it.

Question: Pick a partner and ask yourself, “What did I see in that person that I believed I didn’t have?”

The class mentioned strength, love, purity, protection.

Now ask yourself, “How did I think being with this person would give me that?”

The general response seemed to be that I would have it not be actually incorporating it into myself, but by simply being next to it, by basking in its glow, by owning the person in whom this quality resided.

A special self to call our own

Most curious of all is the concept of the self which the ego fosters in the special relationship. This “self” seeks the relationship to make itself complete. Yet when it finds the special relationship in which it thinks it can accomplish this it gives itself away, and tries to “trade” itself for the self of another. This is not union, for there is no increase and no extension. Each partner tries to sacrifice the self he does not want for one he thinks he would prefer. And he feels guilty for the “sin” of taking, and of giving nothing of value in return. How much value can he place upon a self that he would give away to get a “better” one?

The “better” self the ego seeks is always one that is more special. And whoever seems to possess a special self is “loved” for what can be taken from him. Where both partners see this special self in each other, the ego sees “a union made in Heaven.” For neither one will recognize that he has asked for hell, and so he will not interfere with the ego’s illusion of Heaven, which it offered him to interfere with Heaven. (T-16.V.7:1-8:4)

This is a great description of someone who is completely besotted: “You are so special. I just can’t hold a candle to you.” The overall dynamic is this: We are looking for someone who has a really special self, more special than ours. The reason, however, is that our self doesn’t feel special enough, and we hope that we can trade ours away to get this other one. We want to give our not-so-special self away in order to purchase this other person’s oh-so-special self. This may seem like an act of extreme honor and love—giving our self away to our partner, giving our beloved the deed to our soul. But in reality it is a sort of hostile takeover. We are trying to own that person’s special self, so that we own their specialness. And when our newly acquired pet doesn’t perform on command, the real hostility underlying the takeover comes out into the open.

Discussion: Have you ever tried to purchase someone else’s more special self by giving him or her your own?

A collection of special attributes

Jesus tells a story in the Urtext of a night Helen spent arguing with a colleague named Jack about “a complex factorial analysis.” Jesus said, “One of the real reasons why that evening was so exhilarating was because it represented a ‘battle of intellects,’ (both good ones, by the way), each communicating exceptionally clearly but on opposite sides. The sexual aspects were naturally touched off in both of you, because of the sex and aggression confusion.” In other words, because they were battling, they quite naturally got turned on, because of their underlying confusion of sex and aggression—they saw sex as aggressive and aggression as sexy. (For all we know, this may have been a case of Helen indulging her romantic fantasies on the side—by flirting with an intellectually powerful colleague.) The battle ended with Helen agreeing with Jack, after which Jack wrote in the margin of her notes “Virtue is triumphant.” Jesus then interprets this careless remark as containing a lot more meaning than was apparent:

While this (remark) was funny to both of you at the time, you might consider its truer side. The virtue lay in the complete respect each of your offered to the other’s intellect. Your mutual sexual attraction was also shared. The error lay in the word “triumphant.” This had the “battle” connotation, because neither of you was respecting all of the other. There is a great deal more to a person than intellect and genitals. The omission was the Soul. (Urtext)

Jesus certainly doesn’t mince any words! He approves of the respect they offered each other. He also seems to approve about the fact that they were feeling the same attraction. He may not have been too crazy about the nature of the attraction, but he seems to like the idea that they were both feeling a desire to join. His problem, though, is with the fact that they were also battling. And they were battling because they were not respecting all of each other. Each had reduced the other to “intellect and genitals”—a shadow of who they really are. This reduction allows room to respect aspects of someone while still battling with them, and battling with them, of course, is inherently disrespectful. If Helen and Jack had respected each other’s Soul (rather than intellect) and been attracted to each other’s Soul (rather than genitals), there would have been no room for battle.

The relevance here is that this, of course, is a great deal of how we choose our partners. We see them as a collection of desirable attributes. The criticism is that respecting and desiring those attributes is not respecting and desiring the person, the Soul. And this crucial omission leaves room to respect and desire someone while, paradoxically, still waging war on them.

Question: Think of someone you’ve been attracted to, and write down what attributes you were attracted to.

Then say to yourself, “There is a great deal more to [name] than [and read your list above]. My omission was the Soul.”

Someone to disrespect us

A line from the Urtext that will look at later contains an interesting remark: “even if the partner was originally attracted to you because of your disrespect.” What a strange line. Why would someone be attracted to someone else because of that person’s disrespect? On second thought, however, it’s not so strange. After all, we are looking for that more special someone. And what communicates “I’m more special than you” better than disrespect? Chances are that if we look at people we ourselves have been attracted to, some of them will have seemed attractive because their disrespect told us that they were above us.

A place that is safe from hate, where the illusion of love can be maintained

The special love relationship is not perceived as a value in itself, but as a place of safety from which hatred is split off and kept apart. The special love partner is acceptable only as long as he serves this purpose. Hatred can enter, and indeed is welcome in some aspects of the relationship, but it is still held together by the illusion of love. If the illusion goes, the relationship is broken or becomes unsatisfying on the grounds of disillusionment. (T-16.IV.3)

This passage implies that we are deeply afraid of being exposed directly to the hatred in the world and in ourselves. Imagine being surrounded by nothing but all the hardness and prejudice and callousness of the world, and this evoking all the hate and scorn in yourself, so that your life is nothing but the world hating you and you hating the world. This passage suggests that the terror of this possibility is what drives us into special relationships. The whole attraction of the special relationship, in other words, is as a place that is safe from the hate. Yet we don’t want a place of real love—our ego couldn’t handle that—rather, we want a bubble where the illusion of love can be maintained. And this surely is a key to our choice of partners. As we consider whether or not to let someone into our life, one of the key things we look for is: Can this person and I maintain a pleasant bubble in which hatred seems to be absent? Of course, all too often, the bubble breaks, and we become disillusioned—we realize the so-called love was nothing but an illusion.

A place that is safe from God

Every special relationship you have made has, as its fundamental purpose, the aim of occupying your mind so completely that you will not hear the call of truth. (T-17.IV.3:3)

This motivation is of course not conscious, but it is the net effect of most romantic relationships. Have you ever known a person who was extremely spiritual while they were single, and then they got into a new relationship? At that point, more often than not, the spiritual path goes on the back burner. We want to get lost in a really exhilarating relationship. Have we ever considered that one of the things we want to get lost from is God?

Question: Have you ever been in a relationship that seemed to take you away from God? If so, how does it feel to consider that maybe that was your unconscious design all along?

A substitute for an unsatisfying partner

Any relationship you would substitute for another has not been offered to the Holy Spirit for His use. There is no substitute for love. If you would attempt to substitute one aspect of love for another, you have placed less value on one and more on the other. You have not only separated them, but you have also judged against both. Yet you had judged against yourself first, or you would never have imagined that you needed your brothers as they were not. Unless you had seen yourself as without love, you could not have judged them so like you in lack. (T-15.V.6:1-6)

Substituting one person for another is an essential part of the dance of relationships in this world. We choose someone to fulfill a particular set of needs we have, and they don’t do the trick. So we replace them with someone else. The Course’s problem with this is the whole notion of choosing between people. From its perspective, the whole nature of the spiritual journey is gradually learning that everyone is equally and totally valuable, that every relationship can “satisfy you completely” (T-15.VI.1:4), and therefore that “all relationships are…total commitments” (T-15.VI.1:3).

A pile of special parts

The ego’s use of relationships is so fragmented that it frequently goes even farther; one part of one aspect suits its purposes, while it prefers different parts of another aspect. Thus does it assemble reality to its own capricious liking, offering for your seeking a picture whose likeness does not exist. For there is nothing in Heaven or earth that it resembles, and so, however much you seek for its reality, you cannot find it because it is not real. (T-15.V.7:1-3)

Obviously, we choose people because of particular body parts. This leaves us in a private world composed of this part of this person and that part of that person, a world composed entirely of nothing but different cuts of meat. Seeing someone as a body equates to seeing them as an object. But in this case we are not even seeing the person as a complete object, but only as part of one.

An actor to play the shadow figure

What basis would you have for choosing a special partner without the past? Every such choice is made because of something “evil” in the past to which you cling, and for which must someone else atone. (T-16.VII.1)

Whatever reminds you of your past grievances attracts you, and seems to go by the name of love, no matter how distorted the associations by which you arrive at the connection may be. (T-17.III.2)

We discussed this a few weeks ago in our class on shadow figures. As I said in that class. “As a child, you felt you didn’t receive the love you wanted from a particular significant person (or people). So now you look for someone who reminds you of the one who didn’t give you what you wanted. This similarity, unbeknownst to you, is what actually attracts you to a partner. You then get with this partner, in an attempt to re-create the conditions of your childhood. While you are with this partner, on some level you actually confuse him or her with the person from the past. Your whole goal is to get from this new person what the past person failed to provide.”

The Solution

Learn within the context of the “imperfect partner”

The lack of love (or faulty need-orientation) which led to your particular person (not object) choices can be corrected within the existent framework, and would have to be in the larger interest of overall progress. The situation is questionable largely because of its inherent vulnerability to fantasy-gratification [seeking to indulge one’s fantasies outside the relationship?]. Doing the best you can within this limitation is probably the best corrective measure at present. Any relationship you have undertaken for whatever reasons becomes a responsibility.

If you shift your own needs, some amount of corresponding shift in the need-orientation of the other person must result, This will be beneficial, even if the partner was originally attracted to you because of your disrespect. (Urtext)

Here, Jesus is again speaking to Helen and Bill’s bad choices in partners. He is saying that they may have chosen their partners for all the wrong reasons, but now that they had chosen them, in this case the best way to correct the wrong choice was to make it work with those partners. Because they chose partners who did not fit their fantasies, the relationships were vulnerable to Helen and Bill going off to try to gratify those fantasies. Yet still, it was probably better to do their learning within the limitation of their current partners. He then makes a powerful statement, “Any relationship you have undertaken for whatever reasons becomes a responsibility.” Wow. If we tie this together with the first sentence about “person (not object) choices,” we see a profound truth. You may have chosen this person lovelessly, seeing him as a mere object to gratify your needs. Yet in fact you chose a person, not an object. And the way you correct the lack of love in your original choice is that you come to see him and treat him as a person, as someone toward whom you are responsible. In other words, you gradually go from “He’s just an object who is there to serve my needs” to “He is a person toward whom I am responsible.”

And this, I suspect, is what happens in really healthy marriages. We start out giddy with the excitement of this object fulfilling all of our fantasies. And we slowly end up feeling deep love, respect, and responsibility toward this person.

The third level of teaching occurs in relationships which, once they are formed, are lifelong. These are teaching-learning situations in which each person is given a chosen learning partner who presents him with unlimited opportunities for learning. These relationships are generally few, because their existence implies that those involved have reached a stage simultaneously in which the teaching-learning balance is actually perfect. This does not mean that they necessarily recognize this; in fact, they generally do not. They may even be quite hostile to each other for some time, and perhaps for life. Yet should they decide to learn it, the perfect lesson is before them and can be learned. And if they decide to learn that lesson, they become the saviors of the teachers who falter and may even seem to fail. No teacher of God can fail to find the Help he needs. (M-3.5:1-8)

I’ve always loved this passage. It, in fact, reminds me a great deal of the previous one. It suggests that this person who’s been there in front of us for thirty years, who seems anything but our fantasy of the perfect romantic partner, is actually the perfect learning partner. She may not fulfill our fantasies, but if we see her right, she will walk home to God with us.

Let Jesus guide your choice of partners

In speaking about choosing the right spouse, Jesus said to Helen and Bill:

If I am asked to participate in the decision, the decision will be a right one, too. (Urtext)

This, I think, is the key. I do believe that the Holy Spirit has a plan for each and every relationship. He knows what role that person is meant to play in our life, and what role we are meant to play in theirs. And our ideas might be 180 degrees off from His. As each person enters our life, then, we must stand outside the pull of our emotions (or lack of emotions) and ask only what is His will.

We must realize that there is so much more than we realize that is going on inside our impulses to embrace or reject someone, and that this more is fraught with self-destructive motivation. Our natural attractions are all about using others in ways that are designed to gratify our ego and to disrespect them. We just want an object with which we can induge our fantasies and enhance our specialness, from which we can take whatever we want. We want someone who can make us feel joined and whole without requiring us to lift a finger to change our fragmented, split-off state inside. We don’t want a real person, we want someone who will wear whatever mask we choose—the mask of our fantasies, the mask of our shadow figures. And these desires end up where they started—with us all alone, “in the same room and yet a world apart.”

Instead, we must realize that the whole journey home is about emerging from the bubble of our narcissism and really learning to love, to love others for who they really are, not for what our desires would make of them. It is a journey from living in a world of objects to living in a world of real persons, from a world of bodies to a world of souls.
And only the Holy Spirit knows which people in which roles at which times are ideal for us on this journey. I think most of us probably have had experiences where we knew that He was sending someone into our life. How often have those experiences been all that we initially fantasized they would be? And yet how often have they failed to provide dramatic growth and inner change? Clearly, He has a plan, not for our ego’s gratification, but for our mind’s awakening. Let us constantly look for that plan, with each relationship, and not rest until we find it.


[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]