The Art of Relationship
The human being is a social animal and for many eons we have survived significant existential challenges because we have evolved to work together toward a common purpose. Our tribal origins tell part of the story of how our early ancestors stayed together in groups hunting and gathering, rearing young and facing off predators and rivals in a world untamed.
Nowadays we seem a far distance from these earlier times, and yet we still cling together in vast urban city sprawls, sometimes by the millions, albeit not as cohesively as we once did, now compartmentalised in apartment blocks and disconnected from almost everyone we come to call neighbours. Cities aren’t giant villages, they are complex social jungles with distinct tribal divisions and dangers of their own.
The nature of reality is to be in relationship; even when we are on our own, we are in relationship with something; we are in relationship with our environment: the wind in our face, the grass underfoot, the sofa we are sitting on, the open fire in the hearth. We are also always in a relationship with ourselves; our inner world populated by ideas, images, dreams, memories and feelings. And yet perhaps the most compelling relationships are the ones we have with other people, which for the most part are such a natural aspect of everyday human life that we may not give the art of relationship much thought at all, much like a gold-fish may not give much thought to the water it swims in.
In astrology, relationship is largely attributed to the archetype of Venus, which rules both Taurus and Libra, representing the internal relationship we have with ourselves (Taurus) and the external relationships we have with others (Libra). Venus teaches that the quality of relationships we have with others is wholly dependent on the nature of the relationship we have with ourselves. As Osho rightly says: “Be loving towards yourself, then you will be able to love others too.”
In an earlier post Is Love a Spectrum? I wrote extensively on the multi-faceted and somewhat ambiguous notion of Love. In this post I am more interested in the purpose of relationships and how we perceive and value them. I observe, given how important relationships are throughout an entire human life, how little wisdom is available to us as we grow up and enter the world. If the quality of life hinges so much on how we relate to others, then why is it we spend so little time during education learning about relationships themselves? This common failure puzzles me, and it should be no surprise that as a result adults of every age in modern culture typically struggle to understand the purpose of relationships, how to navigate them, what to value, how to stay in integrity, and most importantly how to make the best of all relationship opportunities.
As an Evolutionary Astrologer and Spiritual Mentor I am grounded in the philosophical notion of soul-evolution, which basically posits that the underlying raison d’être is to evolve spiritually through the process of reincarnation. From this perspective I view relationships in the context of mutual learning, karma, and dharma; whomever we attract into our lives through the principle of vibration, is ‘lawfully’ suited to us in a profoundly elegant way; relationships are opportunities to learn and grow, to experience and process the effects of past actions (karma), and to be in service to others in alignment with higher purpose in a mutually fulfilling way (dharma).
Now of course when we think of relationships we tend to think of intimate ones with significant others, and close friendships, but the relationship arena (Libra) encompasses a much wider diversity of experience including rivals, adversaries, tricksters and enemies, all of which provide the ‘substance’ for nuanced learning and self-awareness.
At the heart of the relationship experience is the principle of projection: the psychological tactic employed by the ego to defend itself from qualities both positive and negative that it finds unacceptable, by denying their existence in themselves and attributing them to others. In this sense it is appropriate to think of relationships as our mirrors, for what we often perceive in others that either attracts or repels us is actually mirroring what is in our own shadow. In Jungian psychology the shadow is the part of the psyche where we put everything about ourselves we decide is off-limits. These are the qualities and characteristics that we pack away in the proverbial basement because they are perceived to be dangerous and if expressed or embodied would result in pain, rejection, judgement or worse. In this way through relationship, we can come face to face with an unacknowledged shadow-tyrant in an overbearing boss, a shadow-coward in a bully, or a forgotten wounded inner child who rises up to the surface when a lover isn't paying enough attention to us. Not everything in the shadow is negative however, we also store ‘golden’ characteristics there, which we recognise in those whose talents we admire so deeply, or in those we fall in love with.
Ram Dass puts it like this: “What you meet in another being is the projection of your own level of evolution.” My version of this same idea is that you can only know someone to the degree that you know yourself. Self-deception is the bedrock of bad relationships, and honesty goes a long way to improving how we relate with each other. Those who are addicted to blaming others, and who aren’t strong enough to take responsibility for who they are, often end up in repeat cycles replicating the same toxic and abusive patterns in successive relationships, each time hoping that a fresh start will be enough to overcome the problem, but as the old saying goes “if you hold on to the bricks from your past relationship you will end up building the same house.”
For most of us, relationships aren’t always easy and straight forward, and good times with others can readily transition into challenging ones when we least expect it. How we approach relationships matters. Everything has a consequence and if we insist on remaining oblivious to the purpose of relationships, letting ourselves be pulled along by unconscious compulsions and attractions, we may well run the risk of ending up far from where we want to be. The reality is that just one toxic relationship can take many years to recover from and leave us hurt and confused; it behoves us all to respect the tremendous power the unconscious has over our delicate lives, and learn to bring hidden wounded aspects into the light, lest they run our lives from behind the scenes.
Relationships are not just mirrors though, they are also contracts of energy exchange. This is captured well by the image of the scales of justice associated with the astrological sign of Libra.
If we don’t understand this basic tenet, then we are going to get into trouble. Although it might sound unattractively mercenary, we are always in relationships to get something out of them. For example a victim always needs an abuser, a teacher naturally requires a student, a parent needs a child, a lover needs a beloved and vice versa. Working relationships are reflective of balanced energy exchange, but relationships soon end when there isn’t enough equality. If a person takes too much, and doesn’t reciprocate, they become parasitic leaving the other drained. Usually this quickly resolves into a revised contract of relationship where those feeling short-changed withdraw in some way and avoid any further genuine relationship development. In more destructive situations such as with an empath and a narcissist combination, although it can take years, eventually the victim of poor energy exchange will eventually leave. At the heart of these types of relationship however are key learning opportunities for both participants, usually with karmic co-factors. An unconscious victim has the opportunity to see themselves when they are victimised and likewise an unconscious controller or tyrant may awaken to their role and choose to change it.
Caroline Myss coined the phrase “wound buddy” to describe a common relationship contract, whereby both parties come together in order to protect and uphold each others psycho-emotional wounds. It's the type of contract that says “you will be there for me no matter what.” Wound buddy contracts might sound initially attractive, but in the long term they are unproductive because they require each participant to refrain from any personal healing or remediation; to heal is effectively an act of betrayal forcing the other to deal more directly with their own pain.
Ram Dass touched on a similar contract theme when he said “In most of our relationships, we spend much of our time reassuring each other that our costumes of identity are on straight.” In this sense relationship contracts can be significantly obstructive to self-discovery. This is most obvious within family contracts where an adult may relate to a parent solely as a financial or emotional resource, or a parent will insist on treating their grown up offspring as children , or where a sibling struggles to break free from the expectations of other family members. It happens sometimes in the teacher-student dynamic or the carer-child dynamic, where each participant reenforces their roles and inhibits growth beyond them.
There are positive contracts of exchange as well such as in pragma-love relationships where two parents work together as a team to bring up their children, or what might be termed ‘soul-mates’ referring to souls who come together with intentions to support each others spiritual growth.
In self-development circles we tend to be alert for co-dependent contracts of exchange because they inevitably obstruct evolution and growth. In astrology this is attributed mostly to the Taurus-Scorpio axis and is rooted in an aspect of evolution connected with Scorpio called osmosis. Taurus as the archetype responsible for the relationship we have with ourselves speaks to our inner world, and our innate personal resources. It is the seat of self-reliance rooted in a basic biological need to survive. Even though we can do a lot for ourselves, we usually benefit from the help and resources of others from time to time; despite our commonly shared capacities as humans we are also specialists with certain traits more developed than others, which when pooled together improve life quality in most cases. This is one of the reasons why we are relationship driven, and it's plain to see the complimentary pooling of abilities in successful long term partnerships. But as the old saying goes “no one is an island,” and if we are too self-sufficient we can become trapped in our own self-limitation. Nature provides an answer to this evolutionary cul-de-sac through the Scorpio archetype, which represents the potential to overcome limitations and transform through connection with someone else.
Typically we experience this as a strong attraction to an individual we perceive as more powerful because they have qualities we can’t access in ourselves or which are underdeveloped. Scorpio induces the compulsion to merge with another person in order to ‘osmose’ the desired qualities from them. Osmosis represents an activation of our own abilities through close connection with someone whose abilities are already active. These types of merger can occur on many levels, through teachings in books, through the teacher-pupil relationship, parent-child, close friendships and working relationships, and most powerfully through sexual union. New science reveals that when we are in close proximity with others we actually exchange RNA, which subtly alters our genome.
The co-dependent relationship occurs when this natural process is blocked due to resistance in one or both participants. The merger happens but individuals fail to activate latent capacities and instead resort to control and manipulation of their partner in order to maintain access to the resources they are attracted to but do not develop in themselves. Co-dependency happens when the Scorpio archetype isn’t balanced by Taurus. Sue Monk Kidd demonstrates evolution through these polar opposites when she says “All my life I’ve thought I needed someone to complete me, now I know I need to belong to myself.”
Dependency isn’t in itself always a bad thing; we all at times need help from others, but what makes co-dependency problematic is its tendency toward suffering and stagnation. Healthy relationships exhibit inter-dependency, suggestive of evolving values and needs, where participants are not fixed in a specific task or function, but are free to change roles as they adapt to the shifting sands of an evolving relationship.
I speculate that we earn fulfilling relationships through the growth we choose. We don’t just come together randomly, it takes preparation to come into deep intimate relationship with another soul. The type of loving transformative union that many long for and fantasise about cannot be had with just anyone. We have to have a quality of trust mirrored in another person, and my sense is that souls take many lifetimes preparing the ground for the ‘holy grail’ of true-love relationship. As Rumi writes: “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They are in each other all along.”
Intimate relationships are of course multi-faceted complex connections imbued with many growth opportunities. High-voltage contracts of exchange may last years or just a few days, but often participants offer themselves in service to the other for the purposes of healing. On this Emery Allen writes: “You don’t need another human being to make your life complete…but let’s be honest, having your wounds kissed by someone who doesn’t see them as disasters in your soul, but cracks to put their love into, is the most calming thing in this world.”
The nature of relationship is fundamentally evolutionary, and some people are evolving faster than others. Evolutionary speed is dependent on many factors such as karma, the evolutionary intentions at the soul level for a specific lifetime, and resistance to evolution. In this way relationships all have a time limit, and even though some can last almost an entire lifetime, we shouldn’t default to the idea that the best and most successful relationships are the ones that last the longest. To compare one's relationship track record with others is a recipe for unnecessary suffering. Iyanla Vanzant powerfully states:
“Comparison is an act of violence against the self.”
The longevity of relationships depends on the evolutionary intentions, and how each participant flows or resists. Almost always once stagnation sets in, and the evolutionary potential is too limited, relationships end in order to open the way for more growth. In the same way, once two people have learned all they can from each other, quite naturally the relationship will draw to a close. Although commonly most of us shy away from endings and perceive them in a negative light, perennial wisdom knows that all things end eventually and that endings give rise to new beginnings.
Relationships are highly complex experiences. Sometimes they feel like a long awaited rendezvous and at other times intense collisions. The people in our lives can fill us with love and appreciation, fondness, desire, and longing, they can evoke in us anger, hate, fear, disdain or indifference, and yet in any moment, regardless of whatever comes up for us in our dealings with others whether enjoyable or challenging is always an opportunity to evolve and become more self-aware, and in this sense as Ram Dass said about relationships “We are just walking each other home.”