The Soul of Relationship

Where Self and Other Meet

The Soul of Relationship

This article first appeared in the January/February 2008 issue.

Even with two people sitting quietly, an interpersonal space isn’t an empty space—it’s alive with a peculiar quality. I got a measure of this quality one long day in a mindfulness-meditation retreat, when our instructor had us each pair off with someone we didn’t know. He asked us to sit on the floor opposite each other and focus on the other person’s face. Gently, he said, focus gently, for 10 minutes.

Ten minutes is a long, long time to look at the actual, real-live-breathing face of a person you don’t know. As a matter of fact, I’m here to tell you that it’s an excruciatingly long time, and that by the middle of the 10 minutes, you could hear sobbing from the people around us, also seated on the hotel carpeting and gazing into the surprising hellhole of another person’s face. Eyes especially—it’s true what they say about eyes being the windows on the soul. TMI, as the kids say, Too Much Information.

Plus we had to struggle with our failing interactional abilities, which seemed to be waving gamely like those giant, willowy, white-plastic columns at the used car lots, pumped up by air and wagging at customers—blathering social instincts not to stare, not to stand by while someone is consumed with anxiety; instincts to smile or not to smile; all this quickly reaching a crux, our faces distended by the wondrous strain. They say we have an inordinate number of neural pathways in the brain that are involved in that mask we call a face. I believe I felt a reddened charge in all of them.

The only tool we had was mindfulness. We could notice all these reactions and then let them go—the judgments, the efforts to manage our stiff or rubbery expressions, the thumping tension in our chests, the mounting vulnerability of our buck-naked eyes. We had plenty to notice, plenty to let go, and then in the next breath, there they were again, waving and wagging. It was strangely exhausting, for people who were seated quietly.

I had the luck to be looking at a younger woman, whose face, it seemed to me, mirrored my own in its unprecedented efforts to find a suitable, dignified way to manage all these thumping sensations. And, finally, we just let it go, the two of us; we seemed to give up all attempts at equanimity and instead let our faces shimmer and shimmy how they would. I had the distinct experience—later confirmed—that at some point, we reached a kind of openness and even I’d say forgiveness with each other, almost as if we were arriving home, that place where they have to take you in. It was a little like falling in love, although it turned out each of us, was too sober-minded to go for an illusion like that. At the end of the exercise, all around us people were falling into each other’s arms with relief at having managed so much vulnerability, so much intimacy. My new friend!

It was a lesson in the overwhelming power of direct contact, among other things. If we leave aside, for a moment, the usual rush of judgments and projections that typically fill our relational space, we get to sit . . . with something else.

Slowing Down

Long-term couples can trigger in each other that onset of judgment and negative prediction, not to mention blame. The space between two people who’ve been partnered for years can be many things—lively, dull, dangerous, robotic, cozy, crazy-making, sensible. All in the same couple!
I’m a couples therapist, more than 30 years now, and I get paid to sit in the room and watch this happen.

For example, when I asked my usual opening question, how things were going, Julia nodded her head. “Good,” she said.

“There you go again,” Mike commented to his wife.

“What?” Julia asked. She had a mollifying smile on her face.

“Same old stuff,” he responded. “You’re gonna say that things are going well. You’re gonna talk about the great party we had. How well we worked together.” He ignored Julia’s rising discomfort. “But none of that is why we’re coming here.” He was a likable man, commanding and curious, yet poised just this side of sarcasm.

“Well, sure, I know . . . .”

He shook his head. “None of that gets us one step closer to you and me. In bed.” Julia’s face fell.

In the old days, seeing the negativity bloom like this, I’d slow people down and get them to listen to each other. I’d ask them to repeat what they were hearing in such a way that the other partner would be able to say, “Yes, yes, that’s what I mean.” I thought that we were working to get the meaning straight. If we just understood each other, I thought, a lot of the difficulty of living in a couple would melt away.

I still think that we should slow down and listen carefully to each other; that we should generously give each other the experience of a fair hearing. I still observe how useful that is, how you can avoid a world of trouble by listening well. Too often, we don’t know how to listen deeply to another person. We don’t know how to give up our prized agendas; we persist over and over in saying what we’ve always said, and we can barely tolerate the feeling of not controlling what might emerge. All this needs tending.

But something else is going on at such times that need tending: we don’t know how to open up to our own thumping heart. There’s a physical experience to being in a couple—a physical substrate in which our bodies are registering sensations all the way from boredom to open warmth to anxiety to sexual interest to irritation to outright rage and more. You might think, as I did, that the miscommunication between partners would itself stimulate the physical sensations of this or that. But over the years, as I’ve explored mindfulness meditation, and as my deepening understanding of trauma has led to a new understanding of how the body shapes the mind, I’ve come to see that it’s just as likely to be the other way around: the physical sensation triggers the argument. Often the physical substrate is itself an expression of memories and shaping experiences held in the body, but not the mind.

The argument between Mike and Julia, for example, wasn’t what you might think it was. At least it wasn’t what I thought it was. Initially it seemed like the classic story of a man looking for sex and warmth from his wife, and then getting angry because she wasn’t going along with him. Mike was angry, all right, in that shoot-yourself-in-the-foot way that upped the tension level between the two of them. Actually, though, Julia would have been happy to climb into bed with Mike. But that wasn’t enough for him. Even in bed, they both agreed, he was angry.

These days, in certain intractable situations, I keep discovering how much getting couples to focus on the immediacy of their bodily sensations can change the entire flow and direction of what takes place in my office. “Slow yourself down, Mike,” I said. “Can you notice what you’re feeling, in your body?” This kind of awareness is a variation on the practice of mindfulness.

“Anger,” he said, one corner of his mouth bent up at being obliged to belabor the obvious.

“How do you know you’re feeling anger?” I asked. Anger is a catch-all word, especially for men, and the word itself, being so usual, might stand in the way of experiencing the nuances of anger, including anxiety or sadness or even trouble breathing.

Mike pointed to his chest. “Actually, I feel cold.” He made a rueful smile. “It feels steely inside, like I’m holding back. Holding back a lot. Like a coiled snake. I could strike. . . . But I won’t,” he added.

“So how familiar is that feeling to you?” I wasn’t sure whether to keep exploring the subtleties of the physical sensations or expand the context to Mike’s history. But asking him about the familiarity of the sensations would keep him looking inward a bit longer.

“Hmm. Pretty familiar.” He looked surprised. That was good: he was learning something from his own sensations. Plus, he was sitting there feeling them, rather than leaping into action.

“How far back does it go?” Yet another historical question. I could be leading him away from tolerating the affect, I thought.

Mike looked even more surprised. “Way back.”

“Childhood?” Now I couldn’t resist the pull of history. It’s just like me to choose the narrative rather than step into the unknown area of felt experience. But the looks of surprise on his face suggested that we were getting around the usual, possibly defensive, stories.

“Right. As long as I can remember.”

“So, for as long as you can remember, you’ve had the experience of working hard to manage a powerful anger and disappointment with people.” I don’t know where I came up with “disappointment,” except it seemed to fit a tone Mike was using. And I knew enough of his history to know of his childhood straitjacket: that he was the carrier of the family’s high hopes, the person who had the responsibility of making everything right. If I had to guess the subtexts to his overt statements, they’d be, “I myself can’t count on people, they’ll let me down, and I’d be ashamed to depend so much on their coming through.”

It’s the shame, I was coming to think, that he can’t stand. He can’t stand relying on Julia either; perhaps she might not protect him from this shame.

“Right,” he said.

“And it’s all on you.” Code for: Your family didn’t help you and now it seems to you that Julia doesn’t help you.


“They don’t even know the work you’re doing, protecting them from that awful anger inside.” Okay, so now I was casting him as this manly little kid, “protecting” his family. Perhaps this was a mistake, not to help him explore his intolerance of what I was guessing to be his own dependency. But it was a mistake based all the same upon an increasingly lively understanding of how important it was to Mike to be an effective person, maybe even a big guy. Big guys are willing to have marital issues about how much sex they want or don’t want, rather than feel shame for needing the mushy, crumbly stuff of intimacy.

“Right,” he said, with a firm nod of the head. He was back in the role he knew well, the only strong person around. I was hoping that if he connected with his earlier vulnerability, something would shift inside. But here’s the rub: I hadn’t helped him tolerate his feeling of vulnerability for long, and he boomeranged into his familiar sense of lonely duty. Oops. Still, I had a better handle on what was at stake for him.

Julia had been sitting on the sidelines, watching our exchange with relief, glad, I’d guess, that she wasn’t herself on the hot seat with either Mike or me. “So, Julia, I was wondering if you had some ideas or observations for Mike.”

A bad move on my part. Julia smiled and made a game face, like she was going do her darndest, but wasn’t optimistic. She was smart and candid, typically buoyant, but helpless in the face of her husband’s upset. Now she mumbled something about understanding—really, really understanding—what the dilemma was like for Mike. She was a person of heartfelt sentiments; she waved her hands around when she was searching for words, and now she waved her hands in little swoops and sweeps, not getting anywhere with Mike, who had that snake-look. And as she came undone, her husband just got more upset. It seemed he hated to see her collapse, but perversely hated her “understanding” (more mush) as well. They were back in their usual postures with each other—Mike’s charged disappointment vs. Julia’s deflated withdrawal. And yet I hoped to keep them coming back—and going down into—their inchoate somatic sensations.

From the Mind’s Story to the Body’s

I used to think that a lot of the power of therapy was contained in the exploration of clients’ early days. I still think that. Here we could go on to talk about Mike’s parents and whether they were strong enough for him, adult enough, because that was what he was asking of Julia—whether she could be strong enough to handle his disappointment, sexual and otherwise.
But that would keep us tending to the storyline.

Stories often do the hard work of containing enormous amounts of meaning and intention, not to mention what we wish was true. Many times, they harden into set pieces, as any therapist or bartender can tell you, which is both the good thing (containment) and the bad thing (rigidity) about stories.

But if we can bring awareness into our own pulsing bodies, we get a chance to explore the hidden well of physical discomfort caused by our memories and emotions and our crazy defenses against that discomfort. The body, you might argue, is the unconscious. No one welcomes discomfort, but the fear of becoming overwhelmed, the fear of unleashing strange forces, of “wallowing” in negativity, can funnel our energies away from tolerating even the mildest turbulence of our felt experience.

Speaking for myself, it seems to have taken all my life to slow down enough to notice better what’s going on in my body. You’d think that I’d be good at that, after sitting all these years with people in psychotherapy, coming in to sort out their grief and depression and anger and other contagious emotions. But it’s been a continuing revelation to register more and more the deep flow of body sensation and feelings and emotions and felt experience that both mindfulness practice and hands-on work with trauma has helped me chart. It’s a lesson I’ve been learning through the years, both for myself and for the clients I see who are stuck in misery and confusion. But it’s taken me a while to realize how being present to the rich physical substrate of the body could be useful in couples work.

In fact, John Welwood, a California-based psychologist who’s one of people whose thinking about couples I respect, has been focusing on this quality of presence for years. I’ve spent many weeklong mindfulness meditations with Welwood as the guide. Mindful presence, he’d say, is the path to authentic relationship. But it’s a dialectical bargain: relationship is itself a transformative path for the self.

I called up Welwood when I was preparing to write about this topic because I couldn’t imagine explaining my own evolution without mentioning his work. We ended up talking about the mistaken ideas people have about love—for example, the idea that love is a steady state. “Instead,” he said, “the relationship itself triggers tremendous automatic reactive patterns. To the extent that the other person can make us feel good, they can also make us feel bad. It’s like riding waves.”

“And then we take all that up-and-down,” I said, “and decide there’s something wrong.”

“Right,” he answered, “usually, we make them wrong for the way they trigger us. That’s why it’s necessary to become friendly to the whole range of your own experience. You have to work with being openhearted and mindful with yourself. Some people call that self-love, but that makes it sound banal. I’d call it letting yourself be the being that you are.”

Finding the Soft Spot

I thought about the difficulty of “letting yourself be,” rather than scrambling to put someone else in charge of your own unsettling feelings. For example, in one session with Mike and Julia, I looked into Julia’s face and saw how dismayed she was. We spent the rest of that session experimenting with the specific physical sensations she felt. “Slow down,” I said once again, pointing downward like a signalman on the road. “Just notice what’s actually going on in your body.” At the same time, I found myself distancing from the vigorous charms of Mike, as I tried to size up how disturbing he might be to her safety. I finally came to understand, as she did and then he did as well, that what she was feeling was fear.

“It’s like I can’t think. I’m helpless. All I want to do is get away,” Julie said. Her fear had been a great undertow, not named or felt until we’d reduced the speed of exchange between the two of them. Mike’s large exuberance, his energetically held ideas, had daily stimulated Julia’s fear. But, in truth, she realized, collapsing in fear was a habit from her childhood—a way to cope with the uproar and chaos of her family home. When Mike’s intensity increased, that signaled get away to Julia.

We worked, Julia and I, for several sessions on how she might be more mindful of those signals to flee; how she might hang out with them, develop a tolerance for what had heretofore been a desire to retreat pell-mell. What is it like to feel those sensations? Can she face into them, can she soften her defensiveness? Can she even soften into the sensation of numbing up, of blanking out, of resisting her own curiosity? And what’s it like for those feelings to be there? Can she tolerate being on the edge of ineffable experience? Like all mindfulness practices, if we explore this territory in therapy sessions, we give up the agenda to get somewhere, to produce some specific outcome, to move on. And then we get to be present to . . . what? Our own dulled or trembling or irritable selves. Our racing heart, our tumbling stomach, our stumbling, speechless mind. Great!

I couldn’t predict how Julia would use this work, as it was subtle and undramatic, but later, when she and Mike and I were puzzling good-naturedly about the sexual standoff between them, we started talking about touch.

“I massaged Mike’s feet the other day,” Julia said.

“Big massage,” Mike said, “towels and lotion, the whole deal.” He smiled contentedly.

Bingo! I thought, they hit the soft spot! “You could sit still for that?” I asked Mike. Now they both smiled. I’ll say this for Julia: increasing the capacity to be present to her own disturbing—sometimes misleading—sensations also increased her capacity to be present to her husband.

Presence in couples is Janus-faced, looking both inward, with an acceptance of our own reactivity and vulnerability, and outward, to the ever-enlarging intersubjective field—a field that, as it enlarges, begins to contain the vulnerability of our partner. Within a couple, when these two vulnerabilities come face to face, they create a soft spot in the relationship: a place where, if they’re lucky, they’ll feel opened and accepted; a place where one soft heart meets another soft heart.

But in other circumstances, this inward and outward looking can just as well feel like a crashing together of two bruised and bruising programs of blind, clanging insistence. When that happens, it’s eternally disappointing.

“When we let go of obstacles like irritability and fear and impatience,” Welwood said in our conversation on the phone, “we gain access to openheartedness. Tenderness. Loving kindness. It’s our awake heart. If we can do it, it’s right there, just as the sun is always behind the clouds.”

I was reminded of the soft-heartedness we all felt sitting on the floor of the hotel ballroom, looking into the eyes of a stranger, weathering the gauntlet of nerves and censure. But to get there, I remember, I had to accept in myself a level of awkwardness and inadequacy that most days I’d rather not tolerate. Whoops, we might say, sliding into our own imperfect nature.

Maintaining a loving presence toward ourselves that allows us to be open to others is no easy task either, since it requires a tolerance of our own human vulnerability. Welwood had an example: “So, if I’m knowledgeable, say about my own anger—meaning, I’m not shut down about it, I’m conscious of it, I know something about it—then when the other person triggers my anger, I have some capacity for understanding what’s going on, for letting myself sit with the experience of it. I don’t need to justify it, but at the same time, I don’t have to make the other person wrong. I don’t have to shut them down. I don’t have to blame them because I’m angry.”

“That’s interesting, because then you’re more able to see them as they truly are,” I said.

It seems that with the Janus-face, you can’t truly see out unless you can also look in. I’m using visual imagery here—seeing out, looking in—but the medium is more kinetic, more like I can’t genuinely sense you—size up you or our relationship with any accuracy or subtlety—if I can’t genuinely be in touch with myself. And this “being in touch” takes place not only on the level of judgment about oneself, but also on the level of physical sensation; the “awkwardness” and “inadequacy” I felt gazing into the eyes of a stranger could be even more deeply experienced as heat across the skin of my face, dizziness, an impulse to withdraw eye contact, fluttering in the pit of the stomach, light waves of nausea. The surprise was how all that could be borne.

“The body,” Welwood said this summer in the weeklong meditation, “is dark in a way the mind is not; the mind has an illuminating quality.” But the body is a soft organ, easily imprinted, diffused and moving in its own slow, backwater way. It brings a lot along with it—not shapely like a thought, but unspecified, implicit.

You couldn’t design a better machine to stir up these layered and tacit feelings, these vague sensations, than two people trying to make a life together. So, for many of us, the most radical demonstration of mindful living comes not in the quiet retreat house in the woods, but in facing our most intimate partners. To quote Welwood, “Intimate, personal love is not just a pale reflection of absolute love, but a further expression of it.”

Bringing It All Home

One last example: I was 56 years old when I fell in love for the second time of my life. There was a moment—we were sitting on a sofa in the living room—when in place of the usual, heady rush of yes! yes! yes! I felt instead the violent cramp of fear in the top of my stomach.

I know that if I’d been myself as a much younger woman—less experienced, not so knowing of myself—I’d for sure have shut down, not to say rushed away from the relationship. So sorry, big mistake, not ready.

But on second thought, I turned to face Deb. I had a moment of amazement, a sensation of being in a larger space than usual: I was just as aware of myself doing the observing as I was aware of the frightening physical sensation. I had, among other strange and crowded reactions in that moment, a startling sense of empathy for the anxiety that intimacy generates, for what sends people running in the other direction. But somehow, I didn’t run. I sat there and tolerated the fear.

It was once again my luck that Deb not only noticed my darting eyes, but didn’t herself get upset. “Wow,” I said, “I just got a big hit of fear or something.”

“I saw that,” she said, with understanding and not a little forbearance. It seems we were both doing a good job of sitting with some complicated reactions, while not getting hooked by the usual slew of judgment and blame and negative prediction. That’s when I knew we’d be okay.

Molly Layton

Molly Layton has been writing for the Psychotherapy Networker for more than 25 years. Her short stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and included in the Writing Aloud Series at the InterAct Theater in Philadelphia.