Love, by its nature, requires two ingredients: knowing your beloved well and accepting your beloved deeply. By “knowing,” I mean a knowledge of the other’s being as it is. That knowledge may not be completely accurate, or even very accurate, but it must be “good enough” for the other person to trust the image reflected back, to feel accepted and at ease. Over time, with the development of your psychological skills and curiosity, you will be able to expand your knowledge and interest in your partner and in your changing relationship. Retaining an open attitude toward your partner requires what Buddhists call “equanimity,” a relaxed and matter-of-fact attitude toward your experience, just as it is. Your interest and your equanimity combine, over time, to become what I call “true love”— the ability to see your partner clearly and embrace that person as he or she is.
In order to succeed at truly loving another, you must be able to check in with yourself and get a sense of how you are seeing, hearing, and feeling, so that you can come to recognize your own subjective picture or image or story of the other person and of your relationship. To develop the capacity for equanimity in your closest relationships, you need to remember that you are “seeing” the other person through your own lens, which is usually colored more by you (and your feelings) than by what the other person is actually being or doing. Recall that we are not good eye witnesses, especially if we are emotionally activated or wanting our way.
Until you get some expertise in checking in with yourself, you should simply assume that you are not generally accurate about your partner’s faults or character, especially when you are emotionally activated. Also, you should assume that you yourself have habitual emotional and self-protective triggers and habits that tend to run your perceptions when you feel threatened. Emotional threat can be very subtle because it occurs unconsciously in our perceptions, not consciously in our cognitions, much of the time. Fundamentally, knowing and accepting another person (especially a close other) actually means being able to tolerate your own reactions, with a mindful attitude, without believing you have the final truth or the inside knowledge about the other person. This is why loving always entails a measure of modesty — a not-knowing or uncertainty — about your perceptions of both yourself and your partner.
Many people feel troubled or uncomfortable with the idea of acceptance because they think it means agreeing with the other person or with what is going on. But, in fact and significantly, accepting another does not mean agreeing with that person. Instead, accepting mostly means knowing your own reactivity and remaining curious about it, while also remaining curious about what is happening with the other person. In other words, you begin to trace the ways in which you create the narrative and images of the “other” based on your own defensiveness and self-protectiveness, even in your most basic sense of seeing, hearing, and feeling. This kind of insight into your responsibility for your perceptions requires a degree of emotional maturity, mindfulness, truth-telling, and containment. As we know, these do not come naturally; they require skill and development.
The process of becoming a mindful witness for someone who is close to you, seeing that person as a particular being with strengths and limitations, is ultimately challenging and fascinating, both in the moment and over time. If you feel that being with your partner is anything but fascinating, then it’s probably because true witnessing is not occurring. Maybe you’re lost in the mundane aspects of everyday life or you’re feeling angry and resentful about something that irks you. Sometimes people hope or assume that after they have spent decades with a partner, it won’t be necessary to talk much.
That is an impossible and self-centered wish since it is a kind of wishing to know something simply in a rote way rather than being open to discovering something anew. All of us — including you and your partner — are always changing, and conversation is required to find out about each other anew, all the time. If nothing ever seems new or fresh between you, it’s because one or both of you is caught up in some repetitive emotional reactivity or is perhaps trapped in a chronic and deadening projective identification.
When you actually witness another person, there is always something that catches your interest. For one thing, knowing your beloved requires knowing yourself and waking up to unconscious, and sometimes painful, aspects of yourself. Although you may be distressed to find out the ways you protect yourself through, say, passive aggression, you will also gain insight into your own destructive habits (a necessity if you want to change them). Otherwise, you are in danger of confusing your own unconscious emotional habits with your partner and thinking you “see” your partner when you don’t. Fundamentally, to become a mindful witness, you have to take back your projections and soothe your feelings of threat. This process is psychological: it requires insight and self-knowledge.
At the same time, accepting your beloved — like accepting yourself — is also a spiritual process that requires some awakening to the universal conditions of suffering, impermanence, and radical interdependence. The human imagination often strives for something like perfection: you imagine that you could find a perfect partner, for example, or you believe that someone else is more perfect than the person you are with. But when you deeply understand the natural spiritual laws — called “the marks of existence” in Buddhist teachings — of limitation and imperfection (dukkha), impermanence (anicca), and no-self (anatman), then you begin to see yourself and your beloved in a new way. As a human being in this mundane world, nothing is perfect, nothing is permanent, and nothing is simply personal. Given that this is the nature of things, you eventually recognize that there is no perfect partner or perfect relationship to be found. Nothing is perfect and that’s the law of dukkha, the first mark of existence. Everything — including every person, every situation, and yourself — is limited and highly imperfect. You cannot make things “perfect” by demanding or just expecting things, including other people or yourself, to be or to do exactly what you think is “right.”
Even when it seems everything is perfect for a time, it changes; this relates to the second mark of existence — impermanence: Everything and everyone, from the most miniscule to the most cosmic, is always changing. Nothing is stable or secure, in the ways we might expect or want. And so, your partner and you are always changing and emerging anew, both in your own subjective experiences and in the ways you are objectively. Consequently, there is a true mystery about who you are at any moment. That contrasting sense of continuity in our identities is somewhat fictional (you actually create it and sustain it) and somewhat the result of unconscious habits in your personality that carry over from one occasion to the next: you seem to be the same person moment to moment and year to year, but it is not really the case; the same is true for everyone. The law of impermanence means that you should be surprised again and again by a partner whom you have known for decades. Your partner changes on all sorts of levels, and those changes keep your relationship compelling and interesting; just as changes in you bring different things into your awareness and your relationship over time.
Although it’s an extreme example, I was surprisingly entranced and captivated, in many ways, to witness Ed become a child in the middle and later stages of Alzheimer’s. Of course, these feelings were interlaced with many other negative and shocking feelings. After Ed was in residential care and I was no longer responsible for carrying the burden of his daily needs, I was happier and more interested to spend hours with him than I would have imagined. Ed became a delightful and often joyful child in his “second childhood” of Alzheimer’s, and I felt a shared joy in his simple happiness, in eating, walking, or listening to music, for example. It was a surprise to me that I could become so wholly engaged with Ed in a state that many might think was simply “infantile.” As long as I accepted that Ed was now a child and it wasn’t personal or fixable, I could enjoy him and not just long for what was no longer possible. When the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen sings, “Ring the bells that still can ring,” and reminds us there is a “crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” he is talking about just such a situation. Always remember to draw on what is available with your partner, stay open and curious, and see what is emerging in the relational mystery of life. You can then be engaged anew with a partner you have known for decades. Those are the “bells that still can ring”— even after advanced Alzheimer’s has set in, as was the case with Ed. When you envelop your perceptions in a blanket of love, it is possible to see a limited human being with a constantly renewed curiosity and warm interest.
Polly Young-Eisendrath, PhD, is a Jungian analyst, psychologist, and psychotherapist in private practice. She is the clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and the founder and director of the Institute for Dialogue Therapy.
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