Special Relationships

Definition of a special relationship

We can define a special relationship as one in which:

  • I have a special arrangement (an exclusive relationship) with
  • and receive special treatment from
  • a very special person
  • so that I can feel more special.

Just reading this list can make our heart start beating faster.

The special relationship is the best lure in the ego’s tackle box

The special love relationship is the ego’s chief weapon for keeping you from Heaven. It does not appear to be a weapon, but if you consider how you value it and why, you will realize what it must be. The special love relationship is the ego’s most boasted gift, and the one that has the most appeal to those unwilling to relinquish guilt. (T-16.V.2:3-3:1)

The special relationship seems like the greatest prize there is. It seems like an island of love in the world’s hate. This seems to be our chance for heaven on earth. What it really is, though, is the ego’s best way of keeping you in its system. The special relationship says, “You don’t need to transcend your ego to find what you are looking for. You can keep your ego totally intact, and still find love and joining and wholeness and happiness.” We probably can immediately see the truth in this. The special love relationship does promise us total happiness without any need for change on the inside. And what can this be but a way to defend our internal status quo?

It’s not what it seems. We have assigned this person a role to fulfill our needs

The special relationship is not what it seems. It is an appearance that is designed to deceive, to hide its real content. The appearance says that it’s all about love and joining. But the reality is that each person has placed a series of heavy demands on the other, which enslave their partner to their own needs. The following two passages speak of this:

How happy would your dreams become if you were not the one who gave the “proper” role to every figure that the dream contains. No one can fail but your idea of him, and there is no betrayal but of this. (T-29.V.5:1-2)

This passage is talking about how we assign a role to every figure (body) in our dream (our life). It is this act of assignment that causes us fear—fear that the person will not play their role properly. And it is only this assignment that causes us to feel betrayed.

Someone, perhaps, you fear or even hate; someone you think you love who angers you; someone you call a friend, but whom you see as difficult at times or hard to please, demanding, irritating, or untrue to the ideal he should accept as his according to the role you set for him. (W-78.5:2)

This is a set of instructions for choosing someone to forgive, which means you are trying to locate someone you have resentments toward. Notice the last item: someone who is “untrue to the ideal he should accept as his, according to the role you set for him.” The implication is clear: You set a role for someone; he doesn’t accept it as his; you get resentful.


Think of a person in your life, a significant person. And ask yourself the following questions.

What role have I assigned to this person?
How well has he or she done? How has this person fallen short in fulfilling the assigned function?
On a scale of 1-10, how much of my anger and resentment in the relationship stems from this person’s failure to fulfill his or her assigned role?


It is really hate that looks like love

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 there’s nothing left to steal, and then move on. And so they wander through a world of strangers unlike themselves, living with their bodies perhaps beneath a common roof that shelters neither, in the same room and yet a world apart. (T-22.I.2:5-8)

This is one of the main teachings in the Course about special relationships: they are not really love. They look like love, but they are really about trying to take from another person. We do this taking mainly through bargaining, and the Course says. “Forget not this: To bargain is to set a limit, and any brother with whom you have a limited relationship you hate.” (T-21.III.1:3).

It is really separation that looks like joining

The “ideal” of the unholy relationship thus becomes one in which the reality of the other does not enter at all to “spoil” the dream. And the less the other really brings to it, the “better” it becomes. Thus, the attempt at union becomes a way of excluding even the one with whom the union was sought. For it was formed to get him out of it, and join with fantasies in uninterrupted “bliss.” (T-17.III.6:3-6)

An unholy relationship is no relationship. It is a state of isolation which seems to be what it is not. (T-20.VI.8:3-4)

These quotes say that the special relationship may look like joining, but in fact what we are trying to join with is a fantasy in our minds, a fantasy we are projecting onto the other person. This fantasy is composed of all the things we hope this person will do for us and be for us. The fantasy is, in essence, that role we are projecting onto him or her. We really fall in love with this fantasy, and then we fall out of love when this fantasy starts to bounce off, when our mind can’t make it stick anymore, when it becomes totally not credible. What this means, then, is that we are not really joining. We are not really in relationship. We are alone with our imaginary life-size doll.

It is really death that looks like life

The following paragraphs are from “The Two Pictures” (T-17.IV), a powerful section about the real nature of the special relationship.

The special relationship has the most imposing and deceptive frame of all the defenses that the ego uses. Its thought system is offered here, surrounded in a frame so heavy and so elaborate that the picture is almost obliterated by its imposing structure. Into the frame are woven all sorts of fanciful and fragmented illusions of love, set with dreams of sacrifice and self-aggrandizement, and interlaced with gilded threads of self-destruction. The glitter of blood shines like rubies, and the tears are faceted like diamonds and gleam in the dim light in which the offering is made. (T-17.IV.8)

The image is obviously of a picture with a frame. This symbolizes the special relationship, which is said to be a defense of the ego (in fact, the best defense). How is it a defense? It keeps us from giving up the ego. It tells us that we can stay within the ego’s system and still have it all. If you can keep the ego and still have it all, why give the ego up?

This defense, the special relationship, is a picture surrounded by a huge frame. The frame is so massive and so ornate that you spend all your time examining the frame and never actually see the picture. This is helped by the fact that the whole thing is offered to you in dim light.

What is the frame? It is the promise of the special relationship. It is everything we are told we will get from the special relationship. It is the sizzle, as opposed to the steak. It is the packaging, as opposed to the product. It is our dream of total happiness and completion that we are longing for when we seek for that special someone, as opposed to the disillusionment we end up with.

Look at the picture. Do not let the frame distract you. This gift is given you for your damnation, and if you take it, you will believe that you are damned. You cannot have the frame without the picture. What you value is the frame, for there you see no conflict. But the frame is only the wrapping for the gift of conflict. The frame is not the gift. Be not deceived by the most superficial aspects of this thought system, for these aspects enclose the whole, complete with every aspect. Death lies in this glittering gift. Let not your gaze dwell on the hypnotic gleaming of the frame. Look at the picture, and realize that death is offered you. (T-17.IV.9)

The frame is what we hope for; the picture is what we get. And the picture is a picture of death. It is a picture of the ego’s thought system, which is composed of attack, anger, fear, separation, war, conflict, decay, death. The special relationship is just a delivery device for the exact same thought system that we see manifest in the ego’s darkest expressions. That is why we need to look at the picture, not the frame.

The holy instant is a miniature of Heaven, sent to you from Heaven. It is a picture too, set in a frame. But if you accept this gift, you will not see the frame at all, because the gift can only be accepted through willingness to focus all your attention on the gift. The holy instant is a miniature of eternity. It is a picture of timelessness, set in a frame of time. If you focus on the picture, you will realize that it was only the frame that made you think it was a picture. Without the frame, the picture is seen as what it represents. For as the whole thought system of the ego lies in its gifts, so the whole of Heaven lies in this instant, borrowed from eternity and set in time for you. (T-17.IV.11)

The special relationship is contrasted here with the holy instant, which is the complete opposite. This picture you can only have if you focus all your attention on the picture, ignoring the frame. And the way it is framed facilitates this—the frame is light, modest, spare; it doesn’t detract attention from the picture. Furthermore, the picture is presented to you in full light, not dim light (mentioned in another paragraph). And finally, the picture is not really a picture at all. It’s more like a window onto true reality.

So what is the frame of the holy instant? It says the holy instant is “set in a frame of time.” I would say that the frame is the time and circumstances in which you experienced the holy instant. “It was 3:15 on Wednesday, April 25, 2004. I was sitting on my porch reading the Course, when all of a sudden my mind felt transported to somewhere else.” The physical details leading up to “when all of a sudden”—that’s the frame. You have the holy instant by ignoring the frame; the setting is ultimately inconsequential.

Two gifts are offered you. Each is complete and cannot be partially accepted. Each is a picture of all that you can have, seen very differently. You cannot compare their value by comparing a picture to a frame. It must be the pictures only that you compare, or the comparison is wholly without meaning. Remember that it is the picture that is the gift. And only on this basis are you really free to choose. Look at the pictures. Both of them. One is a tiny picture, hard to see at all beneath the heavy shadows of its enormous and disproportionate enclosure. The other is lightly framed and hung in light, lovely to look upon for what it is. (T-17.IV.12)

We have to compare the two pictures. We want to compare the frame of the special relationship with the picture of the holy instant. For those two are not so very different. The things we see in the frame of the special relationship—all the joy and completion promised in the special relationship—are the very things we actually experience in the holy instant. But that’s not a fair comparison. We have to compare the pictures.

“Two pictures” exercise

To do this exercise, you’ll need to get a sheet of paper out and draw a simple diagram. Turn the paper to a “landscape” position, so that the long side goes left to right.

Now draw a vertical line down the very middle of the page.

Now, in the left-hand side of the page, draw a big rectangle that almost fills the page. This is the frame of the special relationship.

In the middle of this rectangle, draw a small rectangle (about two inches high). If you want, you can draw a little skull in the middle of this small rectangle.

On the right hand side of the page, simply draw a big oval. This is the picture frame of the holy instant. The space inside the oval is of course the picture. Leave that blank.

OK, you’re done. Now for the exercise.

The picture on the left represents the special relationship. Its massive frame depicts all of what you hope to get from such relationships. The picture of death in the middle represents what such relationships really offer you.

Now think of a particularly important special relationship, either one from your past or one that has been going on a long time. Think first about all that you hoped for from that relationship, all the things you fantasized about getting. Write those down in the frame area. Now broaden your search and think about the things you hoped to get from other special relationships, and write those down in the same area.

Now think about the forms of death that you experienced in that relationship, especially after the “honeymoon” was over. For instance, you might have experienced a great deal of guilt, or frustration, or rage, or physical illness. Whatever forms of death come to mind, write those down inside the picture area (not in the frame area).

Think further about forms of death you have experienced in other special relationships, again, especially after the honeymoon period. If any other forms of death appear to you in this context, write those down.

The picture on the right represents the holy instant. A holy instant is defined as any instant in which you momentarily leave the past and your normal mental framework and experience something beyond their boundaries. It may be an elevated moment during meditation, or a heightened experience while out in nature. It may be a profound spiritual experience. It may be a joining with another human being that seemed to be about truth or reality, about something that transcended your separate interests.

Thinking of the holy instants you’ve experienced—what you might call your greatest spiritual moments—write down the words that apply to those moments on the right-hand picture, the oval one.

Once, you’re done, take about 60 seconds, and simply look at both pictures. Ignore the frame on the left. Just look at the pictures. Look back and forth rapidly in order to compare them with each other.

Finally, write down a sentence that captures your thoughts, feelings, and observations during this comparison process.

Principles of Miracle-Minded Relationship

We need to gradually learn to approach relationships from a whole other mind-set. This mind-set is what will transform the relationship from the picture of death into an experience of the holy instant. The following principles are inspired by the Course and by my own experience.

  • I am with this person not because he or she flips all my switches, but because the Holy Spirit wants this person in my life, because this is His chosen learning partner for me.
  • I am with this person not because we happen to serve each other’s interests so well, but because ideally we share a common purpose that transcends our separate interests.
  • I am with this person not to bask in his or her special magic, but to learn how to love the holy light in everyone, to learn to love the sameness in everyone. Thus, there doesn’t need to be anything special or extraordinary about this person.
  • However, because I cannot yet love the light in everyone, the Holy Spirit will send me someone who, to some extent, fits my personality and life circumstances (e.g., He will not pair me with a 7-foot Siberian yak herder).
  • I am with this person to learn how to forgive; therefore, an important part of his or her role is to exercise my forgiveness muscle—to make mistakes.
  • However, the Holy Spirit knows that I learn best under certain conditions, and so will not ask me to be with someone who sends me over the edge. Some people are best forgiven from a distance.
  • I am in this relationship to learn that my ego is not the center of the universe. I do so by withdrawing from this person the role I hired him/her to play.
  • I am with this person to learn that other people are not objects, to learn that only by giving to them do I truly receive. I do so by learning how to serve this person, how to serve both his/her real needs and foolish ones.
  • I am with this person not to make my ego feel really special, but to learn how to transcend my ego and truly join, and to thus discover that I am more than an ego.
  • If I am in relationship to learn how to love and forgive, I can trust that the Holy Spirit will send me people who will teach me that I am lovable and that I am forgiven.
  • If I am in relationship to learn how to join, I can trust the Holy Spirit will make sure there are people in my life who will truly join with me in a common goal.
  • I am in this relationship to grow up, to slowly shed my childish ego and emerge into the adulthood of my original Self.
  • I am in this relationship to change my own mind. I see challenges in the relationship as opportunities to seek the healing of my own perception, not as opportunities to mold my partner to my expectations. I therefore do lots of Workbook practice in this relationship.
  • Since we have been brought together to learn, if we get truly stuck and stop learning, the Holy Spirit will arrange for us to part (and then, at some later time, come back together and fulfill our calling of establishing a holy relationship together).


Write a prayer to God, stating your desire to apply these principles (or some of them, or one in particular) to a certain relationship.

Ask the Holy Spirit: What is the one thing I can do right now to approach this relationship in the way I truly want, in keeping with the principles I believe in?