How Do We Affect Each Other in Special Relationships, in Sickness and in Health?

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

Question from one of our CCC members

I don’t think you have addressed this particular angle, at least in the things I’ve read and heard. Some critics charge that the Course is solipsistic. Maybe this is an anti-Boomeritis criticism, but you go to lengths to explain that others, in the form of other minds, do exist and need our loving service. But discussions of special relationships often do sound quite solipsistic: my needs, my shadow figures, my exploitation of others, my projections, etc. In short, I haven’t read any commentary that takes a “systemic” view.

In marriage and couple therapy, the systemic approach is the currently sophisticated perspective. It seems to correspond to Robert Kegan’s 4th-Order consciousness, if you know his work (In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, Harvard, 1994—He’s also part of Wilber’s Integral Community). The gist of it is seeing the family or the relationship as a system where each person contributes part of the sustaining dynamic. It is designed to raise people out of the usual egoic perspective of blaming the other for the difficulties—although it still does conceive of the participants as individualities.

In terms of discussing special relationships, how do the illusions of each partner mesh and reinforce each other? If I have a Shadow Figure script that I seek someone else to perform a role in, am “I” not also such a shadow role for that other person? When you reiterate that in such relationships we never see the “actual person” but only our fantasy of her or him, isn’t that so-called actual person also lost in her or his own role assigning? There must be ‘karmic’ laws (subconscious ‘laws of chaos’) governing the mutually exploitative attractions. It seems logical, if not always obvious, that the other person is seeing and relating to a shadow figure—instead of to the “actual me”…which in most cases simply my own self-image! A distortion (her illusory scripting of my role) of a distortion (my own illusory self-image).

As an example, in my readings about the Enneagram, I concluded that my main personality type is Enneatype 4, which is “the tragic romantic” or misunderstood martyr. Part of the “specialness” of this orientation is to think of myself as above others, in intellect, understanding, idealism, love, generosity, etc., and to be continually unappreciated. Of course that requires that others play the roles of denser people, takers instead of givers, betrayers, and ungratefuls—in order to validate my unconscious self-image. Self-sabotagingly I assign others such roles so that my main self-righteous role can be highlighted. On the other hand, “I” must appear as some kind of obnoxiously aloof or needy guilt-provoking role to special relationship partners. There must be a negative symbiosis or systemic dynamic at work here.

Suppose I no longer want that self-image, so no longer want to assign others roles that support it. If I see my part in the system and don’t like it, will my own change also change the role that the ‘other’ is playing (which I supposedly scripted for her)? How does releasing the other from my special relationship demands affect her—her own self-image and her behaviors? Theoretically, according to what I understand (rightly or wrongly) of the Course, withdrawing the projection should change the perceived world. And not just my personal interpretation, but the whole constituting energy dynamic. But is it realistic to expect any behavioral changes in others, even if I now understand ‘calls for help/love’ instead of neglect or attack?

As a related question, how can we help a special relationship partner overcome her or his own shadow figure projecting and reacting? Especially if only one person is studying about and trying to switch to a holy relationship, is this in itself enough to illumine the partner? I know the Course states that the only true “correction” is forgiveness, so direct preaching or even friendly sharing of Course perspectives is not likely to have the desired effect. So, what will? 

I also know the catch-all platitude about specific behavior—that ‘the Holy Spirit will direct you—but what are the principles for helping a partner see through her or his illusions? The prayer “I desire this holy instant, that I may share it…” seems to promise that one person’s striving for clarity will serve both of them and their relationship, but does this ‘guarantee’ apply just to those who are already in some mutually acknowledged holy (holon) association?

One of the “Today’s Inspirations” on your site just now seems to address my question, below:

T-21.VI.7:4-8—The power to heal the Son of God is given you because he must be one with you. You are responsible for how he sees himself. And reason tells you it is given you to change his whole mind, which is one with you, in just an instant. And any instant serves to bring complete correction of his errors and make him whole. The instant that you choose to let yourself be healed, in that same instant is his whole salvation seen as complete with yours.

There is no specific commentary or article on this exact passage in the Integrated ACIM link. Do you see it as a “systemic” solution—that if one person in a special relationship changes perception of a partner, that partner’s perception—of her or his own self-likewise changes? Have you had any direct experience of this, or has anyone you know? Is a certain level of ‘holy’ relationship already required for this to operate as smoothly as the text describes?

My answer

You have a lot of questions here! But I think the essence of them is what I have put in the title: How do we affect each other in relationships, both “in sickness and in health”? How do the illusions of each partner reinforce each other and how can we help each other move toward healing?

The Course really is very relational in this regard. It assumes a highly interactive scenario in which influence is passing back and forth between people on a constant basis, both through behavior and even purely mind to mind. The night the Course began coming through, Jesus told Helen to be sure to tell Bill “how much he helped you through by giving you the right message.” Since this message was apparently received in an extrasensory way, Jesus then added, “And don’t bother with worrying about how you received it. That doesn’t matter, either.” At another time, he told Helen to pray for her husband, “particularly if he was asleep.” Together, Helen and Jesus told him to forget about his transgressions in past lives. The impression one gets is this was a message he could receive better by telepathic communication to his subconscious than by verbal communication to him in the waking state.

Getting to the issue of how roles interface with each other, there is an acknowledgment in the Course that a role by its very nature requires that others be in corresponding roles. This is true on both the healthy and unhealthy sides. On the healthy side, Jesus acknowledges in the Urtext that a teacher and pupil “come together on the basis of inequality of ability and experience.” Without that key difference “their respective, though temporary roles would not be conducive to mutual profit.” Simply put, you can’t be in the role of teacher unless there are people who can and want to learn from you.

On the unhealthy side, we have this passage from Psychotherapy:

Some utilize the relationship merely to collect bodies to worship at their shrine, and this they regard as healing. Many patients, too, consider this strange procedure as salvation. Yet at each meeting there is One Who says, “My brother, choose again.” (P-3.II.9:8-10)

Just as a teacher who wants to teach needs pupils who want to learn from him, so a therapist who wants to be worshipped needs patients who are willing to do that, who think their salvation lies in bowing at the feet of the right demigod.

For people to be together, then, the roles need to fit. If I am the teacher here, you need to be the learner. If I am the demigod therapist, you need to be the worshipful patient. To be together, our two puzzle pieces need to fit. This, I think, contains the seed of the way out. It means that if I change the shape of my puzzle piece, that will naturally exert a pressure on the shape of yours. At that point, if yours doesn’t change shape, we won’t fit.

I think this fact, combined with the fact that we naturally influence each other, contains the answer here. If I change on my side toward healing, that will tend to pull the other person along with me. Of course, the other person may not go with me. Instead, we may simply stop fitting. But the more my change is a positive one, especially in the direction of seeing my partner in a more charitable, worthy light, the more that will have a healing effect on my partner, even if, in fact, we do stop fitting and end up parting.

For instance, imagine that the therapist who wants worshipful supplicants changes. He realizes how disrespectful it was to see his patients that way. So now his own ego moves to the background while he gives more honor and respect to his patients, seeing them as priceless individuals in their own right. Now, they will have to change if they want to keep fitting with him. But I suspect that this is a change that most of them would make. Perhaps some will go in search of a new demigod, but surely one would think that most will make this transition with him. And even those who leave will carry with them the healing light of the therapist’s new orientation.

Jesus definitely talks this way. In personal notes to Helen and Bill, he talked about how they had chosen their current sex partners lovelessly, seeing them essentially as objects who were there to not fulfill their fantasy of the perfect partner (a fantasy which frightened them), while they continued to look around for chances to indulge the fantasy. Despite this rather sizable disrespect at the basis of the relationship, he said they should stay in the relationship and change it from within:

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.

Here we see the puzzle piece idea at work. If I change my concept of needs, I will naturally see myself in a different role. The shape of my puzzle piece will change. That then exerts pressure on my partner’s puzzle piece. I’m not looking to her to supply the needs that drove me into the relationship, and I’m not so interested in supplying the needs that drove her into the relationship. I’ve basically changed the arrangement. That may sound merely disruptive—I’m not fulfilling the attraction that got her into this. But if I’ve changed in a more loving direction, it may be quite welcome. My former need was for her to be an object, a warm body in the room, that I could take from. But now my need is to love, to give. That concept of my needs, one would think, has got to be a welcome change, at least to some degree. And being welcome, it will naturally pull her in its direction. She will feel drawn to change the shape of her puzzle piece so as to fit into this new arrangement.

Personally, I don’t think this means that we never talk to our partners about how they can change. However, I think that rather than trying to foist change on our partners, we should ideally seek to put in place a truly collaborative system in which we are each genuinely trying to help the other in the growth process and genuinely asking for that help ourselves. If the asking for help is sincere and the intent to help is also sincere (rather than merely self-serving), then I think two partners should consciously have such a system in place, so that communication channels are open on this level. However, I think what makes such a system truly sincere is for each person to say, “My main contribution to change in this relationship will be to change the role I have been playing, and to change it in a direction that is more loving and respectful to both of us.”

That has got to be the key. Change the role you are playing, and trust that to do its work. That doesn’t mean you never utter a word about the role your partner is playing. It’s just that your words will be more helpful, and your actions will speak louder than any words could, if you make job number one changing your own piece of the puzzle.