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 Spiritual Community

What roles, then, were we playing for each other in this unusual psychospiritual enclave? We weren’t “friends” in the normal sense of that word. There was a definite hierarchy, with Mr. Dillon presumably at the top and Tanya and Sherman taking care of the day-to-day administration of the collective energy. There were also designated “heads of household,” who were the initial arbiters of what was going on among the residents of each house.

The organizational structure and spiritual aliveness somehow reminded me of the Children of Israel on their departure from Egypt. We believed we had left the bondage of our moribund relationships and psychic ignorance in Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia or wherever we had come from. We looked to Tanya and Sherman to guide us through the uncharted relational wilderness. And we counted on an unseen higher authority to intervene, whenever we might lose our collective intuitive way.

As suggested above, the commitment to the eternal soulmate was the covenant upon which the social and philosophical structure of the community rested. The marital relationship was seen as both the context and the catalyst for the psychospiritual growth of the individual and of the group as a whole. We continued to draw inspiration from Tanya’s weekly trance, but it was in the small and large conflicts and energy shifts to which the grist of daily living subjected us that we waited on the Lord.

Our lives were thus filled with myriad small moments of interpersonal truth. Our psychospiritual classroom was the kitchen, the work place, the bedroom – wherever we found ourselves. We made no distinction between neurotic, relational and spiritual issues, believing that any of these, if examined with courage and determination, would lead us to the Truth. We likewise assumed that our familial and communal conflicts, if handled with integrity, would bring to light and help resolve our most deep-seated individual pathologies.

The Eternal Soulmate Relationship:

“It Guards Your Breath As It Cleans Your Teeth”

Early in our marriage, we knew a couple who could have been Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat. He was thin as a rail, and she was morbidly obese. She then underwent one of the early gastric bypass procedures. The operation was a success but the relationship died. She dropped over 100 pounds; then he dropped her!

It seems self-evident that any significant change in the individual is going to impact the relationship. Is it not incongruous, therefore, for marriage counseling and individual treatment to be administered as separate disciplines? The therapist treats the individual without input from the absent but no less impacted spouse; while the marriage counselor addresses the couple’s communication, but with scant attention to root psychological issues.

We were thus enthused about combining the work of the therapist and the marriage counselor in a single venue. We believed if we were to make real and lasting progress as a couple, it would be necessary to identify and address the individual neuroses that were driving the relationship. At the same time, we felt that our individual issues were best accessed through the relationship, where they most pervasively presented. Finally, we had accepted the theory that the marital relationship, with the eternal soulmate gloss added, provided not only the arena but the spiritual catalyst through which the individuals would achieve their emotional healing.

Healing the Relationship: The Medium Is the Message

What is the goal of psychotherapy? Unlike other forms of education, its highly personal curriculum aims specifically at self-knowledge. Nor is it merely an intellectual study. Our increasing self-awareness marks our progress toward emotional and relational maturity.

But just as our psychospiritual deficiencies reveal themselves in our behavior, shouldn’t individual growth likewise manifest functionally, in improved behavior and relationships? For what good is self-awareness if it doesn’t help our relationships work better?

I’m reminded here of a conversation many years ago with a med-student friend who was planning to become a psychiatrist. He had a surprisingly cynical attitude about his future career, shaped apparently by his own experience as a patient. “My therapy didn’t work,” he bluntly told me.

“What it achieved,” he continued, “was the identification of my emotional issues, but without any real impact on them or their relational consequences.” His devastatingly negative conclusion was that we neither feel nor behave better after therapy; we simply earn the dubious privilege of knowing just what we’re doing to our loved ones and ourselves!

Under the eternal soulmate rubric, by contrast, our vision of emotional health was entirely functional. The relationship served as our psychological proving ground.

But what does “work better” mean in the marital context? Many couples are content not to rock the boat – to maintain the emotional complementariness that attracted them to each other in the first place; whereas homing in on the individual energies actually fueling the couple’s conflict tends to destabilize the relationship, at least as presently constituted.

Nevertheless, we saw little value in suppressing overt conflict at the cost of keeping it covert. In that sense, we saw marital friction as the coin of the therapeutic realm – not to be shortchanged into tidy but less evocative “I-statements.”

We also knew that regardless of whose behavior appeared to have “started” any particular skirmish, there had to be some concomitant individual issue at play within the spouse, inducing him or her to engage in the conflict, i.e., to take the proffered neurotic bait in the first place. This fight wouldn’t be happening – this couple would not be together – were they not already in some symbiotic emotional cahoots.

We theorized, in short, that what defense mechanisms are to the individual, the relational status quo is to the couple. Just as we deny our internal conflicts in a vain attempt to preserve our personal comfort, so the relationship constructs an interlocking network of defenses, looking thereto for some modicum of stability. But as the effect of denial is to cut the individual off from his feelings, so the neurotic symbiosis erodes the couple’s capacity for intimacy.

We thus believed that all marital conflict is at once a symptom of and a railing against this very symbiosis. When an argument erupted, we saw it as one or the other spouse’s thrust (however unconscious) for greater intimacy – a conjoint version of the repetition compulsion. So the first step was to identify which partner was thus stirring the neurotic pot on this conflictual occasion.

Our purpose wasn’t to referee the conflict or to declare one side “right” and the other “wrong.” The object was to identify the person who was, in this instance, using the relationship to call attention to his own (individual) issue … so that it could be addressed. As we would put it, that spouse’s energy “was up.”

The Eternal Soulmate’s Carrot

We also believed, with all the fervor of religious acolytes, that each partner had both the capacity and the spiritual duty to help heal the other. For the spouse could do two things the therapist could not: He could love the “patient”; and be there for the long haul.

I’m a big fan of Carl Rogers, but his famous claim of “unconditional positive regard” for his clients has always baffled me. Is the “regard” not metered out in 45-minute increments, going for $150 per dose? I don’t begrudge any therapist his livelihood, but “unconditional” such regard is not.

We, on the other hand, had vowed to love each other for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. And as eternal soulmates, we now sweetened the package with a lifetime emotional benefit: By communicating ever more cleanly, ever less defensively, we would love our way to the bottom of every conflict, unraveling and dissipating in the process wounds and grievances from our distant individual pasts.

The Eternal Soulmate’s Stick

But we also saw the marriage contract as a license to “call” (confront) the energy whenever we sensed something, behavioral or pre-behavioral, disturbing our own equilibrium. As the one who bore the brunt of our partner’s neurotic habit, we considered it both our right and our duty to initiate process. In sharp contrast to the therapist’s more passive objectivity, our job was precisely to personalize every marital interaction, to insist our spouse take notice of her energy’s impact on us; to thereby make our presence – and through it, every latent (individual) conflict – truly felt.

That meant never hesitating to probe our partner’s defenses in order to give our love the chance to do its healing work. As suggested above, we saw this as the growth-demanding ingredient that was missing from the professional therapeutic relationship.

Of course, doing this cleanly, i.e., knowing whose defenses were actually asserting themselves on any given occasion, was much easier said than done. For in establishing the relational homeostasis, we had learned precisely how to push each other’s neurotic hot-buttons. Our psychospiritual mission, to express more love and less pathology, thus became, by definition, an ongoing exercise in self-examination. It was in this way that our individual and relational processes truly catalyzed one another.

For we were determined to do more than just identify our neuroses. We were going to grow ourselves and the relationship. Or move on to find the one with whom we might realize such individual and relational synergy.