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Why the Shadow Side?

Q. Why do you insist at looking at the shadow side of relationships? Why not just let people be, have a good time and live their lives?

A. In a fairy tale-world, we could wave a wand (or lay out a few easy to follow exercises) and have every one coming up happy and fulfilled - without even putting out a lot of effort! In the world we live in, however, there are many intimate relationships in which both parties are not getting all the nourishment and aliveness they would like. All these people have the best of intention in their hearts, but seem unable to sustain the juicy intimate relating that they desire. They cry out for lasting, loving, and fulfilling intimacy, but there is one thing they don't want to look at.

When relationships are not functioning at their highest levels the blunt truth is that the participants in those relationships are falling short in some way. Both partners are making contributions to the less-than-satisfying aspects. We could try and be more polite and say they haven't developed the required skills and that would be partly true. But it's more complex than that because in our culture relationships skills training is available to any serious seeker and yet most individuals still find ways to avoid that territory.

No, it comes down to this. We all make positive, enhancing contributions to our intimate relationships and we all make difficult, unenhancing contributions to our relationships. The problem is not that any of us is inherently "bad" or "dysfunctional." The truth is we all have loving, beneficent sides and we all have aspects that make things difficult when we're in close quarters with people we deeply care about. We all have certain places that are healed and help us to contribute to another and we all have certain 'woundings' that get in the way of our intimate relating.

By midlife (and that's the audience we are primarily interested in) we generally have done a solid inventory of the parts of ourselves that are enhancing to the self-image we want to hold and enhancing to our relationships. Why not? Those parts are comparatively easy to come to terms with. It is another story with the parts that are not enhancing to our self-image, the emotionally young parts, the defensive parts, the controlling parts, the puffed-up parts, the stubborn parts, the wounded parts. In very broad terms these unegoenhancing parts exist in what we call "the Shadow Side of Intimate Relationships."

Having worked with this type of approach for many years now, Naomi and I are fully aware that an approach which encourages partners to focus on their own difficult contributions to their intimate relationships, to focus on their own shadow aspects, is not going to generate unbounded enthusiasm. But it is very important territory.

Working with our difficult parts is fundamental to real and sustained growth. Hiding from difficulties only leads to more difficulties. Most of us have a desire to grow and expand in awareness but the truth of the matter is that we first have to get to where we are, warts and all, before we can make any kind of real movement to where we want to be. We need to see ourselves in a truthful light if we are going to be able to make it through the challenging parts of intimacy, even if doing so might be unenhancing to our ego. It can be scary at first, but once individuals get some practice with it, 'shadow work' can be the most exciting and interesting of all the therapies.

The first problem we run up against is that we are often blind to our own difficult parts, and when we are blind to our difficult parts, we are blind to our role in the problems that come up in our interpersonal experiences. Most of us have spent a lifetime avoiding and distancing ourselves from the unflattering and distasteful inner aspects. Across our entire culture, we are encouraged to look outside of ourselves for someone to blame when things go wrong. Some of us are so focused outside of ourselves that we are seriously underdeveloped when it comes to tracking what we, ourselves, are feeling at any given moment.

The second problem is: how do we change our difficult parts once they have been located? Tough as this work is, it is actually easier than locating them in the first place. Most of us have a basic desire to function at a higher level with our intimates and thus are willing to work with our challenging aspects. The problem is bringing these parts into the light so they can be worked with. And that's why we write about the shadow.